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“I Don’t Want to Be A Minority” and Other Revelations About White America

May 2, 2010

Yeah, we sure are coddling those non-English speakers. Maybe if we send them to their rooms without food...

In his recent article on protest and white privilege (the one I linked to a few days ago), Tim Wise shows us that we can learn a lot about how race affects culture by replacing a white person in any given scenario with a person of color.  Blogger Alienation taught a similar lesson a few months back with her article “What If Black Women Were White Women?”  In it, she wonders “What if suddenly, instantly, the power of white femininity were transferred to black women?”  The answer, of course, is that all of the characteristics that have been used to justify the supposed “superiority” of white women in America would suddenly be used to denigrate those same women.  If you haven’t already read the article, go do so immediately, as it is all kinds of smart – and even more kinds of true.  Whenever I need a reminder that I still received heaps and heaps of privilege, I go back and read this article, as well as the many that linked to it in the ensuing months.

Both of these arguments prove the usefulness of racial inversion as a thought experiment.  And yet, when privileged white folk stand up in the legislature or on the tv and shout about immigration, or affirmative action, it doesn’t appear that they’ve ever tried out this thought experiment.  Or – more likely – they’ve done it and have realized the implications.  Perhaps they know for certain that they don’t want to walk a mile in anyone else’s shoes.  Those who have privilege tend to want to protect it at all costs, precisely because they’ve realized that not having privilege is hard. Duh.

I experience this sort of absolute cultural blindness almost constantly in my place of employment.

IRL I work at a greeting card store – a national chain that is generally associated with massive white upper-class privilege.  Greeting cards companies make their living by enforcing stereotypes, ignoring diversity, and selling themselves to a largely white suburban audience.  So it wasn’t surprising that, when a customer asked me for Mother’s Day cards in Spanish, I was able to produce only 2 from the stacks.  (Actually, this is pretty good.  We used to carry none, with a claim from our owners that there just “isn’t a market” for “THOSE cards.”  I finally managed to convince them to place an order, but we still don’t carry much variety.)  When the customer left, two of my co-workers (both older white women) began unleashing a string of vitriol against the customer’s desire to purchase Spanish-language cards for her Spanish-speaking mother-in-law.

“If she keeps giving the woman cards in Spanish, she’ll never learn English!” one of them said.  (She hadn’t spoken to the customer and had no idea what the actual situation was.  For all she knew, the mother-in-law might have spoken perfect English.  That doesn’t mean she wouldn’t still be happy to get a card in her native language.  I sure as hell would be if I lived in a country where my mother tongue got slammed daily.)

Their invective eventually turned from one against the customer in question to one against foreign-language speakers in general.  One of the women, who is from Texas, complained that “Houston has separate neighborhoods where the signs are in Spanish or Vietnamese or whatever!  I just don’t understand!  If they keep giving people things in other languages, how are they going to learn English?”

Well, perhaps they’ll learn because America essentially forces them to.  Because in order to work or go to school or have adequate medical care, they have to be able to communicate with the people who are their bosses, teachers, or doctors.  And most of those people don’t speak anything but English.

The real kicker, though, was when the same lady continued, saying, “My sister lived in Miami for a while and it was so awful she had to move!  She was practically a minority there!”

I couldn’t keep my mouth shut anymore.  “She didn’t like being a minority?” I asked.

“No.  She was always uncomfortable.  She never understood anything anyone was saying to her.”

“Well then now she knows how it feels.  Lucky for her she had the resources to change the situation if she didn’t like it.  Most of the people who live in those neighborhoods in Houston you were talking about?  My guess is they can’t really afford that kind of choice.”

She mostly just glared at me, then went on with her rant.  I don’t always step in when situations like this occur – I’d likely be fired if I did.  But this one just seemed so – obvious.  My co-worker was clearly recognizing that being a minority is a difficult situation.  And yet she couldn’t extend the analogy far enough to see that perhaps the same people she was slamming – America’s people of color, be they native speakers or not – face the same challenge and much more everyday.  Because while her sister might have been a “minority” in terms of numbers, she still carried with her the badge of white privilege.  She was still able to make a choice about where she wanted to live.  She was able to staunchly refuse to learn the language spoken predominantly in her neighborhood.  Because as a middle-class white woman, she had power and privilege and resources not necessarily available to the Spanish-speaking inhabitants that made her so “uncomfortable.”

I wish that everyone who has ever had racial privilege would read Tim Wise and Alienation and reach the conclusion that privilege is power, and that NOT having privilege always makes things more difficult.  I wish that my coworker had seen the hypocrisy of her own statement.  I wish that she hadn’t passed judgment on a customer who was just trying to make her mother-in-law feel more welcome.  And I wish that I myself didn’t commit a hundred acts of privilege fail a day.  I want to work to remember my privilege every damn day of my life, to recognize what I have and find the best ways that I can to diminish the gaps between myself and others.  And I will listen to the voice of those who know what it’s like NOT to have privilege, because even thought experiments can’t REALLY tell me what it’s like to be anything other than a middle-class white woman.

Right now, in this country, we have a real problem with being willing to give things up.  We hold onto our powers and privileges with a vice grip; we don’t want anyone else to have anything.  I think we’re smart enough to understand what we have.  I think we’re just ignoring what we already know.  And that’s a situation that cannot stand.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. marybullstonecraft permalink*
    May 2, 2010 8:30 pm

    Ugh, people suck so much. It’s really incredible to see the hostility people have around Spanish–which would make no sense at all, if it weren’t obvious ethno-racialized xenophobia. What I mean is that we wouldn’t even be able to make sense of the vitriolic response to the search for a card in another language if we weren’t already working with some kind of coded hostility to people who speak Spanish (or people who are presumed to be Spanish speakers). I’m just thinking in particular of the area of the country where you live…and the fact that there are many people there who speak another language that isn’t English–can you imagine what the response would be to someone who sought a card in this third language? Maybe your store wouldn’t carry those either, but I am virtually certain that this request wouldn’t be met with the same hostility. Which suggests to me that this isn’t about language at all, but straight-up bigotry.

    Additionally, the presumption that the person who was to receive this card needs to learn English is really staggering to me. First of all, as you point out, there’s no reason to believe that she doesn’t already speak English (and the presumption that once you learn a language, you only want to speak it/receive correspondence in it only indicates that these people have never wrestled with the [extremely difficult!] task of learning a new language). Moreover, there’s no reason to believe that she even lives in an English-speaking area–or country, for that matter! There are places that have Spanish as their official language. Shockingly. Also, seriously, what the fuck is wrong with people??

    • May 3, 2010 1:35 am

      Good point about the other “official language” in my particular area of the country. This is probably something worth talking a bit more about at some point. Because it’s fascinating to me how some things in American society become part of “cultural heritage.” Think about how much more likely someone in our home state would be to speak the version of that alternate-official language usually associated with white descendants of immigrants, as opposed to the version spoken by black descendants. Because they’re decidedly different dialects, but only one ever really gets discussed as “heritage.” The other is largely forgotten except by those who speak it at home.

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