The roots of white privilege and what we must do to recognize it

Guest post by Mary Beth Huwe
Recognizing the roots of white privilege (and what we can read to recognize it)
Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

I recently had an experience with myself that brought me up short and let me know that — smack! — it was time to do some more reading.

At my first-grader's end of school event, I was getting into line to buy a slice of pizza. The serving line was "manned" by parent volunteers (who were all women. The serving line was "womanned" by parent volunteers).

Another parent, a black woman still in her work polo from the regional grocery store chain, was walking toward me from the opposite direction. I stopped so that she could pass me on her way to "woman" the serving line.

We looked at each other and I smiled and said, "Excuse me" because this is the South and I have Manners. But she didn't pass me on her way to woman the serving line, because she wasn't womanning it. She was getting in line herself to buy a slice of pizza. So I queued up behind her and felt a sickening flash of understanding about my assumptions.

I am used to black women serving me. I am so used to it that I expect it as a social norm.

And — this part is harder to admit — I smiled at her not simply because I have Manners (though I need you to know that I do have Manners,) but also because I did not want her to think I am a white woman asshole, thus making myself a white woman asshole. Fuck.

That is problematic. On many, many (I'll give it another) many levels.

This shit. AGAIN.

Anyone who has done any form of serious healing work in their lives knows that our patterns and wounding show up again and again and again, and it is up to us to recognize the roots and continue to pull them out as best we can.

Anyone who has done any form of healing work knows that our patterns show up again and again, and it is up to us to recognize the roots and continue to pull them out as best we can.

One way we can find the roots is by seeing the fruits. What are we growing in our lives? What kinds of symptoms do we have that tell us about the health of our own bodies and the environments we're in? For these things to be meaningful and informative, we must look at them. There are lots of different ways people understand this shared human experience across cultures and disciplines.

Because, in part, monotheism does not appeal to me, I find the language used in Buddhism¹ as metaphorically helpful. There's talk of "self-cherishing" as the root of suffering. (This is different from "self-love" in pretty much every way. "Self-cherishing" preserves and protects its deluded, isolated sense of self-importance above all. It's like what Gollum does with the One Ring in the Tolkien series.) So anyway, Buddhism teaches us that self-cherishing is a root of suffering, and we need to "pull out the seeds of suffering" from our psyches.

This applies beautifully to white privilege and white supremacy. For white people like me, examining what seeds of belief are in our minds and not running from that discomfort is really, really important if we give a shit about other people.

Examining what seeds of belief are in our minds and not running from that discomfort is really, really important if we give a shit about other people.

Because as disempowered as we might feel individually in the world, the balance of power is wildly, ridiculously, and violently tipped in our favor. We do have the power, like it or not, deny it or not.

And simply by living, we are wielding that power. It's up to us to do it consciously, to raise it up from the unconscious psyche. Again. And again, and fucking again.

Read your vegetables

Much to my surprise, most of the self-prescribed reading I've done in response to this incident has been on — or at least through — the unlikely platform of Instagram, chiefly in the accounts of women of color doing anti-racist work.

The reading isn't exactly easy; it's both illuminating and uncomfortable — but I think that's what illumination is, in part. Bringing light to shit that makes us groan. These accounts have led me to other reading about white privilege, spiritual bypassing, and the like. This is the magic of social media.

One such account is Rachel Cargle's². Her approach is so direct that it terrifies many of her white readers. She is insistent, demanding in her high expectations, and is utterly unapologetic about her process. This is, of course, a violation to The Rules of the Patriarchy.

That's not to say Cargle never apologizes; she does when she feels it necessary. But she gauges it based on her own internal authority, and not on the above-mentioned "Rules."

Cargle's stance is that it's not enough for white people to be not racist. Rather, she asserts, we need to be actively anti-racist, examining our own thought processes and systematically dismantling the white supremacist systems laid down by our white ancestors. So far I'm inclined to like Cargle's positioning, even if it does scare me a bit — probably even because it scares me a bit. I check in on Cargle's feed daily, and I read the material she writes and recommends. While not always deliciously palatable, I can tell it's good for me; I can feel the growth it encourages.

