The privilege in your pocket: a manifesto

Today we welcome Stephanie in her first Guest Hoyden post!

Stephanie is a loud person of Chinese-Anglo descent, who tries to navigate being an Australian by way of Malaysia. Growing up in Australia meant never seeing any people who looked like her on TV, constantly having to explain the most basic food and customs, and being mistaken for one of the two other Asian girls in her grade who looked nothing like her. At the age of ten, she was horrified to discover that not everyone eats rice several times a day.

the sky is high

At The sky is high (an approximate translation of her blog name) she talks about beautiful things, her embarrassing love of Chinese pop music, food, language, identity and privilege. Stephanie also posts at Vegan About Town (no relation!) This post was originally made here.

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“But that’s the good thing about you,” K said recently. “You can choose your Chinese side or your Australian side.” And I didn’t say, “are you using ‘Australian’ to mean ‘Anglo’?” I can’t remember what I said, but I didn’t say that, and things that I hate include but are not limited to: that I have become so complicit in this game of privilege and institutionalisation.

Week before last I posted about the racist “Chinese can’t speak English” cartoon in the Western Suburbs Weekly. The comments in that post demonstrated that someone I had previously considered a friend is a racist apologist, and our friendship is over. Since then, I have been so fired up and angry, but also more aware than usual of my own privilege and the privilege of others. I am almost always aware of white privilege and, as someone who has been known to pass (as many things that I am not), sometimes it’s painfully clear to me how I play that to my own advantage.

I tend not to talk about this stuff because I find it really difficult to articulate, for all that I like talking and I enjoy writing. But not talking means silence, and silence is often a tool of acceptance, and I can’t let myself be like that anymore, that’s not really who I am. And I’m not just talking about racism, either.

So if I get angry at you, I’m not sorry. I don’t want to be complicit in playground equipment that you can’t get to if you’re on wheels, preventing parents in wheelchairs from reaching their kids. I don’t want to just accept when people tell stories that start, this Asian girl or that Aboriginal boy, but begin a boy when they’re talking about someone who is Anglo, singling out the difference and othering us through language. I don’t want to sit silently by as people talk in stereotypes because they’re funny, gay people are promiscuous and fat people are lazy and when you say these things somebody believes you, and when you say these things you draw a line between you and the people you’re picking out, and we have different backgrounds and histories but we’re people and it’s terrible, regardless of your intentions.

My anger is real. And so is the bigotry and discrimination in this country, overt or not, and talking about it doesn’t create it, talking about it makes the problem visible, and we do not have to give the benefit of the doubt that everyone is actually totally nice. It’s easy to point at someone who thinks all Chinese are stealing the jobs or whatever and say, “that person is racist!” but it’s harder to point to someone who is being nice, because it’s often the nicest people who are so well meaning and don’t notice that their own prejudices are totally messing us up.


A STORY:

Friday, on the bus:

*man visually of African descent stands and gives his seat to a middle-aged lady*

Anglo lady next to me: Oh, isn’t that lovely. (in an approving tone)
Anglo lady opposite her: Well, he’s not Australian.
Anglo lady next to me: Give him twelve months.

This is a well-meaning conversation: isn’t he lovely? He’s giving up his seat! But it IS STILL RACIST, this assumption that different ethnicity = different nationality, and it does us all a disservice, and it still makes me angry. I bet they thought they were being nice, too. And how did that guy feel, hearing that? All he did was stand up whilst black, and to those women that means he’s not Australian.

Further reading:



Categories: social justice

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

25 replies

  1. Great set of links, Stephanie. I know that when I first read tekanji’s post about privilege and ally work I was horrified to realise certain historical examples of my own privilege in action in unconsciously Othering people of different heritages, even though I’d become somewhat aware of the idea over the years, it simply hadn’t been fully clear to me.
    I’m sad that you lost a friend because he refused to listen to your experience of how racism was affecting you and others (I read the thread when Lauredhel pointed me to it). Being that disappointed/disillusioned by/about someone is always painful.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Stephanie. Your bus story is quite revealing, I think, and has more than a touch of the “noble savage” myth about it.
    I know you’ve had a bit of a rough time with your antiracist speech on LJ – so much resistance, and all couched in “I’m just being the rational one” terms. I’m impressed at how you manage to keep your own head from exploding, sometimes.
    (If you’re interested, I’d very much like to hear the longer, richer translation of your blog name, too.)

  3. Fantastic post, Stephanie.
    The story about the bus makes me want to cry and reminds me of going on a vollie training tour of NGV:A a couple of years ago with a volunteer guide who was showing us around the indigenous art and kept saying things like “well, some of them are quite gifted. They can be as good as normal artists.”
    I completely failed in my duty as a POC ally to call this woman out which still makes me feel terrible. I am going work on my own privilege and learn to be a better ally to POC.

