In which I shall attempt to explain how I think entitlement/privilege is related to docentry/tokenism, reverse racism and how I think you can use your entitlement/privilege for good.
Updated: To try to clarify a bit.
In review, for the purposes of my discussion about privilege and entitlement, social position is your place in society’s hierarchies based on your appearance (looks, dress, fashion, behavior, etc.). Privilege is what you have, what is afforded you, unasked, by society at large and by individuals in society, based on your social position. Entitlement is what grows in you in response to that privilege, based on the frequency of the privilege being made available to you over the years.
The idea is that while in general except with individuals you see frequently, you probably can’t do much about the privilege you get, you can do something about your entitlement. You can nip that entitlement right in the bud, and instead of being an entitled asshole about your privilege (for instance, demanding that privilege even when it’s not volunteered for you), you have the power to overcome that entitlement and instead use your position of privilege to do good for society. From my perspective as an anti-racist, this is where the rubber meets the road. I know I have a duty to overcome my entitlement and use my position of privilege to improve upon the social inequalities between races. I think everyone who claims to be anti-racist should be doing this work too.
To review basic assumptions in the anti-racist community, there is a tried and true maxim that white people shall not engage or encourage people of color (POCs) to explain oppression or to be the museum docent to the POC’s life, lifestyle or living conditions. Why is this maxim so supported among POCs? I think I have part of the answer.
I know, from my Honorary Whiteness, from my privileged upbringing as a highly assimilated half-Asian, half-white guy, that among the many possible unexamined privileges and entitlements of being white is an entitlement to (social) safety. There is an expectation I know from my own upbringing as an Honorary White Guy that there will always be a safe path through any social interaction, one where I will not be taken to task for having made any sort of mistake. This entitlement exists even though that path to safety is often a myth and any safety you are afforded is derived directly from social expressions of your privilege.
In contrast, unless POCs want to and do assimilate and are extra careful and extra good, unthreatening and unopinionated, we rarely get to be socially safe. At any moment in the mixed social sphere, POCs are at the disadvantage of being called out simply for being different. Many times this hinges on aspects of appearance that cannot be effectively managed by anyone who is not unimaginably rich (and who can to some extent shape their own appearance, their own social circles, and engineer a situation where difference will either be ignored or celebrated).
To try to make this idea more clear, consider one social dynamic: In the greater social contexts (i.e. the public sphere) there’s generally a lot more social effort involved in calling out a white guy, or for that matter, a white woman, when sie is being an asshat and racist than there is in calling out a POC for violating the same sorts of rules. I think that this dynamic is a direct expression of this privilege of social safety.
I believe that socially liberal/progressive white folks feel instinctively guilty and desperate (with respect to wanting, having or finding a safe path through it where guilt is minimized) about social and economic inequality as exhibited by troublesome POCs who refuse to seek/attain equality. In this kind of environment, the urge to find a native guide must be overwhelming. This is how I think the urge to nominate a token and demand docentry is probably nearly impossible to manage or overcome.
As H said to me this evening, it’s also important to consider that the systems that create the -isms, the social inequalities in our society are so vast that there is really no one who has all of the pieces in control or understood, and it’s something we activists hardly ever talk about. Simply put, we know there’s a problem, but we don’t have a clear idea of how to fix it.
We have developed a lot of mitigation strategies and identified a lot of problem behaviors that contribute to making the problems we see and experience about social inequalities worse, but we, as far as I know, simply do not know how to fix the total underlying problems. At best we tend to hope that if the folks who are being *-ist would fucking stop, maybe we’d know where to go from there.
It should then be obvious that even a POC docent won’t help you find that safety you’re looking for. In some cases a willing POC docent might hinder you by providing you only a partial solution to a social problem or providing you one that only works with a very small, very specific population.
I come around again to something I’ve written about before. In a situation of lack of safety, your best strategy is to try your best and be prepared to take your lumps when you fuck it up. And you will fuck it up. Without a lot of experience under your belt, you will not be able to think of every aspect of what you write or say, and you may learn a lot by the school of hard knocks. Learning not to fuck it up is a little like being a child and learning how to be polite – you just cannot hope to properly navigate it all the time until you get a lot of experience under your belt.
As a thought leader in my corporate setting has said many times in the past to me, when you are stuck and see no clear way out, sometimes the best action is just to take action, get moving, and do the steering out later. Like ships with no momentum we are stuck. The rudder only works when there is motion as well. Over analyzing the situation to find another position of safety may only leave you stuck in the dock, not having gained a thing.
Like I have said before, this mythological safety is not afforded those of us who are not white. When we fuck up, we know it immediately. The social inequalities are built that way – immediate feedback for those on the short end of the stick who fuck it up. The fact that white people can even start in a position of safety or relative safety already exposes your privilege in that space. How you choose to use that position is up to you, and I think it will say a lot about your character.
I think this expectation of safety also an entitlement/privilege that makes complaints about “reverse racism” pretty toothless. If you happen to intersect, as a white person, with a strong community of POCs, and someone is biased against your white ass, too fucking bad. This entitlement to safety that makes you think there is a universal polite and PC path through any social situation also makes you a whiner, because you assume that everyone is safe all the time.
This assumption is essentially bullshit and it probably makes you feel justified in complaining about “reverse racism”. No one except you is safe. If you only realize the lack of safety when someone in a strong POC community is biased toward you and refuses to provide you your accustomed privilege, then suck it up. No POC wants to hear your whining about how unsafe you feel. It is a problem that happens to a POC every day (and to some particularly abhorrent [to some white people] POCs much more frequently than that).
I think this privilege of safety also touches on something I’ve looked for a long time for within folks who are white and whom I’m still proud to call my staunch anti-racist allies. To me, one of the defining characteristics I look for in any skilled and ethical anti-racist activist (there are of course exceptions, but not with many close friends and strong allies nor with myself) is that almost we have accepted the idea that we are racist. The idea is that we acknowledge that we have enculturated (that we grew up with, that influences our decision-making every day) baggage that makes us have racist attitudes that must be intentionally overcome while we work to do good in society.
There are a lot of folks I’ve encountered in the wider world who consider themselves anti-racist activists who also consider themselves not racist. I don’t know how that works, because when I interact with them, they are often very invested in demonstrating that they are not racist, and not so invested in the doing good portion of anti-racist activism.
To me, when an anti-racist activist accepts that their upbringing in this society is/was racist, not only have they intentionally surrendered that entitlement to safety (which is a good faith gesture that I appreciate), but they have also intentionally done away with having to justify and defend their mythical non-racist selves from charges of racism. The assumption is now that they’re racist and that they should do good anyhow, if possible.
If you are my friend and you are white, I personally will try to give you a lot of useful feedback and a minimum of ass-kickings as you learn how to manage all of this. The harder you try to do good with your privilege the easier on you I will try to be. I cannot promise you any other safety than that, as I can’t compel anyone else to be easy on you.
Updated: Both trying to provide more concrete examples of privilege as well as some notes at the end about how this entitlement makes me personally feel that charges of “Reverse Racism” are essentially bullshit whining, as well as how this ties back to good faith efforts I see in my strongest white allies.