Sunday, June 17, 2007

Fighting Amongst Ourselves for the Scraps

One of my favourite Canadian blogs has a very interesting conversation going on in the comments of this post, as explained here. To sum up, there's a Nice White Guy who feels Indiginous peoples have unfair advantages, and Scott has some very compassionate and well-argued points. I urge everyone to go and read.

I've been hearing and reading versions of this conversation everywhere lately. The well-meaning, hard-working white guy has a tougher and tougher time making it these days. He looks back, feeling nostalgic for a time that seems simpler; the time before the women's movement, before civil rights, before various other liberation struggles. There's a tendency among many regular working class people to blame those who are below them in the heirarchy but catching up, rather than those at the top who are keeping everyone down. Thus you have increasing fear, and a huge backlash against so many of the progressive reforms hard fought and won. Vicious anti-feminism, anti-immigration, and that sort of soft reactionary racism that is common these days (such as the belief in reverse discrimination).

See, on the left, we usually see the rise of neoliberalism as one of the main causes of the increasing difficulties for the white middle class. We blame those at the very top, and their cheerleaders and supporters in the market fundamentalist government, corporate media, and think tanks. Most (though not all) of these people are white, wealthy, Christian, hetero men. That doesn't mean we blame white people, the wealthy, Christians, heteros, or men.

The nostalgic past in which life was simple and good for a hardworking everyman was experienced by a minority of white Westerners. The 50s look very different to a black woman in the US, or an aboriginal person in Canada, an Algerian in Algeria, or a Palestinian in a refugee camp.

The last few decades have seen amazing struggles, many successes, and many setbacks. I certainly don't want to bedgrudge any group the rights they fought so hard for. I want them to have more. I want us to have more. That's what social justice is about. If I may use a dog-and-meat-metaphor: we should not be fighting amongst ourselves for the scraps, but going after those who are eating the prime rib. (Well, more precisely those structures that dole out prime rib to some and scraps to the rest.)


KC said...

I don't quite get this comment:

"soft reactionary racism that is common these days (such as the belief in reverse discrimination)."

Are you saying that opposing affirmative action programs is "soft reactionary racism"? Or the general view that white, hetero males have a tough go at it relative to other groups is racist?

Red Jenny said...

I believe there are other reasons for opposing affirmative action that are not racist. But as soon as I start hearing about "reverse discrimination", well then I know it's more about a fear of losing white privilege. The thing is, privilege is nearly invisible to those who have it, so to them/us it can look like reverse discrimination, especially when you hear it in the media. So, they may not be frothing-at-the-mouth kkk members, but they unquestioningly participate in and perpetuate the racist societal structures we live in. Also, I don't think white hetero males necessarily have it so good - especially poor ones, seniors, many youth, etc. That doesn't contradict the fact of white/male privilege. Add black or aboriginal to any of those categories (black youth, black seniors, black poor) and it gets even worse. The truth is there are very few people who are completely privileged - like maybe the Waltons (wal-mart's kids). But there are shades and levels of privilege, prejudice and discrimination. My concern is less about who is more oppressed but to question: why are people oppressed at all? Why is there a dichotomy of dominator/dominated? Why do so many people dream of lifting themselves to position of master instead of dreaming about abolishing slavery?

KC said...

Well I would certainly agree with you about the dichotomy. Its not just "white and non-white", "male or female", "immigrant or native born". It is far more complicated than that.

My concern with affirmative action programs is multifold: One, and I wouldn't spend too much time arguing it because its really a matter of personal opinion, is that the ends of substantive "equality" don't justify the unethical and unfair breach of procedural equality that the programs entail. Two, because I think that affirmative action creates social friction between people who should be working together that outweighs any benefits it might bring. If a white male is told he wont get a job because he is a white male he will direct his anger towards the person or group that the person belongs to rather than those who keep both of them down. Im not saying that he is right or wrong. Im just saying it is the way it is and it is counterproductive to the ends that I think that even you want to attain.

