Some of the things I write most about are racism, sexism, misogynoir, and inequality in American media and pop culture, specifically the underrepresentation of women of color in the aforementioned. The reasons why are many and complicated. Almost all of my closest friendships throughout my life have been and continue to be with black and brown women, and I have been a sounding board for their pain and disenfranchisement since I was very young. I went to Columbia College Chicago, where my friends struggled to find art (literature and film) where they were not only represented, but represented in nuanced and thoughtful ways that went deeper than tokenism. As a white woman, I often stood by feeling helpless, attempting to educate white people (family, classmates, Facebook) about white privilege and the consequences of underrepresentation, both for the self-esteem of children of color and for the perpetuation of white supremacist ideologies. I’m a writer, so a while back I took to blogging as a means of communicating some of these ideas, hoping to use my white privilege to reach people and change some minds.
But something has been bugging me lately, and I haven’t been quite sure what it is, until last week when a blog I wrote about the movie Lucy reached something like 230k people and the emails started pouring in. Not all of it was “hate mail” (although some of it certainly was): a lot of it was people of color writing to say, “Cool blog. I’ve been saying this for years and no one listens.”
That’s when it hit me, and it should have hit me a lot sooner, but this white privilege shit can really make you an idiot sometimes: by talking about these issues and finding an audience, I am exercising white privilege, and while I do believe that writing about the lack of representation of people of color in Hollywood and media can have a positive effect, it occurred to me that I spend a lot of time talking about the problems with the white supremacist system we live in, but not as much time talking about the ways in which I operate in that system. I try to keep my privilege in check — I’m not always successful — but since last week, I have been actively monitoring my daily life and watching the ways in which that privilege has benefited me when it comes to the blogging and writing that I do. So here it is, 10 ways in 10 days. (Note: There are definitely more than 10, and they obviously extend beyond my writing. See Peggy MctIntosh’s work for a better and more extensive list.)
1. People read my blog about Lucy.
Re-stating this one for all the folks who skipped the intro. I wrote a blog about being tired of seeing white faces on the big screen, dissecting the movie Lucy, and (white) people actually read it. I am not saying anything new in this blog that people of color haven’t already said a thousand times, since before I was born. And this is not to say that white people never read work by non-white people. But the emails I received from white folks saying “Wow, you really opened my eyes!” is telling.
2. Even though I take issue with the underrepresentation of people of color, representation of myself is not a problem.
Despite my anger about Hollywood, media, and popular fiction (including young adult fiction) erasing black and brown protagonists, it doesn’t mean that I am not still represented everywhere. This is one I have found I need to be really careful with, as being a guest in a community isn’t the same as being part of that community. The fact that I write about underrepresentation of people of color doesn’t mean that I am underrepresented: I turn on the TV and I see white women with skin and hair like mine. I go the movie theater and I am bombarded with men and women who look like me, not relegated to the role of servant, slave, or token. (I’m looking at you, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and well, pretty much every movie ever. See this great infographic by Lee and Low Publishers about the diversity gap in sci-fi and fantasy films.)
3. Some white people think I’m brave and cool.
I have gotten emails from white folks telling me that they admire me, etc. and that what I’m doing is important. Although I appreciate these emails, I can’t help but wonder if they are sending the same emails to women like @TheTrudz,@FeministaJones, and @BlackGirlDanger, black women who daily do far more important work than I and receive 100x as much hate mail. They are brave and brilliant. And so, so cool.
4. White people don’t see me as an outsider.
Granted, I’ve gotten quite a bit of nasty email and I have not even bothered to read the comments on the last several blogs I’ve written. (Sorry, folks: self-care.) But my criticism of Hollywood (and white people) does not hurt me on a grand scale, nor does anyone assume I speak for the entire white race. No one is reading my blogs and saying, “She’s just angry because she’s a [insert marginalized group here]. That’s how they all think.” I’m given the benefit of validity because I’m white.
5. No one thinks I’m selfish.
When people of color write about issues (in whatever arena or industry) that affect people of color, they are often labeled as self-seeking or only interested in causes that affect them, rather than being seen as valid providers of lived experience. So while people may read my blogs and say I’m a dick or that I’m missing major aspects of the way racism operates — both of which might be true — it generally doesn’t include the idea that I’m only in it for myself.
6. I can make punctuation and grammatical mistakes without people chalking it up to my race.
Hey, I make typos. We all do. But when people who are reading work by people of color and looking for a reason to discredit them, punctuation and grammar are often attacked as a way of undermining the argument. I can spell “platypus” like “plattapuss,” and people will say, “She can’t spell platypus. She’s dumb.” Not, “She can’t spell platypus. She’s dumb because she’s [insert marginalized group here].”
7. I can reply angrily to nasty comments without people chalking it up to my race.
This is an extension of #7 but it deserves its own, because it’s something that I see women of color struggle with a lot, both in life and online/in social media. A troll leaves a nasty comment or sends a viciously racist tweet, and the woman in question will respond with something snappy, and the troll will then go on to say, “See, angry black woman. What do you expect?” I, on the other hand, can reply with all the nastiness in the world, and while my womanhood will likely be attacked (“bitch,” “cunt,” etc.), my race will not.
8. People buy my book.
I wrote a sci-fi novel for my two best friends (Hi Hope! Hi Tasha!) and so the heroine is a woman of color kicking ass in the apocalypse. People are buying it, excited about the prospect of a non-white character in this scenario. But many of them have never heard of Octavia Butler. Many of them have never heard of Nnedi Okorafor. My white privilege has made me and my work visible, and some folks wrongly think I am the first to do what I’ve done. I am not. I am not. Don’t get me wrong, I want people to buy my book. But what I cannot let happen is the erasure of women of color who have done what I’m doing first. (Note: this is not to say that I have sold even close to as many books as Nnedi Okorafor, and especially not Octavia Butler. But when we’re talking about literary traditions, the fact that some of my white readers have read my book but not theirs is telling and problematic.)
9. My writing isn’t limited by the market to tales of slavery and servitude.
Although a lot of my subject matter confronts issues of race, my white privilege is a bubble around me when it comes to my future in writing and publishing. Too many of my author and poet friends have expressed frustration about approaching agents and publishers with their books, only to be told, “Well, maybe if you centered the story around slavery or racism.” My writing isn’t required to focus on aspects of my race and cultural experience, where people of color are often asked to act as a spokesperson or historian with their work. I pitched a young adult fantasy series, and all I was told is “Cool.”
10. I can stop writing/thinking about racism and my life will not change much.
One of the things about white privilege is that it’s like a steam bath. If you get tired of fighting or exhausted from battling against racist institutions, you can sink down into the bath, relax, and let the steam cloud your vision. I can sit down and watch a movie with a whitewashed cast, turn off my brain, and enjoy images of myself reflected back to me. If I stopped thinking and writing about racism, my life wouldn’t change, aside from a few less emails in my inbox calling me a “race traitor bitch,” my life would continue unaffected. Such is white privilege. The ability to not think, to not be constantly aware of your race, its presence and absence.
This article itself is a manifestation of white privilege. I will post it online and people will probably read it, and this list will start all over again. But I think I need to keep talking about this stuff, because writing a blog about whiteness in Hollywood is not enough. Writing 100 blogs about whiteness in Hollywood is not enough. I hope this time that the emails I get from white readers are more than “You’re right, there is anoverrepresentation of white people in Hollywood!” and venture into “You’re right, our own whiteness is at work in intricate ways.” Change starts at home, and the real place I live is in my body.