In a rally on the eve of the special election in Alabama, just two days ago, Republican candidate Roy Moore’s wife, Kayla Moore, tried to defend the claims that she and her husband were anti-Semitic. Her attempt at rebuttal? “One of my attorneys is a Jew.” Roy Moore didn’t win the special election, Doug Jones did (HUZZAH!). But that doesn’t change the fact that a fuckton of white folks voted for Roy Moore and his brand of racism/homophobia/xenophobia and thought he would adequately represent them in D.C. (We are leaving out the fact that Moore is a child molester because I don’t have time for it, but know… he is a total child molester.)
And while I’m here for the Roy Moore discussion, I want to talk about KAYLA. Claiming that you know a Jewish person, an LGBTQ-identified person, a person of color… these are my FAVORITE version of racism/xenophobia/bigotry in general. Because they are so colloquial and warm, like a blanket your grandma knitted you. (Except the blanket is made of racism and not blue yarn.) They are unassuming and make you think for a minute, “Wow! Then they must not be a bigot because they met a black person one time and forcibly made awkward conversation and then walked away.”
I like to talk to other white people what privilege means, and the responses I have received have led to some heated discussions that often lead to me continue to check my privilege every day. As a queer cisgender white woman, I can very easily hide in the nooks and crannies of the queer and feminist communities without ever really doing any racial justice work. But that must change or we aren’t going to make any progress, or worse, progress will only continue for white people, trampling over communities of color who are the victims of police brutality, the prison industrial complex, the school to prison pipeline, and a systemic and brutal overarching umbrella of state sanctioned violence.
I was drinking bourbon with a friend of mine, and I told her that I remembered the exact moment I realized I had white privilege, that is came shamefully late in my life (19 years old), and that it took years for me to wake up and realize how much my upbringing had warped my interpretation of the word “privilege.” We started talking about the best framework we could come up with for how white people can become allies to racial justice movements without appropriating their mission, and I thought of the 5 stages of grief. Below is a quick guide for where you are in terms of dealing with the fact that you are privileged as f*ck:
Phase 1: Denial
You are in this phase if you say things like “I don’t see color” or “why is it always about race?!” Those aren’t statements that should ever come out of your mouth. You don’t see color because you (and I) are the default. We are the ultra majority, controlling the wealth of this country and being catered to by it. Majority, in this case, doesn’t mean the majority of people. It means the majority of POWER.
If this is difficult for you to understand, maybe don’t start with the big things: maybe start with the fact that you don’t get followed around a store, or that you can easily buy a band aid or foundation that matches your skin tone, or that you cried your way out of that ticket (and didn’t get shot). You know, little things that happen every day that we don’t track in this country because we are too afraid to keep track of police shootings.
Phase 2: Anger
I get it. I’ve been there. I remember the EXACT moment I was angry about my white privilege- it was because of this article. I read about the invisible knapsack of privilege we all carry as white people. It was assigned to me in an anthropology class. The concept is this: you can’t take off your privilege. The article has a lovely list of 50 of the daily effects of white privilege. Pour yourself a bourbon and hunker down.
When I first read this article, anger welled up inside me, and I was so ready the next day to come to class with all of my counter arguments: “It’s not my fault! I didn’t choose to be white. I personally didn’t own slaves!” No one is saying you did, Debbie. To acknowledge that the systems you were taught your whole life were there to protect you are actually there to oppress and marginalize is a LOT. It is.
There’s so much: the school to prison pipeline, state sanctioned violence by police and the justice system, the prison industrial complex, the criminalization of drugs, voter suppression efforts. I’m with you. No one is saying these systems rode in on your back exclusively, but your silence is acquiescence to their existence and buttresses those violent actions towards communities of color.
I didn’t say sh*t in class, because I was too nervous my classmates would think I was a racist. Because, oh wait, yea. I would have absolutely sounded like a racist because racist things would have come out of my stupid mouth. Because I was a racist.
Phase 3: Bargaining
This is the “I have black friends” phase of our privilege. You can live here for decades. You can swim in this phase until your toes are wrinkled and you’re so waterlogged that you actually think you are woke. You aren’t. Also, don’t say woke.
This phase is where you tell yourself that because you have someone in your life who ISN’T a white person (a coworker, a friend, a partner), that you think your work is done. You convince yourself that you have gained some unique insight into the centuries of oppression committed by white folks against people of color and that you are one of the “cool” white people. You aren’t. You still have work to do, Chad. And tokenizing or fetishizing of people of color does NOT make you aware of your privilege and actively working to combat it every day.
Phase 4: Depression
This is where despair kicks i-NOPE! THIS ISN’T YOUR DESPAIR. DON’T APPROPRIATE THE DESPAIR. Be an ally, but don’t think to yourself OMG THE WHOLE SYSTEM IS CORRUPT AND WE SHOULD JUST BURN IT DOWN. Well, actually… you can think that. What you can’t do is be a white ally who is always talking about how oppressive the world is for you. It’s not a good look and you are embarrassing yourself.
Phase 5: Acceptance/Action
This is the goal, y’all. This is where you want to live. But this isn’t like, the Elysian Fields of acceptance. This is where you have accepted that you have privilege that allows you to interact with a police officer without data and statistics backing up real fear that you could be killed by that police officer, or the privilege of not having to have a conversation with your child about systemic oppression and racism before they hit puberty, or the privilege of knowing that white people are incarcerated 5 times less than people of color.
This is the only phase where I would rename it: this phase is ACTION. Do something. Don’t go to a protest and take over- we know you love chanting but this isn’t your space, Cheryl. Get involved in racial justice causes in your community by reaching out to community leaders and ASKING what they need, not assuming what they want. Have a tough conversation with your racist aunt (it’s not just the uncles.) Push back on racism and stereotyping you see and hear (and I know you do. Many of you every day.) Read books. Have conversations with friends and partners about your privilege. And vote with your privilege in mind. A lot of white people in Alabama (and our nation in 2016) did just that, but a lot didn’t. But too many hid behind economic anxiety and the tokenization of their Jewish lawyer to justify voting for elected officials that implement racist, homophobic, and xenophobic policies almost daily. We have to be better than Kayla, y’all. We have to.