Well, there’s no better way to begin expressing this. I’m white. It’s a part of my identity I can never escape–my “whitentity”. It serves me with a certain collection of social privileges, such as never being asked where I come from; always being assumed in my own country to speak the mother tongue (and thus, not being spoken to as if I’m mentally delayed when the first words come out of someone else’s mouth); and never being at risk of losing my job, being deported, or being deprived of the rights everyone else takes for granted, because of my race/ethnicity in a country whose government institutionalizes systemic racism on a regular basis.
It also serves me with the confidence that when I speak up with a white majority audience, I’ll be heard. This puts me in a strange place of tension when I am actively confronting racism.
I am often witness to white-majority conversations, and I’m not sure how to find conversations where I can observe and learn from a majority that isn’t white. It may very well be the case that, like any man who whines about not being allowed to enter a women-only space, it’s just not my place to be there. I can live with that.
I can live with that, in part, because of the ease with which I can exercise my voice, everywhere else, as a white person! But I am not proud of this.
So here I am, trying to talk about how frustrated I am, that I am systemically privileged because I happen to have an exclusively European ethnic background. It frustrates me because I’m cognizant of the fact that this represents social inequality that benefits me at the cost of someone else’s freedom. It frustrates me because there are people who are relatively underprivileged, who simply cannot express themselves with the same ease as I often live unaware of possessing myself. It frustrates me because, in the conversations where I most frequently find myself, and which I can thus feel confident that I’ll be heard when I speak, I am often a minority voice because I am acutely cognizant of and pissed off about this systemic inequality (in many of its manifestations, ranging in scale from subtle to institutionalized and blatantly obvious).
It frustrates me because I frequently witness individual white persons coming off as condescending assholes; talking about race/ethnicity-based social inequality as though they are the most right, the most informed, or the best experts on the subject–just because they’re white–even in the presence of a silenced (or blatantly ignored) minority of people of colour. And when I am witness to these conversations, I take it upon myself to speak out against this behaviour–a phenomenon called “whitesplaining” (which is a term that is new to me in the past three months). I fearlessly yield words like “whitesplanation” to stab the point home with as efficiently cutting words as possible. I do this to demonstrate that I’m not on the side of the conversation that advances uninterrogated white privilege, and I am not complicit with it either.
But that’s the thing–I’m white. It’s because I’m white that I can be confident I’ll be heard among a white majority. Even if my audience disagrees with me, they hear me. Even if my message is attacked with a round of claims that it’s reverse racism–which it is then argued, is no different than any kind of racism (I beg to differ on that point), and that therefore I’m a racist bigot for saying it–I’ve been heard. Ragefaced and absolutely furious, but still certain that I’ve been heard.The (white) person who actually gave this argument to directly address me, did so in response to a statement of mine that included the phrase “bonus points for claiming reverse racism”. Even if my message is confronted with someone (again, a white person) who tries to bait me into a round of The Oppression Olympics by trying to generate a brand new category of competition–either Reverse Oppression or How Many Red Herrings Can We Fit In This Conversation–I can rest assured that my voice has been heard loud and clear.
It’s something I don’t take for granted. But as a result of being conscious of the effect of white privilege on my ability to speak out against whitesplaining, I’m conscious of the fact that speaking out against the very privilege I am exploiting to be heard is, itself, a form of whitesplaining–with consciousness, and against white privilege, but still– the very behaviour I’m taking issue with in the first place.
Words cannot form an adequate gesture of my frustration, of being aware of this tension in myself.
But until all people are actually treated equally, regardless of their ethnic background, what choice do I have? If I don’t try–when I know it’s the right thing to do and that I will most likely be heard–will anyone else?
With this sense of tension, there is also a sense of alienation from myself and almost a sense of dysphoria–arising out of my ethnic background. My only comfort in regards to that specific aspect of this complex system of thought, is in the knowledge that I am perhaps the first person in at least three generations of my biological family, to consistently speak out against racism. The rest of my generation, and all of the prior two, have either consistently advanced racist bullshit, or demonstrated by their silence that they were complicit with it.
In the same vein as distinguishing myself from my historical self, I am presently in the process of radically redefining my entire life and identity as an individual in the present sense–distinguished from my racist, ignorant, white (trash) roots. As a symbol of my commitment to my politics, I am legally changing both my given name and my surname. I genuinely think that, without this symbolic act of commitment, I would otherwise lose myself in the tension between confronting racism and letting go of the privilege that boosts my ability to do so.