What if words matter? Thoughts on “pussy” and “slut” and word baggage

Having just returned from a visit to the Pacific Northwest where I lugged suitcases across Oregon and Washington, I have baggage on my mind. Currently, my unpacked suitcase is swollen with my finds from the Portland Saturday Market and Pike Place Market. And dirty laundry. Ah, if only it were filled with Voodoo Doughnuts, but those don’t travel so well. Alas, my suitcase will be far easier to unpack than the baggage that comes along with words. While away, a lively debate ensued among some feminist friends of mine about the word “Slut” and its usage in the many SlutWalks taking place around the world. As I missed this glorious and erudite debate, I am posting this carry-on- size food for thought about words and baggage.  (For some posts on  Slutwalk, see  here, here, here, here, here, and here)

Before my holiday, I posted on what I saw as the unnecessary (and sexist) use of the term pussy in Super 8 (Super 8 and The Monstrous Pussy” at Womanist Musings and “Super 8’s ‘Super Pussy’” at Ms. Blog). Reading through the comments, especially those at the Womanist Musings thread, which include many claims that the use of the word is “historically accurate,” got me thinking – can words ever truly  be “reclaimed” or, to stick with the baggage metaphor, unpacked? Granted, Super 8 is not trying to unpack the word “pussy” – rather, the film uses it in its common sexist meaning – i.e. pussy=coward=being like a woman.

But, could “pussy” be put in a pleasant new bag, one with nice polka-dots or a furry peace sign? Some think so. Some also think “cunt” could be repackaged into a term of feminist empowerment.

As for myself, I think it is difficult to entirely reclaim words as they cannot be drained of their historical baggage.

Words matter.

In fact, they matter so much that they almost have a material weight to them – a baggage that cannot simply be ignored or erased.

Words are like suitcases, carrying with them all manner of meanings and socio-historical links.

I don’t think we can easily “reclaim” words any more readily than we can “reclaim” lost baggage at the world’s most disorganized airport.

(And, as for Speilberg and Abrams, well, they likely travel first class and don’t have to think about the “baggage” some of us on the other side of the privilege matrix must lug around. And their baggage, is of course, filled with BALLS, not pussy – which, are, I might add, far more vulnerable than the mighty pussy!  Thus, isn’t “Don’t be such a testicle” more apt? I would love to hear that in a summer blockbuster sometime!)

Published in: on July 5, 2011 at 12:42 pm  Comments (5)  
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What if We Could All Finally Agree That Equal Opportunity Joking Does Not Exist?

Tracy Morgan’s apologies regarding his homophobic rant a few weeks back littered the web (as here and here), as did reactions to his anti-gay routine. However, most of the condemnation of Morgan has circulated around his framing of homosexuality as a “mistake” as well as his failure to take gay bullying seriously. Additionally, Tina Fey was been singled out with calls that she needs to fire Morgan (a move that Melissa McEwan of Shakesville aptly described as “an echo of the age-old stereotype that boys will be boys and it’s up to women to soften them and control them and deliver consequences for moral failures”).

In contrast, what received scant attention was Morgan’s anti-lesbian rantthat there is no way a woman could love and have sexual desire for another woman, that’s just a woman pretending because she hates a fucking man.”

In a move that is far from new, Morgan denied lesbians even exist, then went on to make many homophobic jokes about gay men. The blogosphere largely responded to this story in kind, leaving out (or not mentioning) Morgan’s anti-lesbian joke.

Here I am reminded of Adrienne Rich’s classic essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” in which Rich eloquently and exhaustively examines how the denial of sexuality for women is a means to control and suppress ALL females, not just lesbians.

Rich’s key point that male (hetero)sexuality is forced upon women can be linked to Morgan’s rant, which itself can be read as a comedic enforcing of compulsory heterosexuality. As Morgan’s “joke” suggests, women only “pretend” to be lesbians to get back at men. Yes, Morgan, because all desire revolves around the mighty phallus.