Cargle posts examples of spiritual bypassing, white fragility, white privilege, white feminism, and white tantrums that she encounters on her IG account in an ongoing collection she calls, "Read First." This one in particular caught my eye:

Cargle's comment about white [women] standing up for themselves directly names something central to the issues at hand, but it's the response I want to address here: I think if you are oppressed, you are oppressed. I don't think you can simultaneously be free and oppressed.

Oh, hell YES, you can. Boundless examples of this exist, but I'll take it to an archetypal figure in fiction, God(dess) bless it.

The Mayella Ewell Legacy

In the classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird, white Mayella Ewell accuses black Tom Robinson of rape and sends him, ultimately, to his death.

Is Mayella oppressed? Undoubtedly. She lives in squalor and is beaten by her domineering, abusive father when he sees her force herself sexually onto Tom. She wants to kiss Tom because what her "papa do to her don't count." Read that and understand that she is also the victim of incest.

Mayella is oppressed.

And is Mayella oppressive? Jesus Pete, yes. She uses her privilege — her powerful white skin and her white woman tears — on the witness stand to get herself out of trouble for breaking a social taboo, and to get herself on the good side of her father, if there is such a thing.

She has a man condemned for a crime he did not commit, and it leads to his death. She actively contributes to the continued oppression of an entire people. She picks up the social narrative and recites it with fervor. After Atticus Finch questions her, when it's obvious that she's made the whole thing up, Mayella says this,

"I got somethin' to say an' then I ain't gonna say no more. That n*gger yonder took advantage of me an' if you fine fancy gentlemen don't wanta do nothin' about it then you're all yellow stinkin' cowards, stinkin' cowards, the lot of you. Your fancy airs don't come to nothin' — your ma'amin' and Miss Mayellerin' don't come to nothin', Mr. Finch" Then she burst into real tears.³

She is identifying with and appealing to an abusive system, and she is abusing others through it. Not just Tom, but his family, his community. She is both oppressed and oppressive. She knows The Rules, and she plays right to them.

This is an uncomfortable legacy of white women, and it's one we need to come to terms with and continue to pull out by the roots. It's not our only legacy, but it's in there and it lives on. The fruit of it is all around us.

Many of us, myself included, have done micro-performances of Mayella's playacting. What about how playing that part impacts other people?

That is a hallmark of white privilege. Our actions, by virtue of our skin color, affect people of color. Sure, Mayella's behavior on the witness stand is grossly, blatantly obvious, but I'm talking about the quieter shit. The private shit. The shit that happens when only white people are in the room.

The way white people interact with other white people affects brown and black people. It just does, and denying that truth is dangerous, irresponsible, and even wicked.

And lest any reader launch into white savior mode, pulling on superhero tights and fixing to "rescue" the black people around them, I ask that you consider if your action is consensual. If your action respects the self-sovereignty of the people you wish to "help."

Fellow white women who self-identify as feminist or spiritual, if we don't want to be a version of Mayella Ewell, it's essential that we examine the parts we're playing, the masks we wear, and the cost of it all.

1. The tradition of Buddhism I'm most familiar with is the New Kadampa Tradition, led by the venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.
2. Rachel Elizabeth Cargle is an activist, writer, and lecturer in New York.
3. Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird (Date).

Additional recommended reading:

1. Non-fiction
Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington
Black Boy, Richard Wright

2. Fiction
Sounder, William H. Armstrong
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
Jazz, The Bluest Eye, Beloved, Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alice Walker

3. Poetry
Langston Hughes
Etheridge Knight

Editor's note: I also recommend watching 13th on Netflix, an Ava DuVernay documentary exploring the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States.

  1. Indeed, one of the easiest ways to maintain oppression is to incentivize us to oppress each other. By creating and reinforcing a superficial hierarchy, those at the top achieve three things: the ultimate oppression of those at the bottom through the complicity of the middle; the complacency of the middle through their shared, though meaningless, association with those at the top; and the ultimate goal of preserving the status quo, by keeping the middle and the bottom from joining together to achieve their shared goals, which would by definition mean an end to the oppressive system that keeps the oppressors at the top. The system is specifically designed to keep people from realizing they are oppressed by trapping them in their role as oppressors.

    When we recognize that these divisions exist only to benefit those that oppress us all, we can finally embrace our shared humanity to fight our shared oppression.

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