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for me, fear of standing out is a privilege

As you all know, I read LJ extremely irregularly, so it wasn't until yesterday that I came across the complex and often painful discussion about cultural appropriation that's been going on in various journals these last 10 or so days. But when I did I started to read, and then I read, and read, and read some more, and tried my hardest to listen and understand, since this is one of the many (many) things I struggle with fear around in my own (so far completely unpublished, and indeed almost entirely unseen by others) writing.

I'm white. Lots of people didn't believe this when I was growing up, which is another post, but nonetheless I'm quite thoroughly white. The characters I write are also white, because that's my comfort zone, and because I can't really figure out how to do race in subcreation, and finally what is really the core of the other two: because I am absolutely terrified that if I tried to write someone who wasn't white, I'd get it wrong.

I used to feel this fear even talking to people who weren't white, the fear that I'd do it wrong, offend, harm, damage, and that the person I was talking to would get mad at me and think I was a bad person -- and they'd be right. I'm grateful to SFSU for changing this; being one of the only white women in my counselling classes caused me to realise that I could screw up in good faith and learn from my mistakes, even when people were angry at me. Still, in my writing I feel an enormous sense of helplessness. I see the anger that gets expressed when a white person does it wrong, and I am horrified to think of that anger being expressed towards me.

Yesterday I read deepad's post: White people, its not all about you, but for this post it is, in which she addresses some of the comments white people brought up during these discussions. One of her answers had an enormous impact on me, and so I'm quoting it in full:

Statement: I'm a white male, and this suggests that I'm not allowed to write anything but white males.

Response: Physically--White males experience less censorship than any other demographic on this planet. They have easier access to more resources including paper, pens, computers and dictaphones. Not only do they have more ability to access the internet to publish online; they also have the world's strongest publishing industry statistically supporting them more than any other group. Nobody is less prevented from writing whatever the hell they want to.
Intellectually--When you imply that POC are disallowing you from writing something, what you are really saying is their their disapproval affects you to a degree that you are willing to pretend that they have the power to alter your choices. This is disenginous.
Morally--I realise this is hard to understand sometimes, because it is a very fundamental difference between post-colonial and imperial nations, so I'll try to be clear.

When you are part of the dominant culture, you are in a system that rewards your default way of living as being termed 'right', and you grow up thinking that being 'wrong' is bad, and therefore a serious enough offence to either paralyse you, or invoke anger at the name-caller.
When you are a minority or a survivor of an oppressive system, you are used to your identity being termed 'wrong', and you work on the assumption that the systems are all broken. You do not trust power to not be used for oppression, opportunity to not be used for selfish advancement, intelligence to not be used against justice, and discernment to not be used to create bigotry.
We are not used to throwing our abusers in jail after three strikes--we negotiate with our abusers being our bosses and television hosts and school teachers and peacekeeping forces and our clergy. When someone tells us we are wrong, we can't run away or banish them, we learn to live with them, and with ourselves.
Try to put yourself in this mindset when you hear someone saying you were wrong.

I am amazed to realise very deeply that, yes, my fear of standing out -- and my ability to fit in -- are part of my white privilege. It's a privilege I was sometimes challenged on as a child, which might be why I've been guarding it so jealously this last five or ten years, but it's certainly one I have now. Unlike many other people, I have the ability to do it right simply by keeping my mouth shut.

As I told deepad:

[...] I've always taken it for granted that being wrong is horrifying, even deadly. That being told I'm not blending in is dangerous unto death.

Your 2nd response above (to the 'I'm a white male') has given me a new way to look at my own fear, and to see how much of that fear comes from the privilege I enjoy as part of the dominant culture. Your suggestion to "try to put yourself in this mindset" is terrifying and exhilarating to me both at once. I'm going to try it.

And so here I am, trying it. I'll no longer be locking all my (fairly rare) journal posts, although there will probably be the occasional TMI physical condition post that is locked out of a sense of privacy rather than a sense of fear. Imagine my surprise to realise that they might not be the exact same thing!


( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 22nd, 2009 08:54 pm (UTC)
Come on in, the water is fine. And the storm seems to have passed for now :)
Jan. 22nd, 2009 09:03 pm (UTC)
You might well have seen these in your reading, but I found jonquil's post here and vito_excalibur's here at least tangentially relevant to your post. YMMV.
Jan. 23rd, 2009 05:00 am (UTC)
See also ciderpress's post.
Jan. 28th, 2009 08:32 pm (UTC)
Thanks! All of those were interesting, and I hadn't seen any of them but jonquil's.
Jan. 22nd, 2009 09:29 pm (UTC)
My primary care physician once told me that, in one way of looking at it, there are only two emotions, love and fear. That you can, if you so choose and find it useful to do so, look at ALL other emotions as either expressions of love or fear.

And it is a useful way to look at things. Naturally, it's limiting -- it probably oughtn't be the ONLY way one looks at emotions, but it does clarify some things, sometimes.
Jan. 28th, 2009 08:33 pm (UTC)
Hmn, interesting. I wonder if s/he connects anger to fear, then? (Which is valid, although one of the interesting things I saw in my self-defense teaching was that people almost always had either an anger gut-reaction OR a fear gut-reaction. Although what that might me neurologically I have not the faintest clue.)
Jan. 28th, 2009 09:12 pm (UTC)

His point was that our emotions do two things: want to bring us closer to something, or want to get us farther away from something (-philos and -phobos, basically). And these are both very important things -- if we don't get away from danger, we die. But if we don't find things to which we can move toward, then what is the point of life? Fear keeps you from dying, love allows you to live.

Now, there are two ways to increase distance between you and something you want to get away from: get away from it, or make it get away from you. "Fear" is a desire to move ourselves away from something; "anger", to move something away from us. Both increase distance. "Fight-or-flight" both work.
Jan. 28th, 2009 09:23 pm (UTC)
Okay, I can see that; I may need to use it in my next class. And it fits together with things I already know/believe, which is always pleasant.

I had a therapist once who said that she saw anger as a signal that we want someone (or something) to change its behaviour, and depression as a form of anger turned inward -- wanting ourselves to change our own behaviour, or feeling like our anger towards the world is so enormous that the only thing that can be done with it is to turn it against ourselves. Not necessarily 'true' but helpful through constructs for me, especially as I do see a lot of my anger towards objects because the objects don't do what they want. And thinking of it that way lets me both resolve anger towards people (because there's something I can address) and be forgiving of myself.

Jan. 28th, 2009 10:28 pm (UTC)
I would agree with that for one form of depression. "Depression" is a catch-all word for all SORTS of mental disorders that present in similar manners, but which, I strongly suspect, have all sorts of different causes, some physical, some in how we think, some in how we react.

But, yeah. I can see that, for one kind of depression, that makes a heck of a lot of sense.
Jan. 28th, 2009 11:22 pm (UTC)
Oh, absolutely. It's, well, it's a metaphor even to the extent that for *some* people it's true. Whereas when I was depressed it didn't work at all for me, because I was very distinctly chemically depressed as a side effect of a medication and there was nothing about my own viewpoint of the world that had anything to do with it.

So yah, that's a good caveat.
Jan. 22nd, 2009 10:52 pm (UTC)
You are really, really brave. I haven't even dared look at most of the discussion, hiding from the ugly drama - and you read it *all* and thought about it and contributed and made a change in yourself. That impresses me a lot. :)
Jan. 23rd, 2009 07:35 am (UTC)
wait, you're white?
someday when I figure out what "white" is, I'll still avoid being it.
I think if I had ever felt a safety zone, I would have just stopped right then. but I know I haven't felt it yet.
Jan. 24th, 2009 10:08 pm (UTC)
I can't tell if you're joking or not, about my race.

