Life changes & some over-do thoughts on Girls Trip

It’s been awhile since our last post. Each of us has been going through some major life changes and writing has taken a back seat. For myself, my family and I recently moved 2,000 miles across the country for me to start a new job. Although I haven’t blogged, issues of race, whiteness, and privilege have been ever present on my mind. This is particularly the case because my new city is extremely homogeneous (lots of white, fairly liberal, financially-well off outdoorsy people) and I’m thinking about what that means for my commitment to racial justice, combating white supremacy, and promoting diversity & inclusion.

But, I’ll save thoughts on my new city for another day. For now, I want to write about a scene from the hilarious movie Girls Trip that I’ve been reflecting on ever since I saw it. Before delving in, I want to plug the movie. It’s HIGH-larious. I’m normally not a huge fan of “raunch comedy.” Although I fully support the idea that women can be raunchy and funny, I’m one of the few people that didn’t like Bridesmaids. This movie, however, had me in stitches. If you need a good laugh, and a reminder to plan a trip with your best friends, take some time to see Girls Trip. And, if you need more convincing, check out this review by Slate’s Aisha Harris, Girls Trip. One of the best comedies ever made for black women – and one of the funniest movies of the year, period. See also, ‘Girls Trip’ is female raunch comedy done right.

The set-up for Girls Trip is that famous author and motivational speaker (“the next Oprah”), Ryan (Regina Hall) agrees to serve as the keynote speaker at Essence Festival in New Orleans. Ryan invites her college friends – nicknamed the “Flossy Posse” – to join her at the festival to reunite. After expressing some concerns at first, Ryan’s agent, Liz – a white woman – attempts to bond with Ryan by exclaiming, “You girls are gonna be kickin’ all weekend!” In response, Ryan takes a deep breath and engages in the following conversation:
Continue reading “Life changes & some over-do thoughts on Girls Trip”

Mascot, or, the spinach in our teeth

Much of the dialogue about race these days is concerned with blackness/anti-blackness and sometimes it can let us slip into the sense that this is the only kind of racialized issue that we deal with. Here is a different example:

In Massachusetts, legislation has been introduced that would prevent schools from having Native American mascots. Similar bills have been passed in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Oregon. Continue reading “Mascot, or, the spinach in our teeth”

But I didn’t mean to . . .

I recently read a statement along the lines of, “if a marginalized individual tells you that you’ve said or done something to offend them, it’s not an invitation to exercise your debate skills.”  I cannot locate the source of the quote – if anyone finds it, please email us! – although I did find a similar quote re-posted by Feminist Apparel on facebook, which similarly states, “if a marginalized person is speaking to their experience and you feel uncomfortable, sit with it and let that discomfort be productive.”

I’ve been reflecting on these words and thinking about how I respond to someone telling me that I’ve offended them.  It’s never easy to be told that you’re wrong – even if you manage to respond gracefully, I think many of us initially feel defensive and angry.  At least I do.  To be told that something I’ve said or done is offensive or racist can get my guard up even more!  How can I – someone liberal and progressive – be racist?  Surely that person must be mistaken!  As a character in The Mindy Project, Tamra, explains in an episode, “Every white person’s greatest fear is being called racist. It’s their equivalent of actual racism.”  Season 5, Episode 12, Mindy Lahiri is a White Man.

When I was in high school and college, I worked at a number of restaurants as a hostess and server to pay (what few) bills I had.  Anyone who’s worked in a restaurant knows that, as closing time nears, certain sections are closed and consolidated to make it easier to clean.  I was serving as the hostess when the manager told me that all sections were closing, except for one in the back of the restaurant.  Immediately after he told me this, a family walked in to be sat for a late dinner.  Mom, Dad and the two kids were Black.

As I walked the family to the back of the restaurant, I could feel the family’s anger.  The longer we walked, the more I could feel the Mom gearing up to say something.  And when I finally showed them their table, she demanded to know why we walked by an entire restaurant full of empty tables and asked to speak to the manager.  I knew why she was mad.  In fact, I had just recently learned in one of my Sociology classes about the racist incidences that people of color experience while eating out, including systemically being given the worst tables separate and apart from white patrons.  Social media wasn’t as popular “back then,” but nowadays, we can learn about such incidences by simply googling “Dining While Black.”

