Archive for the ‘race’ Category

Hi.

As those of you who will likely be reading this post don’t know me or my writing, my name is Matt and I’m a white cisgendered man. I like to provide male backup to feminists so they can use me as a resource for people who want to ask about some more basic things like “what about men?” or “what is privilege?” or “what does FBM mean?”.  I’m also bisexual and have a history of mental illness. (and yes, also in the sense that I’m not entirely “neurotypical”, which some of you will jokingly refer to in terms like “not being entirely sane/normal.” You may want to reconsider that.)

As someone who is very white, who comes from a reasonably well-off family, and who hasn’t had to deal with being transgender, and who is culturally Christian1, I have a lot of privilege. If you’ve been linked here because you took issue with the word privilege, don’t worry: almost everyone who hears this term addressed at them has a lot of difficulty coming to terms with the idea, you’re allowed to be upset in dealing with it, (although I would suggest you don’t direct your feelings or questions at the person who used this term, as it generally starts fights that nobody wants or needs!) but it’s almost never used as a personal insult or accusation.

What privilege refers to is essentially all of the advantages you get, that you can’t help getting, just by being a particular type of person who doesn’t have to deal with a particular oppression- ie. white people don’t have to deal with racism2, men don’t directly have to deal with sexism, straight people don’t have to directly deal with heteronormativity and homophobia, cispeople don’t have to etc…

Privilege happens regardless of what else is going on in your life. Sure, it’s more noticable that you have for instance white privilege if you’re also wealthy and have class privilege, but you still benefit from being perceived as white even if you’re really poor, if you’re a woman, if you’re gay or transgender, or if you’re a minority religion where you live, or if you’re not christian in general in terms of discussing things on the internet. How do you benefit? Well, if you’re of any other race, or if you ARE white but not perceived as white, people will start viewing you as one of a number of different stereotypes. Asian people get classed as nerds and people place an expectation to fit in and excel on them, regardless of who they are as a person. Black people in the USA, and pacific people in New Zealand, often get stereotyped as either criminals or culture leaders, depending on whether that person’s opinion of them is negative or positive. As a white person, I don’t usually have to deal with people crossing the street to get away from me in case I attack them. (Apart from women doing it at night because I’m a man, which I totally understand)

Intersectionality is an expansion on this idea of privilege. It’s the idea that oppressions and privileges compound together for different experiences as you add them together, and that the whole of these social experiences is more than the sum of its parts. Being a lesbian means you deal with different things than what you’d expect adding up what gay men deal with, and what straight women deal with. The reverse is also true- being more privileged means your privileges add up more and are harder to seperate and you may have been less likely to have been educated about them. This isn’t your fault. All anyone who throws around this word “privilege” is expecting of you is two things:

  1. To listen to people with other experiences than yours, and to take on board that in some ways, because of who you are, your different experiences in life may have been easier for you. (And in other ways your experiences might have been harder- it’s not intended as a contest)
  2. To not side-track these discussions by “talking from privilege”. This means that sometimes you are best not to engage in a conversation until you understand it, and that even when you do engage, you should be content with a supporting role if it isn’t your issue, and if it is your issue, you should be okay with engaging in food faith and supporting people with different views or issues than you because they sit at a different intersectionality than you do. (eg. if a gay black man and a white transwoman were talking, they might have very different views on the importance of marriage equality either due to her white trans perspective, or his black cis perspective, or due to being different genders. And it might not all be solvable just them putting themselves into each other’s shoes- they might need to educate themselves about what’s going on in each other’s communities a bit to understand their differences before they can work together productively)

Intersectionality is often brought up when privileged people are making a call for everyone to work together on their particular type of oppression. So white feminists, gay men, atheists, etc… often need reminding or informing about intersectionality when they’re advocating change, so that we don’t just stop at equal rights for white women, we get equal rights for transwomen, and women of all races and sexualities. So that we don’t stop at gay marriage, we also unpack cissexism, protect the rights of transpeople, and help break down the gender binary before moving on to more niche LGB issues. And so that we don’t stop by having a secular society, but we also consider the needs of women in various faith communities, and that we ensure our discussions about religion aren’t masking an racism. (more…)

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The view from privilege

Posted: May 29, 2012 in feminism, queer, race

Often are minority groups presented with the little canard I like to call “the view from privilege”. It’s a simple ditty, really, that anyone can learn:

But you can’t be objective on this topic, you’re a(n) [queer/ethnic or cultural minority/woman/disabled person].