But certainly growing up nobody thought I was; I had to keep explaining it & explaining it & explaining it. It was a huge shock to move out here & suddenly be obviously white.
Jan. 25th, 2009 02:25 am (UTC)
I was being serious in that I don't identify as white, and can't imagine identifying most of those I know as white. I really don't know what it is to be white.
also, I have no intent of ever being part of the "normal" group. eh.
Jan. 25th, 2009 08:06 pm (UTC)
You might want to read this, sweetie:


I didn't think of myself as 'white' either until I realised that not having to think about what race I am is part of being white. I did think about my race a lot growing up, though, because most people in our shared hometown assumed I wasn't white, and so I got asked about it. A lot. But then I moved to California, and out here I am so definitely, definitely white.
Jan. 25th, 2009 11:03 pm (UTC)
wow. that page had more ad hoc and ad homonim fallacys than anything I've read this week.
I think I can get My head into the place that this person is coming from...in a way.
and many of the other arguments have nothing to do with "white" and lots to do with christian dominance, from which culture everyone who is a believer in that culture shares in those methods of cultural dominance.
if all of the things listed are a part of being "whte" them I would feel comfortable saying I may be one third white. if only most, then I'm black.
I walk into a room and am taken seriously not because of My skin colour, but because I brook no bullshit and speak in clear and highly understandable manners. you could maybe argue that I do this because I'm white, only I learned to do it from black, mexican, italian...drill instructors and officers. the language is of a northern european base, that's true, but that's certainly not the fault of My (or anyone else's) being white but due to technological advances at fortunate times.
certainly the negative points merely display this authors own racism. I can't think of a time in which I was in a meeting or classroom in which, when multiple races were present it wasn't clear that all members were being treated equally. and it's not like I went to a majority white (or anything else saving maybe absentee shawnee) highschool.
thanks for the reading, but I find it as dated as the majority of ideas espoused by modern femenism.

I shall, however, turn it over to three or four people from different ethic backgrounds and see how they feel about it. maybe they will show Me ways in which they have had to genuflect to this "system".
Jan. 28th, 2009 08:35 pm (UTC)
I so fundamentally disagree with almost everything you have said in this post (not to mention much about the way that you said it) that I am not sure where to start! I mean, I think we are using a lot of words so completely differently we might as well be speaking different languages.

So, I will say this: fortunately we have a long time to unpack all of this and sort it out, and I think email or chat (or ideally face-to-face communication, but, you know, that's unlikely for the short-term) is probably the better way to do it than LJ comments.
Jan. 25th, 2009 11:04 am (UTC)
(Here via your reply at deepad's.)

Thank you for writing this. It's painfully resonant for me (the fear of getting things wrong and standing out), and revelatory to realize that, yes, the possibility of being able to fit in just by keeping my mouth shut is a form of white privilege all by itself.
Jan. 25th, 2009 07:37 pm (UTC)
I can do little more than second this. This fear and privilege has kept me from engaging this time, when I *should have done*, or so I feel now.
Jan. 28th, 2009 08:36 pm (UTC)
Thank you both. It's a good feeling when I write from my heart & it resonates with other people.

'Should' is tricky.
Jan. 25th, 2009 07:03 pm (UTC)
Well said.
Jan. 28th, 2009 08:36 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
Jan. 25th, 2009 09:58 pm (UTC)
re: fear being a privilege
I may be misunderstanding you in a couple of ways, but while the ability to keep your head down and blend in is certainly a privilege, the fear of standing out is not. It is, god knows, all too possible to be chronically scared of things that happen to you all the time.

I see the anger that gets expressed when a white person does it wrong, and I am horrified to think of that anger being expressed towards me.

One thing that sometimes gets spoken about in these discussions is the fact that many people of color also have to worry about causing offense and getting anger and backlash and contemptuous dismissal when they speak about racism and their own personal experiences to or around their white friends and acquaintances. What I mean to say is, while I fully recognize that having one's shyness and temperament and avoidance of difficult issues respected is a privilege, I feel uncomfortable when these various fears are discussed as something only white people feel--even in the context of privilege, even when these fears are deprecated and dismissed as unworthy, which for white people they often are.

