As my sort of subtitle suggests, I am addressing what it means to observe and navigate white privilege from my particular black point of view. This particular story begins on the first day of school and a BuzzFeed article. First days of school do not hold the same amount of excitement now that I am a third year doctoral student, particularly since I have been going to school without breaks for the past twent-two year. Ya girl is over this whole class thing, especially when the last nine of them have been spent in PWI’s (Predominantly White Institutions). One of many things that my education has taught me is my own extreme exasperation with white privilege, and white people’s sense of offense at being called out about racism.
On this particular day I went to my first class of the semester that was assigned to a classroom that was admittedly small for the number of persons enrolled in the course. One option was to just bring three more chairs in and squeeze everyone in, the other was to request a larger room. I found myself really exasperated by the comments of the rest of the class. It was a barrage of complaints that the room was a closet and hot, and needing to move immediately. Sitting there listening my thoughts were, “It is really not that crucial.” I was literally holding my side-eye in because, the room was small but the amount of complaining was excessive in my opinion. This was only to be followed by yet another syllabus that was devoid of any melanin and subject matter that only went up through the nineteenth century. But wait, it gets better. My professor asks as general question that was clearly directed at the only black person in the room as we are adding books to the syllabus, “Are there any books by African Americans?” This was my face on the inside.
So here is the problem that I have as a black PhD student in this hostile white environment. As a black student in religious study, as I am sure is true for other areas, there is an expectation that I know “classical” religious studies; the dead Western European white men in addition to black scholarship in the field. Knowing the Western European tradition is the only way to be taken seriously as a scholar, in addition to not being taken seriously because I study African Americans. The disparity in what education looks like for minority came out when my professor, the one with the damn PhD, has not done the homework enough to know of any resources to me, the only melanin in the room. White privilege in academia looks like this: Not having to know anything other than white shit and being mediocre.
Around the same time frame, most likely in the same week, my best friend sends me a link to a BuzzFeed video entitled 24 Questions Black People Have for White People which I will link for those of you who have not seen it. The questions that were posed were things that I have asked or heard asked by black people for most of my life. It was meant to be comedy. I thought it was hilarious. Then I decided to take a gander at the comments because I knew that white people would indeed have something to say about it; they did not disappoint. Many comments that I saw were calling the video offensive, and racist, accusing the creators of using gross generalizations for all white people. This is where I would like to begin.
I found that the nature of the response to this video, along with my first day of class experience illustrated one of the large issues with white privilege in America. There is a list of things that could be pointed out, and I would be writing until my hair was fully grey. So let’s keep this relatively short. The culture of domination in this country is one that continues to police the voices of those it has disenfranchised. In terms of this video, it seems easy to forget that media continues to propagandizes caricatures of blackness, particularly for the sake of comedy, as well as praise cultural appropriation as cutting edge, trendy, and avante garde, whatever the hell when white people do it.
More importantly, to say that if white people were to ask the same sorts of questions of African Americans, we would be offended misses the point that this is a daily occurrence in the black experience and the actual pain of being black in this country. Rather I see this video as getting at the nature of the treatment of African Americans in this society and in popular culture, and how idiotic some questions are. It also gets at cultural appropriation and the actual experiences of many persons of color.
Part of white privilege as is the ability to speak freely without worry of the consequences of what one says or how it will be received. That is, unless you are skiddish about being called racist, even though this in and of itself may highlight some racist tendencies while not making one a full blown racist. My colleagues found it particularly insufferable to be uncomfortable and demanded to be accommodated in a better space, while my black body was a mere afterthought in a course that is an attempt to address a wide range of questions on gender and sexuality that is supposed to be helpful to my writing, yet does not include the minority voices in the conversation, and I would suspect would not have come up had I not been enrolled in the class.
This, my friends, is the nature of blackness in America. It continues to get at DuBois’s question at the beginning of The Souls of White Folks, “How does it feel to be a problem?” The reality of white privlilege, in addition to blindness and ignorance to one’s power, is occupying spaces with such freedom that it must conform itself to accommodate your comfort level. Yet for a person of color, every moment is navigated with a hypersensitivity to the spaces that we occupy. In some cases, there is an attempt to not take up too much of that space or forcing yourself to not shrink in the face of the reality of your body and not muting your voice in a chorus of others. It is the constant struggle to be able to exist in hostile territory, and trust, it is hostile.
Now I have an idea of what some of you are thinking, “Is this seriously a race issue? Are you sure that you are not overreacting?” I am most certainly not. Even in constructing this post I have been worried about racial backlash and the discomfort of white people that know and follow me, but discomfort is an opportunity for growth and to examine yourself. If I offended you, I’m not sorry. If you think this does not apply to you, cool. As you were. Race and privilege are very large issues and I happen to be situated in a place that is exploited by these structures. To conclude, if anyone touches my hair without my permission, this will happen to you.
You have been warned.