The hidden assumption here is that the view from privilege is the one that’s objective, not the view from under oppression. The view from privilege isn’t what happens when privileged people make observations, rather, it’s the assumption that privilege is objective, the same way that the view from nowhere in the press is the assumption that no view is ever objective. Sometimes the view from privilege is jaw-droppingly obvious, at least to most of the world: consider complaints that a gay judge couldn’t overturn California’s proposition eight forbidding same-sex marriage because as he was gay, he was biased. Are they proposing that a straight judge couldn’t have upheld it either? No, of course not, straight people are always unbiased. Wink. Welcome to the view from privilege.

But it isn’t always so obvious. The view from privilege can manifest in odd ways- for instance, it’s often internalised even in equal rights advocates, so they can doubt that their own experiences are valid until someone of privilege agrees. When I say that privileged people often need to be in a supporting role in fighting against oppression, this is the kind of sad reality I’m talking about- oppressed people may often require validation that their views and criticism are reasonable and real.

In some ways the phenomenon of gaslighting, a term used to describe when men manipulate the environment around their partner and say they don’t notice any change, is a prime example of people buying into the view from privilege- it can feel easier for women exposed to this sort of manipulation to ‘acknowledge’ their own insanity than question their partners.

There are two really simple steps to fighting this idea: Listening to people who aren’t privileged, and validating them when you honestly feel they have a point. It sounds simple and easy, but in a media culture where increasingly people have to doggedly search for minority viewpoints, we can dismiss those people we actually meet and know as outliers instead of the reality.

With backlash becoming such a strong counter-force to all sorts of anti-discrimination movements, I feel it’s time to talk about various types of actions which feed into discriminatory narratives- that is, things we’d usually discuss as racist, sexist, homophobic, and so on.

There seems to me to be four essential levels of discrimination:

  1. Insensitive – casual ignorance, poorly phrased statements, or minor dismissal, devaluing, or trifling objectification is insensitive.
  2. Insulting – gross mischaracterisation or stereotying, heavy dismissal, devaluing, or objectification is the sort of thing that’s likely to insult minorities- the difference between insensitivity and insultingness is a matter of degree or frequency.
  3. Problematic – a narrative or psychological bias, especially one which people aren’t conscious of, is problematic. Unlike being insensitive or insulting, being problematic is more a matter of how wrong what you’re saying is and how badly it needs correcting, rather than the sort of reaction it might provoke.
  4. Open – discrimination to the point that even if it isn’t necessarily open and deliberate, it’s so problematic and ignorant that it can’t be regarded as innocent.

Obviously as you climb this ladder, elements from below may also be present in several different frustrating combinations. Things that are problematic are often also insensitive, for example.

The problem we’re running into is that when we say words like “racist”, people automatically escalate that word to level #4- even if you hedge a bit more and say “you did or said something homophobic”, they read that as them having accidentally engaged in fourth-degree discrimination. Feminism has been a bit more successful in gradating misogyny, but it still suffers from this problem sometimes. Likewise “problematic” is an adjective that’s already caught on in communities, and we need to expand on that.

We need to start using those other three words- what you’re saying has (or creates) problems. What you’re doing? That’s insulting to me. The way you’re acting around me? That’s not sensitive to who I am, or these other people in our community. Describing discrimination by degree or type is really important, as it reinforces that racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types aren’t just a binary, with a person being intrinsically a bigot, but rather a continuum that people fall on based on how much privilege they’ve assimilated.

There has been some discussion recently about the drivers of poverty, and I thought it would be useful to reproduce some important things I’ve said in comments on this blog.

mickysavage said this over at The Standard:

I use the phrase [equity of outcome] as a counter to the Nats’ “equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome” line.  That is a phrase that Nikki Kaye for instance uses all the time.