Basically, I don't want to disappear down a hall of mirrors here, but I sometimes feel that assertions of white privilege are themselves an exercise of that privilege, or at least of blindness: that these unavoidable human difficulties are taken by white people to be some kind of special white problem, as if everybody doesn't struggle with them, as if white people are more scared of angry judgment than anybody else. It's not that we're more scared, or scared of different things. It's just that we are, on average, less brave. I feel that pointing out the ways in which white people have certain privileged choices can sometimes serve to belittle and downplay the fact that non-white people are also making very real and scary choices when they choose to speak up and don't back down.
Jan. 28th, 2009 08:47 pm (UTC)
Re: fear being a privilege
I think you are misunderstanding me somewhat, but when I reread my post I see a lot of room for misunderstanding in my phrasing, which was definitely not as clear as it could have been. Because yes, I do phrase it as 'being afraid is a privilege' and that's not really what I mean -- in fact, I think I mean the inverse, that being able to _not be afraid_ is the privilege. Absolutely, many people are scared because of their inability to fit in due to race (or a lot of other reasons). The privilege I feel is that I don't have to live in that fear, because I can keep my head down, and being white, middle-class, relatively thin and all sorts of other things I do blend in.

And so part of what I was getting at in my own self-discovery is that I could feel the fear (by speaking out, not keeping my head down) or I could keep on as I've been doing and avoid the fear. And being able to make that choice does seem like a form of privilege to me.

I think I get what you're saying about "when these various fears are discussed as something only white people feel," which I can definitely see in my post even though it isn't what I was meaning to say. I agree: we are, on average, less brave. The privilege I see is that I can choose not to be brave, I can choose to act in such ways as to minimise or completely avoid the fears that a lot of other people have to face every day.

Thanks a lot for your thoughts. I'm learning.
Jan. 26th, 2009 01:21 am (UTC)
Maybe somewhat off topic, and I apologize, but I really would like to hear your thoughts on people not believing you were white when you were growing up. Because a lot of people didn't believe I was white either, and complete strangers still often accost me to question me about my racial background. It's confusing, and frustrating, and sometimes very scary for me, and so far I haven't found anybody with whom to talk about it.
Jan. 28th, 2009 08:49 pm (UTC)
No apologies necessary -- I think everything I said is fair game. And I'd be happy to talk to you about it, here or more privately; I'm going to start working on a post about what things were like for me growing up, but it might take a couple of days to finish it, as my personal life has taken a turn for the complex. I hope you'll read it & let me know what you think & about your experience. I've never known anyone else with a similar background either.

Complete strangers accosted me all the time when I was growing up, but when I was 19 I moved to the SF Bay Area of California, and nobody here has ever imagined I was anything other than white.
Jan. 29th, 2009 08:22 am (UTC)
Thanks much for the reply! :)

I'd love to talk with you a bit more privately. Do you prefer via email or LJ message? It's not that I don't want to talk about my experiences in public, but they're fraught with a lot of confusion for me that has only gotten deeper as the cultural appropriation/racism discussion on LJ has progressed, and I think I need some private space to discuss and think about my whole experience as a (somwehat) dark skinned white person. (My skin's kind of a light to medium olive color and my hair is almost black and my eyes a very dark brown. I also tan a lot during the summer, so for about half of the year I appear to be an even darker olive).
Jan. 26th, 2009 10:32 pm (UTC)
One of the good things about reading links to the current Big Discussion is finding all these intelligent, well-thought-out, seeking, dynamic, wonderful thoughts committed to text.

I wanted to applaud you for writing this, and to thank you posting it publicly, and to encourage you in your resolution. *cheers you on*
Jan. 28th, 2009 08:47 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much!
( 29 comments — Leave a comment )