An Afternoon’s Lesson in Online White Privilege
Much of my writing is about race and racism, and since those subjects have played (and continue to play) such a prominent role in my life, when I see a conversation online about racism, the temptation to jump right in with both feet is strong, sometimes irresistible.
So it was yesterday when I saw a conversation on Twitter between blacks. Here’s the quote that got my attention: “the white left wants the Democratic party without blacks in it.” Okay…I am a strong liberal and I am therefore part of the “white left”, so I could not leave that unanswered. I posted something about how we whites on the left voted for Obama both times, so how the heck could we not want blacks in the Democratic party? One of the others replied, “Check your white privilege”, and it was off to the Twitter-war races.
I thought I understood white privilege (“WP” hereafter), for I’ve often written about how I’d wrongly benefited from it not just in America but especially overseas. I’ve been approached first before others in line, given priority in meetings, given trust based simply on my word, allowed to get away with things that nonwhites couldn’t do…WP is almost ubiquitous worldwide, even in places where Europeans and Americans have committed atrocities. So I get it…or so I thought.
Several others joined in the Twitter flame war (do they still call it that?), and everyone against me. That didn’t bother me so much, for I’m a contrarian and used to being the only one arguing the other side. After about two hours, one of the others pointed out that if I’d taken the time to read the thread before jumping in with both feet, I’d have found that however the offending quote was phrased, it really was meant to apply to Bernie Sanders (whom I’ve never supported) and his minions. Okay…it became obvious then that I had stuck my nose in where it didn’t belong, that yes, I should have read the rest of the thread first. That’s a rookie mistake for online debates, and I really should have known better. But, I argued, how is that WP?
The conversation became a bit more considerate, and to make a long story short, they explained to me that a big part of WP is the expectation that I could do just what I did, to rudely barge into a conversation and assume that my word should mean at least as much as everyone else’s. That explanation still didn’t sit right with me, and I argued that I have as much right to speak as everyone else does, don’t I?
Not so much, it turns out, for two reasons:
First, I do not have, and cannot have had the life experience of the blacks who were having the conversation to begin with. I cannot know what life is like without WP, and that WP (or the lack thereof in conversations among nonwhites) often tends to inform much of the communication between two people. Among nonwhites (and among blacks in particular), the understanding of the racism and WP is innate, and adds a dimension to the social communication that we whites cannot wholly grasp. Conversely, conversations between whites carries certain implications and expectations that is at best uncommon among nonwhites. This is something that I should have understood immediately, for this describes nearly all interpersonal communication I experienced in my youth in the Mississippi Delta. Conversations between whites carried cultural and social understandings that were, that had to be different from those in conversations between blacks. It is for that reason that I wrong to have expected that my words should have meant as much as anyone else’s in that conversation. My own expectation that my words were just as pertinent (’cause First Amendment) was a glaring example of WP.
Second, did you notice how often I’ve used the words “I”, “me”, “my”, and “mine” above? My writing (and my arguments) are self-centered. That was what the others pointed out to me repeatedly during the heat of the argument. I didn’t want to admit it, but they were right about that, too, for my arguments made everything about me, and that’s not good. A good writer knows that it is not the self that is important, but the wide world around oneself. A writer who spends too much time navel-gazing or making arguments that revolve around the usage of first-person pronouns is not a good writer. Such a writer might also be prone to the kind of self-importance that leads one to rudely butt into conversations where one is not wanted and does not belong.
No one enjoys losing an argument, but if one is wise, such a loss can be very beneficial indeed for one’s craft with the written word, and especially with one’s personality and ability to properly interact with others.