Their line essentially says that there can be winners and losers.  The concept of “equity of outcome” suggests to me there should be some minimum standards required so everyone has enough.  It does not require complete equality but a reasonable distribution of income and resources.

And he’s right, it’s really not permissible to just leave our economy at the harsh and intolerable level of “well, some people are winners, and others are losers,” because often, “winners” didn’t do anything to merit winning, and “losers” didn’t make the decisions responsible for their poverty. Here’s my reply:

Besides, to some degree inequality of outcome is an indicator of inequality of opportunity- for instance, if people of different demographics really do have functionally equal opportunity, you’d expect the differences in poverty rates between those demographics to be statistically negligible. As that’s not the case, we have a very strong indicator that people who fall into privileged groups in our society really do have more and better opportunities, which isn’t very democratic.

Now, if said inequality actually made everyone better off, I don’t think we’d have a problem with it. But it doesn’t- it just seems to enrich the already wealthy, as seen by our ballooning wealth disparities all around the world.

There is a systemic problem here, and it’s happening in all capitalist economies. Likely it’s our attempts to mix familial policies with capitalist ones (inheritance, treating kids as individual charges not community ones, etc…) that are driving a lot of this problem- that doesn’t mean these are bad things to do, just that they do not mix well with capitalism if you want everyone to get a fair go.

The other post, which was also guest-posted in a shorter form at The Standard, claims that because negative indicators track with poverty, this is a problem of poverty, not of race. That misses the point that poverty is an intersectional issue- that is, it tangles itself up in other social problems, and is better seen not as a cause or symptom but as part of a reinforcing cycle- way back in the day, colonial New Zealanders did some racist things, that set off a self-reinforcing cycle of racism and disproportionate poverty. Even for Maori people who climb out of poverty, there’s the perception that they are exceptional, rather than just very skilled and fortunate, and likely to have been in a much better situation had they been born into a family that suffered less from discrimination. Breaking out of poverty while so many still remain in it only suppresses the poverty part of the cycle, which is still reinforced for other Maori, and still associated mentally with all Maori in so many people’s heads.

Even if we eliminate poverty altogether, there will still be racial discrimination, and it will still carry some of the same symptoms. Just like when we largely ended open discrimination, however, the discrimination would still exist, underground, in our subconscious decisions- both of the victims of discrimination to sometimes see themselves as less than, and in the actions of people who want to reinforce that idea. Here’s the comment I made in reply to this point:

Poverty is a huge part of the problem- racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination are much easier to deal with when they don’t intersect with poverty.

But it’s actually scientifically confirmed (using tests that measure stress) that lifting people out of poverty doesn’t always relieve the stress they feel from discrimination. For example, if you take a white woman and a black woman in the USA, and they both climb out of poverty, the white woman will feel a relief of the stress that she felt from being poor, but the black woman won’t- which is likely to be due to people engaging in what’s called “high-stakes coping”, where they try and power through the problem by just being that much better than everyone else.

I’m not very elegant at explaining why poverty doesn’t explain away racism yet, but you can hear excellent talks on that subject at http://www.timwise.org/ – he’s a great anti-racism advocate.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely support fighting poverty, (and prioritising that fight) but what we’re likely to find even if we largely eliminate poverty is that discrimination still happens, but it might be a bit easier to deal with, and many of the related statistical problems will likely shrink significantly.

Finally, there’s also some discussion as to the drivers of poverty and whether it’s relatively simple or difficult to eliminate. I come down on the difficult side, as evidenced by this comment:

Well if we’re going to reduce things to absurd simplicity, throwing money at poor people solves poverty if you throw enough of it. By definition it cures their poverty (or if you throw too many sacks of coins it kills them – but they won’t die poor).

But then if you don’t want to be simplistic, it still needs money – social workers, benefits, law enforcement, education, infrastructure, civic development, business development units, investors. It all needs money.

and my reply elaborating on that point:

Well, perhaps it cures their poverty. This is going to sound similar to some beneficiary-bashing stuff, but I don’t mean it to demonise the poor, I mean it to say that the problem isn’t quite that simple to solve. In some ways poverty is actually quite similar to coping with mental illness.

