Posts Tagged ‘white privilege’

Compassion Fatigue and Charleston

June 24, 2015

The shootings in Charleston have captured a nation’s attention.

There have been some pretty laudable discussions emerging from this tragedy. I have seen three narratives emerge: A discussion about mental health, a discussion about guns, and a discussion about race.

Let’s be clear: This issue is first and foremost about race. Dylann Storm Roof does not seem to be a lunatic, or a spree killer motivated by a psychological break. His manifesto clearly paints him as an intentional white supremacist, motivated by hatred against people of color. As Paul Street has pointed out, any other social problem that we view as being connected to this tragedy is secondary.

But, that having been said, it does make sense that, if guns were better regulated, perhaps skinheads wouldn’t get them as often. And it does make sense that, if we had better mental health treatment, some very angry people might be able to talk about the real source of their problems and anger.

I, of course, look at Dylann Storm Roof and see a very consistent pattern, which is common in violence. He’s male. He’s white. He’s 21 years old, young and angry and full of spittle. He’s a skinhead, responding to what he views (correctly enough) as a huge ethnic change in Charleston. We can see how angry people, who feel like they or the people like them were once in charge and had power but have had that power taken away from them,

Just today, I read an article about fanatic violence in America, and this is what came up: “The primary character structure of who’s involved in fanatic violence are shown here to be people who were raised in authoritarian-oriented backgrounds, who find themselves marginal, and “unnecessary” persons in postmodern American society.”

That seems to be a terrifyingly accurate picture of Dylann Storm Roof.

But here’s where I find myself very much alienated from the present cultural proceedings.

In fact, ironically, I found myself agreeing most with the Economist’s analysis. Their cynical tone is grotesque, and they are utterly wrong to think that it is impossible for Americans to civilize their society, but I too saw this shooting as just part of a pattern: A pattern of compassion fatigue, of highly localized atrocities causing all of us to pour out wonderfully human responses like anger at injustice, compassion for the victims, and tears at the violence in the world. But so many of us will spend those emotions, outpouring our heart to these tragedies, and then be too exhausted to make sure that residential segregation isn’t a problem in our own neighborhoods, or that the banks in our communities are not systematically screwing over people of color. The cycle of outrage exhausts our mental and emotional resources, leading us to focus on problems we can’t do anything about. I am sure so many of you have heard people talk about how afraid they are about a world full of terror attacks and shootings, which they can’t stop or protect their family from. I have a friend who reacted to the shooting with fear that it’d spark renewed racial conflict and anger. In the social media era, we participate in a myopic, short-term cycle of bursts of outrage. It’s not just the big media institutions doing this to us anymore: We are participating in the flagellation.

The reforms that we are hearing discussed include removing the Confederate flag, having better mental health infrastructure, regulating firearms… A lot of them make sense. In particular, if we would improve our social infrastructure, from foster care to mental health screenings, millions of people would be better off.

The problem with the entire discussion is that Dylann Storm Roof, with his name that evokes the idea of quaint Southern hillbillies to many of us outside of the South, is that you can’t take very much from what he did as indicative of broader culture and broader social problems.

White liberals, and even many progressives and leftists who really should know better, have a big problem: We always like to think about the problem of racism as the KKK, as skinheads, as racist rants by comedians.

We get on our high horse and become incensed by the “N-word”, while we say little about the lack of a full employment policy that keeps quite a lot of people, people of color especially, perpetually out of work.

The compassion fatigue cycle that our media, social and traditional, lock all of us into is not conducive to changing these things.

No one can do anything about Dylann’s actions. They are now another part of our tragic racial history.

Perhaps someone can do something about Mr. Storm Roof himself. Perhaps outreach from the right people could lead him to abandon hate. (Given where he is likely to be going in the near future, this is a long shot).

But the vast majority of us getting up in arms can do very little. People in the South can have another iteration of the symbolic debate to eliminate the Confederate flag. And those of us in the North can… try to push through gun legislation, I guess?

People ride wave after wave of crises like these and iteratively lose hope. And all of us, left and right, allow it to keep happening.

How many white liberals posted something to their Facebook walls about this tragedy but have said nothing for years while the segregated schools in their communities are named Martin Luther King Jr. High?