  4. Good post; it’s interesting how much privilege is so internalised that we (Anglos or whatever privileged group really) pretend it doesn’t exist. I’m not a racist or I’m not a sexist is alive and well and regularly being used on blogs and in the real world.
    I was perplexed by this comment:
    “The comments in that post demonstrated that someone I had previously considered a friend is a racist apologist, and our friendship is over.”
    Is this person a friend in the real world? Surely friendships aren’t so disposable, and, of course, they sometimes require some honest and difficult communication to get through rough patches. Being called to account isn’t a bad thing, but just cutting a person off doesn’t achieve much. Anger has its place, but so do a lot of other emotions that are less taxing on one’s emotional health.

  5. Stephanie, your post is touching me close to home this week. Earlier this year my uncle included me in a group email that wasn’t even trying not to be racist and it made me so angry. I replied to everyone on the list in what I thought at the time were quite measured terms but afterwards received a bollicking from my brother, not because he disagreed, but because my uncle is dying from cancer. This week we’ve learnt he will probably not make it to Christmas and I am really struggling to affirm with myself that I did the right thing for the exact reasons you mention: I couldn’t stay silent because if I did, 50 people on that email list would think I agreed with him, and I didn’t, I wouldn’t and I won’t ever support those beliefs and ideas and I don’t want to have to hide that. Thanks for your post. Jacqui

  6. Surely friendships aren’t so disposable, and, of course, they sometimes require some honest and difficult communication to get through rough patches. Being called to account isn’t a bad thing, but just cutting a person off doesn’t achieve much. Anger has its place, but so do a lot of other emotions that are less taxing on one’s emotional health.

    If you thought it was a “good post”, why are you now lecturing Stephanie on how she shouldn’t be so angry? (Darlene – really – something straight off Bingo 101?)
    What makes you think that the friendship was dropped out of anger, for a start? I would absolutely drop a friendship in a second if the person showed their colours as a frothing misogynist, out of self-protection as much as anything else. I don’t have enough energy to catch up with my real friends. Friends aren’t supposed to leave you feeling as though you’ve just been squirted with emotionally-toxic slime.

  7. A a couple of years ago with a volunteer guide who was showing us around the indigenous art and kept saying things like “well, some of them are quite gifted. They can be as good as normal artists.”

    Jawdrop.

  8. Thanks for that, lauredhel. Perhaps posts can be good but have elements that are not. Life’s a little complex like that. People are a little complex like that. There are at times when we all say bloody stupid things, but if that makes us disposable in friendship terms well it was a pointless friendship to begin with. Relationships, I would contend, often require work. I think if we dropped everybody because of their unpleasant beliefs, we would be pretty isolated (and they wouldn’t have changed their beliefs). And let’s face it, there’s a time and place. People are walking cardboard cut-outs.
    Well, anger was mentioned more than once in the post. I actually find the expression of anger (particularly when it’s expressed quite a bit) a little like “emotionally-toxic slime” to be frank.

  9. Actually I meant to say people aren’t walking cardboard cut-outs. The only people I’ve met who seem to think they are are bigots and ideologues who take over meetings (e.g. IWD collective was horrendous thanks to some extremist bigots).

  10. Relationships, I would contend, often require work.

    Both people need to do that work, not just one.
    Either way, you’re being astonishingly condescending and rude to my guest blogger, and I request that you stop.

  11. I think that having the option of not cutting ties with certain people is a big part of privilege. As a white Australian, if another white Australian says something racist, then they aren’t talking about me personally, so it’s easier to make excuses along the lines of “S/he’s racist, but really a ‘nice’ person underneath, so it’s worth maintaining a friendship”– but you really only have that option if you’re in a position of privilege. If, however, you’re in one of the groups that is the target of those attacks, you have the option of either setting out to change the opinion of someone who already sees you as less than an equal, maintaining a friendship with someone who sees you as less than an equal, or cutting ties. Usually the hegemonic/privileged group greatly rewards the second option, and tries to paint the third option as some sort of extremism– when really it’s just a personal recognition of one’s own self worth (of course, non-privleged groups are not supposed to be so uppity as to have a sense of self-worth).

  12. Oh, and Stephanie, I’m sorry, I probably should have responded directly to your post before that more general comment above– although I don’t have much to say other thanks for the insightful writing.

  13. This thread is being derailed, which is largely my fault for having made another comment after Lauredhel’s “back on topic” comment (Darlene understandably wants to respond, but that will take us further from Stephs actual post).
    We’re about to shift this side-debate to a new thread. Hang on.

