White Privilege, the Privilege of Being Unaware

In 2015, pop singer Taylor Swift released a song called “Wildest Dreams”. It takes us to another time and place, 1940s Africa. The video has some beautiful imagery in it, the landscape and the animals are so wild and exotic. It’s shot well and the sets and costumes are pretty cool. Swift is as cute as usual, posing with lions (most likely superimposed in post), flying in an old 40s style plane with the man she just can’t seem to function without, and just having oh so much fun on this wild and exotic continent.

The song itself is a pretty generic pop ballad. But the video just reeks of white colonialism. Set in Africa, Swift plays an actress overwhelmed by her infatuation with the white, male lead. I guess I don’t really have to specify that he was white, because literally everyone in that video was white. In Africa.

Yeah, I get that they were on a movie set that was supposed to seem like it was the 40s (or something), but I’m pretty sure black Africans existed in the 1940s. What’s more is that if they were making a video about Africa, exotic animals and all, why would that movie exclude black Africans? Let’s remember that colonialism still existed in the 1940s (and does today), and the images presented in this video paint such a romanticized version of Africa by colonizers: beautiful Africa, beautifully wild animals and no black people.

I don’t have to tell you about the horrific actions and consequences colonialism has brought upon so many nations and the entire continent of Africa. It didn’t only affect the future of Africa, but it affected how people write about and portray Africa in movies (and music videos). This glamorized version of Africa is both offensive and disorienting.

Well I thought Africa was a poverty-ridden, starving countr- er, continent.” Well you’d be barely partially correct! Parts of Africa do suffer from poverty and starvation, but it is not a homogeneous, single country (a mistake too often made). Africa is a pretty damn diverse continent and if the beneficiaries of colonialism (read: white Americans, white Europeans, etc.) actually took the time to read literature written by people in African countries and listen to their voices, or even just recognize that Europeans did not invent the “civilized” world (Africa and the middle east beat them to it), they might not be constantly churning out these antiquated images of bone-thin, dying children and genocide. We have those things here too, it’s called Manifest Destiny and slavery.

Anyway, Taylor Swift failed to realize or consider these realities and that she was about to release a deeply-rooted racist, pro-colonization message onto western society. That is a direct consequence of her white privilege. She has it, and she has benefited from it her whole life. She’s never had to consider how her entire race was being portrayed in a video (even though her videos are more often than not as white bread as it gets). As a matter of fact she does not have to consider her race at all when pursuing her career.

I have not forgotten that she is also a woman (I go into intersectionality later in the post). I know she is criticized in ways a man would never even have to worry about and is constantly reminded that she is a woman. Whether it’s body-shaming her for being too skinny, or just the unwavering obsession with her looks (loving them or hating them, she’s damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t). She is white, but she is also a woman, unfortunately that does not let her off the hook for this travesty of a video. I always hope people in situations like hers will take the opportunity of being called out on incidents such as this and learn from their mistakes, but they rarely do.

Take another white pop star of the same gender (after some research, it turns out that although she uses the “she” and “her” pronouns, Miley identifies as gender fluid) of similarly unchecked white privilege. Miley Cyrus is controversial in essence, she thrives off of it even. Which is just fine, especially if its for things like challenging gender norms and daring to express herself as a sexual being by shedding her Virgin Mary-like, Hannah Montana “innocence” Although I don’t believe she always achieves these in the best ways, and her criticisms on their own are problematic. But when it comes to race, she cannot be bothered to actually question herself or acknowledge the impact her actions and words have on black artists and black culture. Nicki Minaj (incredibly problematic on her own, but still making a good point) even spelled it out for Cyrus after a twitter war between herself, Cyrus and Swift:

“The fact that you feel upset about me speaking on something that affects black women makes me feel like you have some big balls. You’re in videos with black men, and you’re bringing out black women on your stages, but you don’t want to know how black women feel about something that’s so important? Come on, you can’t want the good without the bad. If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn’t not want to know that.”

This was the result of an apparently ongoing argument about whether or not the media “neglect[s] the contributions of black women artists”. Which it does. But it was like tweeting with a brick wall. No one came out happy and none of our favorite white pop artists learned a damn thing.