Apparently Morgan fails to appreciate that without his gay and lesbian co-workers, he, as Tina Fey put it “would not have lines to say, clothes to wear, sets to stand on, scene partners to act with, or a printed-out paycheck from accounting to put in his pocket.”

“30 Rock,” in contrast to Morgan, does recognize lesbians exist and does a good job of joking about lesbian identity without offense (as Fannie’s Room argues here).

As noted at After Ellen, “It’s no secret lesbians love Tina Fey” and, to her credit, Fey seems to understand that there is no such thing as equal opportunity joking.  In her GLAAD award acceptance speech she noted “so much what makes the difference between a joke being offensive and being funny is the context it is in and the intention behind it.”

In regards to Morgan, the intention was clearly not to promote acceptance or to breakdown stereotypes. Instead, it was hate speech masquerading as comedy. As Renee of Womanist Musings argues,

“Morgan like many comedians believes that comedy is specifically designed to be a shield that makes hate speech acceptable. Instead of claiming to be ‘an equal opportunity jokester,’ what he should have said is that he is an equal opportunity bigot.”

Tami of What Tami Said echoes this sentiment, noting “No comedy is really equal-opportunity. Why? Because our society is not equal opportunity. We are not all the same.” To illustrate her point, she argues that jokes about those who have privilege in society are not going to have real world consequences in the same way that jokes about marginalized groups are, that “No matter how many stupid jokes you tell about George Bush, none of this is likely to change for him. Nor will things change for people like him. Put it this way, no one is likely to stop hiring heterosexual, Christian, rich white men, because of George Bush.” No, nor is anyone likely to try and claim that heterosexual, rich, white men don’t exist.

You know what doesn’t exist? Being an equal opportunity jokester.” You know what does? Women loving and having sexual desire for other women.

What if there were more feminist journalists? I bet substituting the word “sex” for “rape” would be a lot less common, that’s for sure…

This excellent post from Cara at The Curvature details a story of a fifteen year old girl raped while she was dying. Yes, you read that correctly – RAPED while she was DYING.  Though the newspaper reporting on the piece uses the word rape in the article’s title, in the body of the piece, the rape of Kierra Johnson is called “having sex.” Further, one of her rapists is described as having “unprotected anal sex with Johnson.” That phrase indicates consent — it indicates Johnson was conscious – which she was not. You cannot have sex with an unconscious person — that is called rape.

As Cara further details, the news story goes on to to do a fair amount of racialized and class biased slut-shaming, pointing out that Johnson “should have been in school.” Hear that girls? If you cut class, you deserve to be raped.

Reading Cara’s post reminded me of another sad fact I read earlier today – that at the Washington Post, 19 out of 27 columnists are white males. As Monica Potts details, “Out of 27 total columnists and reporters [at the Washington Post], three are black men and three are white women. The rest are white men. And if you don’t scroll past the fold, white men are all you see.”

Now, while some of these white males may certainly be feminists, whoever wrote the piece at the Philly paper is NOT. These two stories may seem unconnected, but how stories are reported is vital. Word choice is key. Calling rape “sex” happens all the time in the mainstream media and I know this would be far less common with more feminist journalists penning stories and columns. This is why organizations like The Women’s Media Center, The Op-Ed Project, and Women in Media and News are so important. This is why publication like Ms. Magazine and Bitch are vital. This is why the feminist blogosphere matters.

Calling rape sex is just one small part of the battle we are up against – but it is a hugely important one – one that matters greatly to the story of Kierra Johnson – and the untold thousands of girls and women like her – who are not “having sex,” who are being regularly and all too often raped. Journalists and newscasters who hide such crimes via their word choice should be ashamed – they are guilty of maintaining, perpetuating, and condoning the rape culture in which we live.

What if Womanism and Feminism were equal?

(A guest post from Renee of Womanist Musings)

When we look at labels to describe activism by women we commonly use the term womanist, or feminist.  Words mean something despite how casually we toss them around.  They are how we order and understand our world.  In an effort to be inclusive when we write about activism many will often write feminists/womanists.  This acknowledges that some WOC have to some degree separated themselves and have taken on the label of womanists because of the history of racism within the feminist movement.

