Sunday, July 28, 2013

Oozing privilege awarely

This was written on an airplane and not really edited so no promises in regards to quality. Or, you know, sense.
While listening to Jaclyn Friedman's podcast Fucking While Feminist on the topic of Chloe Angyal's work on romantic comedies recently, I reacted a bit when Jaclyn and Chloe mentioned an attitude that writers of "smarter" rom-coms have: "we're smarter than this, but we're still going to do it". It's when writers clearly signal that they're aware of the tropes of the genre, or realise the problematic nature of what they write, and then use the fact that they have signalled that to do the same thing. It was something I recognised because it's one of the things I do a lot as someone who's progressive, believes in social justice, and importantly, is a white, straight, cisgendered man. It's also something I'm starting to get tired of.

An oft-quoted piece of wisdom from Kurt Vonnegut is that we should be careful with who we pretend to be, because that's actually who we are. In that light, the smart and ironically aware behaviour of progressive people in privileged positions (and people who don't define themselves as progressive but do consider themselves to be better than being racist, transphobic, sexist, or homophobic) is starting to bother me. Who are we pretending to be when we spend a second on establishing that "we all think racism is bad" and then spend a whole lot more time on jokes and conversation which would, were it said by "them", disgust us deep into our progressive souls.

Irony is a powerful tool and can provide a needed and welcome outlet for the oppressed, but when used by supposed allies speaking from a position of privilege, it can instead work to distance ourselves from injustices, because accepting the reality of those injustices, and our participation in them, would be extremely uncomfortable. One example that comes to mind is one of my favourite online hangouts, Broken Forum, which is a forum that skews politically to the left and have strong ideals when it comes to social justice issues. On that forum there is a thread called "Insert your hilarious examples of white privilege here" - we all "know" that white privilege is bad, and we all frown mightily at the people who exhibit it and use that thread to name such people... except that the thread itself, given that it's overwhelmingly frequented by white people, speaks of white privilege itself. After all, white privilege is, at its core, not something that's fun - it forms the basis of the treatment of people of colour in a lot of western countries, and works against reforms that would create a juster society. It's a huge part in the recent tragedy of the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer and puts the real lives of people of colour at risk from both state and common people. The author and participants of the thread naturally mean well (we always do, after all) and see white privilege as something both bad and sad , but I would argue that it's only our distance to the negative effects of white privilege that allows us to talk about it in terms of hilarity.

It's the reason I can read an odious place like freerepublic and laugh at how over-the-top and weird the people are - I very rarely feel targeted by the threats, hate, and slurs they dish out every second. This doesn't mean I'm a person with a healthy distance to the world, it means I'm immune from the direct negative effects, and that is a privilege that very few people, on the whole, have. If we don't respect that, and try to avoid creating a culture around us that only makes people who share our privilege comfortable, we'll never be able to have a constructive conversations about oppression and how to resolve such issues together.