How many of us have remained quiet while our coworkers said racist jokes, because “They’re just kidding around”?

How many of us have turned a blind eye to a homeless person, or to a person emitting that telltale aura of deep depression, instead of trying to do something about it?

Most of us are not Dylann Storm Roof. Most of us are not members of Stormfront. But every one of us has grown up in a society that has had racial and class divisions.

The average American is not as angry as Dylann Storm Roof, but they will have subconscious biases. For example: When you inform the average white American of the huge disproportions in terms of incarceration in the criminal justice system, many actually react positively, increasing their support for more brutal policies! See, they assume, logically enough without some kind of narrative that explains why the assumption is ignorant and racist, that the disproportionate incarceration must mean that black people are disproportionately dangerous. Then we have the fact that, “Between 1976 and 2011, the percentage of young whites who said they never worried about race relations nearly tripled”. Given how ignorant so many white people, even very well-educated young whites, are about privilege, can we really be so surprised that people like Roof might well think that blacks are not disenfranchised but actually an incredible danger to them?

The average mentally ill person in the United States will not shoot up a church or a movie theater. They will quietly suffer, trying to keep the chasm of their depression or their anxiety from engulfing the people close to them. They will keep coworkers and friends at bay from their pain.

And people like Dylann come from a real place. They have real anger. They see crime in their neighborhood. The statistics may be distorted, the presentation of the crime may be racialized, and the media may be overhyping the bad and underplaying the good, but there are real threats in some communities. They see that it is harder and harder for people like them to get a job. They are afraid of threats from terrorists, afraid of not being able to provide for their family. And too many people will lecture them for being racists instead of asking, “Why are you so angry?”

Because, in fact, the threats that Dylann and people like him really face aren’t from people of color by and large.  The poverty and the lack of opportunity that we all face, especially the millennial generation, are a result of policies pushed forward by a very small elite, who are mostly white straight males. But the corporate media will not discuss that to any real degree, being owned by mostly white straight males. And even with parallel communication networks and parallel media being possible as a result of the Internet and modern technology, we on the left side of the spectrum have not been able to give people a coherent alternative worldview that might let them let go of their anger and put it toward something better than just lashing out and hurting.

That’s something we can actually do something about.

Those of us outside Charleston are not likely to be able to do much to help that community heal. But we can all make sure our own communities’ wounds are better salved. Every single one of us can learn more about the cultures that we live with. We can listen when we are told about segregation and discrimination. We can make sure local businesses are hiring fairly, local banks are lending fairly, local apartment complexes are renting fairly. We can raise consciousness about the anger and hopelessness so many of us feel.


“Check Your Privilege”: You’re Not Using It Right

June 21, 2014

“Check your privilege” is an interesting new meme.

I’ve spent years in anti-racist activism and discussions, talking to others, yelling at neo-Nazis and libertarians. I’ve spent years in general as an anarchist, and I’ve self-identified as a feminist since long before I was politically conscious. Hell, I’ve been a feminist since before I got into Pokemon. (And stayed that way after I got bored of Pokemon; please don’t hang me up to dry, Pokefanatics). I have very much always tried to engage with people as to what privilege means.

But I think this concept is being grossly misused.

When you tell someone, “You’re being [or acting] privileged”, you are playing with fire. If you’re wrong, you are being fantastically dismissive and pretty arrogant. And even if you’re right, why in God’s name would they believe you? Peggy McIntosh called it the invisible knapsack for a reason: You don’t see it. To paraphrase my favorite webcomic, Basic Instructions: Privilege is like a big, out-of-style moustache. Those who have it don’t notice it, and those who don’t can barely see anything else.

And on the Internet, it’s particularly risky because we can never be sure that our interlocutor is what they say they are. Even on Facebook, we can’t be sure about their life story or background. The only way this becomes even in theory a good tactic is if they’ve self-identified as any category that bestows privilege.

Making someone see that the way they are approaching an issue may have to do with their privilege takes tact. It takes specificity. It takes identifying exactly what the privilege they may be ignoring is, and being able to express that in a way that actually will engage rather than turn off.

You can argue on the Internet and get mad at each other all you want, but don’t confuse that for activism. It’s not going to accomplish anything, and it makes you come off like an arrogant jerk.

