This is a universal truth: the society we grew up in, the media, our friends and family, stereotypes – all this contributes to conditioning us into having inherent racist beliefs.
As much as we might believe in equality and fight for it in our everyday lives, that does not mean that the conditioning hasn’t still happened: think about the way we throw around certain words or phrases – like “ratchet” or “ghetto”. These words are racially charged and hold negative connotations – and yet we use them without so much as a second thought. Even those of us who wouldn’t dream of using the n-word use them freely.
(It’s helpful to note that, although these are words that originated in America, their use and meaning has spread world-wide as a result of pop culture and general globalization: the fact that these words have spread to South Africa is indicative of the power they hold, and the care and consideration we need to give them.)
On its own, the use of these words seems like a minor offense – but, like all micro-aggressions, it contributes to a larger system of oppression. And, besides, this is not the worst example of the effect of this subliminal programming.
Part of why it is so easy to say these things without noticing their effect is because of the privilege some of us hold.
“We can define privilege as a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.
Society grants privilege to people because of certain aspects of their identity. Aspects of a person’s identity can include race, class, gender, sexual orientation, language, geographical location, ability, and religion, to name a few.”
Being (racially) privileged means never have to face racial discrimination in a real and personal manner. It means never having to defend yourself as a member of your race, or having to account for it. Being privileged means that you are viewed as an individual, and not as a representative for/example of your race.
This means that, for those of us who are privileged in terms of race, we can never fully understand what it means to face racial discrimination. We can sympathize, we can educate ourselves, but we will never experience it on a personal level.
Often, those of us who do make the effort to educate ourselves and to take part in conversations end up being blind to the everyday micro aggressions that we perpetuate ourselves.
Netflix recently released a series called “Dear White People”, based on the movie of the same name.
In one of the later episodes of the series, we see a bunch of college kids having fun and getting rowdy at a party. There’s music and dancing and singing along to the music, and one white male in particular is shown singing lyrics that include a plethora of n-words. One of the characters, a black man named Reggie, calls him out and asks him to stop saying that word.
The white man’s response is familiar to most of us: he immediately gets defensive, and repeatedly states how offended he is that Reggie thinks he is racist (a phenomenon colloquially known as “White Tears” ™, but more on that another time)
Just to recap:
White man says n-word (a lot)
He is asked to stop by a black man (and is supported by many of his friends)
He started crying about having been called racist (fake news: no-one called him racist)
This is, unfortunately, a common occurrence when people who see themselves as allies are called out for performing micro-aggressions. We (the privileged) react immediately to a perceived slight, and in so doing we inadvertently make ourselves the center of attention. Part of this is as a result of being treated, our whole lives, as individuals: this is not something that the oppressed experience. Taking away a person’s individuality and forcing them to only be seen as a member, or a representative, of a particular group is a tool of oppression.
In this instance, I am talking specifically about racial privilege and racially charged situations – but we can see examples of privilege everywhere. Think of the recent backlash to the #MenAreTrash hashtag: despite the fact that womxn literally fear for their lives on the daily because all of us (yes, literally all of us) experience gender-based violence, there are still men out there who believe that their own personal testimony is worth silencing an entire population of womxn over. Isn’t this astounding? Privilege makes us crazy.
Subconsciously, we end up believing that our individual intentions should overpower the fact that we are contributing to systemic oppression through micro-aggressions. This is a fault, and it is more than a little egotistical for us to believe that we are above the effects of conditioning that everyone undergoes.
These things are normalized, and it’s easy to choose not to notice or act on them. It’s important for us all to interrogate the thoughts and assumptions we have, and where they come from. As allies, we are also responsible for making sure to properly support those we are allies to: having privilege means that our voices have always been given more power than those who face systemic oppression, and it is easy to accidentally take conversations as a result of this. But, and this is important, It is not our place as allies to lead.
Being a good ally means asking what your place in the revolution is,
It means listening and being willing to work on yourself,
It means following and supporting people,
And, perhaps most importantly, it means educating your peers.
By Alexia Roussos