For many of us, a get-together with the extended family is a political minefield, and we hold our breath hoping not to stumble onto certain topics. I’ve cringed through hearing gay marriage described as “gross” and lamentations about Arab employees at 7-11 (“you’ve got them up here, too”). While we’re disgusted by these sentiments, we’ve also often had the experience of seeing these people act in kind and caring ways, and we share some kind of connection with them.
We hold these contradictory truths at the same time that our mainstream culture has latched onto the idea of racists as purely villainous. That can’t be my uncle. That can’t be my friend. That can’t be me. It’s become so severe that in some camps, accusing someone as racist is treated as a worse offense than actually being one.
The reality, of course is complicated. Peggy McIntosh, whose writings have helped the concept of privilege click for a lot of people, addresses this well in an interview with Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker (emphasis mine):
I noticed that, three years in a row, men and women in the seminar who had been real colleagues and friends for the first several months had a kind of intellectual and emotional falling out. There was an uncomfortable feeling at the end of those three years. I decided to go back through all my notes, and I found that at a certain point the women would ask, “Couldn’t we get these materials on women into the freshman courses?” And, to a person, the men would say, “Well, we’re sorry, we love this seminar, but the fact is that the syllabus is full.” One year, a man said—I wrote it down—“When you are trying to lay the foundation blocks of knowledge, you can’t put in the soft stuff.”
The thing was, he was a very nice man. All the men who attended the seminars were very nice men—also quite brave men, because they’d catch flak on their campuses for going to a women’s college to do a feminist seminar. And I found myself going back and forth in my mind over the question, Are these nice men, or are they oppressive? I thought I had to choose. It hadn’t occurred to me that you could be both. And I was rescued from this dilemma by remembering that, about six years earlier, black women in the Boston area had written essays to the effect that white women were oppressive to work with. I remember back to what it had been like to read those essays. My first response was to say, “I don’t see how they can say that about us—I think we’re nice!” And my second response was deeply racist, but this is where I was in 1980. I thought, I especially think we’re nice if we work with them.
I came to this dawning realization: niceness has nothing to do with it. These are nice men. But they’re very good students of what they’ve been taught, which is that men make knowledge. And I realized this is why we were oppressive to work with—because, in parallel fashion, I had been taught that whites make knowledge.
It’s fairly easy and low stakes to grasp this concept when you’re reconciling your grandmother’s embarrassingly racist outbursts with the idea that she loved you and treated you kindly. It becomes much more fraught when we think about how it plays out within progressive movements.
Progressives like to think of ourselves as the enlightened “us” battling against the benighted “them.” We often don’t want to recognize how these dynamics have crept into our own movements. Suzanne Goldenberg illustrates just one example in her piece on how white men dominate the environmental movement. I saw it when I canvassed and men who agreed with my progressive cause would talk down to me, assume I didn’t know as much as they did, or make some comment about how I looked. I saw it when people who worked as progressive organizers dropped casually racist or sexist statements. I saw it when women were harassed or objectified by other men they were organizing with. Ask any woman, person of color, or member of any other marginalized group and they can surely tell you some stories. People can be nice, well-intentioned and on the right side of an issue and still be exercising privilege. Those people can be us.
There are complicated dynamics based on who we’re interacting with and how. In the online conversation about Tal Fortgang and his misunderstanding of privilege, I saw a lot of people jumping to his defense with the idea that he’s Jewish and thus doesn’t have privilege. McIntosh addresses this as well:
Whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at, starting with, for example, one’s place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background. We’re all put ahead and behind by the circumstances of our birth. We all have a combination of both. And it changes minute by minute, depending on where we are, who we’re seeing, or what we’re required to do.
Human beings are complex. We can dominate one situation due to our white privilege and be marginalized in another due to sexism. We can say horrendous things about immigrants and love our children. We can identify with progressives and unconsciously undermine a truly progressive way of making political change. The sooner we come to terms with those dynamics, the sooner we can change them.