Saturday, February 13, 2016

No More Privilege Porn

“I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one's own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.” Audre Lorde

Merriam-Webster has one definition of pornography as “the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction.” I’m using this definition for this post. I’ve been increasingly dismayed and even angered by the number of Whites lately who are posting, writing, and talking (and even singing) at length about their White privilege.

Recently, Fredrik deBoer wrote a very thought-provoking post for The Washington Post about this proliferation, calling it a “cottage industry.” While I won’t go quite as far as deBoer does in arguing that all such recognition should be private, I do think that, in many ways, too much of what is being written is antithetical to the entire point of owning one’s privilege. Too many White people seem to be using these pieces to further re-center Whiteness in the discussion.

Whites have to go through a period of recognizing and “owning” the privileges they receive (both individually and collectively) in the world (in the United States specifically). As a scholar who often writes about race and racism in the library field, I do mention a recognition of my White privilege in my writing, particularly my more research-oriented efforts. But I always do so briefly and as a means to an end. I mention it as part of my responsibility as a researcher addressing subjectivity and rely on Alan Peshkin’s approach from the appendix of The Color of Strangers, the Color of Friends. Own it, but move on.

What seems to be happening in too many quarters is Whites who are stalling in this spot and not moving on to authentic actions from their recognition. When this happens, when the recognition becomes the locus of supposed anti-racist work, it makes me angry. It’s one of the reasons I resist describing myself as an “ally” or an “anti-racist.” (Read more about this resistance and on being an accomplice.) Too many self-described “allies” and “anti-racists” make things more about a glorification of the recognition of their White privilege than about actually doing something to change things. As Hannah Gomez would say, you get #nocookies for this.

I also see this happen specifically with librarians, teachers, library and educational organizations, etc., many of whom know the “right” language to use and who are vocal about the progress they’ve made since their “color-blind” days. Many of these people even recognize their own non-racial forms of oppression (female, Queer, working class, etc.), which makes me even angrier because they should be the ones who know better! I’ve seen too many people who consider themselves antiracists who use racial coding or, in a group of Whites, say nothing when someone else uses these codewords. And I've seen too many organizations that suddenly seem to be interested in "diversity," but aren't putting any actual long-term, meaningful resources into making organizational changes. 

Start doing some work that actually fractures the system. Join and be an active member of organizations that are fighting racial oppression and injustice. Talk to your friends and family about the work you are doing and why you’re doing it. Within organizations, be that person who makes sure that conversations stay on track and that concrete actions result from these conversations (even at the risk of lots of eye-rolling and pushback).

And maybe read a little more Cheryl Harris and a little less Peggy McIntosh.*



* I don’t think that McIntosh is a bad place for some White people to start their journeys, but it seems too many people read her “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and don’t read any of the exceptional work on Whiteness, intersectionality, etc. by writers of color and Native writers.


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