It’s Not About You, and other adventures in privilege

The other day, as I was contributing a few choice witticisms to the hashtag #whitefeministsbelike, I heard the dreaded wailing in the background.

Someone had sounded the NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE KLAXON.

For the next twenty-odd minutes, my mentions were inundated with the thoughts, feelings and opinions of a self-proclaimed “white feminist” who desperately needed me to know how badly I’d hurt her feelings by implying that she was racist. I had not mentioned her name. I didn’t even know who she was. My tweets did not read “#allwhitefeministsbelike” or “#everysinglewhitepersoneverbelike”. The hashtag was clearly about whiteness-as-power-structure, not whiteness-as-her-personal-life-experience-that-she-needed-to-share-like-RIGHT-NOW.

But here I was, being tearfully reprimanded by a complete stranger, because my critique of a power structure that oppresses me had hurt her feelings.

I am not, despite my frequent jesting, anti-white. I do not hate white people or white culture. Actually, I quite enjoy Shakespeare and Mad Men and the odd visit to McDonald’s for a cheeseburger with that cheese that I’m fairly sure has never had even a passing relationship with the stuff that comes out of cows. But whiteness-as-power-structure? Whiteness-as-supremacist-ideology? Whiteness-as-oppressive-ideal? Those things, I do not like so much. Those things are responsible for taunts and bullying and my mother being yelled at by strangers on the street and my sisters being harassed and, on a memorable occasion that I’m sure will haunt me until the day I die, my father once threatening to beat the shit out of a couple of boys at a Hungry Jack’s who were making fun of my niqab. (He had removed his belt and was preparing to tan their hides with the buckled end before management intervened and made the young men in question leave, but I’m sure those seats still smell like adolescent male fear-sweat to this day. My father is a very imposing man.)

Whiteness, in short, is something I am very much committed to critiquing, de-centring, and even tearing apart a little. Whiteness is the reason there are very few role models for black and brown children in mainstream entertainment media. Whiteness is the reason that when I see a Muslim character on television, they’re more likely to be a terrorist than a love interest. Whiteness is incredibly problematic and we can and should question it and the ways in which it affects and harms people of colour. Because that’s what it’s about, see – not making white people feel bad, not white guilt or white-shaming or reverse racism. It’s about tearing off the shackles that bind us.

It is, in other words, Not About You.

To the white girl who felt the need to tell me I’d hurt her feelings, I have to ask – what were you trying to achieve? Did you really need the reassurance of a random brown stranger that you aren’t a bad person because of the colour of your skin? Did you need to be preened and petted so much that you had to interrupt a brown person’s narrative – the narrative of a person who is interrupted, silenced and shoved aside by white people constantly –  so that everyone in the metaphorical room could attend to your needs and desires for a little while? What did you stand to gain by pointing out huffily that you, individually, were not racist? Did you want a medal for basic human decency, perhaps? A ticker-tape parade with a float staffed by non-white people showering you in confetti and holding up a big sign saying “This White Person is Not Like the Others”? A lovingly-baked cookie containing the blood, sweat, tears and gratitude of a brown person, delivered to you in a little box with a card reading, “thanks for achieving the minimum standard required for being a tolerable human being”?

Because that’s the message you send when you derail conversations about whiteness-as-power-structure to point out that you, an individual white person, are not racist. You are saying: my feelings as a white person who is complicit in and bolstered by white privilege are more important than your right to talk about the power structures that oppress you. You are saying: I cannot abide a conversation that does not centre me, my feelings and my worldview. You are saying: me. Me me me me me me me me me me me. Also, me.

And let me tell you, that gets kind of intolerable after a while.

Yes, individual white people, I get it. You’re better than the others because you have black and brown friends, because you donate to charities that benefit non-white people in need, because you told a black woman her hair was neat and resisted the urge to touch it. And now, having achieved the standard of good behaviour we might expect of a house-trained puppy, you feel the need to tell every. single. non-white. person. ever. You are so desperate to differentiate and distinguish yourself from Those White People, the nasty racist ones who oppress blacks and aren’t as enlightened and caring and compassionate as you, that you need to make every conversation not about our continuing plights, but about how You Are Better Than Them and we need to acknowledge all the hard work you’ve put in.