The problem with using these labels is that they often appear in a certain order.  Most will write feminists/womanists rather than womanists/feminists.  This may seem like a small insignificant point but what it does is that it once again sets up a hierarchy about what counts as real activism when it comes to women.  If feminism is routinely placed first it sets up womanism as a ridiculous offshoot.  When we consider that womanists largely identify as such because of racism in feminism, routinely placing it behind feminism only reaffirms the idea that white women still see WOC as secondary bodies.

Even though writing feminists/womanists is an attempt at inclusion, the order of the words appear means something because it speaks to who has power and privilege.  Often unconsciously we reaffirm power dynamics in our society.  Privileging certain bodies has become a naturalized phenomenon and  it takes a conscious effort to decolonize your mind. These small slights do not go unnoticed even if they are unremarked upon.

Many WOC are rightfully distrustful of white women.   There is a long history of betrayal and silencing.  I have watched time after time as we are assaulted and our issues ignored.  We are told that we focus to much on race in an attempt to destabilize our organizing.  Womanism  speaks about our lives, our needs and our existence in a way that feminism never has.  It validates our experiences and places us in the center of the conversation.  To place feminism before womanism  continually only reifies the need for womanism.

The rift between WOC and white women needs to be healed.  Each new slight just adds to the bitterness and contempt and is the equivalent of pouring salt into an open wound thereby further  dividing  us from each other.  When there is such a large history of betrayal we cannot afford to continue to fuel the negativity as it only detracts us from our common enemy: patriarchy.

WOC are always going to have issues that are unique to us, and yet we share many issues in common with white women.  The anger and bitterness often causes us to ignore their valid commentary and make sweeping assumptions.  There will never be one monolithic woman that can represent us and the “sisterhood” will never cure all the hurt, but we need to think about how we speak to each other if we are going to move forward.

Our future lies in unity and not in separation.  It is important that we leave room for forgiveness and  it is essential that white women acknowledge the ways in which they have wronged us.  This is a problem that we need to tackle together with patience and love.   Both WOC and white women essentially want to see women succeed, we just don’t always agree with what constitutes “woman”.

Published in: on April 5, 2009 at 11:48 am  Comments (7)  

What if “traditional” wasn’t used as a catch all term meaning ‘good’ or ‘natural’? (Or, what ‘traditions’ should we vote to perpetuate come Tuesday…?)

If you have been on this planet long enough to learn how to read, you have likely come across phrases such as “It’s tradition” or “We’ve always done it this way, it’s a family/community/religious tradition” or “traditional family.”  In sayings such as these, the word ‘tradition’ is used to indicate something is good, right, natural, worth doing, etc. People say things like, “I will go to my mother’s for the holiday, it’s tradition” or “traditional recipe” or “American tradition.”

While there are many bad traditions, we don’t tend to talk about these things as traditional. For example, it’s quite traditional for many whites to raise their children to be racist and/or deny white privilege. Yet, we don’t tend to speak of the “white racist tradition.” It’s also tradition for boys and men to learn to degrade and objectify women — sometimes they learn this from their fathers, sometimes from their friends, and certainly from popular culture. Yet, we don’t speak of “sexist tradition.” It’s also tradition for the USA to rely on an exploitive labor system and an economic set-up that favors the very rich. Yet, we don’t say “the USA’s traditional to use slave labor” or “the tradition of keeping all the wealth in the hands of white male elites.” We don’t say these things because traditions are assumed to be good, to be things worth keeping.

Lately, the word ‘tradition’ is being thrown around a lot in relation to heteronormative concepts of family and marriage. Here in California, the “Yes on 8″ camp (or, in other words, the we support homophobic hate crew) use lines such as “protect the traditional family” or “protect the tradition of marriage.” Here, ‘traditional’ is used as a synomym for “the right kind,” as in, “protect the right kind of marriage, not that crazy gay kind.” Notice that the Yes on 8 crew does not uses phrases such as “support homophobia, it’s tradition” or “it’s traditional to hate and exclude others who are not like us,” or, “save traditional marriage – keep the man in charge and the woman as property.” No, none of these “traditions” are named as such.