So, what happened?  My attempts at trying to explain the seating arrangements rang hollow; the manager did little to make the situation better and, if I recall correctly, the family ended up leaving.  The encounter haunts to me to this day for many reasons.

First, my initial response to the family’s anger was my own anger and discomfort.  Even though I had been educated about racist incidents in restaurants, I wanted to shout, “Not me!  I’m a good person!  I’m not being racist!”  My actions, though, sent a different message.  As the quote above states, being called out for doing something discriminatory – or even something perceived as discriminatory – is not an invitation to exercise my debate skills and come up with all the reasons for why I should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Second, I did little to educate my co-workers.  After the family left, the staff – predominantly white – assured me that I did nothing wrong and that the family had no right to be mad.  I knew differently, though, but didn’t articulate how we failed to provide good customer service by taking the customers’ concerns seriously.

Finally, I’d like to think that I’d behave differently, more than a decade of life and experience later.  I’d like to think I’m more comfortable “breaking the rules” now and that I’d defy my manager and seat a family of color in a better seat even though I was told not to.  Isn’t that reverse racism, you might say?  No.  Reverse racism isn’t a thing (bold statement, I know; much more on that to come), and I argue that it would’ve been the right thing to do.  For all I know, the manager saw the family coming in and then told me that all sections were closed except for that one in the back.  Perhaps there was racist intent behind my actions, even if it wasn’t my intent.  I don’t know.  I could drive myself crazy trying to figure it out.  And that’s the point.  I’ve learned that people of color often have to wonder whether or not something is happening just because it’s happening or because of the color of their skin, and that’s frustrating and draining.  I don’t want to contribute to that frustration.

White privilege revealed:

  • When I eat out, I never wonder if I’m being sat in a less desirable section because of the color of my skin color.
  • When I eat out, I never wonder if I’m receiving poor service because of the color of my skin.

Home Court

One of the goals we had for the blog was to make it accessible to people who aren’t necessarily familiar with or comfortable with terms that activists use when describing the state of race in America. We didn’t want these terms to take away from our message; at the same time, it’s hard to discuss race without them. We’ll have a few guideposts along the way to describe why we use a particular term and how we think of it as a concept. This is one of those posts.

“White privilege” is a term that gets used heavily in discourse these days. The “privilege” part of the term can be a sticking point for some people because it conjures up images of either the super-rich or of being allowed extra television time as a child — it is either laughably inaccurate, or childish, or something that can be given away (e.g., “Well, I won’t watch that extra show, so everything’s fair now.”) It may be more helpful to think of “privilege” in this context to mean something more like “home court advantage.”

In the sports world, “home court/team/field/ice/course/track/etc. advantage” is a phenomenon where teams that are playing in their “home” environment get certain intangible benefits from that which can, in turn, impact the outcome of the game, however slightly. “Home court advantage” is an accepted fact of athletic competition, and is why, particularly in playoffs or game series, teams will either play in a place that is “away” for both of them, or trade playing games at “home.”

“Home court advantage” isn’t something that can be wished away and it also isn’t assigned a negative moral value (while “privilege” can bring to mind spoiled children and spoiled adults). It is a fact of the sports world that the governing bodies of various athletic organizations work around to try to ensure that, although they can’t eliminate the impact of “home court advantage” on individual games, they can try to give everyone an equal shot at having the advantage over the course of the season.

In our metaphor, white people always have “home court advantage”: they always have intangible benefits that can impact the outcome of their game. It doesn’t mean that they are going to win big every time, or even win every time (think about the last time your favorite team lost a home game!), but it does mean that the odds are more in their favor than if they were “away” — and people of color, particularly in America, are always playing “away.”

Translating this to real life: white people have intangible benefits that impact their daily lives. It doesn’t mean that white people have it easy or that they don’t work hard for what they have; it just means that, in general, it is easier for them to go about their daily lives than it is for people of color who would otherwise be similarly situated (e.g., same age, same education, same health, etc.). It is a morally neutral fact that cannot be given up or traded away, but we are working on finding ways to level the playing field (to mix our sports metaphors) — this is the problem that social justice groups are working to answer.

