Office Hours

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…

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About The Girl on Bloor

I'm a busy 20-something about town living in downtown Toronto and creating fun, easy recipes for those on the go!
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One Response to Office Hours

  1. latiesha says:

    I finally got my thoughts together! Not completely though, so please forgive any rambling 😉 So, here’s part of my life.

    A week ago a friend and I actually talked about white privilege. Her women studies class had to read an article on privilege and then did an exercise to see how much privilege they had, based on sex, family back ground, where they grew up, etc. If i remember correctly, there were 12 different categories(types?) that you could score in. My friend scored an 8. And I? A 5. Can you guess what’s stopping me from scoring higher?

    The reading and exercise got me thinking about my day to day experiences. The more I thought, the more I could identify where white privilege was evident in my life (mainly because I noticed I didn’t have it).

    1) I love to read. I do pretty damn well in school if I say so myself. I’m not particularly interested in rap, hip hop or R&B music (I love country and would kill to meet Hayley Williams from Paradise). For this, and more, I’m “white washed”. The “white girl”. And I think, why? Because of the way I speak and act I’m denied half of who I am? My friends, the majority of whom are white, all have different interests and tastes. Very few of them deal with this. I can’t pinpoint exactly what bothers me so much about it, but it does. I am me. I am neither one nor the other. Who I am and how I act should not negate either half.

    2) Magazines, specifically their hair and make up sections. I love make up. Not very skilled with it, but it’s fun. I buy cosmo ( and steal my sisters’ copies of seventeen) and am continuously disappointed. Although seventeen is better with it, barely any of the make up tips or products are marketed to or usable on my skin tone. Bright red lipstick may look beautiful on you, but it looks ridiculous on me. I’d do awful things to find a purple eye liner that would show up on me, but every one advertised is too light.
    And their hair tips. Beautiful braided buns, wispy up dos, curls galore. But wait. What hair texture is that? Oh. Right. Straight to wavy. Loose curls at most. Definitely can’t do my hair like that. Seventeen did a ” special segment” on ” natural” hair (aka, black). Except a) it wasn’t natural, it was relaxed, b) it was the first time I’d EVER seen any hair styles for black hair and c) why? Why did it take so long? Not everyone reading these magazines is white yet the grand majority of their advertisements and beauty selection is geared that way. Everyone should be able to open a beauty and fashion magazine and find things to help make them feel prettier than they already are.

    3) I’m good at my job now, and I hope to be a great child and youth worker one day. But will I have to worry about being accused of getting my job, promotions, etc, because of how I look rather than my abilities?

    4) Racist jokes. If I take offense to them, I’m ” sensitive, over reacting, it’s funny!” Hell no. One of my white friends takes offense? The joke is suddenly seen for what it is. Damaging, hurtful, cruel.

    I’ve been lucky. I’ve only been slightly discriminated against once (although “lucky” may be the wrong word to use). I notice all this around me but it doesn’t hurt me too badly. Although from how long I went on about the hair and make up, you can tell it annoys me lol. No, I’m not as privileged as some, but so far my life’s pretty beautiful. The fact that any one person is more or less privileged than any other for things that they cannot claim as accomplishments, that they did nothing to earn and were born into is awful and should change. But the more aware if it we become, the closer we can come to changing it. And this doesn’t just go for white privilege. Male privilege, heterosexual privilege, religious privilege, hell, even ” living- in-a- city- privilege”. Everyone deserves an equal start.

    If you read that whole thing, you’re a champ 😛

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