And, as a post at Straight Not Narrow notes, the Yes on 8 crowd seems to interpret the need to “keep traditions” quite differently than how Jesus might have characterized tradition. As the post notes, in the book of Mark, Jesus contrasts “the traditions of men” from “the commands of God,” and, not surprisingly, suggests that God’s rules are the ones to follow, not human traditions. Here is the quote from Mark 7:8-9:

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions.”

Now, I don’t personally believe in the bible, but for those that do, doesn’t the way Jesus characterizes tradition here not jibe with how the Yes on 8 crew is using the word? Tradition in the above is characterized as bad, as willful, as going against God. Huh, I may be on to something there. If “the traditions of men” are going against “the commands of God,” then upholding “traditional marriage” (as the Yes on 8 crew is doing) is actually hubris – it is taking the stance that “my tradition” or “my belief” is better than everyone else’s – including that of God, Jesus, etc.

A story about a ballot measure introduced in Olympia, Washington puts the hypocrisy surrounding the “traditional marriage” in stark relief. As reported at the SeattlePI back in 2007:

“Proponents of same-sex marriage have introduced an initiative that would put a whole new twist on traditional unions between men and women: It would require heterosexual couples to have children within three years or else have their marriages annulled.”

Gregory Gadow, who filed the I-957 proposition, claimed the initiative was filed “in the spirit of political street theater” with no real intention to actually put this into law, but rather  “to get this on the ballot and cause people to talk about it.” (See the full story here.)

Such “political street theatre” makes it abundantly clear that “traditional marriage” is touted as a good thing without much analysis as to what this really means. While it is ‘traditional’ for most marriages to result in children, does this mean that marriages which don’t are no longer real or valid?

Ideas surrounding “tradition” also circulate around California’s Prop 4 initiative. The Yes on 4 camp, that would like to limit reproductive rights, uses the platform of protecting “traditional family values.” However, as anyone who doesn’t live with their head stuck up their backsides knows, the ‘traditional nuclear family’ model in the US is rife with heinous and hypocritical ‘traditions.’ For example, the tradition of seeing the women in the family as servants, as property, as items to barter or ‘give away’ to men/future husbands. Or, the tradition of valuing sons more, of putting male’s education/goals etc first. While these traditions are thankfully waning, they are by no means under threat of extinction. If Prop 4 passes (and if the even more draconian Prop 11 in South Dakota passes(see here for more on Prop 11)), the ‘tradition’ of controlling women’s bodies and their reproductive capacities will be strengthened – or, in other words, we will be moving BACKWARDS in terms of equality, social justice, and reproductive freedom.

“Tradition” has also been used in the presidential campaign to promote racism and sexism. As Obama threatens the ‘tradition’ of white male rule, he has been targeted in extremely racist ways that feed on the tradition of white supremacist views that are still prevalent in this ‘free’ country. And, as the sexist coverage of both Clinton and Palin reveals, any woman, even when she is a right-to-lifer, weapon/oil/war loving darling of the right, is framed as a threat to the tradition of male/power privilege.

While some traditions are good, (like calling your dad on father’s day, or eating meals together as a family, or voting!) others, (like sexism, racism, homophobia) are abhorrent. While all people should have equal rights and privileges, equal opportunities, the right to marry if they choose, the right to control their own reproductive capacity, the right to run for office without being targeted by racist/sexist campaign propaganda, all traditions are certainly NOT equally good or right.

Thus, when something is touted as good because it is ‘traditional,’ let us all pause and think about what traditions we want to perpetuate and what traditions need to be axed. The ‘traditional family,’ ‘traditional marriage,’ and ‘traditional leaders,’  are not actually altogether good traditions, but traditions that work to limit access to privilege and power and that disenfranchise women, people of color, and non-heterosexuals.

