Intervening on Racism and Privilege: Easy as 1-2-3?
by Mauro Sifuentes
This fragment of thought was stirred to the surface by a recent piece by Mia McKenzie on the Black Girl Dangerous site, entitled “4 Ways to Push Back Against Your Privilege” - the full text can be found here: [url=http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2014/02/4-ways-push-back-privilege/]
First, allow me the opportunity to situate myself, especially for those who have not yet encountered my work. I am a student of postcolonial and feminist thought, and I draw heavily upon poststructural critiques and creativity. I spend my time engaging youth in violence prevention work and also work with diverse constituencies to advocate for queer, transgender, and immigrant people of color. Previous projects I have participated in had international foci and I push my work to refuse U.S.-centrism even as it is situated within the U.S. Personally, some of my academic and advocacy interests lie at the intersection of race, gender, resistance, and rurality in California.
Returning to postcolonial thought for a moment, I would especially like to mention the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a Third World scholar and feminist, and her ideas of the problematics and possibilities of essentialism. Essentialism, for those who are unfamiliar, is the idea that people who fall under an identity label all share some kind of essence with one another, and it is this (innately held) essence that allows us to claim these identities. She believes that there are moments when essentialism has strategic uses, but also cautions heavily against relying on it as a unifying - or dividing - and critical force.
I appreciate the multiplicity of queer and of color voices that the Black Girl Dangerous collective uplifts and displays with such frequency and passion. There are not nearly enough venues for queer people of color to vent, share, self-promote, analyze, and reflect, let alone publicly. I frequent the site and have found many perspectives that carry beautiful depth, pain, hope, and a desire to shift the world and public discourse.
Additionally, I want to emphasize that providing (white) people with itemized primers for how to go about deconstructing identities and intervening on privilege is inherently fraught - ethics and accountability are unfortunately much more complicated than a list of “to-dos” or “how-tos.” I feel like this inadvertently reduces the struggle of life-long accountability to a handful of check-list behaviors and turns ethics, which is a practice of relating to self and others, into a kind of morality, which relies heavily on binaries, dogmas, and strictures. These types of lists are problematic, especially when they are directed at white people or people in other privileged positions because there is already the inherent propensity within a racist and otherwise marginalizing society to allow one voice, or a small number of voices, to become representative of incalculable diversity. While we, as people of color and members of other targeted groups, are not responsible for the irreverent ways our words and thoughts will be used, we also owe it to ourselves and our communities to be robust, particular, and to encourage complex critical thought.
McKenzie’s article mentions four suggestions for intervening on privilege. Below I have itemized my responses for clarity and hope that these thoughts contribute to a conversation she is participating in as well. It would definitely be helpful for comprehension if folks familiarized themselves with the piece before reading further:
I think that constant reflection on privilege is something people don’t do enough, beyond self-labeling as an ally. I’m more interested in the act of building alliance than the identity of an ally (a sentiment shared by McKenzie in other works) – whereas the latter focuses on an individual crafting a morally righteous self, the former focuses on the acts of building communities of difference. “Relinquishing/sharing power” - it can be incredibly useful to conceive of power as a thing, and in my experience it is also useful to see it as a set of relations that we navigate, that are not stagnant, and that we have the agency to shift. It is difficult to see how power/privilege are to be relinquished or shared, because that reduces them to ‘things’, or some ideological commodity; privilege is something to be refused in moments, intervened upon in others, and questioned always, including the conditions that allow for that privileging.
I fully encourage people to interrogate the spaces they feel entitled to and to reconfigure the ease with which they access those spaces; however, I don’t think the question should always come down to a “should I/shouldn’t I” opposition, but rather, a thoughtful reflection on attendance might include some of the following questions: Was this event designed for me as an audience? If not, how can my participation be respectful? Who is not present? Who is disproportionately represented? Am I in a position to donate to this event? Am I in a position to engage the event producers? If not, do I know people who are? Do I have people in my life to help me strategize respectful interventions? In fact, these are questions you might ask of yourself in any space. Sometimes you may decide it is best if you don’t attend, and sometimes you may attend hoping to practice entering a space with humility and a desire to learn.
I think this item might be more forceful if framed differently. Rather than “shut up/don’t talk,” promote listening skills in people who are used to taking up space. Implore people to pay attention to who is speaking in a room. In my work with youth, I promote the Move Up/Move Back technique (which is borrowed from many of the spaces I’ve been in, including academic and community spaces), where people who usually speak more are asked to be increasingly mindful of how much conversational space they take up, and people who usually are less inclined to speak challenge themselves to use their voices to fill the space. These dynamics will shift from space to space, and sometimes you may be in a space where you need to Move Up, whereas in others, you may need to Move Back.
I think that what I’m less interested in is policing which identities people claim than learning all the different reasons people claim identities. I’ve never allowed myself to be seduced into comfort by being around people who share certain identity markers with myself. I don’t find safety around most trans people, nor around queer people, nor around all people of color – and not because those people were inauthentic or 'posers.’ In my experience, the moment we begin to draw lines is the same moment we’ve drawn a circle of truth and purity around ourselves, whether or not we intend to do so.
