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True Solidarity: Moving Past Privilege Guilt

As I prepare to head to the White Privilege Conference in Madison, WI this weekend, here’s my latest piece published at Everyday Feminism.  As I have been helping plan some of the parts of the conference meant to inspire people to take action during and after the three-day event, this post seems particularly relevant, as those of us with privilege must find ways to move past guilt and toward accountable action.

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I remember well when I was first confronted with my privilege.

I had just started college, and some activists called me out on the ways in which my class and race privilege were showing up in the classroom as well as in activist spaces.

Of course I was indignant. “I’m not privileged! I work hard for everything I have!”

And while I did indeed work hard, that assertion is obviously laughable.

There are all sorts of aspects of my identity that afford me privilege: my race, my gender, my religious upbringing, my intergenerational wealth, my ability, and on and on.

But that didn’t make it any easier for me to hear, and as I realized they were right, I fell into a bit of depression, carrying tremendous guilt and struggling to understand how this could be true.

I felt as if I was a bad person simply for being who I am, and I was trapped in shame.

I’m a racist, classist, sexist, ableist homophobe who is ruining everything everywhere.” Yeah, it’s a little dramatic, but it’s honestly reflective of how I felt.

In the midst of my wrestling with this guilt and inertia, I noticed a quote on the dorm room wall of a girl I was totes crushing on:

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I didn’t think much of it the first time I saw it. Or the second time. But since I was hanging around in her room a lot, the quote kept showing up for me, and after a while, it really hit me.

I had to find a way to move out of guilt if I wanted to make a difference.

In time I came to realize that if privilege guilt prevents me from acting against oppression, then it is simply another tool of oppression, and sitting in guilt means further colluding with the system that is making me feel shame.

In turn, we have to find a way to move through or past guilt and toward action against oppression.

And though the process of overcoming privilege guilt must inevitably be intensely personal, there are approaches to ending feelings of guilt that all people of privilege can take.

Approaches to Moving Through or Past Privilege Guilt

1. Self-Reflect

If you’re struggling with shame about your identity and your privilege, that guilt is rooted somewhere, and understanding those roots is important.

Is your guilt coming from your active collusion in oppression? Is it rooted in past action? Is it rooted in feelings of powerlessness about the big-picture problems of oppression?

Without a strong understanding of where our guilt comes from, it is impossible to overcome guilt and accountably act for social justice.

After all, if our guilt is rooted in past oppressive actions, knowing so allows us to forgive ourselves and, perhaps, apologize to others for our hurtful behavior so that we can move forward.

If our guilt stems from our own collusion with oppression, lacking such awareness will only lead to “White knighting,” a term I use as a catchall for acting for or on behalf of those we wish to help. Having knowledge of our own collusion, then, allows us to begin to take steps toward solidarity.

2. Understand and Accept Your Role in Oppression

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

Note the use of the Gaelic Cross to encourage White Pride

Holding the Tension: Whiteness vs. European Cultural Identity

I recently attended a fundraiser event for Oyate Nipi Kte, an organization dedicated to the recovery of “Dakota traditional knowledge, including Dakota language, spirituality, ecology, oral tradition and life ways.”  At the event, Waziyatawin, Ph.D, called on White settlers who live on occupied Indigenous land to consider what it means to participate in resistance to White supremacy and continued colonization.

During a small group conversation, my friend Lex said something that has stuck with me, running through my mind daily since: “As White people, it’s important that we do the work to figure out who our people were before we were colonizers.”

It’s notable that Lex said this the day before St. Patrick’s day, during a weekend when countless people of all ethnic backgrounds donned green and drank green beer until they puked a verdant mess.

For me, reclaiming who my people were before we were colonizers means understanding my Irish, German, and Dutch heritage, yet I know next to nothing about my people and the cultures from whence they came.  Why?  Well, because they became White.

Whiteness as a Construct

Despite the way it’s often discussed, race is not a biological concept, and it sure as hell isn’t static.  First, “Whiteness” didn’t exist when Europeans first came to North and South America.  There were simply European landholders who held tight to power.  Over time, though, these European landowners needed a way to stave off slave and proletariat rebellions, so they invented this common “race” for some Europeans.

