Who else in university gets really nervous and ancy going to office hours?
I have this one professor who is reaaaaaalllly cool and she just so happens to teach my favorite class which is about structural inequalities (think race, class and gender) within the media and pop culture. We watch music videos or parts of documentaries, critique TV shows and advertisements, investigate how the growing use of social media is impacting our ability to bring change and have a say in how we are governed. I feel like I get so much out of this class it’s ridiculous.
Anyway I went to her office hours, I felt that I had to beef with her a reading because it mentioned a few vague and general examples of things that white people have done to ethnic groups, or how one white person performed a racist hate crime and how that individual act applies to all other white people. It even went so far as to insinuate that all racial, religious and ethnic minorities should team up to form one big super-group to shut out all white people (I’m not exaggerating!) As a student studying Sociology and Gender Studies, I feel like I have read so many replications of this kind of article and I get exasperated because they hypocritically make the same kind of assumptions about an entire group of people that they themselves are trying to resist, and justify this attack in constructing and universalizing a “hateful” white identity. And the thing is I kind of get it, like you feel you don’t have a voice in mainstream society, but misrepresenting others and depicting them as your enemy is not going to help, especially considering that not everyone is the same in any sort of racial, religious or ethnic group.
My prof attempted to expand on this reading, she basically said that while it definitely had its biases and problematic choice of language, the overall message was that as a majority group, white people are not used to not being heard and that this kind of privilege works because it often goes unmarked and unnoticed. This was something that I had definitely not thought about and was not prepared to respond to. I felt kind of stupid, especially since I’m a newbie to office hours and still get intimidated no matter how nice the prof is. But thinking about it some more, I think I actually do know what privilege feels like, and I don’t agree that it’s unconscious.
I have been fortunate in my short lifetime to know and be close to many people of different cultural and racial backgrounds, to have friends with different sexual orientations than me, people who come from different class backgrounds and have drastically different home lives, etc. I feel that I am very aware of how my own life is in relation to others and I can safely say my life has been enriched by knowing this difference. I may not be able to say I have had the same experiences as someone else, or that I directly know what it feels like to go through certain things, but I know what it’s like to be “privileged” and how that can impact your life.
When I first went in for my interview to become a volunteer tutor with an organization that runs out of Regent Park—an inner-city neighborhood in Toronto which is almost entirely a social housing project—it was weird being the only white person in the room. And honestly I wasn’t really all that uncomfortable because of the racial difference, I was mainly uncomfortable because I didn’t want people to not want my help or think that I had misconceptions about their lives or that ultimately I was coming from too much “privilege” to help them. I realize now that I had an acute awareness of feeling privileged in light of certain representations of white people going into racialized neighborhoods trying to “help”. I mean we’ve all seen movies like Freedom Writers where the good innocent white lady comes in to help all the poor and unfortunate “minority” kids who don’t have a voice or any opportunity until she comes along and enables them to be good citizens. This kind of representation definitely works in favor of white people as it subtly reinforces existing power relations and dismisses people’s experiences of discrimination and racial oppression as no longer existing; it’s no longer a problem because the civilizing white woman has come along and given them a means to express themselves, there is racial harmony. I felt implicated in a bad way through this kind of narrative and was paranoid about how other people would perceive me as a result.
Even in the poster the white woman is in the foreground while everybody else is in the back; they do all the work and write their stories but she gets credit for giving them the idea, she gets the credit for mobilizing them.
The point I’m trying to make is that “white privilege” does not go unmarked or unnoticed and is not even necessarily a good thing. In my case I actually feel the opposite of what people criticize it for: it does not make me feel a sense of belonging or like I’m in control of the environment I find myself in, if anything I experience a sense of displacement from what I really identify with. But at the end of the day I do agree with my professor, that we need to become more actively aware of our own existences in order to relinquish some power that we are automatically handed whether or not we accept or ask for it. But I also truly believe that regardless of your acquirement or lack of “privilege” it is how you react to your own identity and personally negotiate within that intersecting framework. You determine who you are as an individual and your power of representation to a certain extent. And next time I’m gonna try to represent myself a little better in office hours…