You have to remember that part of what causes poverty is that it creates perverse incentives that perpetuate it. (hence the comparison) For instance you can’t afford healthy food, so you buy whatever’s cheapest, which is often junk food from large corporations that leaves you not much better off than before you ate or drank it, which can make it hard to concentrate because your body isn’t getting what it needs, which makes it hard to stay calm or make good decisions, which might mean you miss opportunities to improve your life in all sorts of subtle ways.

Even if we directly redistribute wealth with an aim to reduce poverty, these reinforcing behaviors don’t instantly go away- much like when someone wins the lotto, it depends on their outlook whether they’ll blow the money in a couple of years, or use it carefully and wisely. We’d certainly bump a lot of people directly out of poverty, but some would need a different kind of help, because, to use my earlier example, they’d still think that Coke is what you drink, and junk food is what you eat.

Many of the things you listed couch that investment in a secondary force that helps break poverty-reinforcing behavior- education and infrastructure being the key examples, but sometimes social workers, benefits, and law enforcement can be very helpful, too. I don’t really have much faith in business or investors to do anything about poverty unless they’re getting tax incentives to do it, and even then they’ll try to cut corners.

Fighting poverty is such a crucial piece of improving our society, that it’s a shame that people have so much difficulty understanding the nature of the problem. Having suffered from a different, but nonetheless equally self-reinforcing problem, I very much understand that it’s an incredibly difficult thing to defeat, it requires a lot of support, and even afterwards, these types of problems never fully leave you, you just shrink them to the point that they’re easy enough to cope with.

One of my favourite international holidays, Martin Luther King (Jr.) left an amazing legacy to the civil rights community, and activists worldwide who practice non-violent protest. Arguably, #OccupyWallStreet is the first major heir to this style of protest, as the civil rights movement became the heir to it after the Indian independance movement.

I wonder a lot, when I listen or read about current events, what Dr. King would think about the Occupy movement. He would certainly be appalled by the continuing ghetto-isation of America, and would find no comfort in the fact that the ghettos have been integrated, with occasional poor white people suffering nearby.

I know he would certainly be right with the Occupation movement in their stance against poverty, and the excesses of capitalism- you don’t have to read very much of Dr. King’s work, or listen to many of his speeches, to know that he considered corporate oppression against the poor almost as large a problem in the America of his time as racism and segregation were, and corporate greed has become much, much worse since then. Would he commend their commitment to non-violence? Have Occupy done well enough in their protests for that? I like to hope they have. I won’t speculate too much more on this subject, before I start putting words in his mouth that we can’t easily hear from the tenor of his speeches.

He would certainly condemn the use of pepper spray and other police brutality, having seen similar brutality used against his own brothers and sisters fighting for civil rights. He would certainly commend the inspiration taken from the people of what is being labelled the Arab Spring, having learned his own lessons of solidarity in his visit to post-colonial India.

Would Dr. King have supported queer rights? It’s hard to say. He may have been more open to it than many Christians were, but it’s impossible in discussing Dr. King to forget that he was a minister, and even the most liberal of Christian ministers sometimes cannot extend their support for civil rights into the religious realm, supporting the rights of women or queers to be members in full of their religion. It is possibly a good sign that his wife, Coretta Scott King, thought that arguments against gay marriage were equivalent to the arguments used against interracial relationships and marriage, so if he had avoided his untimely death, maybe Dr. King would have been convinced by the same factors that led his wife to believe in queer rights.

I always find this day inspiring and heartening. While we still have to fight hard to maintain and expand our civil rights, there is an incredible legacy behind us, with people from all around the world, from all sorts of communities, involved in it, and engaging in extreme feats of solidarity with each other. There is so much that we, around the world, can learn from the legacy of Dr. King, that I think this day will still resonate around the world in a hundred years time.

 

Until we have learned those lessons, I’d like to extend my words in solidarity with anyone in the USA who is in need of their civil rights still. This day isn’t just for the legacy of Dr. King, it should be about you.