To wrap up: we’re probably going to use the term “white privilege” a lot in our writing, and you will see it regularly in discussions of race. If the term is a turn-off for you, consider reading “privilege” as “home court advantage” instead.

 

[Note: This goes for all discussions of “privilege” — “male privilege,” “cis privilege,” etc.]

Explanatory Comma

National Public Radio’s (NPR) Code Switch podcast tackles issues of race and identity and I love to listen regularly. Not only does the podcast provide a window into perspectives and experiences different from my own, but it also has helped to remove the blinders to some (many!) of the privileges that I have. One such privilege – the result of white privilege – is the ability to consume media and entertainment and understand, most of the time, what is being discussed. An “explanatory comma” is rarely needed for the references that pop up in my everyday life.

In an episode entitled, “Hold Up! Time For an Explanatory Comma” (December 14, 2016), journalists Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, along with comedian Hari Kondabolu, tackled the question of how much cultural context to provide when talking about race and culture. An explanatory comma is the aside or comma after a word, idea or person is introduced in an effort to define it for an audience that needs the explanation. For example, in a prior podcast episode, Gene and Shereen paid tribute to Tupac Shakur without providing an explanation of who he was. They then received a number of comments from listeners complaining that they felt left out. In particular, a self-identified 54 year-old white woman stated that she could tell Tupac meant a lot to the hosts, but she never felt invited in to the discussion, because she had no idea who Tupac was. As another example, Shereen mentioned a segment she did for NPR’s Morning Edition about a Guinean web series and when the director referenced Nollywood, she took a moment out of the story to explain, “she is talking about West Africa’s version of Hollywood in Nigeria, also known as Nollywood.” She stated that the explanation might’ve disrupted the flow of the story and Hari pointed out that if he were Nigerian (which he isn’t), he would’ve heard that explanation and felt like the story was not for him, because the segment didn’t assume knowledge that he already had. As I listened, two initial thoughts were:

  • Re: Tupac Shakur episode. I had felt similarly left out, but assumed that it was on me to educate myself about a cultural reference that I was missing. That’s what google is for, isn’t it?
  • Re: Morning Edition segment. Personally, I appreciated the definition of Nollywood because I had never heard of it before. Also, having majored in Sociology in undergrad and then enduring law school classes, I just assumed that defining terms is good practice. But, the Code Switch hosts were right – I wouldn’t have needed an explanation for Hollywood or even Bollywood.

commaThere’s nothing inherently wrong with the explanatory comma. The problem is that it most often is used to provide explanations to white people that people of color already understand. And, because of that, the Code Switch team also mentioned receiving comments by listeners of color about being tired of having to use the “explanatory comma” in their lives constantly; they reported being tired of being racial ambassadors.

Soon after I listened to “explanatory comma” episode, I experienced being on the receiving end of an explanatory comma in real life (not that it was the only time – it was just a time that I was conscious of it). For work, I provide career counseling services to  students and part of that includes arranging on-campus interviews for summer internships. Every year, the affinity groups on campus host an initiative for diverse students to apply and interview on campus for summer opportunities at large firms (the reasons for the necessity of such programs is a topic for another day). After a day of interviews, I was chatting with two first year law students about their experiences and helping them debrief from a fairly stressful day. I was the white career counselor talking with two students of color when one of them said something along the lines of, “I’m so afraid that I won’t get anything out of this opportunity and then people will say, ‘Ah ha!  See? That affirmative action woman isn’t really smart enough to be here [in law school].” At that comment, I made a face – a horrified of-course-no-one-should-say-that-face. The student saw my face and explained to me,

“This is what students of color think about on a regular basis.”

