By Stacia Mesleh
A couple of weeks ago, a Facebook friend posted something about putting together a “smack a white boy” music mix. As I was contemplating this, I realized that if a friend had posted something about putting together a “smack a black boy” mix, I would immediately defriend that person. I didn’t consider defriending the person in question. I stopped to think about whether that was right, wrong or hypocritical. It is socially okay one way, but clearly not socially okay the other way. Did the pendulum swing a bit to the other side? On the surface, maybe, but in actuality, definitely not.
Once I started working on the Connect the Dots concept with Ashley, I became aware of social matters that had rarely permeated my conscientiousness before, like heteronormative behaviors, whiteness as the norm, and white privilege. It’s not that I didn’t care, it’s just that some things are invisible to us like the air we breathe because they so all-pervasively surround us. If you are part of the “norms” group, they are easy to miss. If you are not part of that group, they are impossible to ignore. They impact every moment and can limit your choices, happiness, opportunities, and even possibly– your safety and life.
Since I consciously chose not to carry the racism, homophobia, and ethnocentrism of my family into my adult life, I thought I had done what I could and should to be a kind citizen. It was definitely a step in the right direction, but there was more to learn.
We can’t simply look at matters on the surface or even evaluate them based on social acceptance. I started thinking that it is easier to get offended by the knock on white people than it would be to suffer the cruelties historically imposed by white people. Slavery, breeding programs for people (I’d never thought about this horrific aspect of slavery before reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved), the selling of adults and children, segregation, genocide of Native Americans, colonialism, and the devaluing all bodies and lives that are not white enough. If you hold white privilege or identify as white, stop and think, really think, about what it would be like to have your child taken from you and sold; no way to protect the life that you would give your own for. It is too terrible for me to take in. Imagine (or maybe know) that your ancestors suffered this. I’ve heard so many times, “That stuff is all in the past!!! There is equal opportunity now!!” Not really. Everything builds on everything else. Inequality has been woven into the social fabric of this landscape since the onset of European colonization. Where we are now is the product of everywhere we’ve been. There are many books that detail the lack of equal accesses to resources that plague people who are not perceived as white. One that I found informative was Tim Wise’s Between Barack and a Hard Place. I’m sure a simple Google search could reveal many more. If you think that there is a level playing field now, please get to reading or just look around!
For people who hold privilege around any identity, it is easy to unintentionally offend. This is uncertain ground for our intent can be vastly different than our actual impact. What do you do? First, own your mistake and apologize. Then, don’t expect the person you offended to teach you. This is like putting the impetus for preventing a social problem on the victims of that problem instead of on the people who help keep the problem alive. This may be something that is too painful for that person to do. If the person does want to teach—listen please! You can read and try to learn about white privilege. Books are easy to look up and read reviews about. Also, if you engage in an issue about race relations, wait before thinking you know the right answer. Get a feel for what is going on. Listen a lot. Ask how you can contribute instead trying to lead the group.
This stuff gets even stickier when you consider the issue of shame. None of us likes to be shamed and it is human nature to focus more energy on getting over the embarrassment than on the issue at hand. If we lived in an ideal world, when we made an error based on a lack of knowledge rather than malice, we would get information given to us about how that affected another person without the virulent dose of shame. But if we lived in that ideal world, unjust treatment wouldn’t be a part of anyone’s everyday reality and we certainly can’t deny that it is. The bottom line is that it is easier to be hurt by shame than it would be to live in another person’s shoes who has born the impact of racism an entire life. It is definitely easier than it would have been to have lived through slavery or segregation as a person of color. As pendulums always do, it has swung past the middle—by a bit. And keep in mind that this is just in the realm of social media, and leftist social media at that, not in access to desirable jobs, education, housing, a clean environment, healthcare, or healthy food. Now, imagine if it had swung all the way to the other side. What would you do with all that anger?