Wednesday, May 24, 2006

White equals right 

Steve Gilliard highlighted this Daily Kos diary Getting on the wrong side of white privilege and I think white people in Canada should read it too.
. . . while racism between minorities is real and harmful, it's racism by white people that really counts. This is the racism that's actually enforced by the larger society-- the sentiment that can actually carry seriously negative consequences for you. But people don't see that. So allow me to provide an example.
This evening, my girlfriend and I enlisted two friends to help her move into a new place on the city's far north side [in Chicago]. The neighborhood she's moving into was historically very diverse, but has lately become something of a mecca for wealthy white gentrifiers attracted by the relatively low housing prices. My girlfriend and one of the friends involved are of Irish descent. My other friend is Mexican-American. We're moving using an old pickup truck loaned to her by her family, that happens to have a ton of Irish symbols and bumper-stickers on it.
So we've just begun to unload the truck when a white man in a luxury sedan comes into the alley. He immediately pulls up alongside my Mexican friend and I and begins accusing us of waking him up last night, making too much noise, yelling, etc... Needless to say, this isn't true. As we protest, he starts making up things about how he'd seen us, and "our" truck. Consider the racial frames in play here. Clearly the vehicle covered with pro-Irish paraphernalia couldn't belong to the pale-skinned redheads standing next to us. The people he "knew" were making noise and being "uncivilized" were the two minorities in the situation. So I'm rolling my eyes and trying to placate this idiot, but my friend is more willing to express his annoyance and says, "Sir, I don't like your tone." To which the man responds, "Ok, I'm calling the cops."
And there it is, the moment that's been played out millions of times in the history of this country. The few seconds in which a misunderstanding turns into something bigger, with potentially huge consequences for the people involved. Granted, in this case the worst that could happen was probably just annoyance for us, but think about this in a historical perspective. An Indian brave mouths off to a white soldier. A young black man makes a sarcastic comment around a white cop. A Mexican kid in a border state says something in Spanish in the wrong tone around an Anglo. It's a few seconds in which a frustrated white person stops trying to interact with individuals and lashes out against a race just because he can. How dare we, these mud people sitting in an alley, dare to question his authority? The police will know what to do with us. And, frankly, given the class and race of the accuser vs. the accused, it's likely that he would have gotten a result he liked -- a fine, poor treatment, etc. Like I said, something small, but a victory nonetheless . . . Luckily, cooler heads (meaning me) prevailed in this situation. I talked to the guy and got him to leave us alone, leaving him to roll his eyes and drive off to his oversized reserved parking space. But being able to talk the idiot down doesn't mean you don't feel that stab of anger. It doesn't mean you're automatically able to get over the fact that the man just reduced you to nothing but the few micrometers of skin cells covering your body. And after you feel that, it's hard not to react with some racial bias of your own. I for one will feel a lot less secure around the new wealthy white population of that neighborhood from now on.
I've been thinking about this stuff a lot lately, so it's curious that such a crystallizing moment occurred. For South Asians (and Arabs) in this country, the reality of white privilege is something that's gone from hidden to open over the last few years. Every few months you hear about a person accused of terrorism or openly insulted because of some totally innocent cultural norm. He wears a turban, she wears a hijab, they're talking in Arabic, they're reading a "scary" book. I myself have been accused of seriously terrible things, solely as a function of purely physical or cultural things. I'm talking in a non-English language. I didn't shave b/c it's a Saturday and I don't have to. I'm reading a book about the Middle East. When someone's accusing you in a situation like that, it's hard to communicate just how much terror there is beneath it. There is virtually nothing I could do to my accuser, but in an era where American citizens are held indefinitely without charges, where having brown skin means you're not a "real American" and the Constitution doesn't apply, where people have been jailed and tortured just for looking like I do, there's a whole lot he could do to me.
Once again, the idiot in the alley today could muster a nuisance at best. But the underlying feeling-- that he holds all the cards and you hold none, simply because of who you are-- is a symptom of that larger issue. So for those who are curious, that's what white privilege feels like.

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