CW: Nerdy, sociologist jargon ahead! I try my best to explain without going too off topic. But feel free to ask what something means! For example, CW means Content Warning.

If you are reading this and you are white, there is a “White Privilege Checklist” I’d like for you to try before you dismiss the fact that you have undeserved privileges based on your race, or if you’re about ready to have a rage attack all over the comment section at the mere mention of privilege.

(I have omitted some of the points on the checklist to keep it to the most important and relevant statements.)

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.

3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.

11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.

14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.

20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.

26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.

27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.

30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.

31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.

33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.

34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.

35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.

36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.

41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

43. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.

45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.

46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.

49. My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.

50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

This checklist is a well-known and widely used way to help white people recognize their own privilege, initially written by Peggy McIntosh in White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

If many (or all) of these surprised you, that is privilege at work. Privilege relies on invisibility. It allows the group in power to live their daily lives without having to think about or even realize that they have these undeserved privileges. People will often react with disbelief or even anger when confronted with this idea. And I am here to tell you that pointing out white privilege is not an attack on white people, or you as an individual.

“But I grew up poor! I am not privileged!” This is often another response to the assertion of the existence of white privilege. And to that I say class does not trump race. This is demonstrated in Robin DiAngelo’s My Class Didn’t Trump My Race. It is a difficult article to get your hands on, so I’ve provided a PDF here. In her article, she describes her own experiences being white and poor.

“I grew up poor and White. Although my class oppression
has been relatively visible to me, my race
privilege has not. In my efforts to uncover how race has
shaped my life, I have gained deeper insight by placing
race in the center of my analysis and asking how each
of my other group locations have socialized me to collude
with racism. In so doing, I have been able to address in
greater depth my multiple locations and how they function
together to hold racism in place. Thus my exploration of
what it means to be White starts with what it means to be
poor, for my understanding of race is inextricably entwined
with my class background. I now make the distinction that
I grew up poor and White, for my experience of poverty
would have been different had I not been White.”

She goes on to explain the role of intersectionality, meaning that although someone can be privileged in one category, they may not be in others. Or that they may ultimately be oppressed in many ways while enjoying little to no privilege.

Privilege deals in power structures and hierarchies: Gendercisgender male, a man who identifies as the sex/gender they were assigned at birth. Race– white. Sexuality– heterosexual, heteronormative. Abilities/disabilitiesable-bodied. Wealth– affluent. Mental health statusneurotypical. And the list goes on.  A common term used for some of the most privileged among us is SAAWCSM (Straight, Able-bodied, Affluent, White, CiSgender, Male), the epitome of privilege in our society (and let’s face it, the world). SAAWCSMs may enjoy mountains of unearned privilege, but still have enough insight and listening skills to be aware of it. Some of the best intersectional feminist allies I’ve known have been SAAWCSMs. Some of that might be the result of having the opportunity to access a good education.

Whiteness is considered “raceless”, the “default”, “normal”, “trustworthy”, “smart”, “educated”, “safe”, without culture and the status all minorities are supposed to strive for. These are all attributes white people are believed to inherently have, and everyone else must live up to this ideal or they and their entire race are considered to be sub-standard. In other words, minorities must “perform whiteness”. Performing Whiteness is the ability to act “white” without having a white body. In societies run by white supremacist ideas, this performance is necessary to get a job, or to be perceived as smart or educated.

White supremacy is so ingrained in our society that the very mention of white privilege in the wrong setting (most everywhere) can make people turn on you. I have been the “bad guy” at more than my share of parties because I called out some edgy “comedian’s” racist and or sexist jokes. All of a sudden I am the one who ruined the vibe, not the person comparing black people to monkeys (this really happened to me). It is important to always check the privileges you have. Deconstruct them and then use those tools to recognize the messages that are sent to us through the media. Whether it be that no matter what, there has to be at least one white dude in every TV show or movie, or else! Or wonder why on a show about a “Modern Family” starring a married gay couple with an adopted Vietnamese daughter frames the couple as basically asexual. As if the mere mention that they are sexually active together is too much for America. But at the same time, straight couples can be as openly sexual on TV without worry.

This video does a good job explaining in great detail privilege and why it causes such a disturbance:

Always keep your privileges in mind, and remember to always be deconstructing.

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