A Limbo of Privilege: The Cognitive Dissonance of Being a White Anthropologist

You’d think that it would happen once, and then it would be over–

That moment when two little words managed to liquify your brain–White Privilege.  You feel it running clumpily down into the heels of your shoes, making tracks of “just no” against your spine and along the backs of your legs as you try to make sense of the glass wall you’ve just been slammed repeatedly into face first.  But you can’t even see it–can’t get a grasp on its dimensions or its existence.

That’s what confronting my whiteness feels like.  Every time I have to come up against it.  Every time. And being interested in issues of human rights and social justice, I have to grapple with it frequently.  It never gets easier for me, in spite of the fact that I’m now well aware of what white privilege is and why that applies to me.  I keep confronting the glass wall, trying to edge my way around my whiteness, to formulate how best to act, react, form my thoughts and deliver them when it comes to the issues I’m passionate about.  But the questions of legitimacy and where I draw my right to speak with any sort of authority or confidence on these matters continue to be a concern for me.

 

Why That Matters to Me

I still remember the first time I came face to face with it–that suite of unsavoury concepts and understandings about my own privilege, granted to me for no other reason than my ethnic status.  I was sitting in a Graduate seminar for a teaching certification program I ended up not pursuing.  I’d already earned my Master’s Degree in archaeology, so I’d spent a bit over two years in Albuquerque already.  What I didn’t really understand until then was that I had been insulated from understanding because I’d been surrounded by people passionately pursuing their own projects in Archaeology.

I grew up in a town north of Atlanta, Georgia–a Deep South sort of place, but one that was being slowly bled of individuality and the markers that make identifying issues much easier by the sprawl of vanilla suburbia.  I never understood what White Privilege was.  It wasn’t talked about there, and for all that I traveled broadly, it was never mentioned where I went.  I suffered from the delusion that I was welcome, or I accepted the hostile and hard eyes of those who viewed me as an intruder in their communities, because I was an outsider–welcome or otherwise.

 

What Right Do I Have?

It’s not that my name is Buffy and I always dreamed of the perfect wedding to the perfect man, the perfect house with our perfect 2.4 children and all that rot.  In some ways, I’m as counterculture as they come, but it was in the invisible, the presumptive, the foundational ways that my privilege stuck to me.  If you’d asked me if I saw myself as privileged a few years ago, I’d have laughed at you.  I have P.C.O.S.–I have hair on my face and the misfortune to have both a face and build that are decidedly unfeminine where I grew up.  I was also too outgoing and extroverted as a child to effectively learn how to efface myself and go unnoticed.  I spent a lot of time curled in the fetal position during middle school because of that.  I was raped because of that.  There are a lot of anger issues I still haven’t fully coped with, because people call me ‘sir’ and ‘he’, or assume I’m transgendered, a lesbian, a gay man, whatever–anything but what or who I am.  Privileged?

Yes, privileged.  And intensely so, at that.  Because people listened when I spoke, and I took that for granted.  College was not only expected of me, it was taken for granted that I would go–even when I didn’t and chose to fuck off for six years after high school.  My foibles were indulged, my eccentricities encouraged in the name of nurturing my talent and my intellect.  I never knew real hunger–the kind that has no ready remedy–until last year, when I made hard choices about food.  I learned how to argue with myself, “If I eat now, that’s it for the day.” And what there was to eat was limited, because I had no stable job and I was drowning in debt.  So, yes–privileged, I was and am.  Given that, what right do I have to speak up about injustice, about social wrongs I witness?

 

Being a Great White Anthropologist

It’s a thing that makes me uncomfortable to talk about–that hypocrisy at the core of my being.  I’m an anthropologist, a historian, a writer, a scholar.  All of those things come with bad reputations for meddling, for destroying cultures with their thoughtlessness, for exploiting the weakness of others for their own ends, for being agents of colonialist ideologies and paternalistic beliefs about indigenous cultures, minorities–basically, anyone who isn’t white.  And when I talk about whiteness, I’m not just talking about skin color or even European ancestry.  I’ve heard people from diverse backgrounds spout ideas that are more lily white in their whiteness than I ever could.  And it’s always a shock, now, when I encounter that.