How many times do you need to be told this? Being an ally or standing in solidarity with a group of oppressed people is not about you: it’s about the people you are trying to help. And that means that when those oppressed people are talking about the ways in which power structures marginalised and silence them, contributing to that silencing by talking loudly over us and ignoring our objections makes you part of the problem, not the solution. A white person who really does make an effort not to be complicit in white supremacy does not need to trumpet that fact. In fact, they don’t have time to do so, because they’re busy rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty with the rest of us. Ask yourself, well-meaning but self-absorbed white woman whose name I don’t even remember any more because this happens to me literally every single time I write about whiteness, why most of the people criticising you and asking you to pipe down were also white. Was it because they had something to prove? Was it because they wanted brownie points and a pat on the back?

Or maybe, just maybe, was it because they were seeing something you weren’t?

If you really are Not Like the Others, prove it to me not with your words but with your actions. Be an amplifier and supporter of non-white people. Give us space to speak. Listen to and internalise our stories when we share them (because believe it or not, hearing those stories is a privilege, not a right, and should be treated accordingly). Share our stories with your white friends. Stop your fellow white people from perpetrating the dozens of microaggressions that perpetuate and reinforce white supremacy every single day. Lobby for fairer representation of non-white people on television, in politics, in the corporate world, in academia. Fight anti-blackness. Ask before partaking of our culture so that you can be sure you’re not taking something that’s not yours to take. For the love of whatever you deem holy, DO NOT touch our hair or our niqabs without our permission. See us as people, not as curiosities. And stop equating your hurt feelings at being forced to confront the reality of white supremacy with the real hurts non-white people experience because of the insidious influence of white supremacy in their everyday lives.

Solidarity and intersectionality are not labels. They are things you practice. They are ways of living and being. If you truly want them to apply to you, stop making everything All About You and start listening a bit to all of us.

30 thoughts on “It’s Not About You, and other adventures in privilege

  1. Little Miss Special Snowflake was doing the exact same thing so many men do in their haste to assert that they’re not misogynists. Anyone who hijacks the conversation in such a manner ultimately proves only how clueless & self-obsessed they truly are, as well as how little respect they truly have for your views and life experience. *smh* Sorry you had to deal with that, hon. ♥

  2. I felt very sad after reading this article. Especially near the end, I was afraid the lines of anti-racism and feminism were not working very well together. Instead, they were both commanding each other’s attention. While I agree with a lot of your theories, I would have liked to hear more about how you felt. I usually feel more inspired to change my behaviour towards someone or something if I hear a request due to the way someone feels. Sometimes it’s very subtle to me, but I hear it nonetheless. Your disappointment (I’m guessing that’s how you felt) of being silenced really resonated with me, not as a feminist or anti-racist advocator, but as human being, because all of us deserve to be heard. I was sad upon reading that part. Near the end, I don’t know if you were requesting changes in behaviour from the anti-racist white people that you’ve met or came to know, but I was reading a lot of commands. In my experience with talking about cultural politics and what we can all do about racist and sexist behaviours, I think that hearing people’s feelings are a ticket to requesting their involvement. From my experience, this COULD even (but does not always) happen after I am violently interrupted by someone. All it takes is a question for me to ask: “Are you ok? Do you feel… ?” If instead I consider a “No way, you did not just interrupt me to tell me all about your oh so poor experience as a…, (I’m going to stick it to you) This is how it is. Do this, do that.”… However satisfying, however “paybackable” these remarks are, they are completely futile in the larger scale of people’s struggles. After all, we all have different skills and choices to make with them. My truth is, many of us don’t know how to communicate, and I think that plays a HUGE part in people being separated by white supremacy and patriarchy. The heart is where I find truth. I think if the pawns in this crazy game we are all playing were to unite, something tells me we would need a safer space in which to communicate, the kind that considers real human feelings, from the heart before the brain.

