I’ve written another piece relating to this that I’m still unsure about publishing in the coming days (because I have to feel secure that I’m doing the right thing by publishing it), but I’m going to write this one today about my own disappointing experience trying to confront privilege with a person J and I care about who didn’t (and perhaps still doesn’t, even after this civil confrontation) believe his white (and male) privilege was real, and made some casual remarks to justify his own passive racism. It’s painful for me to write about this, but I feel like I should right now.
This was once a common experience for me, trying to personally confront the (white, straight, male, Christian) people I care about when they expressed casually insensitive (or worse…outright hateful) remarks revealing their feelings and beliefs about people who are not like them. In the past few years, I’ve almost exclusively chosen to step away from relationships from many people in my life, rather than initiate these kinds of confrontations because, other than with my own mother (whom I doubt I could totally cut from my life even if she wasn’t receptive to those discussions we’ve had, because she’s my MOTHER and my son’s only living grandmother), I’ve never seen any kind of good results. It’s been not only personally easier, but in my experience, also more effective, to walk away and no longer associate at all with willfully ignorant and dismissive people, and try to reach other more receptive people (mostly through my writing) instead. But in the summer of 2016, I still would engage people in individual discussions when the opportunities presented. And on part of our summer vacation that year, an opportunity was presented.
2016 had already been a rough year, personally, by late June. After the 2015 US Supreme Court decision legalizing same sex marriage, many people I’d grown up with and even in my own family revealed some blatant prejudice and ‘other’ hate that, because we’d only really talked about UK basketball and pizza toppings and geometry homework, I remained oblivious to until established adulthood and social media. I gently and privately initiated a lot of discussion about that court decision and the surprising (to me, but not to my LGBT+ friends) hostility some people in my life expressed about it, and about their support of openly racist and ableist and sexist candidates for political office, and MANY of them walked away from ME. I was a couple dozen ‘friends’ down by the time the summer of 2016 rolled around. I’d also just gotten over a broken left ankle, and a TERRIBLE trip to an amusement park we (still sort of I guess) love(d) for the first part of our vacation. For real, I could write a whole post about that trip and its awfulness. It was like the movie Vacation. Seriously. Except no one died.
So when we arrived at J’s best friend’s place to enjoy 5 days of just hanging out by a screened in pool and doing a lot of nothing but spending time with friends in a place that wasn’t home, it was a sort of relief.
On about our third night there, after our son had fallen asleep in his guest room (J’s best friend and his wife own a three bedroom house with no children; just a dog…so J and I and our son EACH had our own guest room…which was nice), J was up talking to his friend and having a beer. They were mostly talking about motorcycles and work. J’s best friend’s wife was sleeping like our son was, as she had to wake early for work, and it was pretty lonely and weird to hang out alone in our guest bedroom, so I went out to join them, just to quietly hang out with J (who is also quiet…even when talking about motorcycles and work…his best friend did most of the talking…usually our conversation partners are carrying the conversation). Then the local evening news came on television and I’m not sure exactly how the discussion of race and law enforcement came up, but it did, and I’ve since sort of blocked the exact phrasing and/or attitude that prompted me to address J’s best friend from my memory. But I did address him. What followed my initial reaction to what he’d said (it was something about how he thought all people were naturally afraid of people who weren’t ‘like them’), I DO remember very sharply. It went like this…
Him: C’mon Jen. Be honest. If you were walking down the street without J…alone at night…and you saw a white guy in a nice polo shirt and a black guy in a hoodie coming at you, who would you be more afraid of?
