some of us are brave

But We Loved Our Black Nanny! Privilege Distress and State Violence

I actually really enjoyed the post on Privilege Distress. This is hard for some to believe on Twitter right now where I live-tweeted my visceral reaction to it. But I likes my reading like I likes mah menz: interesting and contrary. So my enjoyment may not look like everyone’s enjoyment.

I should, perhaps, start by saying I loved Pleasantville. Great movie. I remember the scene that sets up the post. Good stuff.

I also remember countless scenes from history where Klansman were good, loving fathers.

My response to the original post lives right about at the intersection of those two remembrances.

I struggle with our cultural obsession of racism as an individual phenomena. It seems as though everyone, tired from the emotional tumult of the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement, made a tacit agreement to cast racism and sexism (and all the other -isms) as aberrations of individual psychology. Racist, sexist, homophobic people are just cray cray!
We clutch our collective pearls and marvel at how such a being came to exist.

That’s how it becomes easy to devolve into anti-white racism as a real thing. If racism is about people then surely black people can be racist!

But -isms are about power and structures that marginalize and shape individual actions as acceptable or unacceptable and sanction those actions through legitimacy.

That’s not about individuals.

And I just don’t think that empathizing with the good hearted Klansman gets us to a place where we can acknowledge that kind of state violence, much less counter it.

What it does instead is, one, charge marginalized people as complicit in their own marginalization. We just need to love and empathize with people more to get the legal right to marry, the right to vote, the right to equal recognition before the law.

Two, it provides agents of the state an out. It’s a sheriff telling you how he can’t possible be participating in racialized profiling because he loved his black nanny like a mother. Or, Paul Ryan supporters telling you how he has to have the heart of a prejudice free saint because he once loved a black woman in college.

If changing politics was about speaking to the spirit of the privileged, understanding and sharing their pain, why would women be seriously facing challenges to their right to have birth control in 2012? Many of those men in the Senate have wives and daughters they seem to love. What doesn’t that love translate into political action?

Three, this hyper-focus on the individual puts you in a theoretical bind. If George, here the representation of clueless benefactors of state privilege, is a hapless victim of a system bigger than he is, how speaking to his internal sense of justice a means of rectifying the system that created him? He’s either hapless or complicit. He can’t be both. If he always had the power to change the system, then he didn’t. Or, he never had the power to change it and he doesn’t have the power to launch a counter-offensive. You gotta choose. Similarly, individuals who benefit from racists, sexist, homophobic systems can’t both be empathetic collateral damage and a powerful means of challenging the system.

These individual arguments miss several things. One, they are woefully ignorant of how organizations work. The kind loving act of a redeemed George Wallace who begs forgiveness in a black church (itself a myth) doesn’t change the Jim Crow south. Disruption to logics that made explicit racism a profitable way to conduct state business does. I don’t know that is about hearts as much as it is about capitalism and the indomitable will of an organizational form to sustain itself.

The right answer here is probably that it takes both, right? It takes changing the hearts and minds of individuals to create a culture for state change. But valorizing the former to the exclusion of the latter is, frankly, not a way to a get there. Worse, it’s not even a choice many marginalized people have the privilege to make. Having empathy for your oppressor, loving them through their painful acclimation to a new societal norm, can’t always rank highly up there on your list of things to do in a state that is occupying your time with issues of survival. It’s also not likely to always trickle up to the oppressive agents who need it. For this empathy offensive to work I need to be close enough to my oppressor for them to even recognize my empathy. That’s a certain amount of privilege in itself. I think, for instance, of immigrant women working as domestics. They are paid as much to be invisible to power and change agents as they are to clean toilets. How does their empathy for a structure that renders them invisible a political act to those who cannot see them?

There are lot of implicit steps not articulated in the empathy offensive. I have to be recognized as human by my oppressor. I have to be made visible to my oppressor. I have to make mental and physical space to empathize with my oppressors no matter the cost to my own health or well-being. And then I have to hope like hell someone is simultaneously launching the less charming offensive 0n the political front.

Again, it could happen.

It could.

I guess.

The Weekly Sift

In a memorable scene from the 1998 film Pleasantville (in which two 1998 teen-agers are transported into the black-and-white world of a 1950s TV show), the father of the TV-perfect Parker family returns from work and says the magic words “Honey, I’m home!”, expecting them to conjure up a smiling wife, adorable children, and dinner on the table.

This time, though, it doesn’t work. No wife, no kids, no food. Confused, he repeats the invocation, as if he must have said it wrong. After searching the house, he wanders out into the rain and plaintively questions this strangely malfunctioning Universe: “Where’s my dinner?”

Privileged distress. I’m not bringing this up just to discuss old movies. As the culture evolves, people who benefitted from the old ways invariably see themselves as victims of change. The world used to fit them like a glove, but it no longer does. Increasingly, they find themselves…

View original post 2,301 more words


3 comments on “But We Loved Our Black Nanny! Privilege Distress and State Violence

  1. Phil
    November 4, 2012

    This is a great post, as usual. Sometimes I read your Twitter and think “WTF?!” and then you take to WordPress to explain what you were actually saying and then it turns out to be what any sensible person should think, but more cleverly expressed.

    I liked the “Distress of the Privileged” piece and loved the original post on Owldolatrous that it was largely commenting on. I guess I take both posts as part of a conversation about how individuals should talk to individuals, and not as an overarching strategy for social change. If they were intended as the latter, I agree that they fail.

    From a moral standpoint it just never makes sense to say that the emotions of the person across the table from you simply don’t matter. They may be delusional, but they’re still God’s children, etc. etc.

    That doesn’t mean that when I open up a newspaper, or study the history of the US in a college classroom, I want the suffering of once-privileged elites to have “equal time” with the suffering of people who are having their labor systematically stolen or are getting raped by the cops. For the purposes of social action, and in the workings of large institutions, privileged distress should count for nothing, except as an obstacle to strategize one’s way around. For the purposes of talking to a single person, who may be coming from you-know-not-where, well, I think what Ms. Vivian recently said to me about hearing out crazy conservative family members still applies.

    • Phil
      November 4, 2012

      Oh, and I don’t mean what I just said as a criticism of this point: “Having empathy for your oppressor, loving them through their painful acclimation to a new societal norm, can’t always rank highly up there on your list of things to do in a state that is occupying your time with issues of survival.” One must prioritize.

  2. Patrick
    November 4, 2012

    The “distress of the privileged” article made me queasy when I first read it. It’s strength, however, is that I think it does capture a real glimpse into the psychology of privileged people reacting to shifts or weakening of the system of privilege. Unlike that article I don’t think it means that George isn’t complicit, or that it’s important to win him over. But I do think that “I always treated you right [according to the unfair system] why do we need to change things?” is a reaction that’s very real.

    I also suspect that the empathy offensive is more effective, though not necessarily all that effective, with sexism than racism (unsure about homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc.) Because George’s wife’s humanity is more visible to him than that of black people. Both as a function of social distance, and literal proximity. That’s just noodling though, not sure it’s true at all.

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This entry was posted on November 3, 2012 by in Essays, Uncategorized and tagged .
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