I was called a white racist today. My husband stated, "I can tell that you were really hurt by what those women said." Well, he is not entirely correct. What upsets me is that it is a powerful word that was used incorrectly. Yes, racism exists. So does classism and sexism, and ageism and homophobia and other forms of hatred based on one's demographic or inherent identification, however each person may see it. However, if one is to make a statement like this, I expect it to be backed up with facts and to be consistent with the other current arguments one is using. This all stems from a little war started on twitter. I felt a friend was being attacked, I pointed out the inconsistencies in their argument, and was then called a racist, oh and part of a white mob (for the record, I was defending one friend - my mob is a mob of two, as was their "mob" and they called my friend and me racist, which as far as I can tell, the only proof to my own racism is that I am a racist for defending her).
I am aware that twitter is not a forum for such "heavy" conversations, but it did get me thinking about a number of issues. I am seething and cannot sleep and figured I better write this down in a place with more character usage than on a twitter account, where, I have been called part of a white racist mob.
I was also told that, if having the conversation bothers me than I must be a racist. This is also not true. I do not mind discussing race - in fact, I believe it is important for everyone to have these discussions to learn from each other. However, beginning a disagreement with name-calling doesn't work for me, particularly when there is no consistency with these arguments.
First, it is not acceptable to call any person who happens to be white a racist. It is true that the majority of white people will not recognize or identify whiteness as a privilege. This is due to actual racism, or a lack of understanding of the concept, something that many only understand as they move through classes and have the opportunity to sit around and read and ponder such things. Is this classist? You bet your ass it is. If you do not have access to elite education, to the time, to funds, to a number of other things, will you honestly sit around and debate topics like this? Or will you have other priorities? Good or bad, to even debate and recognize privilege, white or otherwise, is clearly an elite privilege.
I am not saying that it is a good or a bad thing to for people to be able to recognize white privilege, and here is why. I think it is really important to explore the actual meaning behind someone's words. Many people may have their heart in the right place, or they may be misguided, or most likely, they lack the vocabulary or the eloquence to state a complex topic like race in a way that will satisfy most, particularly academics. I say this as both a class warrior and as a graduate student, who has found a way to spend some time exploring the notions of race, class and gender.
I start most of my examinations of this issue from my own point of perspective. As I have stated before, this is important for me as a writer, and as a person wandering around a complex city. However, it would be a colossal failure for me to not recognize that I have the privilege to do this. My own point of perspective is as a white person, from a lower middle class, who by shear hard work and some luck (a concept that lower classes will own, whereas upper classes will not) has been able to move to a different class through education. This is my perspective, and because I have taken the time, nee, have the time/have made the time, I feel that I have a unique ability to examine race, class and gender. I can acknowledge my white privilege, the privilege that my education affords me, and for good or bad, the privilege that my gender affords me. I am also keenly aware of which things my race, class and gender do not offer me entrée.
If one is to shout at others about being a racist, I think they need to also examine other points of privilege, in this case their class privilege, the one that allows them to shout at others in the first place.
So this person who so upset me called out a friend of mine, and suggested she take the time to read a few academic volumes. Now, my friend is smart, middle class, and white. But what she doesn't have is the leisure time to sit around and read actual or dubious theorists. She is running a business and is the parent to two children under the age of 5. She was called a racist, from what I can tell, because of a misuse of language. This is where I jump in and get angry. Because I feel so strongly that access to particular vernaculars is more an indicator of class than anything else, I think it is preposterous to call her a racist based on a misuse of words. It is evident that she meant zero harm. Now, when I point out to her attackers that this line of attack is classist - they have the leisure, apparently the means, and the access to higher education, and thus the time to debate issues like race, than they get mad at me. I want them to recognize the very class that allows them this privilege, but they cannot see past race in this particular argument.
There is a curious parallel happening here. These two people feel free to call me and my friend a racist (I am because I defended her), but grow angry when I point out that their arguments are parallel to classism. Now, what I didn't consider, and what my husband pointed out, is that perhaps these attackers felt that I was saying that my friend was of a higher class than them, by virtue of her skin color, and therefore they cannot be classist. This is not at all what I meant. I think of education past the bachelor level to be elite - it is expensive, it is time consuming, and it is rare for people of many demographics to achieve. Or perhaps it is because they chose to focus on one area of "disadvantage," in their particular case race, that they feel they are above disparaging others based on class or gender.
Well, here is my little update. It is possible to be, all at once, classist, racist, and sexist. You can be any combination of these things at any time. I, of course believe that these things exist in the world. I also believe that many people say things without putting thought behind them. I believe that some of these things have hate behind them. I also think that some of these things have ignorance behind them. Because I feel it is wrong to blame a person for their race or gender, I also think it is wrong to blame someone for their class. All of these things interdispersed are complicated. Which is why in many cases, it makes sense to examine the actual meaning behind the words.
For example: A phrase I hear often is reverse-racism. To me, this is a false term, that implies that one race is superior, and therefore there is a reverse act occurring when someone of a less superior race is calling out the dominate race for such subordination. It is thanks to my current class and status that allows me to recognize that this is a false word. Racism is an attack on a person based on their race. There is no such thing as reverse racism. However, I suspect the majority of people who use this phrase do not mean it to indicate a superior race, or have not given a lot of thought - for whatever reason - to what this usage could really mean. I mean, you hear people in main-stream media and who sit on the Supreme Court use this phrase. Are some people who use this phrase racist? Odds are likely that in fact some of these people are racist.
But, for those of us who have/take the time to explore these issues, we also need to recognize intent behind words, which I believe is more telling about that individual than using words that may be culturally acceptable (or not) to the race, gender or class to which that person belongs.
People might put their foot in their mouth, and please feel free to correct them. Feel free to do this for me. But when you start dropping powerful words, like any of the -ists, be able to back it up in a way that is logical and reasonable, because, if you are right, this won't be a problem. It will be obvious. Privilege comes in many different forms, and there is no ranking system for such forms. The best I think most of us can do is to look around, be aware that every person approaches things from their own point of identification, whether that be self-identification, or your reaction to what you think you see, and allow others their verbal fumbles. Be gentle in your corrections, and don't assume the worst. Most people will be glad for the new perspective, if delivered without hate and accusation.