"When a government was created by misogynist, white supremacist criminals for the purpose of legitimating genocide, land-theft, rampant immorality, slavery, monetized rape and wealth building for whites-only, all in the name of 'freedom', this is the kind of warped society you get."
--Crystal M. Fleming, author of How to Be Less Stupid About Race
Twitter | 12:10 p.m. | 28 September 2018
If you are white, how do you hear this particular telling of U.S. history? What is your visceral reaction? Are you offended by it? Repulsed by it? Do you "get it" intellectually but not emotionally? Or is it a gut-punch?
Just a couple of years ago, I would have read this telling of U.S. history as understandable but also shocking. Today I read it and nod. Rather than reactive shock, there's a sharp intake of breath. I feel profoundly overwhelmed by all the work that remains before us, not to mention within us if we are white. It's a gut-punch, in other words, but of a different type. I am learning to listen differently: more openly, more deeply, less reactively.
If you struggle with listening non-reactively as a white person, you may benefit from reading the work of Robin DiAngelo, who coined the term "white fragility." She has a new book-length treatment out, but the gist can be found here: "Why It's So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism."
Then, when you are ready, check out Fleming's book too.
This week we learned that Bill Cosby has been sentenced to 3-10 years in prison for the sexual assault and sexual harassment of Andrea Constand. (And she is allegedly not his only victim.) As a woman, I find this news gratifying, if also insufficient in the face of the trauma she and his other victims have endured during and after his abuse. That one of America's most beloved entertainment figures, someone who possesses both star power and financial power, can still be held accountable for a pattern of reprehensible behavior is truly good news. It means that the #MeToo movement is making some headway.
As a white woman, however, I must ask why Cosby has been held to account while so many other influential white men have not. Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer come to mind first. While both lost their positions of influence, neither is going to jail for their crimes of sexual misconduct. Meanwhile, Donald Trump's open confessions of sexual harassment and sexual assault have not harmed him in the least. Why have these men gotten a pass? One certain answer is: #Whiteness
Cosby's publicist said the trial was "the most racist and sexist trial in the history of the United States" and placed him in the company of black men and youth falsely accused of accosting or raping white women. Other Facebook posts have made the rounds, using lynching language to point out the racial double standard whereby Cosby has been convicted while white men run free. Alongside Charles Blow, I say, "No." Absolutely no. Do not disgrace the memory of Emmett Till and others, do not dilute the horrors of lynching when what you need to do is call out a double standard... even a double standard that is undeniably unjust.
We can unconditionally condemn Cosby's behavior while also condemning a system whereby white men have not faced the same consequences for their own criminal behaviors. We can work toward a more just criminal justice system and make sure that sexual predators face consequences for the traumas they have inflicted.
A first encounter with the concept of "privilege" can be tricky for many people. Part of the power of privilege is its invisibility to those who possess it. It is most obvious to those who do not possess such privilege, to those who in fact are the counter or Other to that privilege... and thus the ones who pay the price.
How might we start to explore and understand the privileges we do possess when they are the air we breathe, the water in which we swim? One is to try to understand the concept without defensiveness, even if we are skeptical at first. We likewise need simply to listen to those who do not share our privilege. Listening can be difficult because if we are really listening, we will hear things that make us uncomfortable. But if we can listen with curiosity, we will learn important things about ourselves and others.
Keep in mind that privilege manifests in many forms: race, gender, sexuality, socio-economic class, ability, age, citizenship status, etc. Moreover, because our identities are multiple, we might possess privilege in certain respects and not others. Using our experiences of non-privilege can give us insight into the privileges do possess and open us more fully to others.
If you are just starting to dig into the concept of privilege as more than a hashtag, here are some quick places to begin.