So I’m proposing a new way people can use “Check your privilege”, and a way that people who hear it can engage with it.

Look at the phrase carefully. “Check your privilege”.

It’s like, “Check your lights” or “Check your oil”.

Examine your position again. Do a little bit of soul-searching. Doesn’t have to be much every time.

Ask yourself questions like:

“Am I thinking this because my racial background has predisposed me to have certain cultural assumptions that might not be true of everyone’s life”?

“Am I thinking this because I grew up either well-off or at least modestly okay, such that I have an understanding of what is available to people that may not be accurate?”

“Am I thinking this because I don’t have the kind of experience with this sort of discrimination to understand the barriers it may put into someone’s path?”

“Am I thinking this because my gender or sexual orientation has predisposed me to think certain ways about life?”

There are arguments that people can make that are fine and do not necessarily bespeak privilege.

Let me give you an example.

I do come from a middle-class family. But when I was growing up, my parents were not rich. I never was hungry and my clothes were always nice, but the first place I remember living in was a house that was not terribly well-maintained and was quite old. We rented one of the floors. In the foothills of Nevada City, that meant that I was going to be cold at night, because the insulation sucked in this old house.

My parents helped me with college, but I had to work to pay for high school debate that would allow me to get into college, to pay for some of my share.

And I had to make my own business, without much help from anyone in my social network, none of whom had the expertise I did in it.

This isn’t even to mention that I’m a first-generation immigrant (my mother being Quebecois and retaining her Canadian citizenship), which means I have first-hand experience with having people make fun of me and my family for the way we talk or think.

All of this is to say that I get how rough it can be to work at a Subway, to stay up at night worrying that you can’t make rent. I’m a freelance writer; trust me, I get it.

Society doesn’t provide good education and training. It’s difficult to get a job. Economic immobility and inequality is such that people who are stuck in a dead-end situation have to work with herculean effort to get out.

But I know so many people who are homeless or who are not doing well who are just not doing the work. They’re not making Craigslist ads (or checking Craigslist ads and e-mailing every single one they see), they’re not applying to every single place in walking distance, they’re not going to thrift stores to try to find cheap clothes that would be suitable for a job interview, they’re not applying for the kind of government aid that might let them barter for rides or pay back people who have lent them money, they don’t ask a friend to update or take a look at their resume, they’re not building a skill in their free time, they’re not going back to the places they’ve applied and asking to see a manager, they’re not asking their friends for places where they might be able to get a job. They just hang out at the park, or play video games.

These people often act with a sense of great privilege and entitlement. They think their parents just should let them stay with them indefinitely. They clearly implicitly think that they owe society nothing, or else they’d be doing work.

It can be very privileged to say, “I worked for this”, because other people in our society have also worked 60 hour weeks and taken care of a family and gone to school and they don’t have some of our advantages. There are working class and homeless superstars who just put tremendous effort out there, and it’s a Red Queen’s race where they run as hard as they can just to stay in the same place. Those people need help. And I have had privileges as the white heterosexual male child of two college graduates that many do not have. I have had educational enrichment at home that has given me not just job skills but also the confidence and assertiveness to engage with people.

Society shouldn’t be letting people starve. It shouldn’t be letting people go by without economic opportunities.

But that doesn’t change the fact that many people who are doing badly are simply not trying at all to improve their situation. And as much as we may give someone a break for hopelessness, I deal with hopelessness all the time too and it doesn’t stop me.

Now, as I am writing this, I think you can see that I’m checking my privilege. I’m making sure I’m not ignoring some aspect of what it’s like to be poor or homeless. And if someone did offer such a corrective, I’d engage with them. I’m trying to be empathic and see the issue from multiple perspectives.

That’s what checking privilege should be. It should be a brief plausibility check, a stress test for our ideas.

Who we are isn’t something to be ashamed of. I should not be ashamed of being white or heterosexual or male. That’s not what “Check your privilege” should mean. We all have different perspectives and different life paths that make us view issues differently. Adopting and defending our own position with empathy and care is just as crucial as being able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

And what is more privileged than thinking that other people should just adopt your political opinion because you typed three words at them?