Update: It's been pointed out to me that I misheard Ms. Elliot in the video below, which I viewed in its entirety before posting it. When she said to the student in question that she can change her "ornamentation," I mistakenly heard "orientation." Ms. Elliot is indeed correct. The young woman in the video could indeed change her "ornamentation" -- that is, her appearance -- in a way that conforms to gender norms, etc., and thus hides her orientation or at least makes it difficult to discern.
The truth, especially the truth of other people’s lives, can be hard and ugly.
But the teacher’s point stands, the students of color in that room don’t have the option of walking away and not facing the truth of racism.
The teacher is the famous Jane Elliot, who developed the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and has been using it in classrooms for over thirty years. For more than 30 years, she has gone through countless exchanges like this one, in hopes of teaching something important to students who would otherwise have no really effective way of learning it.
Elliot: "No. You don't come back in here until you've apologized to every person in this room because you just exercised a freedom that none of these people of color have. When these people of color get tired of racism, they can't just walk out because there's no place in this country where they aren't going to be exposed to racism. They can't even stay in their own homes and not be exposed to racism if they turn on their television. But you, as a white female, when you get tired of being judged and treated unfairly on the basis of your eye color, you can walk out that door, and you know it won't happen out there. You exercised a freedom they don't have. If you're going to be in here, you're going to apologize to every black person in this room. And do it now … and every person of color."
Student: "I'm sorry there's racism in this country…”
Elliot: "Bullshit! No, you're not going to say 'I'm sorry there's racism.' You're going to apologize for what you just did."
Student: "I will not apologize because it's not a matter of race always…"
The young woman who walked out, and later walked back in, didn't seem to understand was that she was exercising white privilege in a lesson that was all about being aware of racial privilege.
There Is No Walking Away
As the young Latina woman who commented noted, what the other young woman experience wasn’t a scintilla of what people of color have to experience. And it was just for the duration of that class and that exercise. It wasn’t even the total experience of what her classmates of color have to experience every day, and not only do they not have the option of walking away from it, they don’t have the option of getting upset about it — even justifiably — without consequences a lot more serious than being sent out of the classroom or asked to apologize.
(If I’d gotten pissed off at every police officer that stopped and questioned me for little more than being a black male in a particular place at a particular time, life could be very different for me right now. Hell, if I get pissed off at some stranger for following me, and get shot confronting him, a whole lot of people will say I must have had it coming.)
It’s not that they don’t get frustrated. Sure they do, but they don’t have the right to walk away or even necessarily show that frustration. As the young African-American woman pointed out, the students of color might feel like walking out hundreds of times a day, but can’t, and haven’t been able to just “walk out” their entire lives. They couldn’t walk far enough to get way from what that young woman could walk into the hallway and escape.
The young white woman who said she learned that "You can compare the stages of loss to the loss of power," made a powerful point. She was talking about the classic "five stages of grief" which the teacher says she's seen people go through in this exercise. Based on her follow-up comments, I wonder if she has had some experience of prejudice based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and if that gave her some insight into the dynamic that was going on in the class room.
The Closet Is a Privilege
Elliot pointed out when she asked, "Do I know what your issue is? Do I know what his issue is?", in reference to an African-American young man in the room, that this student still had the option of "just being white." I disagree with the teacher that the young woman can "change her orientation." There's increasing evidence that the vast majority of people can't change their sexual orientation. In 2007, the American Psychological Association examined decades of research and found insufficient evidence to support efforts to change sexual orientation. After 37 years, Exodus International even stopped trying to change people's sexual orientation, and other groups like it have followed suit.
The teacher has a point that no one has to know the young woman's sexual orientation or gender identity unless she expresses it. Yes, she could choose not to express it, and stay "in the closet." She could even go to great lengths to change her sexual orientation identity, by choosing not to identify her sexual orientation or dis-identifying with her actual orientation and choosing to identify with another orientation. (This may be the option for people who have unwanted attractions to the same sex.)
There is, I can attest, a tremendous amount of pain that comes with being closeted as an LGBT person. But I can also attest that, as the teacher pointed out, I don't have the option of being closeted as a black man. I shouldn't have to be closeted as a gay man, but I simply cannot be closeted as a black man.
Denying Differences Is a Privilege
Elliot saves the moment by calling the young white woman and the young black man up to the front of the room to make a point about the importance of differences. She makes a point about the importance of not denying differences, because when we deny differences, we deny people's experiences. She uses people who say, "I don't see race, I just see people," as an example to point out that those people are denying differences.
I guarantee you that most people of color who hear that will silently roll their eyes, if they don't laugh out loud, because the person who says that is probably a breath or two away from denying the existence, the seriousness, and the pervasiveness of racism today. And don't doubt for a minute that people do still say this today. An alarming number of white Americans really believe that racism against African Americans has dramatically declined, and believe that racism now is worse for white Americans than for black Americans.
