“Those who have the privilege to know, have the duty to act.” – Albert Einstein
It’s a street demonstration in the United States of America and the crowd chants: “Whose streets? OUR streets!” I look around at the sea of faces descended from Europeans and think: these streets were built on stolen land. The burial ground of an indigenous tribe is underneath this street. After 500+ years we are still invaders. If you find yourself in a meeting surrounded by people of the same race and your goal is to save the world, you should start wondering: who are you saving the world for? I look around at this gathering of white Americans and think: this must be what it looked like when Columbus landed here 500 years ago to meet the indigenous tribes who lived here for 50,000 years.
We could all forgive and forget if only we had made reparations, righted the wrong, but we are still colonizing this country. Native American reservations are still the poorest places in the nation. The government and corporations take the coal under Native American reservations using deceit. Parking garages are built on top of Native American burial grounds. In Minneapolis the African American community is the most unemployed of all races here. Prison populations for people of color are far higher than for white people. People of color are still treated with prejudice and suffer more than whites. A tornado lands in north Minneapolis and tears the place up, black residents can’t get reasonable help. It’s like our own little version of Hurricane Katrina.
I’m privileged to have a job. Privileged to have a house. Privileged to have a car. Privileged to get detained by the cops and be given only a ticket or a warning, not hauled to jail and eventually to prison. I’m privileged to be around other people of European descent who don’t judge me because of my race. I’m privileged to have grown up with both parents, and that they are still together. I’m privileged that people look at me and think I’m one of the good guys because my skin is light. Every movie I ever saw growing up depicted dark skinned people as the villains. Racism was always there. Subtle, but always there. Yesterday a black man walked up to me and smiled, and in my mind I thought, “Oh no, a black man!” like I should be afraid. Where does that thinking come from? I don’t remember anyone telling me that black people were bad, and that’s it: the racist teachings we experience growing up are subtle, but they spread thru everything so that we don’t even notice when we’re being taught racism. Why is the dark skinned guy the villain in the movie? Because the light skinned guys are the good guys, that’s just the way it is. It’s taken years of being thoughtful about racism to move towards overcoming those feelings. Sometimes I think that the early childhood training I had in racism will always be a part of my mind. I grew up in a world that believed in the Other as less human than Us.
It sucks having someone remind you of the privilege you have just because of the race you were born as. A finger points at you and you feel defensive. You! What, who, me? Yes you! Your people committed genocide and ethnocide and your people were slave owners! Okay, it’s true, Europeans came here 500 years ago and did all this, and here we are the descendents, but that was before my time. Why do I gotta deal with the fallout from the bad decisions my ancestors made? Well it’s true, we’re not responsible for the actions of our ancestors, we can’t time travel and stop them from doing what they did. But we are responsible for our actions, in this present moment, and we benefit from having light skin, we benefit from being perceived as part of the people who rule this country. It’s changing, yeah, it’s changing. Slowly. Maybe once we’ve had 500 more years of non-white presidents then we can talk about a post-racial society.
When someone says, “White people take everything, except the burden,” it rings true, but it hurts too. I make minimum wage at my job. I bust my ass and there’s usually only two digits worth of money in my bank account. I live in a house with six other people cause I can’t afford anything else. I’m on food stamps and public health care. I have worked for years busting ass building houses for other people, yet I do not have a house of my own. I also chose to quit jobs and go travel, hitch hike, ride trains, build boats out of trash and live on them for months, and then go back to the city and get a job and live in a house. Without my white skin, how easy would it be for me to have done all this? If I wanted, I could probably get a high paying job and have lots of money. I’ve never tried it, but I bet that my skin color would make it a lot easier. Everything I saw growing up told me that I could do anything I wanted, and the people who did whatever they wanted all looked white like me.
I feel burdened sometimes, the basic human burden of being alive, but one burden I don’t have to deal with is 500 years of my people being oppressed by another people who are still occupying my land. I don’t have to live in a country that my ancestors were brought to against their will and where they were forced to work, generation after generation. The United States was founded on stolen land and stolen labor. Indigenous tribes and African Americans were exploited by our European ancestors, that’s how the U.S. achieved dominance in the world textile market, the stepping-stone to later world domination. I am descended from this colonial royalty; my ancestors were the thieves and the murderers. This system of exploitation still exists, and that is why 500 more years of Capitalism won’t actually free anyone.
A conclusion that modern feminism has arrived at is this: for one person to be free, all people must be free. Capitalism doesn’t care what race people are, it only demands that there be a small percentage exploiting the large majority. If the small percentage of exploiters is multi-racial, multi-cultural, so be it, Capitalism is happy. The continuation of Capitalism could lead to a racially blind exploitation, where everyone is exploited, without discrimination. Capitalism is like a virus; it will mutate to survive.
The inherent exploitation is so deep in our culture that we don’t even notice it. Sports teams are still named after indigenous tribes. Villains in movies are still dark skinned. Individuals participate in cultural appropriation. What is the difference between unethical cultural appropriation and an ethical acculturation? When the power dynamic between two people is not equal, then cultural appropriation may happen, such as when a person of European descent wears a feathered headdress, which mimics the feathered headdress of Native American tribes. Let’s say a Native American and a European met up on some path somewhere 500 years ago with no history of exploitation between these people, and the Native American gave the European a beaded headband with feathers in it and the European gave the Native American a necklace with a silver crucifix on it. This would be acculturation, on equal ground. What if the European pointed a gun at the Native American’s head and demanded the beaded feathered headband? This would be cultural appropriation, and that is what has been going on for the past 500 years, which is why it’s not okay for people of European descent to dress up and act like Native Americans. The same applies to the cultural appropriation of African American culture. When white kids take up hip hop and rapping, why does that feel different than when a rapper samples a European sound like a cello and uses it in a song? If you look at the big picture, you will see there is a different power dynamic, and that is the difference. African Americans were brought into the culture of European style music in America by force. White kids TAKE hip hop and rap because they like it and they want to be cool. Native Americans and African Americans were forced to become Christians by the colonial Europeans. White people TAKE Native American and African American spirituality as their own, without asking.
There is much crossover now. Cultures now mingle at an accelerating rate, so that sometimes it’s hard to tell where one started and the other begins. More crossover will continue happening too. It’s natural for peoples to share their culture: art, music, language, fashion, technology, and for cultures to create new things out of the fusion. If you think about it, it will be obvious. If you are of European descent, don’t dress your kids up as Indians for Halloween, and if you feel like you want to pick up rapping, you better think about it. If you grew up in the culture, if you were welcomed into it and think you should rock it, then rock it, and suffer the judgment. Are you flexing your white privilege by appropriating the culture of an oppressed culture, or are you really part of it? If a person of color calls you out on something you’re rocking, then take it to heart, think about it, because you are probably not the first clueless colonial they’ve met.
(Thanks to the Women of Color in Science Fiction panel at Galacticon 2009, and thanks to everyone who participated in the discussion on White Privilege at Idapalooza 2012, and to the article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh.)
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