We continued talking for several minutes, but on the inside, I froze. With the explanatory comma podcast episode still in my mind, I realized that I had unwittingly caused the student who I was suppose to be helping to feel like she needed to be a racial ambassador to me. Instead of providing her with comfort, I put her in explanation mode. I paused the conversation and awkwardly apologized. I don’t recall my exact words, but I managed to mumble, “I just want to say that I’m sorry for you needing to explain to me what students of color deal with.” Even though the student accepted my apology, I’ve since been wondering:

  • How did I make her feel when I made a face at her comment? Does it call into question my ability to help her plan her legal career (which is my job)?
  • What did my apology accomplish? Did it make her feel better or did it just make myself feel better?
  • How can I respond better in a similar situation in the future?
  • In what other ways do I unknowingly force students, acquaintances and even friends to be “racial ambassadors”? Or, cause others to feel misunderstood?

White privilege revealed:

  • When I was a law student, I had the benefit of turning to career counselors who looked like me – white skin – and to whom I never had to explain a huge part of my life experience. I never needed to be a racial ambassador.
  • In fact, I never find myself in the situation of being a racial ambassador. The exhaustion and exasperation that comes along with needing to do so is simply not something that I ever need to deal with.
  • I rarely need to google a reference that I hear on TV, the radio, or other form of media.

about the title

One of the many reasons that it took several months to get this project up and running was the difficulty of creating a title. Sarah and I knew from the beginning that we wanted to reference whiteness and privilege, but it wasn’t until after refining our objective and reminding ourselves to utilize the fairy tale framework that a title – this title – came into focus (Sarah shot down White As Snow, Privileged As F*ck – she gets the credit for keeping things classy here). So, what does the title mean to me?

In modern day re-tellings, Snow White tends to not only be beautiful, but also fierce, strong, and victorious in finding her happy ending. At the same time, she has a rough go of it. In most versions of the story:

  • Her Mom dies when she’s young
  • Her Step-Mom is a piece of work (hates her, is jealous of her, has a weird relationship with a talking mirror)
  • Her Dad dies when she’s a teenager
  • She’s forced to leave home because her step-mom tries to kill her
  • She goes from having everything – a castle, wealth, status – to living in the forest cooking & cleaning for a bunch of men

Snow White doesn’t always have it easy, but she carries with her unearned privileges that give her some advantages as she overcomes her trials and tribulations. For example:

  • Beauty. In every version of the fairy tale, Snow White is described as beautiful, and much has been written about the unearned privileges that pretty people get in their personal and professional lives. See e.g., Who will fight the beauty bias? “A drumbeat of research over the past decades has found that attractive people earn more than their average-looking peers, are more likely to be given loans by banks, and are less likely to be convicted by a jury. Voters prefer better-looking candidates; students prefer better-looking professors, while teachers prefer better-looking students . . . . [s]tudy after study has shown that we judge attractive people to be healthier, friendlier, more intelligent, and more competent than the rest of us, and we use even the smallest differences in attractiveness to make these judgments.” See also, The ‘Beauty Bias’ at Work, and What Should Be Done About It. But see, The Beauty Bias: Good-looking women may actually have a harder time landing some jobs.
    Sure, Snow White’s beauty causes her problems (victim of jealousy and attempted murder), but it also helps to save her. Consider for a moment: Is it possible she is spared by the huntsman because of her beauty? Are the dwarves more likely to take her in, and the prince more likely to kiss her, because of it? What if Snow White was just as kind, generous, and strong – and still hunted – but also happened to be considered “ugly”?
  • Health. Snow White is generally described as able-bodied; actually, it’s just assumed and never stated. There’s no issue of dealing with a wheelchair while running away into a forest (no story lines of wheels getting stuck in mud) or the added layer of concern of losing access to regular doses of needed medication. Would Snow White have survived in the forest if she suffered from an autoimmune disease?
  • Education. It’s not too much of a leap to assume that growing up in a castle = wealthy (another privilege) = access to a good, quality education. This gives Snow White a lifetime of learning to fall back on when trying to make her way in the world.

Acknowledging Snow White’s privileges doesn’t belittle her accomplishments. She still fights to stay alive. She still learns to “rough” it in the forest after growing up pampered in a castle (spiders & bugs, no thanks!). And, her happily ever after still includes a more than full-time job of leading a kingdom. All of this is why Snow White has always been one of my favorite fairy tale characters (so much so that my Mom had the best Snow White costume made for me one year for Halloween).

