Saturday, August 10, 2013

On the Question of Privilege

Let's talk about Privilege. Who has it. Who doesn't. And what it means -- and doesn't mean.

Of course I've benefited all my life from White Privilege, though not nearly as much as some may assume from the looks of my pale visage and all. No, I didn't really fit very well into the harmonious conformity to the Principles of Whiteness from the time I was little, so the privilege I experienced and experience to this day is the privilege of a White Rebel, not to be discounted in any way, but hardly what you might expect.

Though I have been shot, it wasn't by the cops. Though the cops have on occasion drawn firearms against me, they have never fired, and in fact have mostly been polite or at least civil with me. I was incarcerated once for three days, but I wasn't beaten or abused in any particular way by the guards (the experience inside was awful just the same), and I wasn't subjected to more than minor harassment and intimidation by the other suspects and detainees.

The White Privilege I have benefited from is mostly that of most any White Guy who can go practically anywhere whenever he wants and not be subjected to suspicion, random search and seizure, official brutality and potential summary execution. I can expect to be treated with courtesy and respect in hotels, restaurants, retail establishments, public accommodations of all kinds, I can rent a car or buy travel tickets with ease. I generally receive only the most cursory examination of my ID when ID is required for some reason -- which for me is very rare. I could go on and on about all the other privileges that accompany being White.

But I was only made aware of my own White Privilege when it disappeared, which it has from time to time. I've been rebellious all my life, but in the 1960's I broke with convention enough to be regarded a Hippie, which at the time was enough to be banished from polite company. "Out of the car, Longhair!" is no joke, it happened. Being refused service for one's appearance, being harassed by everyone, not just by the cops. Refusing military service was even worse at the time.

But still, I was White and in California so I wasn't subjected to the kinds of draconian punishments civil rights leaders, for example, were experiencing at just about the same time. Well, at least I wasn't subjected to them from the larger society.

I was furiously punished by my own family, though. Ultimately was rejected by them, dispossessed and ejected. I literally starved for a while.

It was as a consequence of that experience that I was adopted -- you might say -- by an American Indian family, and I've lived among Indians ever since.

From them, I learned what my Privilege really was, and how that Privilege did not extend to people like them.

For example, they were trained from very early on to act submissive in the face of White authority -- or pay the consequences,  which could be severe. They were expected to stay in their "place," which was subservient at all times. They were required to pay more for goods and services because they were not White. They were allowed to live as well as they could afford, but they could afford less than a White household on the same income -- because they had to pay more. They were routinely ridiculed for being "dumb Indians," were subjected to suspicion by neighbors and authorities alike simply because they weren't White, and were rarely acknowledged as "Americans" -- let alone as fully human. I myself thought they were Mexican until I learned otherwise.

I made myself useful to them by helping to navigate some of the more opaque and intricate measures that Society placed in their path, and for that I received their gratitude. I could navigate these elements of strangeness (to them) seemingly instinctively, and the fact that I could do it so easily was itself a primary benefit of Being White. On the other hand, because I was among them rather than among "my own kind" I was required to behave as a child or at best as a student because I knew nothing of their culture and society and had much to learn before I could be considered -- by them -- to be fully human.

Even now, though I have spent close to fifty years among Indians, and I'm more fully immersed in Indian culture today than I have ever been, I'm still ignorant of a great deal and still lack proper social graces. A bumbler I am. I confess.

When I was a child in Los Angeles, I lived in one of the few integrated neighborhoods, and so my neighbors and school chums were White and Black and Latino and Asian as a matter of course. It was only when moving to Northern California that I came to understand what segregation was, and for the first time, I experienced all White neighborhoods and all White schools. It had never occurred to me before that there could be such things.

And it was in Northern California that I learned what racial -- and economic -- exclusion and exclusivity did to other White people. It made them arrogant and ignorant and mean.

Privileged, though. Oh, so Privileged. And they liked it like that.

Keep the coloreds down so that one's Whiteness was worth something.

You see.

Of course all that has changed, hasn't it? We are in a Post-Racial Society now, all brothers and sisters, aren't we?


It really hasn't changed much at all, except superficially. White folks still benefit from Privilege as they always have, and now that I'm old, I benefit -- to an extent -- from Elder Privilege as well. Despite the cultural honors that Indians and Hispanics receive in New Mexico, they still don't qualify for White Privilege (just ask them -- when they aren't being chased or shot at on suspicion),  and they still have to tread softly around the (mostly) Anglos who run the place.

As for Blacks and Asians in New Mexico, the situation borders on schizophrenic. According to social norms, they're usually classified as Anglos, because their culture is considered Anglo by the Indians and Hispanics whose ancestors were here long before any Blacks or Asians arrived. (Forget about El Morro Estevanico for the moment.)

Where they fit or don't fit in Anglo society is something else again.

White Privilege goes with the color of one's skin, but all privileges accruing to Whiteness do not automatically pertain to all Whites all the time. There are many subtle and not so subtle gradations primarily according to economic status. Thus poor Whites do not have nearly the Privileges better off Whites do, and none have the Privileges of the richest and most powerful Whites.

Similar gradations, though not necessarily on economic lines, operate within non-White societies as  well.

Ultimately, White Privilege is simply a fact in this country, no matter where you are -- though it is much less apparent within non-White communities, and it is somewhat less apparent than it once was in the overall society since the abolition of legal segregation. The fact remains that one is treated differently almost instinctively depending on one's color, language and culture. Typically, one is treated better the Whiter one is -- or appears to be.

Those who seem most resistant to acknowledging this fact seem to be among those who benefit the most from it.

Isn't that something?

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