Up with feminist, progressive traditions and down with traditions of hate! And, please, please consider what traditions you would like to perpetuate when you vote come Tuesday…

What if I could overcome my gut-wrenching hatred for the phrase ‘you guys’?

Well, it would certainly make my life a lot easier because I hear this phrase multiple times a day. I wish I could accept being referred to in terms that insinuate the whole population is male or that male terms are ‘neutral,’ but I can’t. When I hear ‘you guys,’ I don’t feel like whoever is saying/writing this is talking to me because I am not an f***ing guy!

Yes, people claim this term is ‘gender neutral,’ that it ‘doesn’t do any harm,’ that ‘there’s no easy replacement,’ that ‘people don’t mean anything by it,’ that ‘there are so many bigger issues, why are you concerned with something so petty?’ and, lastly, that ‘girls is used in the same way as guys.’ Ugh and ugh.

Let’s deconstruct these excuses:

Excuse 1: ‘you guys is gender neutral’

Um, no it’s friggin not. While Merriam-Webster defines guy as “man, fellow b: person -used in plural to refer to the members of a group regardless of sex <saw her and the rest of the guys>” I still don’t buy it. This is like all those other claims that words such as mankind, policeman, brotherhood of man, etc really include women too. Uh, not so much. When you hear the word fireman, do you picture a woman?

Further, why is it that terms are only ‘neutral’ when they are male terms? Why isn’t ‘you gals’ or ‘you girls’ neutral by the same logic?

Try saying ‘you gals’ to a group of mixed gender individuals and see how many males respond… You see, for those identifying as male, being called a female term is an INSULT. For women, being called male terms is SUPPOSED to be a compliment or sign of inclusion. GAG.

Excuse 2: ‘it doesn’t do any harm’

Really? The idea that language is a harmless medium devoid of ideological content that merely objectively names the world is utter hogwash. See Plato or the work of Ferdinand de Saussure if you want to ruminate more deeply on this one. Language shapes how we see the world and helps to create what we call reality. Words are not innocent.

And, for all the little girls who never hear themselves validated in language – who hear their teachers say “you guys,” who hear that boys always come before and are more important than girls (as with the Boys and Girls Club et al) – well, sadly, ‘you guys’ harms them in the same way as language will continue to harm them as they grow – they will learn females are sluts, bitches, whores, gold-diggers, etc. ‘You guys’ is only their first step into misogynistic patriarchal indoctrination.

For the boys, it marks the stepping-stones of male privilege and programming into the cult of masculinity. They learn from the get go that they are the sex that counts, linguistically and otherwise.

Excuse 3: ‘there’s no easy replacement’

How about plain old ‘you’???? ‘You’ can be plural or singular.

As an example, ‘You need to bring your book to class on Friday’ can be said to one student or to the entire class.

If you find ‘you’ on its own too short, or boring, or non-slangy, how about you people, you all, you peeps, y’all. As for me, I like just plain old ‘you.’

Excuse 4: ‘people don’t mean anything by it’

Often this is true. And, often people are not even aware of just how often they say “you guys.” In fact, I know many feminists and women’s studies professors who use the phrase. However, I don’t think this makes the phrase ok, rather, I think the phrase has become so ubiquitous that people say it without even realizing it.

Sadly, this phrase seems to be taking over the world. When I lived in England several years ago, ‘you guys’ was not in use. This was no surprise, as Britain tends to be a bit more formal in its language use in general than the US. However, when I visited last summer, I sadly found the ‘you guys’ disease has spread.

I don’t feel that when people use this verbal tick a bazillion times each day they INTEND to perpetuate sexism and put females under erasure, yet the same could be said of earlier claims regarding now discarded words. It used to be argued that no harm was meant via terms like “colored” or “retarded.” Yet, as we attempt to evolve as a species, we have realized the damage that can be done by ‘mere words.’ So, while people might not ‘mean anything’ by saying ‘you guys,’ wouldn’t it be a lot more meaningful if they tried to replace this phrase with something that doesn’t smack of patriarchal brainwashing?