Like Snow White, I have worked hard in life. I regularly stayed up too late to finish my homework, I chose to attend grad school, and I now juggle full-time work hours with parenthood. But it would be disingenuous of me not to acknowledge the unearned privileges that I carry that have helped me along the way. These include, but are not limited to, growing up in an upper middle class neighborhood, access to a great education, and my white skin. My skin color has given me advantages in life that have largely been invisible to me, but are there nonetheless. Unpacking these privileges is one of the long-term goals of this blog, but to mention just a few:

  • I have never felt unwelcome or unsafe in the predominantly white neighborhoods and schools I’ve lived in and attended.
  • I have never lacked for role models of people that looked like me on TV and in books (real and imagined). Snow White – like most princesses – has white skin (much remains to be said about this).
  • I have never been asked to speak on behalf of my entire race.
  • My successes and failures have always been my own – not a let-down or credit to my entire race.
  • I have always had access to financial assistance when needed – either from family or a bank.
  • I have never feared for my life when pulled over by the police (just a few speeding tickets, Mom and Dad . . .)

Snow White – like many fairy tale heroines – not only illuminates the invisible knapsack of privileges that I carry as a white person in America, but she also highlights the issue of representation. As noted above, I have never lacked for role models or positive images of people that look like me. When I dressed up like Snow White for Halloween as a little girl, no one told me that I couldn’t do so. My toys regularly looked like me, as did characters on TV, and leaders on the news. Representation matters, which is why we plan to talk about it a lot here on the blog.

In a similar vein, Snow White also highlights the issue of whiteness problematically often being associated with beauty and goodness, while blackness is portrayed as evil and ugly. The impact that these images have on us have real life consequences that we also hope to explore.

And, there’s the issue of class. Hence, “privileged as queens.” There’s no way we can blog about race, whiteness, and privilege without constantly referencing the intersectionality of class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and more. (This is why Sarah insists that this is really a book project or PhD dissertation – we love theory!).

There’s also no way we can grapple with these issues without acknowledging the responsibility that comes along with being in a position of power and privilege. A (good) queen not only has power over her people, but also the responsibility to care for them. Although I don’t know who said it first, we have all heard the too-true phrase: with great power comes great responsibility. As privileged white women, then, we have a responsibility to learn and grow in an effort to become better allies and advocates.

In sum, there’s a lot to tackle. White privilege, representation, the intersectionality of race and other identities, and ultimately, how to contribute to a better and more just world. Every fairy tale happy ending comes after a book’s worth of characters fighting for it – we need to fight for our happy ending. For me, a small step in that direction is this blog.

-nicole

Origin Story (Blog’s Beginnings, Part 2)

My integration into this blog project (which is probably more of a book project, but we wanted to get things out in a timely manner) started with a Facebook message that was a little out-of-the-blue, but welcome nonetheless. Yes, I did want to write about whiteness and racism and privilege, and yes, I did want to write about it beyond carefully crafted rants on my Facebook page.

Working in academic publishing and working under feminists of color has truly shaped how I perceive our society and the different ways that people subtly work to help or hurt one another. My view of the 2016 election can be boiled down to, “Black women have been telling us for centuries that white women will always choose their race over their gender. We should have listened to them.” It is beyond time for us to listen, but for many people, listening in on these dialogues is hard, especially without a background in managing the discomfort that comes from having these discussions. So often, the impulse is to shut down whatever is making us uncomfortable, which has the result of shutting down people of color, especially women of color, who are fed up with being shut down. This cycle is vicious and it is on us, as white folks, to stop it.

We have got to learn to practice empathy and to practice sitting with discomfort. Our intention with this blog is to help: to call in our fellow white folks, to break down the complicated emotions around issues of race and privilege in U.S. society, and to help create a culture of understanding and common vocabulary for discussing these issues. I believe that by creating a gateway for understanding and processing these things, we can start to do the work that is so sorely needed in these fraught times.

-sarah