Monday, June 05, 2017

WOMEN AND PRIVILEGE

“I'm a white man. You can't even hurt my feelings! What can you really call a white man that really digs deep? ‘Hey, cracker.’ Ugh. Ruined my day. Shouldn't have called me a cracker. Bringing me back to owning land and people, what a drag."~ Louis CK, comedian

As much as I rail on against Patriarchy, and ways in which I have been challenged by it, I do know it could be worse.

I am a woman, subject to all the discrimination and onerous social burdens that entails. However, I am also a white woman. A white woman of Anglo-Saxon Protestant descent. I am descended from Charlemagne, and am qualified to be a card-carrying member of the Daughters of the American Revolution through more than one branch of my family tree.  The last immigrants in my family tree got here in 1874 from Bremen, Germany, long before there was an Ellis Island.

My genes scream the story of my endemic Christian-descended whiteness, with their 94% Northern European origins. Of course, there is that tiny barely 2% of Ashkenazi Jew frolicking merrily amongst all the Catholic, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian DNA, sliding down the proverbial bannisters of my twisting double helices. Okay, maybe “frolicking” is too strong a word for what my Ashkenazi DNA is doing. Maybe it’s more like a little kvelling. Maybe some kvetching even, but what are you going to do?

My DNA hints at other stories on its own that have never been elaborated upon by relatives’ “round-the-Thanksgiving-table” chats. Where did the half a percent of West African DNA came from? It’s anyone’s guess, though I’d love to hear the story. Sadly, I’m certain that if any of my genteel maternal Southern relatives are alive who actually know the story, they aren’t telling it any time soon.

Suffice it to say that, in all ways visible to the naked eye, I am a WASP.  And though I suffer a plethora of disadvantages based on my gender, my race and my religious heritage give me huge advantages in this country. Even as a small child in the late sixties and early seventies, with the tumult of racial tensions swirling around me, my whiteness and Christian-ness shielded me from the fray in a way I was tangibly aware.  My working mother was an on-fire political progressive, still angry over the assassinations of the Kennedys and Dr. King. Every night, she worked quickly to get dinner on the table for our nightly guests, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Every night, as their talking heads bobbled on our tiny black-and-white television, my mother explained in detail what we were watching.  So maybe school busing and the Vietnam War weren’t exactly what every nine or ten year old was learning at home. But I was probably the only ten-year-old who knew who could tell you who William Westmoreland and William Calley were. Come to think of it, that probably made me more weirdly nerdy than well-informed and interesting.

But it also made me acutely aware of things that were going on outside our little house in the Valley. My mother enlightened me about white privilege from an early age. “Doors will swing open for you,” she once told me, “just because you’re white and you’re pretty. Just be careful before you walk through them.”

Cryptic, I’ll grant you, but I see now what she was trying to tell me.

Privilege is fabulous. Being able to walk into any restaurant, club, traffic court appearance, apartment rental office, job interview, and know that I have one thing automatically in my favor - that of being a white person - takes a certain amount of sting out of any situation. But it comes at another, often unseen price.

Because, as previously stated throughout this book, if one of us is suffering, we’re all suffering.

If one of us is oppressed, none of us can be free.

I am in no position to document the myriad of ways women of color suffer at the hands not only of the Patriarchy but of a system designed to subjugate them based on their religion and/or skin color as well. I will leave the telling of those experiences to women who’ve experienced them. But let’s take a look at how the world that white people in general, and white women in particular, live in every day, sees women of color. And what better way to glean what our culture thinks of us than to delve into the vast, mysterious world of… stock photography.

Google something for me. Google “stock photos of business colleagues in meetings”. Now click “Images”.  See what comes up. Oh, the blinding sea of whiteness that floods your monitor, mostly white maleness. White men in business suits. White men in shirt sleeves. White men laughing in business meetings. White men laughing at white-board studded presentations. White men laughing while they’re talking on the phone. And do you know why they’re laughing. They’re laughing because being a white man is fucking hilarious and awesome, goddammit. If you were a white man at a business meeting, you'd be laughing your ass off right about now.

If any women appear in those stock photos, they are usually represented in one of two forms - either they are clearly subordinates, or they are clearly only in the presence of women or minorities. The message is clear.

“You can lead, but not us..”

“You can be in charge, but not of us.”

In a disturbing number of these photos, the white men who are having rolicking good times at these business meetings are, in fact, in the presence of women, but the woman is pictured in the foreground, back to the camera, often blurred by depth of field.

There’s a message here, too.

We can show up to these meetings. We can have a laugh or two. But we’re not of significant importance to actually be pictured doing so. We will never deserve to share the spotlight with men.

While we're sitting here with Google open and we're on a roll, let's go ahead and Google one more thing: “stock photos of female business colleagues.”

WHOA! More white people. Holy crap! Could you ever imagine there were this many white people staring at incomprehensible diagrams and pie charts on dry erase boards in the entire world?

Granted, this Google search will be slightly less white than the previous one. But only slightly. If you ever wondered why people of color rage about tokenism, and you asked yourself, “Exactly what is tokenism, anyway?” This shit right here. This is tokenism. Throwing the occasional woman of color into a sea of white business women in stock photos. This way,  we can see clearly that white people and black people can just get along when money’s at stake (but only if all the participants are female).

That’s tokenism. Tokenism is a way that privileged groups sort of, kind of include less privileged groups, so they can fend off the argument of privilege, without actually running the risk of doing away with any of their real privilege.