Excuse 5: ‘there are so many bigger issues’

Yes, that is true. ‘You guys’ is a mere blip on the unjust screen of our culture. This is why I tend to refer to my hatred for the phrase as a pet peeve. But, this peeve of mine has its justifications. If you have to pick between supporting reproductive justice, eradicating racism, or not shopping at Wal-Mart over not saying ‘you guys,’ well fine. However, I would prefer if you chose to do all of these and more. And, how hard is it really to eradicate ‘you guys’ from your speech? Probably a lot easier for many than not supporting one of the world’s number one human rights offenders… (aka Wal-Mart).

Excuse 6: ‘girls is used in the same way as guys’

Yes, people say things like ‘girls night out,’ ‘hey girls,’ and ‘you girls.’ However, they say this only to refer to actual females – when guys are present, even one guy, ‘you girls’ type phrases will not be used (you know, cuz that would like, insult the dude’s masculinity – whereas for a girl, it’s just fine to be called a guy).

Also, consider these equations:

Guy = Gal = adult

Boy = Girl = child

So, when you refer to a male as ‘guy,’ you refer to him as an ADULT. When you refer to a female as a ‘girl,’ you are using a term that indicates she is a child. Ever wonder why calling women ‘girls’ is so popular, while calling men boys has historically been seen as an insult? Yup, you got it, it’s called sexism. I know the use of ‘boys’ is becoming more common, but this is related to the whole “men will be boys” culture (see Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism for a good discussion of this culture). And, even though using the term ‘boys’ to refer to men is becoming more common, it hasn’t reached the cultural saturation point that calling women of all ages ‘girls’ has. Why? Because men are individuals, silly. Women are mere appendages. They don’t grow up, they only (hopefully) grow tits and then attach themselves to a real human, a male. And, if they don’t do that, well, you know all the sexist terms that will be flung at them: dyke, bitch, frigid, ice queen, ho, tease, old maid…

**********************

To return to the question I posed in the title of this post, well, if I could overcome my gut-wrenching hatred for the term ‘you guys’ I wouldn’t have to wince multiple times each day when I hear it. I wouldn’t have to constantly ruminate on the plain old everyday sexism of our world. Yet, I refuse to let go of my dislike for this phrase. I do not like to be erased by language, I do no like to be infantalized by being called a “girl,” I do not like it when my female identity doesn’t count, I do not appreciate the implicit suggestion that being called a guy is somehow a compliment. In fact, I hate it.

What if analogous to the term ‘person of color,’ we used ‘person of white privilege’?

It seems the more disenfranchised a group is or the more s/he differs from ‘normative identities,’ the bigger a mouthful that person will have to use to describe her/himself. When we unpack what I like to call the ‘suitcase of our identity,’ if our suitcases contain all the social positions favored by society (i.e. white, male, wealthy, heterosexual, Christian, patriotic, etc) then we get to call ourselves simple things like ‘man,’ ‘guy,’ or ‘male.’ However, the more our identity diverges from these normative categories, the more words we must string together, as in ‘bi-racial queer working-class undocumented transwoman.’

With one word descriptors like ‘male,’ all sorts of assumptions come in to play. For example, when you describe someone as a ‘woman,’ many people will assume you are referring to a white woman as white is the ‘normative category’ in our racist society. This is especially true in the mainstream media where you only here racial/ethnic descriptors when the person is not white (and especially if that person is living up to the pervasive, socially sanctioned stereotype of being a ‘criminal’ – hence the phrase ‘driving while black’).

Now, in terms of linguistic equality, it doesn’t seem fair that some identities are (assumed to be) summed up in one word, while others require a whole string of complex descriptions. Let’s call it being ‘linguistically oppressed.’ In order to counter this oppression, I suggest a first move would be to begin calling ‘white people’ ‘people of white privilege’ instead. Just as the phrase ‘people of color’ nods to the system of racism that works against all of those without white privilege, the term ‘people of white privilege’ (or POWP), would own up to the fact that white skin, to borrow a phrase from the famous “Got Milk” add campaign, ‘does a body good.’ White privilege, as Peggy McIntosh and many others have so thoroughly elucidated, bestows one with all sorts of perks. The closing points of her widely anthologized piece, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” are well worth considering more closely:

It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.

