Privilege & The Gap: On Trying and Failing to be a White Friend

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“White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals.”
John Metta, “I, Racist”

If you are white, I really want you to go and read John Metta’s post. No, I really do. It’s a very uncomfortable post for a white person to read, but if you truly, honestly want an egalitarian, non-racist society at some point in the future – perhaps for your children or your grandchildren – then you need to read this post now. It politely says all the things you don’t want to hear. But you really, really need to hear it, because it is an eloquent window into seeing the world with eyes you don’t have – can’t have – if you are white.

When I hit the point in the essay at the quote I have used for the start of this piece, I balked. It’s a credit to his erudition that he found this incredibly important philosophical point – this viscerally confronting encapsulation of a fundamental difference in a way of being in the world. I mentally argued with it, I thought of all the ways in which – as a woman, as a Jew, as a non-heterosexual, as a socialist, as a writer of socially unsettling things – I have thought in terms of ‘we’ and not I. I typed a comment to that effect.

Then I stopped myself and erased it.

Metta’s essay describes his experience of the world, and his understanding of it. Why did I feel the need to insert myself in it and plead my exception? Especially because in so many ways, so often, he is exactly right. For the most part, not only do I interact with the world as an individual, not only do I engage with each human I know as if they are individuals (of different races, religions, genders and sexual orientations), but it frustrates me when I see that they can’t. No one should ever have to subsume their singularity to a group – any group. And the only time they need to do it – when they cannot do otherwise – is when the threat to them, because of that that part of their identity, makes all their other singularities a secondary concern.

It was not some woman’s love and unique knowledge of The Book of Psalms, not a man’s beautiful singing voice, not another’s amazing cooking skill that got them killed in Charleston. Not their love of God, not their wonderful parenting, not their admirable charity work. None of that. It was their collective Blackness.

I have a friend, a brilliant woman, an amazing writer, a wry, witty, sexy woman who has literally spent the last year in hell. She’s in hell because she’s a smart black woman. She can see the lines of power – the outright injustices, the brazen and appalling racism and the far, far more ubiquitous, insidious and damaging ways in which Black people are denied equality. She’s not paranoid or delusional. She sees the world very clearly. That’s her problem – she can’t stop seeing and it’s driving her crazy.

I feel like I am losing her as a friend. I’m losing her because I am white. Because no matter how much I validate her perceptions, support her in her grievances, stand by her in her anger, and do whatever it is I am capable of doing to make her world – our world – a little more just, it amounts to fuck all.  I cannot fix this for her. Everything I say and do seems patronizing and facile.  And it is.

Another friend of mine – a very wise woman from the Caribbean – said, “You can’t help her. She needs a Black sister to rub her belly and hold her.”

I realized that was true. There are wounds we suffer that can’t be soothed rationally. There are terrors that can’t be talked away, one mind to another.  I can never hold her and say, “I know how you feel.” I can only ever say, “I hate that you have been made to feel this way.” And that is not enough. This is what racism does: it dehumanizes all of us. It breaks us apart at such a deep, fundamental level that it ruptures the bonds of our common humanity.

The problem with privilege is that it is almost impossible to be aware of all the ways in which you have it. The only time you get a glimpse of its enormity is when you find you cannot step into the pain of a person without it. Even when you know that hatred and bigotry is damaging for all of us, even when you see that my friend’s pain is a wound on all of us. When you have privilege, you can be empathetic, but you can’t share that pain. At best, you can acknowledge it and be a witness to the truth of it.

And yet there is something good about having the privilege of being able to conceive of yourself as a singularity. You have the power, as an individual, to condemn this inhuman disease of bigotry. You have the power and indeed the ethical obligation to call it out, loudly and energetically, whenever you see it. You have the power to halt, in the middle of an interaction with another person, with an institution, with a nation and say: this is racist. Stop it. Now.

This is what I believe. That it can’t be only the oppressed minority’s duty to protest when their rights are stolen from them, when their voting rights are eroded, when their educational opportunities are evaporating, when their right to be treated equally under the law, and their access to power is curtailed and economic prosperity is undermined. It’s your duty, too. It’s your obligation, your ethical responsibility and your right to be intolerant of intolerance.

Because your children, your grandchildren deserve a future in which it is possible to share in both the pain and the joy of another human being, regardless of who they are.

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