Writing about prejudice can be a challenge. I was born into a happy little privileged space. I’m basically a nice white gal, a daughter of the hegemonic norm. What the hell do I know from prejudice, right? There’s racism, homophobia, misogyny, classism, ageism, a vast spectrum of “otherisms”— the dark side of the rainbow — all of them designating certain groups of people as “other.” And I write a lot about them, 25% of my columns, I just figured out, despite my pallid skin, humdrum heteronormativity, and prissily privileged class.
That’s not to say that one must be victimized to crave justice for all; neither does it suggest that I’ve never been the target of prejudice. My body parts of the female persuasion make me a daily bull’s-eye for the slings and arrows of misogyny. My advocacy for LGBT civil rights makes me a target for car window bashers. I once married a Puerto Rican and was promptly removed from several invitation lists (omissions admittedly devoid of disappointment). And I’ve witnessed the resulting issue of that union, my daughter, struggle with the rampant prejudice so freely expressed by the otherists in our Southern California community.
Visually, she is of ambiguous ethnicity, but she’s obviously something other than white, Anglo-Saxon. Yet when she is traveling through town with me, she enjoys the benefits of my race, described in Peggy McIntosh’s classic 1980 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh’s pack holds a cornucopia of previously unexamined race-privileged perks, things many white folks don’t think about because they are granted to us at birth, without our even having to ask. The goodies might seem subtle or mundane, but they are essential elements of white privilege. Here is a sample of those she wrote:
I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
While it’s true my daughter enjoys such benefits when she is with me, she bears the consequent burden of being exposed to the bigoted comments so many white people freely spew when they think others are absent. She and I take no pleasure in having to point out when she is among the group that they are denigrating — and that we don’t agree even when she isn’t.
Nonetheless, I’m grateful that my kiddo is not a racist, that she empathizes with the Latinos in town who struggle without the benefits of class she was born into, that she asked me to take in a gay high school friend when his parents rejected him, and that she will never eat at a Chick-fil-A. But is this a function of her having an other nature, of being raised by an activist mother and Latino father, or is it something she picked up on the playground, like chicken pox? Did she learn it the same way some folks learn to reject others?
In her essay “Defining Racism: Can We Talk?” Beverly Daniel Tatum, Spelman College president, wrote, “Though I would not describe three-year-olds as prejudiced, the stereotypes to which they have been exposed become the foundation for the adult prejudices so many of us have.”
Tatum makes a lot of sense, that the stereotypes we experience in childhood ultimately become our beliefs — unless we have influential role models who challenge them and their underlying prejudices. This suggests that all the otherists in our town who see “wetbacks” instead of humans, the homophobic owners of Chick-fil-A, the flyers of Confederate flags who really don’t do it to honor the history of the South but because they long for white supremacy, they could all be dying breeds.
It’s a nice vision, one I’ll probably keep writing about — despite my being a daughter of the hegemonic norm.
Kit-Bacon Gressitt's commentary and political fiction can be read on her blog Excuse Me, I'm Writing and is republished by SDGLN, The Ocean Beach Rag and The Progressive Post. She formerly worked for the North County Times. She is also host of Fallbrook's monthly Writers Read open mic and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.