Since the last time I blogged five days ago, a LOT has gone on in my brain. I’m back… and I’ve been to the MOON in the meantime. I have some news. My bubble has popped. I have re-read almost all of your comments. I have indulged in your suggested reading materials. I went to lunch with Kelly, one of my generous readers who has been a key voice in this conversation. And it has happened: I have come to realize my white privilege. Let me tell you, it is a VERY sobering experience. “Practicing gratitude” has taken on a whole new meaning. There is so much that I’ve taken for granted.
For example… My belief that people are perceived as equals in America in 2012. I have taken for granted that THAT is how I see the world. That a black president is an all-pervasive sign of progress. You know that beautiful, ideal place of oneness written about in songs? I have taken for granted that I, personally, have felt for even a minute that any such realities exist.
So now you get to watch what happens when blindly-white-privileged afro girl learns about the realities, and the social injustices of the racial system that have unknowingly affected her, and then tries to understand how and why that system operates. If you are unfamiliar with White Privilege, the place to start is (this blog post, duh! Or, historically…) Peggy McIntosh’s very famous article Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack from 1988. The unearned easy-streets for white Americans. “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks,” Peggy explains.
For a few examples my privileges:
- I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
- 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.
1988 may seem outdated, but my assumption is if you think that (kinda like I do/did), you’re too blinded by your privilege to realize it still exists. But no matter what you think of it, there’s an underlying fact that holds true regardless of the prevalence of each statement: As white people we are not free of worry, but we are NOT forced to think about our race on a daily basis.
“I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” – Peggy McIntosh
The outpouring of support after my NPR interview was astounding. I’ve connected with so many fantastic new people since then who have given me new validation, new insight, new hope. Even MORE polarized people on both ends of the spectrum have emerged… does that mean keep on trucking?
It’s one thing for me to shed my anger and proclaim the way the world should be: “Screw the system! Screw the commercials and the straight-haired beauty ideals our society holds! Let’s catapult our minds above all that and think for ourselves. Let’s embrace the idea of being offended (because in the end, we all are) and laugh instead. Let’s love one another and celebrate our fascinating, humanizing differences. Let’s be fair and open our hearts, because we are ALL in this together.”
…but it’s quite another to live it. There’s that whole system, and it doesn’t work that way. The world does NOT exist like that. We can create communities where it seems like it exists – like general bubbles of friends… yoga retreats… Ru Paul’s Drag Race. And even if a lot of people felt that way, it STILL wouldn’t work. We’d be making progress, but we would need everyone. As a nation we have far too much baggage, and we must all stick together to carry it in order to dispose of it properly.
So, do I deserve to wear an afro wig? The answer is NO, America. We as a country have not earned the right for Michelle Joni to wear an afro wig. Oppression festers in this nation like an open battle wound. I have not experienced the struggle and strife associated with having an afro. I have not been systematically marginalized due to the color of my skin or texture of my hair. I never had to fear going on a job interview with my natural hair. The fro is something to earn. To EARN. The pain of the Civil Rights era still exists still today. By acknowledging that pain, it opens my eyes to a whole new set of human emotions… within myself. I never, ever set out to create a conversation about race, as the wig was only a personal analogy… but “following the fro” has lead me here, and I am very thankful for it.
I would rather live in a world where the people who own these gorgeous fros can wear them proudly, with no hesitation or exception. A place where NOBODY feels mocked or minstreled if someone wants to wear a big bulbous coiffure, because THE AFRO is as much of a beauty ideal as any. I would rather all this than to wear a fro in a country where such backlash and anger is warranted.
How to do this? Well, championing the fro is not the way. Me falling to pieces telling you how much I love wearing the wig does not sit comfortably with a lot of people. There are many people of color who have told me my fro-wearing is an amazing inspiration, but it’s not enough, and it doesn’t detract from the heavy pain felt by others. Insisting I have freedom of expression to wear an afro does not change any of this daunting reality. There are plenty of established blogs and forums already created by people of color about embracing afros, so where does that leave me? When it comes down to it, my rules on how to handle this situation simply do not apply.
There ARE some general rules I found for this though, and they were (thankfully) not made up by me. I am highly unqualified to make assumptions on how to handle issues of race… I majored in fashion, remember? Extra points for self-expression, experimentation and disruption! But hang tight, YSL, DVF, VPL… for these rules, I defer to PISAB.
PISAB is the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a national and international collective with the mission of “Undoing Racism.” It works with anti-racist, multicultural community organizers and educators dedicated to building an effective movement for social transformation. Yes, there are people who have dedicated their lives to making a dent in progressing the hard-bound issues of structural racism, and I sure have not been one of them.
According to PISAB, the underlying belief when it comes to undoing racism is this: Racism has been consciously and systematically erected, and it can be undone ONLY if people understand what it is, where it comes from, how it functions, and why it is perpetuated.
Alright. This seems fairly credible, and I can’t deny its logic. So it’s time to try and REALLY understand. What IS racism? Where does it come from? How does it function, exactly? Why is it perpetuated? So I started researching. And THAT is what lead me to begin to really understand my white privilege, which I described before. I’m befuddled. I’m enlightened. I can hardly wait to do one of PISAB’s Anti-Racist Alliance trainings – there is just so much to learn and know about this, it’s mind-bloggling!
For everyone like me who is new to this concept, or even more seasoned, you should read Ten Things Everyone Should Know About White Privilege Today, an article by Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., published in Psychology Today earlier this year.
I found it yesterday morning… and look what it’s done to me.
No, really, LOOK:
History is not yet history. And frankly, right now, it’s way more important what I’m putting inside my head than what I’m putting on it. I’m ready to LEARN. This whole thing has made me want to seriously go back to school. Simply voting tomorrow is not enough. America, we must figure out how to do better!
I’ll leave you, for now, with Dr. Lyubansky’s tenth and final item on his list of racial truths:
10. Those who flaunt their privilege today may be willing to own it tomorrow. People change, sometimes in ways that are difficult to predict. The person who manifests white privilege today may become an ally tomorrow. The goal should be to support that shift and perhaps accelerate it, not to prove that he or she is wrong or bad. If we can focus on the outcomes we want rather than on our own emotional needs, we are much more likely to act in ways that actually produce those outcomes.