    • This white male feels sad (and frustrated and disgusted) after reading your reply to the blog post, because it seems you totally missed the point. Your reply is unfortunately a great example of the what the author is talking about. Do you truly not see that? You come across as deeming that your feeling sad in response to reading the post is a higher cost than the physical, mental, economic, social, etc., oppression that the author discusses.
      Putting high value on niceness and politeness is one of the strongest tools of the oppressor, which you have (apparently unwittingly) demonstrated.
      You said “I would have liked to hear more about how you felt”. I think the author was quite clear how she felt–exasperation, frustration, anger, exhaustion; I am not sure how she could have made that clearer. You imply that how she felt is more important that the more tangible costs of oppression. How can you possibly feel that way? Who are you to tell her what she should view as more important anyway?
      You also imply that a primary purpose of the post was to change white people’s behavior. I doubt that the author really had that intention. It was written in part in the second person, but that was a style choice to make her points clearer, and ring with emotional resonance (which I thought was important to you). You imply that it is the oppressed’s responsibility to make behavioral change easy for you. Do you truly not see the pomposity in that?
      To me it seems the author’s purpose was to get something off her chest, and, perhaps, to share some ideas on how to talk with people about these issues. (The latter is something I got out of it.) I strongly disagree with you that the author’s “commands”, as you put it, “are completely futile in the larger scale of people’s struggles”. On the contrary, I believe that most struggles gain much of their momentum from articulate, eloquent “demands” such as this blog post. These things can unify the oppressed via righteous anger and talking points, as well as provide food for thought for the more open-minded/open-hearted oppressors. I cannot picture the African American, women’s, or the LGBT civil rights movements in the US having achieved their partial successes only through “nice” talk.
      You consider this an unsafe space, because the blogger uses strong words? Think about how that _makes_ it a safe space for some (many?) people of color, since they are surrounded by spaces where their concerns are not treated seriously. A safe space for one is not necessarily a safe space for another. Since you care so much about safe communication spaces, what are you doing to create and maintain them?
      I see no tension between anti-racism and feminism in the post. I think what you are reacting to here is simply that the blog post made you uncomfortable. Emotional/mental discomfort does not mean that there are intellectual/logical improprieties. To me it means that you are one step closer to the truth. You say the heart is where you find truth, yet in this case when you stumbled across the truth, your heart was discomforted and so you ran with it in the other direction. Perhaps that is the saddest thing of all, that you took the emotionally easy road rather than seizing the opportunity for enlightenment and coming face to face with ugly truths that discomfort provides.

  3. Good points, not arguing with any of them, but this is pretty condescending. I’m not sure that talking down to people who you don’t see eye to eye with will create very productive dialogue

    • I can’t speak for the author whatsoever, but your comment bothered me personally to a point where I feel compelled to respond. The author’s posting is well-written story, conveying an important message, and even if it were poorly written I find it condescending for you to tell this author how they should convey their truth.

    • I agree with Aaminah, but I agree with you too David. How can you have a discussion if you’re shut down? How do you have a discussion when the person immediately jumps to the defensive? However, you’re on her platform. This is her house and her rules.

  4. Reblogged this on Red Thread Broken and commented:
    These are some great words for allies to marginalized groups of people to hear. As an adoptee of color, who has been hurt by systems of privilege and oppression, I am compelled to be an ally to others. Similarly, I think adoptive parents need to be the strongest, loudest allies for their adopted children through acknowledging and fighting racism they haven’t had to deal with before, advocating for more transparency in the system, and supporting family preservation. “Being an ally or standing in solidarity with a group of oppressed people is not about you: it’s about the people you are trying to help. And that means that when those oppressed people are talking about the ways in which power structures marginalize and silence them, contributing to that silencing by talking loudly over us and ignoring our objections makes you part of the problem, not the solution.”

  5. Awesome! I’m sharing this. And, also, I’m white, so I think I’m going go give myself a cookie. 🙂 Okay, seriously though, I like what you wrote and how you wrote it. Made me laugh and made me think.

  6. Pingback: It’s Not About You | les femmes

  7. This really spoke to me, thank you. A quick reminder that it’s not all about me is always a good thing! I’m really going to challenge myself to be a better ally.

  8. Pingback: Privilege Links | Multiracial Sky

  9. Pingback: Dear fellow white feminists – have a cup of shut the fuck up tea » Rants and Ramblings By An Old Bag

  10. Pingback: The Seventieth Down Under Feminists Carnival | Zero at the Bone

  11. I really struggled a lot to understand the idea of white privilege, until someone told me that if you can’t see white privilege, you might be white. Now when I read articles like this and feel the self protective anger, I just remember that if something makes you feel a knee jerk reaction of anger, it’s usually a legitimate argument that you should re read after chilling out and remembering not everything is about you.

    • I think that is a great way to respond to such things! I don’t know why it seems to be so difficult for so many people to get.

  12. “If you really are Not Like the Others, prove it to me not with your words but with your actions. Be an amplifier and supporter of non-white people.”
    IOW: RT me you White Devils!!!!
    Jokes, I liked it. If I used twitter, I would totally RT it too.

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