I have no right to tell people who/what they are – I DO have a right to ask them questions of curiosity and accountability. If a man who only dates and is attracted to women calls himself queer because of cultural proximity, I would want to understand more of what resonates for him with that label, in which spaces he claims it, what his aversion is to heteronormative spaces, and what his commitments are to queer communities who experience very intense forms of discrimination and how he differentiates his own experience of queerness. I also don’t pretend that the way a rich, college-educated queer person experiences their queerness is at all similar to how a working class or immigrant queer person experiences their queerness. The essentialism behind suggesting that only certain people have a right to identity markers assumes that we know what that marker means to each person who claims it and it demands instantaneous knowability of hugely diverse populations, and assumes forms of sameness that may not at all be present.
McKenzie repeatedly returns to her opinion that light-skinned people of color need to be careful about claiming POC status, and that some of these people claim to not experience racism. Whether or not they are aware of it, racism has informed their experience. For a person to be of POC descent and to deny that racism has informed/affected their existence via targeting of racism is a product of internalized racism – whose experiences of racism are deemed most legitimate, in a culture that is obsessed with oversignifying the visual, both to the detriment of populations of communities of color and to the benefit of those with light skin (white or of color)? Additionally, the fixation on light-skinnedness as a determining factor in experiences of racism stems from a very particular construction of race, one that is incredibly US-centric, though it does play out in many other places as a product of Euro-American colonization. We need only to look at the genocide in Rwanda and the targeting of Kashmiris in order to see that certain discursive formulations of racialization/ethnic distinction do not always privilege lighter-skinned populations, when it comes to historical and global contexts. What are we to make of indigenous communities in Scandinavia and how they are discriminated based on race/ethnicity, or the ethnic divisions in Ireland, peoples whose skin we would all automatically read as 'white’ within a U.S. setting?
Relying on the idea light-skinned privilege in order to ignore other people’s experiences of racism or ethnic discrimination, diverse as they are, is to use the Master’s tools to patch over the holes in his house while claiming to have torn it down. I’m the darkest member of my mixed-race family – yes, even darker than my 'fully’ Mexican-American mother - and it would not only be inaccurate to say my siblings have not experienced racism; it would be violent as well, as I would be denying the complexity of their experience. Perhaps it might be more useful to support light-skinned POCs in their own excavations of racism in their lives, as well as encouraging them to think about how passing privilege functions for them – as it both provide ease in certain moments, and also exposes them to grossly offensive forms of racism in the presence of white people who assume their whiteness. Additionally, reducing the degree of racism experienced to skin color is to pretend that experiences of racism are primarily and exclusively interpersonal, versus structural, historical, and institutional. A light-skinned person of color may be the child of dark-skinned, immigrant, migrant farm laborers with no college education who struggled to put food on the table – which would seriously inform and shape that light-skinned person’s life possibilities via structural racism, even if they are unable to identify the ways interpersonal racism shows up in their life. This caricature I paint is not even a rhetorical strategy, but a person who exists.
Does any one of us get to decide who is dark enough to experience 'true’ racism, globally? Identity markers are already multiple – we are using singular words to demarcate certain parts of people’s many identities in order to parse them into groups. In the end, we speak these words in English, and there is no way to purify them of history just enough to render them wholly un-problematic.
I think that horizontal alliances (alliances across communities that are targeted by an -ism, though the manifestations may be hugely different) are seriously lacking in communities of color, and while McKenzie’s perspective is easily digestible both by many progressive white (queer) people, and by some who share similar experiences of racism, it comes across as reductive, essentializing, and simply, reproductive of unquestioned ideological constructions around race and racism. I don’t think she is attempting to be as reductive and callous as she comes across, and it seems she is trying to get at the complexity of experiences of racism, but this is quickly lost. It is difficult to implore others to be mindful of their privilege when investigations of structural oppression are so one-dimensional. I would ask that she offer more specificity in lieu of universals/generalizations, as her perspective is one I value and one that warrants much more space in a world that would rather she remain silent. Rigor and depth of engagement would be a great place to start.
I agree that we all need to get on board with having more conversations, being more thoughtful about the shifting relations to privilege we carry with us as we walk through the diverse spaces we inhabit, and that many claims to identity will be fraught and problematic. What I cannot get behind is the moralistic basis for McKenzie’s suggestions, the way she flattens race into her own particular experiences of racism, and the trendy list-format-as-guidebook for people seeking to rethink their relationships to privilege and alliance. In my studies, interventions, and personal reflection, I have taken it as an ethical imperative to critique not to tear things down, but to participate in building them up. I am not one to wholly affirm things and can only hope that these contributions I offer here are taken as an extension of engagement, a desire to share and learn, and a sense of hope in everyone’s ability to reflect on the truths they hold dear.
For comments/questions/feedback, please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org