So why am I going on about stock photos, anyway? They’re a bunch of staged pictures, sold to companies whose marketing budgets are too small to afford to hire actors and actresses to pose for their marketing brochures and website demos. What could Shutterstock possibly have to do with patriarchy and white privilege.

Here’s what.

Stock photos are sold to branding and marketing companies for use in materials that, presumably, will be used to sell products or services to the people with the money to buy them. Stock photo companies like to make money. So they are very careful and strategic in the photos they choose to take and post for sale.

Furthermore, the reason those specific photos came up when you typed that phrase into Google comes down to something called “metadata” - invisible tags that stock photo companies assign to those photos so that when you Google “stock photos of Asians at a cocktail party,” you’ll get precisely what you’re looking for. (I’ll now pause for a moment, so you can Google “stock photos of Asians at a cocktail party.” Because you’re dying to. I can feel it.)

And it is clear by the predominant composition of visual marketing material available from stock photo companies that the people they are selling their photos to hold certain beliefs about race and gender to be self-evident.  Those beliefs translate into something real, something tangible. Images we see in advertising, in marketing, in branding suggest truths to us -- whether they’re true or not.

Not long ago, a large studio merger put me in the position of job hunting (once again). I went into an employment office, where I was being prepped for an interview. The artwork on the wall of the recruiting office was mostly inspirational posters. But the featured wall contained three posters of suited sleeves, engaged in enthusiastic handshakes.

To its credit, two of the posters contained the hand of at least brown hand.. But they all had one thing in common. Every hand was a be-suited male. At least, as a white person, my race was represented in those posters. But if I were a woman of color, those posters, featured so prominently in a place promising to find me gainful employment, I believe I would feel completely disenfranchised to the point of despair. I can only imagine that cognitive message a woman of color gets when confronted with the representation of a world where, not only is she not in charge because of her gender, but she is barely invited because of her race or religion.

Maybe some posters in an employment office aren’t indicative of the business world at large. So let’s turn to the illustrious Fortune 500 list to see if reality is a little more broadminded.

As I write this, of the five hundred listed chair people or CEOs Fortune magazine lists as the top companies in America, twenty-seven of them are female. Only five of them are African American. None of them are female and African American. In fact, in the entire history of the Fortune 500 list, there have been only fifteen African American CEOs or chair people.

According the U.S. Census Bureau, though black women are very nearly as educated as their white counterparts, their median income is about five thousand dollars a year less than ours.  Much is made of the seventy-cents on the dollar that women earn to a men. But when race is added to the mix, the disparity in income becomes even more shocking and harder to stomach.  African American women earn between fifty and sixty-eight cents on the dollar as non-Hispanic white men earn. Though I’ve never raised an African American child, I am going to postulate that they are every bit as costly to rear as white children, so the idea of having to work just as hard, but make do with even less, in a society that devalues you because of your gender combined with your skin color is darn near intolerable.

Or at least, it should be.

Why, in the middle of a book about smashing Patriarchy, are we now discussing race? Because Patriarchy and racism are both institutionalized artificial social constructs that exist to the same end - to bestow upon one group of humans, at the expense of another group, a privilege and entitlement by virtue of an incidental and irrelevant happenstance of DNA - either gender or skin color.

I am not a black or Muslim woman. I am white. I have suffered the tyrannies of Patriarchy, but never the tyrannies of racism. And certainly, I have never been required to suffer both simultaneously. Millions of American women of color suffer these indignities daily. But I am as dedicated to abolishing racism as I am to smashing the Patriarchy.

What good does it do to tear down one artificial social construct if we're not prepared to do away with all of them. Especially when they are so damaging and hurtful as America's history with racial subjugation. And especially where women of color are concerned.

If you are a bystander to racism or bigotry, and do nothing to squelch it, you are, in effect, saying that oppressing people is just fine by you. If you are a participant in racism, but believe Patriarchy creates an unlevel playing field for you as a woman, then you are missing the point entirely and probably deserve to be subjugated yourself. Go stand in the corner and think about what you’ve done.

If we are going to beat this thing called Patriarchy, then we have to be prepared to abolish all  forms of privilege -- even our own. As a white woman, I must be comfortable with the idea that, as ideology shifts and things level out, my competition gets tougher and the automatic pass I get for being white and culturally Christian falls away.

It has to be this way. Because our enemy in the fight to smash Patriarchy is not manhood. We love men, sexually and platonically, familially and fraternally. Men are stupendous. Men are not the enemy here. The enemy here is the privilege. The enemy here is the automatic bias that accompanies something as random and meaningless as possessing two X chromosomes. Our allies in the battle aren’t just women, but also men, who instinctively see that such arbitrary assignments of credit are just that - arbitrary.

This is true of race and religion. It isn’t black against white. It is inequality vs. equality. It is disdain vs. dignity. The color of one’s skin, the practice of one’s religion, these things should only be relevant to the person or practitioner in question, and should have no meaning to anyone else. To assign societal and monetary benefits to such superficial criteria diminishes us all. And to allow it to continue makes us all complicit.

Equality is equal. It doesn’t put one person over another for any reason. And if you and I are going to tear down the walls that Patriarchy has built around us to keep us from our rightful due, then we must be prepared to do that for our sisters of color and for our sisters who speak to a different higher power (or no higher power at all). It’s all of us or none of us. And the sooner we accustom ourselves to a balanced, just, and fair world, where one is judged strictly and honestly on merit and effort, the better off our children and their children and their children’s children will be.



No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments subject to moderation. Anonymous comments will not be approved.