The other day, I had a friend ask me why the social issues that I am most vocal about are racism and sexism. It’s a valid question to ask a white man. These systems of power don’t directly oppress me — in fact, they work in my benefit.
I told him: It’s because I’m a white man.
You heard me.
When we stand in front of a woman, we know we should be careful about acting sexist. When we stand in front of a person of color, we know we should be careful about acting racist. But, when we stand in front of a white man, there is a chance that our casual sexism and racism may be appreciated, and even reciprocated.
That is to say, I am vocal about racism and sexism, because I am invited to participate in their perpetuation.
That invitation is really a privilege in itself — not because an invitation can be declined, while being oppressed cannot — and not because perpetuating systems of oppression is far preferable to experiencing them. But, rather, because as white people, and as men, we have the privilege of being invited directly into the belly of the beast — directly into conversations of white people about racism, and of men about sexism.
And we need to get better at participating in them.
A friend, who is of color, recently told me that he once had a white friend warn him, before visiting her home, that her grandmother “might say something racist.” Many of us, in dominant groups, have been in this person’s shoes. Many of us have someone in our lives, whose bigotry we apologize for.
In these situations, we may have a moment of embarrassment as we apologize on behalf of our grandmother — or on behalf of white people as a whole, who, in general, just need to do better.
Then, we excuse ourselves, because we would never say what grandma says.
But, whose job is it to tell grandma that racism is not OK? Whose job is it to reject the casual objectification of women? Should we really be apologizing for others’ bigotry? Or, that we have allowed others to believe that we will tolerate it?
We whites have the privilege of being invited into exclusively white spaces, where conversations of casual racism are safe. We men have the privilege of being invited into exclusively masculine spaces, where conversations of casual sexism are safe.
We with power have the privilege of being invited into conversations of oppression, and we have the privilege of using conversation to dismantle it, piece by piece. We don’t have to protest. We don’t have to fight for whites, or men, to listen to us. We are invited to sit at the table of bigotry, and we can easily leave that table empty, by saying that those who sit there choose to sit alone.
We are invited into the locker room, and given a say about what talk is acceptable there. When we are silent about bigotry, we allow it to be welcome in our locker room, even if we did not bring it in ourselves. We determine bigotry’s safety in our segregated spaces — if it exists in our locker room, it is because we allowed it to be there.
As members of a dominant group, we have the power to decide whether bigotry has a safe home in our white-white, and male-male, spaces. And, we have the obligation to say that it does not.
We have the obligation of being most vocal about issues that are not our own — and we have the most power to change them — because we are invited to determine their existence.