My friend Sally and I were sitting in the living room of my last house-sitting house a few weeks ago, talking about racism and white privilege. Sally and I are both white, and white privilege is something we both think about and care about a lot, and we were talking about experiences we've had that have helped us understand our own white privilege (and hence participation in racism) better.
Jonathan's comment today, about how white privilege is actually a lot of what's going on with the anti-vaccination crowd, reminded me of that conversation with Sally, and so I'd like to share with you something we talked about.
Almost every white person I know does not want to be racist. Some of my white friends think about race a lot, and some of them only think about it a little, but pretty much all of them would be horrified to be seriously labeled a racist. They/we genuinely believe racism is evil, and they would all be saddened and scandalized to learn, as I recently did, that there is a town in Arkansas called Negro Head Corner. They/we are revolted by racist comments on the internet. Etcetera.
We are, in other words, well-intentioned progressive white Americans.
One of the assumptions I think that so many of us white Americans have had--myself very much included--is that if we were to have a racist motivation for any action, that we'd instantly recognize that racism inside of us, and it would feel icky. We think that to be racist must be an inwardly bad feeling, like you feel when you feel jealous or disappointed or even ill. We think we'd recognize the icky feeling of racism in ourselves, and since we don't have any of those icky feelings, we assume that we aren't racist.
We assume that because we don't have hatred for black people, we must not be racist, Or because we'd invite a black family over for dinner, we must not be racist. Or because we chat with our Mexican co-worker, or smile at the Vietnamese immigrant who's our server at the Vietnamese restaurant, that we must not be racist.
This is a dangerous assumption. It's like assuming that you'll know if you've been infected with HIV the minute the infection enters your body. So, as long as you don't feel sick, you assume you don't have HIV, and so you continue to have unprotected sex. Racism is so much like that. It's a virus. It's a quiet, dormant-seeming virus that's coursing through most of us white Americans, and it doesn't make us feel sick so we assume we don't have it.
I wish that this reality was known by white people. Being racist does not necessarily make you feel bad. You can be racist and feel great! You can be racist and feel happy, feel a tremendous sense of well-being and at-one-ness. Being nice and feeling good have absolutely no bearing on whether you are racist or not. I wish this was better understood.
Of course it is known by some white people, and a woman like Sally has my respect for the way that she is trying so sincerely to confront her white privilege, think about it, engage it, and try to figure out what to do about it. But the thing is that the central feature of the privilege that Sally and I have is that we don't have to think about it. We can choose to think about it or choose not to think about it. Whereas all the people of color in this country don't have that choice. I could very comfortably live in America my whole life and never give race a second of my time. And if I do think about it, I feel a bit self-congratulatory, a bit proud of myself, for being the good kind of white person. (And I get that feedback, too, from people of color. That I'm the good kind of white person. Which of course makes me feel even prouder of myself. I wonder if this is how progressive men feel, when they get pats on the back from women.)
Everything I'm saying can be applied to class too. You can be classist and never realize it, and never feel icky at all. Poor people live on the other side of town, and don't have any bearing on your life. You smile at them when you pass them on the street. No icky feelings happen. The end.
Gender is maybe a little trickier, because while white people can go their whole lives not interacting with people of color, and rich people can go their whole lives only very marginally engaging with poor people, we all have to engage people of the opposite gender. So, I don't know. Can you be sexist and never feel icky? That's not a question that I can answer.