I’m Not That Great A White Person
The thing about being white is you end up with a lot of white friends. They’re people you went to school with, people you worked with, even people you’re related to. Some white people are all right, but a lot of them are kind of awful. I’m not even really that super good of a white person, but I dunno, for me, seeing and really recognizing white privilege and how it’s benefited me isn’t that hard. It’s not like I don’t enjoy arguing on the Internet, I do. But I prefer to argue with friends of friends, and strangers on comments threads. For my actual friends, I expect a base level of enlightenment and modern thinking. That includes a working understanding of white privilege. Before Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, I felt pretty sure that two Obama elections and my Facebook posts about other racial flashpoints had left my Friends list pretty clean of people with backwards racial prejudices.
The latest rash of police shootings of unarmed black men brought out the best in some people and the worst in others. When a mentally unstable man shot his girlfriend in the stomach and later executed two NYC police officers in their patrol car, the worst started popping up everywhere. I was flat-out sickened by the regressive opinions of some white people I knew as stoners or “Rocky Horror” drama freaks in high school. A lot of what I “Share” on Facebook is part of an effort to use my page to amplify other voices, but I’ll admit that I’m sometimes vaguebooking – i.e. trying to provoke a response from — a few of these especially irritating acquaintances with my posts. Such was the case when I shared an article from Jezebel.com called “I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People.” In it, the author, a black woman pretty fed up with white people herself, described a situation at an airport. A white woman cut her in line and claimed later not to have seen her.
For me, this article struck a chord. Reading it, I realized I had been that white woman. Not that specific white woman, but similar. Years ago, I was hangry, irritated and second in line at an airline check-in counter. In front of me was an African-American woman about my age. She happened to be glancing away when an airline worker came and opened another computer terminal. Before she could say, “Next,” I caught the gate agent’s eye. I grimaced and rolled my eyes with irritation. The look on my face said quite clearly, “Ohmigawd, I’m, like, a super annoyed white person. Do I really have to wait in line for this (oh come on we both know it) slow Black person in front of me or can I cut her?”
In response, the gate agent did not say “Next,” but instead gave me the “OK come on up” look. As I sailed past the woman in front of me, I saw her face go livid with outrage and helpless frustration. When I saw her face, I did feel terrible. Not that I gave her back her place in line.
So I’m not the greatest white person. But if I ever take advantage of being white, I think the literal least I can do is be aware of what happened and why. In that instance, I took advantage of my white privilege and used it to cut the Black woman in line in front of me. And in that split second of interpersonal communication, it was crystal clear that the gate agent was going to let me get away with acting like I wasn’t being a rude, racist bitch. We were both pretending that by looking away, the Black woman clearly ahead of me in line wasn’t even there. It was a subtle but undeniable moment of white privilege at work.
Then, about a week ago, I was totally vaguebooking when I shared that personal anecdote, along with another article from Huffington Post called, “Explaining White Privilege To A Broke White Person.” But it surprised me that the first person to attack the post was my best friend. “I didn’t agree with the Jezebel article, either. Not everything is about race,” she said. “I know about standing on lines and people in lines cut all the time. If ya snooze, ya lose,” she said, as if she regularly goes around cutting people on line at the bank and Post Office. (She doesn’t.)
Other friends chimed in, and the excuses for my behavior got more and more bizarre. I had mentioned the gate agent was of Southeast Asian origin. “Indian people are pushier than Americans,” one opined, “Maybe she thought cutting the line was OK.” My best friend said, “Why would the Indian woman, a person of color, have such self-hatred that they would choose you over another person of color?”
I don’t have the space here to explain in depth what is wrong with these arguments, except to say that cutting in line is always rude and never okay, and that white privilege can be upheld by a POC living in a racist society, and that POC are not a monolith and can absolutely have prejudiced opinions about people of other races. But I’ve been proven unable to convince even my best girlfriend to expand her empathy on racial issues and to educate herself about less obvious forms of racism and white privilege. If my best friend were an acquaintance I would have told her to use Google and fix her brain. But ack! I like her! I need someone to do stuff with!
Instead of fighting more, I signed off of Facebook over a week ago and haven’t been back since. This for me is a record-breaking stretch by a factor of about 30. I do have some friends who ‘get it’ and, like a dramatic teenager picturing her funeral, I imagine that in my absence some of them picked up the thread, grandly made my point with less emotional baggage. Most likely, I’m no more missed than Lucy Pevensie on her first trip to Narnia, and some time this month I’ll come back to Facebook exclaiming, “I’m back! I’m back!” and no one will have noticed.
When I do go back I don’t know how to be. I don’t know what the right balance is, between having strong opinions and wanting to use social media to support them on the one hand and being polite hand having friends on the other. I also don’t know what to do about having a best friend who thinks it’s more likely that I don’t understand how lines work than to let the direct experience of her friend expand her understanding of race in America.