  14. This particular subthread will continue in a new post, so please don’t panic if you see comments deleted from here – the new post will go up in a few minutes, storm and our electrical system willing.
    (Crossed posts with tigtog. OK, I think I’ve cut and pasted accurately – please email me if anything is missing or mistagged.)
    Update: The thread is continued here.

  15. I think that having the option of not cutting ties with certain people is a big part of privilege. As a white Australian, if another white Australian says something racist, then they aren’t talking about me personally, so it’s easier to make excuses along the lines of “S/he’s racist, but really a ‘nice’ person underneath, so it’s worth maintaining a friendship”– but you really only have that option if you’re in a position of privilege.

    Beppie, this is an interesting idea that I’d not thought about really, but it’s quite related to the idea that as a target of this sort of language, I’m expected to either educate people or stop being so whiny. Often because of that I feel obliged to listen to people’s questions, and then answer them, when the reality is that although the problems associated are an issue for me, the lack of knowledge of a Caucasian person is not actually my problem, so why do I feel so obliged? One of the things I’m slowly coming to terms with is that it’s not my job to educate clueless people.

  16. One of the things I’m slowly coming to terms with is that it’s not my job to educate clueless people.

    Definitely, stephanie. There’s a big difference between choosing to offer education (in your own way and your own time), and having it demanded of you.

  17. Jawdrop.

    Re-reading over how I wrote up what the guide said, it wasn’t quite that literal but that’s what it meant.
    I would like to think if she had actually used the word ‘normal’, I would have called her out.
    But, who know, maybe my privilege would have kicked in again . . . *uncomfortable thought*

  18. I’ve been thinking a lot about white privilege in recent months, in part because of the huge bust-up in US feminist blogs, in part because of earlier experiences. It’s incredibly confronting to recognise racism in myself, without at the same time giving myself grief over it. Duh! Of course I have privilege – it’s the way this society is. But not the way it ought to be.

  19. Stephanie, I’d really like to apologise for participating in the derailment of the conversation in response to your post.
    It is a beautiful post, poetic, heartrending and powerful.
    To turn around and respond to another commenter based on my experiences rather than discussing your post was rude of me, and obnoxious.
    I just finished reading the first link you posted, and it’s incredibly comprehensively well written.
    In regards to your post, I particularly liked your point that we are not required to “give the benifit of the doubt that everyone is actually totally nice” in responding to them.
    So…my apologies for being so self centred, and thank you for sharing your post.

  20. FP, this is amazingly gracious, although I think a bit hard on yourself. The response-to-anger issues were part of Stephanie’s post as well as part of the derailment, and you made some good points which could be redrafted just a little and posted here again. I particularly liked the distinction you made between indignant outrage and aggressive intimidation.
    I expect that many women have a particularly hard time dealing with anger because it’s (a) against our gender socialisation to express it ourselves and (b) aggressive attitudes are so often used as a weapon against us, and that’s just in so-called functional, non-abusive families.

  21. FP, I agree with tigtog that there is no need to be so hard on yourself. Some of the comments to come out of that derailment were quite interesting and thoughtprovoking, and hardly irrelevant.
    I cannot emphasise to the world enough how much I want everyone to read that first link, and really take it in. I want to quote every single part of it, and a lot of people coming from a position of privilege have said that they found it very useful and informative.
    And on niceness…well, let’s just say it’s people being nice that makes me the angriest of all, and started this post in the first place.

  22. tigtog,

    ”I was horrified to realise certain historical examples of my own privilege in action in unconsciously Othering people of different heritages, even though I’d become somewhat aware of the idea over the years, it simply hadn’t been fully clear to me.”

    I guess the biggest thing about this is how a- everyone does it, and b- it’s so hard to articulate what’s wrong. I’ve been working on a piece about language and food and ethnicity for about three weeks, but every time I think I’m done I decide it’s not clear enough, simply because the language around it is so confusing.

  23. Nice post. This kind of stuff gets under my skin so badly – and particularly my cowardice in calling people out.
    It actually drives me up the wall, because it just seems like everyone has some damn prejudice. Comments about gay men being cute, “asians” buying everyone out, it being “just wrong” for men to want to wear women’s clothing. I want to be more outspoken, and certainly bitch about it to people who understand (what, cause I appear to be white I must share your racism? Jesus), but don’t want to alienate everyone I know :

  24. stephanie:

    I’ve been working on a piece about language and food and ethnicity for about three weeks, but every time I think I’m done I decide it’s not clear enough, simply because the language around it is so confusing.

    I’m really looking forward to reading this.

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