Although systemic change takes many decades, there are pressing questions for me and, I imagine, for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned. What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.

Her linkage of obliviousness to white privilege as being analogous to obliviousness to male privilege is worth unpacking further. (For a full article examining male privilege, see here.) These two modes of obliviousness seem particularly resistant to dying. In my women’s studies classes, one of the units each semester that seems to put people on the defensive most is the unit in which we examine racism and white privilege. The people of color, due to systemic racism, are generally hip to all the injustices having skin that is not white confers upon them. However, white students are most often not correspondingly aware of the privileges their skin color affords. In fact, many become highly offended at the suggestion they are privileged and attempt to list out a whole host of ways they are not privileged via reference to their class, belief system, appearance, sexuality, etc. Here, they miss the point that just because one has white skin privilege does not mean one cannot lack privilege in many other areas (it’s called intersectionality, people!). Rather, white privilege refers to the doors having white skin opens – that door might be slammed again when, say, your easy ride securing a rental lease becomes more bumpy when your landlord discovers you are a lesbian.

People also seem reticent to own up to white privilege as they seem to think doing so is akin to admitting they are racist. What many fail to realize is that NOT owning up to white privilege is in itself a racist act. By ignoring or silencing the many societal perks that white skin brings, one is participating in what McIntosh terms “unearned privilege” – a privilege which has its base in institutionalized and internalized racism.

Some POWPs will also claim they too are discriminated against, that there is ‘reverse racism.’ Not fans of being picked on for their ‘whiteness,’ they take offense when cites like Stuff White People Like try to humorously dismantle the erroneous attitude that ‘race’ refers to people of color, not to their own white selves. Yeah, cuz its funny when you make racist jokes about other racial groups, just not when they are aimed at your own white ass.

Another common reaction to an analysis of white privilege includes ‘white guilt’ – or feeling guilty because you are white. When I was lucky enough to see Peggy McIntosh speak at USD in 2006, she made some great points about this, noting that feeling guilty about racism does nothing to solve the problem. What is required to stop racism and eradicate white privilege is action, not guilt. Liza at Anti Racist Parent discussed this today in her great post “Is Privilege Offensive”:

Having privilege does not equal feeling guilty. However, owning the fact that I experience privilege forces me to open my eyes to the ways in which systems of oppression and institutionalized -isms keep others from achieving.

As McIntosh and Liza both point out, feeling guilty doesn’t achieve anything. We need to open our eyes (as Liza suggests) and then begin to take actions in our everyday lives to dismantle white privilege and call it out when we see it.

One small step I suggest is to think about how it would change our perceptions if, instead of using the term white (or caucasian), we used ‘person of white privilege.’ Now, I know this won’t catch on – can you imagine Chris Matthews or Anne Coulter describing themselves as POWPs?!? But, even thinking about this linguistic possibility is edifying. If society were forcibly reminded each day that whiteness equals privilege maybe, just maybe, this might begin to crack the fortress of racism that poisons our world.

Owning up to white privilege and working to dismantle that privilege must be a priority – not just for people of color who know all to well about having the burden of dismantling racism put at their doorstep, but for people of white privilege too. The onus to dismantle this crazy-ass ‘master’s house’ needs to be taken on by people of white privilege. So, all of you POWPs out there, pick up your activist tools, grab your social justice hammer, and own up to your white privilege if you have not done so already. There is still lots of work to be done…

*For a list of links to various other privilege lists, see this page at Alas, A Blog. Thanks also to this blog for linking me to Liza’s “Is Privilege Offensive” with this post.

What if we called it “America’s war against Iraqi civilians”?