“Oh, hey, invisible matrix of standards by which the relative goodness of other cultural ideas and traditions are evaluated.  I almost managed to forget what it felt like to smack face first into you while my brain melted.”

How am I supposed to react to that?  If I raise an objection to it, I’m flexing my Privilege.  Do they know that those ideas were put in place to keep them second-class citizens?  If I tell them, are they going to shoot the messenger, become angry with all the blind reactionary force with which Whiteness defends itself so effectively?  And then there are the moderate, equable individuals who don’t realize they’re completely bigoted.  I can’t talk to them either, because the knee-jerk defense is alive and well with them also.  But if I speak up about something I see as wrong, I’m told I’m not allowed to be upset about what’s happening to people of a different ethnicity–because they’re of a different ethnicity and I couldn’t possibly understand the situation.  My concern is seen as patronizing.

Am I allowed to have any sort of opinion? Is the fact that I think that injustice is wrong racist somehow and I just don’t realize it?

To a certain extent, I can understand why they tell me to mind my business.  I have a different perspective.  I am drawing from experience entirely framed within my own privilege.  But if something I say sounds patronizing or condescending–please don’t simply write me off.  Tell me, or I’ll never learn.  No, I don’t like colliding with the plate-glass privilege over and over again in a cartoonishly macabre way.  But if that’s what it takes, then that’s how we’ll play it, until I can push through it.  Because I don’t just want to understand so I can exploit the struggles of other communities for my own academic research or the conference vainglory so many scholars measure success by these days.  I wish to understand so that, whatever small gift I have with words can be put to good use.

 

Pattern Recognition and Social (in)Justice

So, I’ve been observing the events that are occurring in Missouri, the protests in cities all over the country in solidarity, and also the broadly varied reactions to these events.  As i watch, read, and listen something in my brain is keeping track, ticking off the points of social pressure, like the steps in a dance that has been done many times before.  It’s as if I’m watching something that’s already happened, except the coverage is Live.  And it troubles me deeply, because I also see a variety of paths for this, most of which are not incredibly positive and involve a lot of suffering, stupid laws, and general turpitude before things can begin to recover.

When I see the riots, I see a sort of Amok.  It’s almost as if the madness of repressed agency and freedoms has finally burst out and escalated.  While I don’t agree with rioting as a means of spurring change, I don’t see it as simple destructive behavior.  Looting and rioting are reactions.  In order for them to occur, there has to be some pretty serious action, usually over a long period of time.  I also don’t think this is about a single person, community, or ruling.  It’s been a long time in coming, but we have to face the fact that America is anything but post-racial and we are none of us clean or innocent.

I’m a bit disappointed in some of my friends, because they seem to look at those protesting nationally as inconvenient annoyances.  When they talk about the protests and violence in Ferguson, what they talk about is the irresponsibility of property destruction–they focus on that, as if there are not masses of individuals who sought to peacefully assemble and protest in accordance with their civil liberties.  And when these friends start talking about property destruction, the racist sentiments that sit just under the surface of bland, white, middle-income Americana come oozing to the surface, like poisonous sludge.

I don’t want to be associated with that.  It makes me want to vomit up my entire life experience and walk away, like a snake shedding it’s skin.  Except I’d be the skin, and I’d need new experiences and ideas to fill myself up again.  Can we do that?  Can I start over and choose the ideas and ideological structures upon which I base every choice, every statement, every value judgment from different sources?  No?  Oh, that’s too bad, then.  But I’d like to make as many alterations and destroy as many load-bearing walls as I can in my head before I die.  I’d like to be a helper, not a part of the problem, even if that requires a lot of behaving like a psychotic bird and banging into this glass I can’t see.

I’m going to end this with the quote and a thought shared by a friend that is actually why I started writing this entry in the first place.

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season’.”

–Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Birmingham jail

It’s easy to be a pacifist when you possess privilege, and easier still to consider your privileged perspective an objective one. ~from my friend Marx

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