Un-Design

Un-Design

Un-doing white privilege: a love letter

Peter Hellberg

Warning, anger ahead:

Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change ― Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

On Monday, I experienced anger in way that I rarely ever feel.

The source of my anger was the continued institutionalisation of white privilege in the design of policy and legislation. It started when I decided to catch up on the discussions regarding the repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Having read The Conversation’s and SBS’s reporting, I was particularly struck by Waleed Aly’s of the Sydney Morning Herald, analysis of the situation:

That’s what struck me most about the proposed legislation. It’s just so … well, white. In fact it’s probably the whitest piece of proposed legislation I’ve encountered during my lifetime. It trades on all the assumptions about race that you’re likely to hold if, in your experience, racism is just something that other people complain about.

Then I saw a Twitter image of one of former US President Bill Clinton’s speeches about discrimination with the handwritten note in margin by one of his staff members that read: “Is there someway to be a bit more positive and speak to white people?”

Tweet of image from Clinton speech with staffer note. Sam Stein/ Twitter

Sigh. So, there it was again.

Politics was being framed so that it only spoke to white people. Of course, this is not unusual. I originate from a place that enshrined in the US Constitution that black slaves as “all other persons” represented 3/5ths of a person for state representation and taxation purposes. I live in a place that still has not recognised its Indigenous peoples in its Constitution.

Yet on Monday, I felt particularly overwhelmed with how the white people in power continue to design white privilege into the very structures of law and policy.

American feminist Peggy McIntosh in her seminal essay, White Privilege and Male Privilege, defines white privilege as:

An invisible package of unearned assets, which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.

She continues in the essay to describe 46 “ordinary and daily ways” she experienced white privilege, including point number 23:

I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

As expressed by Waleed Aly, what makes what the current state of Australian politics especially problematic at the moment is the extent to which white privilege is being even more deeply enshrined in law, just when things were beginning to get a little bit better.

We need to talk about white privilege…

As a person of not-white-privilege, how I address the topic of white privilege is very complicated.

I cannot use accusatory language for fear that I will be outright dismissed as an “angry black woman”. Even among allies for social justice, the discussion can easily be shifted to a focus on white guilt, which leads to paralysis from change.

This is illustrated in John Spiak’s response to the question, “Do I understand the assumptions about my privilege? "in the Open Engagement conference site. He answers in both exasperation and a sense of mea culpa:

Yes, I do understand the assumptions of my privilege as a white, male, heterosexual, of European decent, middle class, college degree-holding, English speaking US citizen…[Yet] all of us working in social practice, assumed as privileged or not, still have the possibility of really f#$king things up!

In most cases, humour is used effectively to raise awareness of white privilege. There is the Aussie classic mockumentary, Babakiueria:

Babakiueria.

For me, the best example is comedian Eddie Murphy’s White Like Me satirical skit on the television show Saturday Night Live:

White Like Me, SNL.

But while satire describes the context of white privilege, it often fails to provide solutions for change.

As a design anthropologist, I am interested in the imagining of solutions for positive change. And this change is sorely needed, not just to appease the anger of those who do not experience white privilege, but also to heal those whose privileges are based solely on their white skins.

For example, on Tuesday night, I led my predominately white students through a self-reflection exercise about their own racial privileges. In a assignment a couple of weeks ago, they evaded the issue of stereotypes of white culture to focus on identities related to age, sexual orientation, food preferences, and body weight because they felt that whiteness did not have a culture.

Because it was painful for them, I had to gently nudge them into addressing the issue, because they need to help co-design solutions that un-do white privilege.

A love letter for people of white cultures without white privilege

So I offer to them, and all who live white privilege, a love letter.

The form of a love letter enables me to express both the true compassion I feel for white people as fellow human beings and my sense of longing to end of what separates me from those who still hold their white privilege dear.

Dear white sisters and brothers,

I embrace you in our shared humanity, now and in the future that we must co-design together. We all share the same question of how to live lives of meaning. We have reaffirmed what we have always known — that meaning is more important than happiness for those whom we love and ourselves. Our individual and collective holistic well-being is derived from how we contribute to that which is greater than our own personal pleasures.

The collective pursuit of your own happiness, over the well-being of those whose skins are darker than yours, has left you isolated in your own communities. This causes you to ache, yet you choose to ignore the loneliness that sickens you. Do you fear that much losing yourself in the deep embrace with others like me? Is this why you reject the collective me for the simulations of alcohol, drugs, and televised games of violence?

I challenge you to let go of your exceptional talent for using your great intelligence to maintain hierarchical dominance over all the other natural and social systems. I have watched you reject your own histories and say you have no cultures in order to flee from the horror of your talent for dominance. You have literally colonised the world to escape the systems of exploitation in Europe, only to reproduce them everywhere you landed.

You have chosen to let go of so much of your history, languages, and customs that you are forced to find meaning in the collection of the histories, languages, and customs that belong to your fellow brothers and sisters of darker hues.

You have abandoned almost everything except the fear that causes you to put yourself over and above the natural and the social worlds. When you let go of this one mistaken belief in your cultures, you will be able to fall into the deep embrace you seek and help in the co-creation of new cultures with all of us. These cultures will consist of the great beauty that is equally a part of your cultures, which you have rejected in the past, and part of mine, which you have denigrated in the past.

I entreat you to try and love yourselves a little better and a little more. There is so much self-hatred in you, which expresses itself in death and destruction of those whom you have not seen as peers. The great elder, Maya Angelou says:

Laugh and dare to try to love somebody, starting with yourself. You must love yourself first, of course, and you must protect yourself when you can. You say, "Just a minute! I’m worth everything, dear”. If you really realise that, you realise everybody else is worth everything. Everybody, fat and thin and plain and pretty, white and black, rich and poor, thick and slow and brilliant, everybody is worth everything. Start with yourself though.

I embrace you, not with the hope, but with the necessity that our collective survival depends on our ability to laugh and find the meaning of our lives through each other’s beauty, so that we might find solace in our embrace.

Lovingly in the most humanistic way,

Elizabeth Tunstall