I was alerted via Tomdispatch.com about the publication of new book by Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian: Collateral Damage, America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians. According to the post, the book is:

“Based on hundreds of hours of interviews with veterans of the Iraq war and occupation, it lays out graphically indeed and in their own words the American system of patrols, convoys, home raids, detentions, and military checkpoints that became a living nightmare for civilians in Iraq. Think of their book as a two-person version of the Vietnam-era Winter Soldier Investigation, this time for a war in which Americans have seemed especially uneager to know much about what their troops, many thousands of miles from home, are really doing to the “hajis.”

Another good read in this vein is Collateral Language: A User’s Guide to America’s New War. Language, this book argues, is, as George Orwell documented, one damn powerful force.

Think about it: what if poli-ticks (according to Jon Stewart: poli meaning many, ticks meaning blood sucking insects) said it like it is rather than relying on trumped up jargon and doublespeak?

For example, what if we used…

  • “war on Iraqi civilians” INSTEAD OF “war on terror”
  • “US imperialism” INSTEAD OF “spreading freedom and democracy”
  • “dead and injured civilians” INSTEAD OF “collateral damage”
  • “the ass who stole power” INSTEAD OF “the president”
  • “global militarism” INSTEAD OF “globalization”
  • “corporatism” INSTEAD OF “free market capitalism”
  • “xenophobic flag waiver” INSTEAD OF “patriot”
  • “bribe to keep you quiet” INSTEAD OF “tax reimbursement”

Do you think people would be as likely to say, “Yes, I support the war on Iraqi civilians”? Do you think they could stomach U.S. imperialism quite as easily if we focused on the deaths, starvation, displacement, genocide, etc it is causing? Do you think they would be able to see the atrocities US policies are bringing about as a “necessary evil” if we called torture what it is? Do you think people would be so happy about paying blood at the pump with their “tax reimbursement” if they knew who really controls the economy/global agenda (Bilderberg, anyone?) I certainly hope not.

By hiding the reality of things with feel good phrases, those in power pull the wool over the eyes of many. Let’s not allow this to happen – go out and re-read 1984 people, become an expert in the evil machinations of doublespeak, and call people (or leaders) out when they use it. Hitler was a huge fan of propaganda – see his Mein Kampf and ask yourself if those in power are not masters at this devious craft. Then, ignore the propaganda machine and say it like it is – it ain’t democracy baby, it’s neo-fascism, it ain’t ‘the greatest country on earth,’ it’s the heart of empire, it ain’t a war on terror, it’s a war against civilians and civil liberties…

What if “woman” was not used as a synonym for “white woman”?

Certain words, most words, in fact, carry along all sorts of baggage with them. Words are like overstuffed suitcases. When we bandy about the hefty word ‘woman,’ most people see a Costco-variety suitcase, a ubiquitous ‘everywoman’ that, like the dark green Costco luggage at airport baggage claim, is indistinguishable from all other women. Yet, this pervasive use of ‘woman’ to represent a very particular type of woman – a white, heterosexual, middle class, manicured, polished, feminine women - is harmful to ALL women.

When a media mouthpiece says “woman” they usually mean ‘white middle class hetero woman.’ When they mean a female who is not part of this limiting normalization, they add adjectives and stir – such as Chicana, Black, Queer, Homeless, etc.

So, what should the word ‘woman’ mean? Well, channeling Freud, it seems the word should mean what the individual woman wants it to mean. It could mean “I have a vagina,” it could mean “I identify as female,” heck, it could mean “I don’t identify in any gender category but need to use the damn bathroom.” But, from a societal level, it is imperative that we who have our social justice awareness caps on use this term woman more carefully. As a case in point, why is Obama referred to as a black man while Hillary is most often referred to merely as a woman?

“Woman” should not be used to make whiteness or other categories of social privilege invisible. It should not be used as a synonym for white woman, for a heterosexual female, or for any other supposedly (ugh) ‘normal’ category. Rather, the word must carry all the heavy connotations stuffed into the very large, overstuffed suitcase of all those social positions, identities, and intersectionalities that are socially constructed as well as embodied by those who identify or are identified as women.

Published in: on May 21, 2008 at 5:30 pm  Comments (1)  
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