At first, I was stunned he asked me the question at all. Sometimes I wish I’d have handled it differently than I did and more directly addressed it based on my own personal experience and more directly addressed his obvious racial bias. I wish I would have said that honestly I’d be more afraid of the white guy in the polo shirt. Because all the guys who have ever treated me disrespectfully and callously in my life have been white guys in polo shirts. Whereas I know two black men who at one time did (and maybe still do) often wear hoodies when not going to work or a ‘dress up’ kind of event, and they are two of my all time favorite human beings. So my personal bias in THAT specific hypothetical scenario would actually favor ‘black guy in a hoodie.’ Not to mention this was right after the Brock Turner trial and what I consider a gross display of sexism and miscarriage of justice (look that up on the internet if you wish), wherein the very embodiment of J’s best friend’s proverbial ‘white guy in a nice polo shirt’ brutally raped a girl behind a dumpster and didn’t get punished for it at all. White guys in polo shirts I thought were pretty scary, to be honest. They not only hurt people like me, but didn’t get punished for it. (That’s white male privilege in its very essence.) But this is what I actually said…
Me: If you’re asking ME that question, the question is flawed. Because in your example, you used two men. I’m afraid of EVERY man I can see…and maybe more afraid of the ones I can’t see…when I’m out alone at night. It’s actually why I very rarely go out either alone or at night. See, YOU might be more afraid of the black guy in the hoodie, because you’d perceive the white guy in the polo shirt as ‘like you,’ or at least more like you than the black guy in the hoodie. But to me? All men are a potential threat to my safety.
Him: What? <he looked genuinely confused without being offended, so I elaborated>
Me: Well…were you taught where all the sensitive pressure points to attack on another person are to get away from them in order to be safe on dates…just in case your date tries to take things too far? Taught to actually NEVER walk alone at night anywhere ever? If you find yourself alone, even in the daytime, in like…an elevator…or a parking garage…to carry your car keys between your fingers in a fist like Wolverine in case you have to fight for your life and body? Were you told to cut your hair short; don’t wear a ponytail; don’t carry your purse on your shoulder…carry it across your body; dress modestly without showing any skin or even any of your form? I’ve been told all that stuff to maintain my safety around ANY man I don’t know well. So to ask ME your question, your question is flawed. Neither of those men I’d consider ‘like me,’ and therefore ‘not a threat.’
Him: I’ve never thought about anything like that before.
I think for a moment there, he at least recognized his male privilege as real. He’d never once thought about how different it was for a woman to go out alone at night than it was for him. And J and I have obviously not cut J’s best friend totally from our lives. I care for him and I think he’s generally a good person (or at least tries to be one). But I should have pushed harder there confronting his racial bias and I regret not doing it. I’m not sure it would have changed anything, and I felt I could more adequately attack the blindness he had to his male privilege there, because I’m a woman and I’m not black. But I should have pushed harder then about racial bias. I really should have. Because I know I felt frustrated and tired explaining again to another oblivious man who didn’t know what it was like to live life like me and the feeling of like, ‘Is this really my job? To explain this to EVERY man I know…?’ And I can remember wishing at the time that J’s best friend would have found my perspective and offered information about differing experience on his own, or at the very least had ANOTHER MAN point it out to him instead of ME having to do it. AGAIN.
So it’s not (and shouldn’t be) a black person’s job to confront white racial bias and explain how it’s harmful. I shouldn’t have left that up to the next black person J’s best friend felt comfortable enough around to let his racial bias slip out in front of them. It should have been me. I should have done better. I’m trying to do better now.
I still think my current strategy of not even engaging or dignifying willful ignorance with confrontation is the best strategy for me most of the time. I really do think my silence and absence from some lives speaks louder than the words I could come up with in most cases, because when people are obviously resistant to any sort of challenge, the only accomplishment is upsetting myself. It preserves my mental health and energy reserves for places I think I can actually make a difference. But there are times when silence and absence ARE NOT the answer, and that’s when someone I feel could be receptive presents an opportunity for me. I have to take those. We ALL have to take those. I know it’s hard to speak up and rock boats in relationships we value. But we HAVE to do it. Because it’s not a black person’s job (or an Asian person’s, or a Jewish person’s, or a disabled person’s, or a member of the LGBT+ community’s, etc.) to do it, and the members of these historically marginalized communities are often silenced, dismissed, and criticized for taking those opportunities to confront anyway (another example of privilege in action).
I’ve noticed in a lifetime of being a naturally quiet person, that when someone perceives me as ‘like them,’ when I am quiet, if that person likes me, they often assume I’m ‘like them’ in EVERY way, which includes political and social stance and biases against people they perceive as NOT ‘like them.’ That’s when it isn’t the best strategy to stay quiet.