Monday, December 29, 2014

AAA-14 Answer 6 – Serious subjects

Today’s “Ask Arthur” answer is two related questions from Roger Green that are quite serious. There’s one more serious question tomorrow, then things turn lighter to end the series.

Roger’s first question is:

"From your far-away vantage, what do you think of the Ferguson, MO shooting of Michael Brown, the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, et al, unarmed young black men (or boys in a couple cases), killed by police. What do you think of the protests, and do you think they could lead to fundamental changes in 1) the discussion of race in America and 2) police behavior? Is this a passing phase or is this a sea change?"

It’s actually quite difficult for me to answer that without being angry and negative. But I’ll try.

The fact is, I’ve never felt more disconnected from my homeland than on this particular subject. I’ve seen good, decent people trying to defend the indefensible, or seemingly completely unable to even see that there’s a problem.

First things first: The killings of the unarmed black men and boys shouldn’t have happened, and I would hope that everyone could agree on that point at the very least. So what bothered me the most were all the people (mostly white) trying to justify the killings. It was impossible for me to look at such responses as anything but racist, or, as one person put it on Twitter: “Racism doesn't usually look like someone shouting slurs, it's looks like people eagerly looking for a reason why a black kid deserved to die.”

Because of all that, I don’t think these events will bring about any changes in the discussion of race. If anything, the discussion so far has become more polarised and there is far too much point-scoring going on, and that includes about the protests, too.

The only way this can get better is if people want it to. That will require something more than mere protests in the street: It will require organised political action, to throw out those who won’t make the necessary changes and to hold politicians to account.

If that happens, then there’s a real possibility of changes to police behaviour and procedures. That’s because politicians are answerable to voters and if the demand is strong enough, there will be change.

So, I don’t think that the protests themselves will cause a sea change, and whether there is that sort of change will depend on what happens next. I hope it’s not a passing fad, but at the moment I think it could easily go either way.

Roger’s other question for today is related: "Do you think there is white privilege in the US? In NZ? How would you describe it in a way that won't tick off most white people?"

Yes, white privilege exists in both the USA and New Zealand. The situation in New Zealand is different than the USA, though, because NZ doesn’t have the same vein of racism that the USA still has. For more about that, Bill Moyers interview with journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates (watch on YouTube) explains the historic context in the USA pretty well.

The larger point here is that every majority has privilege that minorities do not have. Some examples: In a majority white society, white people can do things that racial minorities can’t. Similarly, society favours men, so males have privilege that females do not. Heterosexuals have privilege that LGBT people do not. The list goes on and on.

We don’t choose the condition of our birth, and we don’t choose to be born with privilege or without it. There’s no shame in any of that. What matters is our character: What do we do with the privilege we have to make things better for those without it?

Explaining privilege is very hard, and I don’t have a simple solution—at least, not yet. I rely on a 1988 essay by Peggy McIntosh, which includes a list of things that privilege delivers, and understanding those can help people to come to terms with what white privilege is. Last year I blogged about “Religious Privilege”, and included a cartoon that explains how white privilege works. I think it’s quite good.

There are also lots of other resources, including:

“Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person”
“What My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege”
“Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is”

Each of those essays attempts to deal with explaining privilege without "ticking off most white people".

There’s no simple solution to any of these issues or problems. But we need to try, and we need to start.

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