Wednesday, July 13, 2016

On White Privilege, Accompanied By My Own Mini-Memoir

The coming-out story. The I-was-a-victim-of-a-hate-crime story. The I-was-a-victim-of-rape story. The what-it's-like-to-be-[X well-known minority]-in-[Y social environment] story. The what-it's-like-to-be-[Z minority that you don't even think about]-in-[Y social environment] story. The what-it's-like-to-be-a-victim-of-child-abuse story. They are all first person accounts, mini-memoirs. And now we have the I-have-recognized-my-privilege-and-I-am-acknowledging-the-long-road-I-travelled-before-I-was-given-sight-and-now-I-have-come-forth-to-teach-my-fellow-privileged-folk-about-this-truth-that-I-have-discovered-for-myself story.

There are great examples in every one of these genres. I don't fault any of the first six. They're all necessary. But I don't much care for the seventh, even if the person that "I" pronoun refers to can be interesting. The basic thesis of these essays assumes that black people, and minorities in general, are burdened by the task of having to explain their oppression to the non-oppressed. These writers have taken it upon themselves to discover the inner workings of racism to relieve minorities of that burden and now they are educating their readers about their privilege, and noting the ways they are fighting such injustice.

I don't doubt the sincerity of these religious experiences, but the basic assumptions underneath are annoying the hell out of me. You don't think minorities should have to educate anyone? So now you want to speak for them? Do every one of these minorities feel the same exact way about racism? or sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia, for that matter? Isn't educating one another about ourselves what human beings do? In what context do you believe these white people should educate themselves? Reading books? Listening to radio? Starting to notice small ways something could be racist or not racist? But just not, absolutely not, asking questions of black people when they want to tell you about racism, under any circumstances? Assuming every single black person is an expert on racism? What successful social movement in history has involved oppressed minorities demanding that majorities educate themselves? 

Perhaps I'm being reductive. Perhaps there's a more subtle way I could read this argument. Oh hell...I give in. Here's my version:

I went to a magnet program in middle school. It was fucked up. The school was located in the poorest, blackest, most hispanic part of an affluent majority-white school district. The program bussed in 200 seventh- and eighth-graders from all over the county, most of them white, and the richest like me had the longest commutes. Every morning, when we were just a few blocks away from the school, we passed the parking lot of the 7-11 where immigrants, many of them with kids in the general student population, hung out waiting for work. The students in the magnet program had primary access to  a state-of-the-art computer lab and media room. Oh, the other students could use them if they really wanted to, but there were designated times and it was harder. 

Some of the kids in the magnet program hung out with kids who weren't in the magnet program. But most of us did not. And yeah, I guess this was the time I had my I've-seen-the-light moments concerning racism. A lot of us had those I've-seen-the-light moments. Some of us didn't. I remember the day a hispanic student said to the class gossip that she was the only black person he liked. Either way, I don't think it changed our behavior or made any of us more willing to fight the bullshit system. 

But here's the part though...here's the part I remember most of all...the part I've never experienced since...the part that cracked me up then and cracks me up to this day...

It was drilled into every white kid where I grew up that you never ever ever ever said that word. You could get away with fuck, shit, and even faggot, but that word was the end of you. That word got you suspended. That word could get you expelled. That word earned you a lifetime role as social pariah, lower than the faggots and lower than the retards. You could be the sweetest, nicest kid, but that word earned you the mark of Satan. And we all knew that every black kid had every right to that word, even if we did not. Yes, we knew that then, at that age. And those feelings were so drilled into me that I just corrected this paragraph and replaced every instance of that word with "that word," while allowing faggots and retards to remain. Yeah. That shit doesn't die. 

And here were all these black kids throwing that word around like it was going out of style, all at each other...and at us too. 

One day, I was headed out of the cafeteria and a black student said behind me: "Hold the door for me, nigger!" I turned around and stared in his face and saw that this black kid meant absolutely no malice whatsoever towards this white kid. That was the moment when I realized how the most evil word in the American language could be so elastic, could carry so many multitudes, could be so damn interesting, so damn musical and God, years later, I so wished I were as good as Mark Twain so I could use that word what, like 200 times in a 300-page manuscript. (I guess I just found a way to use it once in about 800 words.) 

I learned more in that moment than I did in any African-American History Month celebration, more in that moment than I did from reading Frederick Douglass, the required black writer in our English class, or from Black Boy and Go Tell It on the Mountain, which I read on my own. I learned that the idea of race could take you to the weirdest places, that black people are people, not one of your fucking symbols in the neo-social-realist dramas that play in your head, and that, even now, with the awfulness of this past week, there should be at least some semblance of joy when you talk about black people and when you talk about race.  

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