Of course, anyone who says or believes this does so from a privileged position. Countless articles have been written about white privilege. Macklemore even wrote a song about it. But author Tim White's definition strikes me as the handiest.
White privilege refers to any advantage, opportunity, benefit, head start, or general protection from negative societal mistreatment, which persons deemed white will typically enjoy, but which others will generally not enjoy. These benefits can be material (such as greater opportunity in the labor market, or greater net worth, due to a history in which whites had the ability to accumulate wealth to a greater extent than persons of color), social (such as presumptions of competence, creditworthiness, law-abidingness, intelligence, etc.) or psychological (such as not having to worry about triggering negative stereotypes, rarely having to feel out of place, not having to worry about racial profiling, etc.).
It means you don't have to worry about being pulled over for "driving while white," arrested for "shopping while white," stopped and frisked or killed for "walking while white" or -- and this is a new one -- "seeking help while white," because you will never be suspicious the way a person of color would. No matter what you're wearing or what street you walk down at night.
It means that you don't have to deal with a lot of things.
The exercise in the video temporarily suspended some of the psychological aspects of white privilege for the white students. Suddenly, they did have to worry about negative stereotypes, feeling out of place, etc. It was a short, uncomfortable walk in someone else's shoes. Even though it was finite and that privilege would be restored when the exercise ended and the students took off the symbolic green collars that set them apart from everyone else in the room, for some students it was still too much.
Recognizing & Giving Up Privilege Is Hard
That's because giving up privilege is hard. With it goes all the invisible benefits and unearned advantages that were taken for granted, because they'd existed so long as to seem the natural order of things. In some ways, that's part of the origin of the white-hot tea party rage on the right. Being white just doesn't come with as many perks as it used to. Now, even the nation's icons are increasingly non-white. The president is Black. Miss American is Indian. And don't even get started on the Latinos singing the national anthem at sporting events.
It's also hard to be reminded of privilege.
No one likes to be reminded of their privilege -- whether it's white privilege, heterosexual privilege, male privilege, or class privilege -- because acknowledging that privilege commutes responsibility for that privilege, and the day-by-day, moment-to-moment decision to perpetuate that privilege or know -- while knowing the consequences it imposes on others.
Whether we asked for our privilege or not -- acknowledging it, if we don't want to be responsible for perpetuating it and the injustice it perpetuates, means changing how we are in the world, day-by-day and moment-to-moment.
That is difficult and never-ending work, to be honest. It's easier not to acknowledge it. It's even easier to pretend it doesn't exist. In fact, the first essential rule of perpetuating privilege is to pretend it doesn't exist. That becomes difficult when the voices of those who can confirm the existence of that privilege, because they (a) do not possess it and (b) live with the consequence of its existence every day, become unavoidable.
And, the truth is that even though almost all of us enjoy one or more of the privileges above (especially if you consider class or economic privilege on a global scale), we also live with the consequences of not having one or more of the privileges above. The lack of one privilege can mask the existence of the other. (i.e. "What do mean I'm privileged? I'm barely making ends meet, just got laid off, and don't have health insurance because my spouse and I aren't married and he/she can't carry me on hers, etc.") That privilege doesn't go away, but it becomes something taken for granted, as natural as breathing out and breathing in, so that we don't take it as privilege anymore.
That makes it particularly irritating to be reminded of the privileges you do enjoy -- but don't necessarily see as such -- while simultaneously feeling the very real consequences of the privileges you don't have. It can be downright infuriating to be reminded of our privilege in that context, actually.
But it doesn't make those privileges any less real. And it doesn't change the reality that -- to borrow from the feminist theory I learned in college -- that those privileges and the "isms" that underpin them are all related.
Because white privilege, heterosexual privilege, male privilege, class privilege, etc., are by their nature unearned, recognizing our privilege brings us down a notch or two. We can't exactly claim to be "self-made" and to have done it all "on our own," if we're cushioned to some extent by centuries of privilege we may have inherited, but didn't do anything ourselves to earn. That sucks.
How Can We Use Privilege?
And then, as Elliot points out, once we are aware of our privilege, we can't help but become aware that our privilege rests upon a foundation of injustice, because the flip side of our privilege is someone else's burden, as unearned and inherited as our privilege. Once we have that knowledge, we have a choice. We can continue exercising and enjoying our privilege as before, and not try to change anything. (Though we can no longer claim not to know about the flip-side of our privilege.)
Or we can use our privilege to undermine the unjust system that underpins it. We may lose our privilege, but only because if we're successful it won't be a privilege, because either no one will have it or everyone will.
There's an old saying that one should never judge a person until one walks a mile in their shoes. That's because the walk will probably be an uncomfortable, even painful one, and once you finish it you will understand a bit more about your fellow man. And you certainly won't be the same.