As laid out in Nell Irvin Painter’s “The History of White People,” at first, only certain Europeans (read wealthy men from north-western Europe) were considered worthy of being in the club.  In the early-to-mid 19th century, though, the wealthy “White” folks realized they needed more allies who could serve in slave patrols and in menial labor positions, so groups like the Irish were slowly allowed to become “White” in order to offer these European immigrants/colonizers a pittance that would keep them from uniting with enslaved African people and Indigenous people.

From there, Whiteness was expanded again in the early-to-mid-20th century to include most Europeans and even to include Jews who, no matter where in Europe they were from, had been traditionally excluded from the “White” label.

The Wages of Whiteness

What this label offered was access: access to land (through things like the Land Grant Acts which was almost totally denied to anyone not considered White), access to education (both through better-funded public schools and the G.I. Bill, which was systematically denied to soldiers of Color), access to jobs (though anti-Irish and anti-Italian job discrimination did exist, it didn’t have the widespread impact that policies like Jim Crow did), and access to countless other little and big legs up in American life.

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Despite common refrains from modern White people of Irish descent, these signs were rare.

But Whiteness came with a cost.  Becoming White meant leaving behind the cultural heritage of our people so that we could access the economic benefits, sometimes ones desperately needed, of the “American Dream” (aka the “Dream of White Supremacy”).

There’s a reason that I don’t speak a word of Gaelic, Dutch, or German.  There’s a reason that I know next to nothing about the cultures from which my people came.  There’s a reason that I don’t know the true reasons for why my people fled the land they always knew to see opportunities as colonizers in North America.

That reason is Whiteness.

When we look at race through this context, it is easier to understand Whiteness as more than a racial identity: it’s a system of privilege and oppression better known and understood as White Supremacy.

Continue Reading

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4 Reasons White People Can’t Use the N-Word (No Matter What Black Folks are Doing) [UPDATE]

A few years back, I published a post titled “4 Reasons White People Can’t Use the N-Word.”  Since it’s publication, it’s been one of my most popular posts.

Well,  I gave it a bit of a reboot over at Everyday Feminism.  Check it out below…

New debates are springing up in a long-contentious dialogue about reclamation of oppressive language.

During the recent ESPN “Outside the Lines” special discussion of a proposed NFL rule to penalize the n-word, Twitter erupted in critique, criticism, and debate.

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In the midst of this debate, though, there is generally one rule when it comes to the n-word on which there is almost total consensus among Black people:

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Yet White people don’t seem to get it.

I’d likely be a wealthy man if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a White person ask “If Black people can just throw the n-word around all the time, why is it not okay for White people to use that word?”

I can only imagine the number of dimes Black people would have. Innumerable.

And despite how important listening to the voices of marginalized and oppressed people is to social justice work on the part of those with privilege, White people on the whole really seem to have hard time with this one.

Perhaps this is because we don’t like being told that anything is off limits to us.

Or perhaps we just have trouble hearing the voices of those we consider, at some basic level, to be lesser, not fully human.

Regardless of the reason, maybe it’s time for a different tact.

Perhaps you can hear it better or differently if a White person explains why exactly we don’t get to use the n-word, regardless of what Black folks are doing.

So here is my message to you.

Dear White Folks,

We have to stop using the n-word.

Like really, really.

And I know what you’re thinking, “But—But—‘They’ get to say it all the time!”

Well, tough cookies.

Here’s why it’s not okay for us to say it, no matter what Black folks are doing:

1.  We Lost the Privilege

You know that whole 600 year time period when White Europeans were buying and selling Black Africans as chattel?

And remember how that whole system was enforced by a violent system of repression whereby Black slaves who did not act the way the White folks wanted them to were beaten and murdered?

Oh, and remember that time after slavery when Black people were locked in a system called Jim Crow that used a similar fear of violence and repression to keep Black people in “their place?”

Well, in the midst of all that shit, there was a word invented by White people as a pejorative for Black folks. And it was used just about every time a Black person was whipped, chained, beaten, insulted, spat upon, raped, lynched, or otherwise humiliated and mistreated by White folks.

Thus, I really don’t care how much White folks want to use that word.

I don’t care how unfair you think it is that someone else gets to use it when we don’t.

Our people gave up the privilege to use that word the moment we invented it as a tool of oppression.

