with Janee Woods
Recently, we’ve had a slew of high profile examples of privileged white people acting like, well, privileged white people. Setting aside Iggy Azalea being willfully oblivious to her misappropriation of black culture or Sean Penn’s green card “joke” at the Academy Awards, which were not even arguable mistakes of racism, let’s look at the instances of racism that happen “by accident” and are always shrouded by good intention.
Consider Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech on Oscar night — a rousing call to action to join the fight for equal pay for women. I’ll admit, I was feeling it. Meryl and J.Lo were feeling it, too. I loved the way she wore those eyeglasses, like a piece of armor to protect herself in battle. Her voice slightly raw, unrehearsed and real. Then she went backstage and ruined everything with white privileged comments that demonstrated an entire lack of understanding about what women of color experience in terms of gender oppression. It is not simply gender oppression — we experience it as an intersection with racism, classism and sexual orientation discrimination.
With only a few short sentences, Arquette managed to erase the struggles of women of color from the history of the women’s equality movement, which has almost always centered on benefiting white women over women of color to begin with. But here’s the thing — she wasn’t trying to be racist, and my guess is that she now feels pretty badly about the way things went down. She was trying to be a feminist, with all her best intentions, but white privilege got in the way and turned her feminist statement into a racist commentary about when and how oppressed groups are required to stand in solidarity together, once again for the ultimate benefit of lifting up white women.
And then there was E! Red Carpet host Giuliana Rancic, who told beautiful black starlet Zendaya Coleman that her pristine locs looked like they probably smelled like patchouli and weed. She wanted to be funny, but white privilege prevented her from considering how that comment would be interpreted. Most black people know how to decode this derogatory equation: locs + weed = worthless black person. Rancic claims she had no racial malintent and quite possibly that’s true, because that’s how privilege works — it’s not the intent that matters, it’s the impact. She intended to make a joke about bohemians, but the impact was racism against black people. White privilege is a well-oiled machine that keeps humming along whether a person chooses to be an active participant or not.
The fact that white people get to make these mistakes and be forgiven is in and of itself an example of white privilege. Although Coleman graciously accepted Rancic’s apology, which was in fact remarkably thoughtful, even the public response to that has been white privileged. Some commentators have praised Coleman’s maturity in handling this situation, but they’re missing the point. As a person of color, Coleman has to know how to navigate whiteness to survive, and that includes knowing how to respond to white women. Whereas for Rancic and Arquette and other white people who make racially insensitive mistakes, being called out is merely part of the seemingly endless process of undoing racism.
One of the most frustrating hallmarks of privilege is that people who have it don’t recognize that they have it. But once that privilege is pointed out, it should immediately become imperative to mitigate its negative impact on people of color and to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be a white person in a white-dominant culture.
Please understand, white people, this is not easy or short-term work for you, but do not look for sympathy. And please remember that people of color, especially black women, are not your racial therapists and we are not responsible for drying your white tears or nursing your broken heart once you start to understand how visceral and deadly racism is in this country. Don’t take generations of black pain and center it on newly discovered white guilt.
A perfect example of this is Chris Pine’s tearful face during the performance of “Glory” at the Oscars. So much media attention was placed on Pine’s emotional struggle as a white man dealing with the idea of black pain that many people missed a powerful statement on solidarity in the fight against racism. Did anyone even notice that the white people on stage did not sing a word? White voices were silent so that black voices could be uplifted. White bodies marched side by side with black bodies, but did not usurp the power. Whiteness receded so that blackness could be at the center.
So what’s a well-intentioned white person supposed to do when they get called out for making a racist mistake?
Expect that your mistake, however innocent you feel it may have been, will be met with anger or frustration. Expect to be corrected. Maybe, if you’re lucky, the correction will be offered from a place of love and empathy. Or maybe it won’t. Expect to be expected to learn the lesson and then make a purposeful change in your perspective and behavior. Expect to feel uncomfortable or confused as you become more deliberately engaged in the process of becoming anti-racist.
Do not, however, expect to lean on people of color to interpret your own racialized experience, because we’ve been and are still doing our own crucial work reconciling lifetimes of everyday, garden-variety systemic racism. And it’s exhausting work, so we can’t carry your burden, too. We can, though, still stand shoulder to shoulder and press forward together.
This post (including the awesome graphics and photos) was published originally on Scenarios USA, where I am a new contributor to The Scenario, a blog where young people and millennials go to talk about social justice issues, the Internet, culture, film and whatever else is on their mind! Scenarios USA is a national organization that uses writing and film to foster youth leadership, advocacy and self-expression, with a focus on marginalized communities.