Originally published April, 2009
Wrote this in an email to a white male friend of mine this morning and thought i would like to share it… it was a response to a white male attending a ‘all female’ gathering for a girl program in Nairobi, Kenya… posted it on my blog too… i think this conversation between groups of people with different kinds of power and privilege is important to have not only amongst ourselves but between different people who are on different sides of this conversation.
Sorry about the punctuation.. I know it can be annoying.. No pictures in this blog.. just thoughts.. I haven’t posted in a long time because I tend to only write when I really feel like sharing something in public.. but I’m going to try to start posting more often if not regularly this summer.
Most people who belong to the dominant culture (that’s europeans in the case of north america and europe… and some would argue anywhere that has been touched by geographic, economic, social colonization… i.e the caribbean, africa, india, brazil etc. etc. etc… i.e everywhere) have an understanding of the world based on the ever present and all encompassing privilege that they hold in society due to their race and/or culture… whether acknowledged or unacknowledged it is ever-present and over-riding.. they act different in society.. they are treated differently and dealt with differently in society.. this is so all-encompassing that it is the only way most of us know how to deal with society.. the way we have learned.. what we have seen.. how we have been treated.. how we respond… what our privileges have been… men are also obviously the dominant group in society.. so similar things apply when we (men) are in contact with the world.. men are the ‘dominant culture’ of much/most of the world (in politics, social settings, family structure, religious institutions etc. etc. etc.)..both traditionally and currently.. that means that the dominant cultures/genders way of reacting to things is from a dominant cultural perspective.. that means what you say, how you say it, how you are treated, how you respond to that treatment and… (what we are talking about here)… what you expect and how you expect to be treated.. what is normal by dominant culture standards is actually not normal.. that means.. how the dominant culture/gender is accustom to being treated in this world is actually far from how most of the world gets treated.. this means their ‘normal’ is actually far better then the majority of the world.. and also means that because this preferential treatment is the ‘norm’ for them.. it is what they expect.. better (knowingly or unknowingly)..
so.. if you are not really part of another culture or gender.. and don’t have people around you who are of that culture or gender.. I mean constantly.. you fall into.. what I affectionately call.. a culture of entitlement.. meaning.. you expect better then most and when you don’t get better.. you believe you are entitled to it.. so you push your way into things or respond negatively when a space is not made for you… people who occupy this position often start sentences with phrases like ‘well what i’m I supposed to do…’ and generally act defensive when questions are posed to them about this issue… that response is based on either 1) sever misunderstanding and/or 2) guilt
this applies to a bunch of different things (europeans, men, people with money, ‘higher castes,’ straight people, able-bodied people, christians in the west, ‘good-looking’ people etc. etc.. you get the point)… this mentality combined with privilege is what sends europeans fresh out of university to africa, india, south america and all over the ‘developing’ world to ‘help’ .. they come back wearing the clothes, speaking the language and calling them selves ‘honorary’ members of that society because people have told them that over-there… but they only hold on to the fun/exciting parts and not the everyday life, which includes not only cool shit and laughter but hardship, poverty and oppression… when people of those cultures who are politically aware see these people that resent them because they realize who skewed the perception is as compared to the reality… yes it was great to go and spend all this time in africa.. but would you live in the slums that you worked in? how do you perceive the people? really.
the other side of the coin is that the group that is not dominant (i.e women, people of colour, religions that are not dominant, people with disabilities, gay lesbian bI trans-gendered people, people who don’t fall into the standard of beauty etc. etc. etc.) often are not forth-right and direct with the dominant culture because they are accustom to being ‘dominated’ ..so in some settings for example.. black/african people won’t speak openly and honestly about what it means to be black in a european society or women won’t speak openly and honestly in mixed company.. so they need their own spaces.. to be comfortable to speak and express their honest opinions..
now.. most of us deal with this quietly.. I disagree with this non-speaking mentality but I understand why people would choose not to speak… often the response (which we spoke about before) can be negative… if that negative response comes from someone who has more economic, political power then you.. or someone for example who is your employer.. well.. you understand.. if that person is your friend (I would argue that a true friend needs to be able to deal with the honest reality of who you are) you risk disagreements with your ‘friend’ and/or potential end of friendship… so why would you speak.. well.. because you understand that their is something more important at play here.. but many people don’t.. saying things like ‘how can I be honest when they are in the room’ but more often ‘I wasn’t comfortable’ or ‘it wasn’t a safe space’… again I would say that the world isn’t and has never been a ‘safe space’ and one should speak honestly everywhere and all the time no matter who is around you (not-disrespectfully mind you.. honestly.. there is a difference.. but direct is more often then not interpreted as harsh and cold and angry.. many people say this about me for instance)… but.. when you are trying to nurture that honestly and comfort in people (specifically young people or people who are un-accustom to dealing with issues like this) in a world/culture that is not used to it (canadians are the worst).. it is often essential to have a space that is ‘safe’ to grow the confidence in people to be able to speak in public in the same way that they speak in more private settings…
a great example of ‘the detriment of honestly’ is my mother.. a black woman filmmaker.. the first of her kind in this country.. who always spoke directly, openly and honestly about issues of race and found it impossible in recent years to be hired by places like the CBC and the NFB (places that she had ten years prior occupied leadership positions in) and other institutions in media, film and television.. despite more then thirty-years of experience in the field.. they said constantly that she was ‘over-qualified’ ..the reality is she would speak about issues of race in film and television… saying things like ‘if this project is about black people in Canada, why are their know black people working anywhere but in front of the camera?.. it is only right that we hire black crew’ ..when they said their was no black crew to be found in Toronto (a completely ridiculous, closed minded and ignorant statement).. she would break out the binder full of crew of people of colour (writers, directors, ADs, editors, DPs, grips, lighting etc etc)… black people would work if my mother worked… but then she couldn’t get work anymore.. glass ceiling.. now she lives in Philadelphia.. I’m worried the same will happen to me at some point..
I say all that to say this.. people who are part of the dominant culture, if they say serious about making positive changes in themselves and in-tern society need to be not just aware but hyper-aware of who they are and the spaces they occupy.. they need to be hyper-aware of how they deal with people and what they assume.. and have to open to hard conversations like this one.. they need to be hyper-aware of their privileged and what it means.. that means not be embarrassed of it but aware and accepting of it and the reality of it and what it means.. with themselves, with their friends, with their co-workers etc etc.. they need to understand when their is a situation where people tell them ‘this is only for us’ .. and be hyper-aware if they happen to end up in that space.. they should know to only do what they need to do.. and exit.. out of respect and understanding…
I use an analogy when speaking about privilege sometimes that goes like this. Imagine your father owned a house and my father owned a house.. one day your father decided to kidnap my father, steal his house and his land and call it his own.. we were born and grew up.. if I, the son of my father, being aware of the kidnap of my father and the theft of his house walked up to your door after both of our fathers had passed and said.. ‘you know what.. I want my house back.. this was my fathers house’ ..would you feel entitled to that house because you grew up in it? That is what I mean when I say ‘the culture of entitlement’ ..ask the first nations people about that analogy or anyone who has had a history of colonization and/or slavery …the funny thing is that it seems like it is completely impractical to say ‘no.. actually… this is mine’ in this day and age.. you will be called a ‘radical’ by even the most ‘liberal’ of people.. but that’s the world we live in.. if the canadian or American governments suddenly said… ‘we are giving all of the stolen land back to the first nations people for them to decide what to do with it because our appropriation of it was unjust from the beginning’ how many of us would give up our house, our parents house, our cottage willingly because that would be the just thing to do? That is the culture of entitlement.. we are all guilty of it.. the question is how aware of it are we?