2.  Why Should We Get a Say in the Conversation about That Word?

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

Everyday Feminism

30 Ways to Be a Better Ally in 2014

As I think back over 2013, I’m happily overwhelmed by memories of my first year living with my partner, of incredible opportunities to collaborate with new professional colleagues, and of time with family and friends.

Standing at the margins of these memories, though, are ones that make my heart beat a little faster, that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

No, these are not necessarily memories of trauma, per se. They are memories of hurt that I have caused, of my attempts to be a good ally that ended up hurting those with whom I attempted to act in solidarity.

My heart races, in part, because I feel embarrassed and ashamed, but more so, my heart races because I know I hurt people for whom I care very much, and I have a responsibility to do better going forward.

With that in mind, I have been reflecting a lot lately on how I can be a better ally.

And as we wade our way into 2014, I suppose now is as good a time as any to consider some ways that I (and any person who wishes to act accountably as an ally) can do better in 2014.

So here’s my list of 30 ways that those of us who strive to act in solidarity and allyship (most notably inclusive of myself) can be better allies.

1. Listen More

It can’t be said enough. The single most important thing we can do to be better allies is to listen across difference.

2. Talk Less

The other side of the coin of listening is that we can always do a better job of stepping back, asserting ourselves less into spaces, and, in doing so, allowing those to whom we ally to speak their truths.

3. Look to Amplify Rather than Overshadow

Though being a better ally can mean that we must talk less, that doesn’t mean that we ought to be in total silence.

We surely need to defer to those with whom we are acting in solidarity, but we also want to make sure that we are not leaving those to whom we want to ally ourselves to be the only ones speaking.

Thus, there are times we should be speaking up, times where we can amplify the voices of others with our collective perspectives. It’s just important to be sure we’re amplifying, not overshadowing.

4. Strive to Use More Inclusive Language

There are always ways that we can use more inclusive language as allies. I, personally, think I do a pretty good job of being inclusive, but I still find myself using ableist language like “insane” or “lame” pretty often. Thus, in working to be a better ally in 2014, I can work to be even more inclusive in my language.

5. Be Careful with Pronoun Use

Part of using inclusive language that is, unfortunately, still pretty new to a lot of people working for social justice is careful use of pronouns.

Not all people would label themselves with the gendered pronouns that you might assume for them, and some people prefer non-gendered pronouns altogether.  A simple way that we can be inclusive is to offer what pronouns we prefer and ask others what they would prefer.

And try not to misgender people by assuming the pronouns that they would prefer unless you’ve heard them assert their preference.

6. Engage More People Who Share Your Identity

As allies, our primary work must be with people who share our privileged identity. Thus, the more we can work to bring people who share our identity to understand their identity and privilege and to act for justice, the better.

7. Don’t Think You’re ‘Holier Than’ Those Who Share Your Identity

I recently had a fantastic conversation with my partner, her mom, and a family friend about a really frustrating thing that we often see among White liberals: the“holier than thou” attitude.

As our primary responsibility as allies is to challenge and bring into the fold those who share our identity, calling people out with no desire to call them in or to engage them or others in dialogue or action toward justice is just lazy, faux activism. Stop it.

8. Cite Your Sources

Whether discussing the origin of a hashtag or referring to a complex theory or idea, if you’re a person of privilege, you have a responsibility to cite your sources.

In the age of the Internet, it can be pretty easy to pass off anything and everything as our own (whether intentionally or out of laziness), but we need to be clear where our ideas are coming from.

If we’re talking about oppression and we’re not oppressed, the ideas aren’t ours. Cite them.

9. Self-Reflect More

Simple. Pretty much everyone of any identity could use more time for both critical and loving self reflection in a society that encourages us constantly to be engrossed in exterior input.

But for people of privilege who want to be allies, it is particularly important that we build into our lives ways to consider our own identity and its impacts on others and how we can more fully live in our values.

10. Interrogate Why You’re Striving to Be an Ally

As part of this self-reflection, it is important to ask why you’re striving to be in solidarity with oppressed people across difference.

Are you doing it because you want to “save” others or “use your privilege” to help someone? Or are you striving for solidarity because, in the words of Lilla Watson,“your liberation is bound up with” those with whom you ally yourself?

Read 11-30 at Everyday Feminism.