And finally, and most importantly; I don't think it "evens the playing field" as it is purported to do and instead makes it even more skewed because they almost never take economic condition into account. For many many many white males the idea that they are the benefactor of some sort of privilege is ludicrous. I wholy reject your assertion that white/male privilege is a fact. It is a statistical correlation no doubt but it is far from a fact. To be a "fact" every white male would have to enjoy the privilege. Wealth however is a condition precedent to white/male privilege and frankly many white males dont have it. Wealth dwarfs other factors (race and gender) in terms of causing advantage/disadvantage. A poor white male is far more disadvantaged than a wealth non-white female. Affirmative action programs only exacerbate that inequality, and stoke the fires of anti-feminism and racism that you rightly rail against.

Anyways I digress. I know that wasn't the direction of your post but being one of those supposedly privileged white males who has had to work hard and fight for everything (I project that I will have $75,000 worth of student loans when I graduate from law school next year. "Privileged" kids dont have such a burden); the notion that I have benefited from any privilege sounds a little far fetched. I can assure you that my opposition to affirmative action has nothing to do with racism or losing some privilege that I've never had to begin with. It has to do with opposing a system that simply "rearranges the deck chairs" rather than truly alleviating inequality.

But as I said, I digress.

Red Jenny said...

Thanks for engaging in this topic with me.

Being privileged is exactly what allows you to be blind to the privilege you do have. Have you ever gotten a job? If you have, how do you know am equally qualified person of colour wasn't passed up for that job? You don't know, because those sorts of facts are hidden, except to those who experience it - those who apply for hundreds of jobs without getting them, for example. Add aboriginal or black to any of the disadvantages you possess and you'll see how much worse it could be. That's not to say you aren't hard working, you don't deserve the success you'll have in law school, your student loans are a burden etc.

For a non-racist argument against affirmative action, how about this, using law school as an example. Let's say your law school has some groups highly overrepresented and some under-represented. We'll use aboriginals as an example. So one could argue for quotas: the percentage of aboriginal students accepted must be proportional to their total population. Well, what if not enough aboriginal students apply for law school? The problem probably isn't racism at the point of entry into the school. The problem is more likely that the aboriginal students when younger were either formally or informally "streamed". Perhaps they went to underfunded schools. Perhaps they were seen by their teachers, by society, as being incapable of the kind of academic achievements as you were automatically assumed to be capable of. Maybe some managed, despite all of this, to get to University. Maybe they felt the sting of racism there, horrible stereotypes about the "drunken indian" followed them around, and the profs and other students treated them differently. Perhaps this puts them off of continuing to law school.

Notice we haven't even mentioned economic issues yet. For you to say wealth dwarfs other factors (race and gender) is a good indication that you are privileged in both race and gender. Imagine asking the Waltons if they think poor people really have it so bad. They probably have no idea what it's like. It's like asking a white person what racism is like. You might get something like: well, we see it in the US, but not in Canada.

Also consider, wealth is highly correlative with race and gender, so they can't be separated so easily. Think of the higher proportion of the poor who are women and people of colour - they are poor because they are women and people of colour, not the other way around.

So, while I appreciate that you don't feel like you have privilege, it really and truly is there. I'm only starting to recognize my own. I, too, came from a poor family and have huge student loans ($30,000 after my undergrad). I won't go over the particular hardships I've experienced, but they are similar to what you mention, plus being a woman, with all the specific challenges that entails. And yet, I'm a white person in a wealthy Western country. I am incredibly privileged. I also work very hard. The two don't contradict each other. However, if I were to feel some sort of superiority for achieving what I have, it would be based on a willful blindness to the advantages I've had in life, simply by my colour and place of birth.

Regardless of our differences of opinion, we are definitely fighting the same fight. I encourage you to read some in the social justice movement: people of colour, who tell their stories in their own voices. They can do far more justice to this topic than I.

Here's another good article about this if you want to read more.