The Difference Between Personal Experience and Institutional Reality
In the last several years, I’ve encountered a number of defensive reactions among people who identify as liberals and who, despite this, engage in behaviors which maintain white supremacy. One of these onerous behaviors includes conflating the experience of personal difficulty and suffering with the experience of being subjected to the institutionalization of white supremacy. The essential difference between these two experiences is that ALL human beings have personal difficulty and suffering in their lives at some point, but only people of color also have difficulty as a result of being embedded in a white supremacist culture that constantly and automatically derogates POC as a result of favoring white people for being born white. In particular, African-Americans, who have been positioned opposite ‘white’ in the binary invention of whiteness, are continually subjected to these forces.
This essential difference is one which many white people shirk, possibly because it prevents admission of the extra favoritism that accrues from this un-meritorious one reality, which continues to reward white people at the expense of people of color and ultimately will require addressing this core American issue.
I encountered a situation which embodies this when, several years ago, I visited a friend of mixed-race and ethnicity who is married to a white male in his 70’s. This male, A., identifies as ‘liberal,’ is proud to mention (repeatedly) that he is so ‘liberal’ that he marched with MLK, Jr., that he voted for Gus Hall in 1980, and that he supports liberal causes. He’s well-educated, with a post-graduate degree, situated at an upper-middle class level economically, and from a Southern family settled in the US for many generations who are of British descent. My friend, ‘R.,’ has recently told me that, in the wake of the Trump election, a rift has developed between them despite the fact that they both detest Trump and identify as ‘liberal.’ The rift, she explains, has arisen from his refusal to negotiate his own investment in white supremacy, one which revealed itself to her around that time.
After reading DiAngelo’s book White Fragility, ‘R.’ was able to name the unsettled feeling she has felt repeatedly in the past and which she struggled to name: a number of his statements express white ignorance. She started to talk to A. about white ignorance and the way in which it reproduces racism, and found that despite his decades of ‘liberal’ leanings, he clings to his own advantage, which proceeds in his direction effortlessly due to white supremacy. She broached the topic which revealed the rift while I was there, and here is what I observed:
R.: ‘One of the ways we promote white supremacy is by resorting to defensive statements when faced with our own racism.’
A.: ‘You mean like when these deplorables talk about building a wall in response to immigration?’
R.: ‘Yes. Definitely that. But also when white people react to statements about their own privilege — as white people — with defensive reactions meant to protect their own investment in dominance.’
A.: “What do you mean?”
R.: ‘Well, when white people react to general statements about eliminating white supremacy with specific personal ones. For example, when I say that all white people are at an advantage due to institutionalized white supremacy, the response may be: ‘I marched in the ‘60’s’ or ‘I don’t see color.’
A.: ‘You know I don’t see color, honey. None of our friends do.’
R.: ‘Then, you don’t see me. Because I am not only POC, but also a POC in a social context which constantly derogates all POC as a result of privileging all white people on a racial basis. So, if you don’t see POC color, you don’t see POC oppression. If you don’t see POC oppression, then it can’t be fixed. Fixing it relies on your admission of your advantage.’
A. (blushing): ‘When I was a teenager, I was the ugly one. I had freckles. Do you have any idea how difficult it was to have people make fun of me because of freckles that I couldn’t control?’
Yes. This statement was made in front of two mixed race/ethnicity WOC by a wealthy white male. Unfortunately, this scenario is replicated in multiple arena nationally at this stage in American history.
Importantly, he continued:
A.: ‘….And on top of that, I was on the basketball team, and all the girls in high school loved the African-American guy on the team. I was the one they ignored because of my freckles…’
I’ve removed some of the niceties in the conversation so that the elemental details are provided. I asked if there were other brown men besides African-American, and he told us there were, though all POC’s were in a minority. Here is what I observed:
1. Exactly where does this self-described liberal white male become defensive?
The point at which he hears the truth about his own privilege as embedded in a white supremacist society.
2. How does he negotiate factual material about white supremacy?
He substitutes personal difficulty for a discussion about larger institutionalized difficulties, framing himself as the victim in a larger context in which he is actually dominant.
Result:He distracts from his social advantage by framing himself as the victim, casting himself in the spotlight again. This bait ‘n switch pulls attention away from the real victims in a white supremacy society: non-white peoples.
*It is important to note that his knee-jerk defensive response framed his perception of white as directly opposed to African-American; I believe this was a subconscious slip that conveys, in one brief sentence, white supremacy’s core.
Here it is, elaborated: You just framed me as the perpetrator from a social point of view. I can’t tolerate that truth, because I feel I’m a victim. You’re not giving me attention as a victim now, you’re giving me attention as a perpetrator. In order to correct for this misperception of my victimhood, I must reorient the spotlight to me — the victim-riddled white man — which is where the spotlight belongs.
The fact that he mentions an African-American male as the opposite of him — the sudden recipient of (personal) favor — indicates his investment in the exact binary that characterizes white supremacy.
He effectively slams the door on the very conversation he claims to care about: ways in which to eliminate white supremacy, the structural basis for our current society. He frames himself as a victim of personal difficutly, a non-sequitur to the POC who is discussing the social impact of institutionalized white supremacy.
Generally speaking, the conflation of personal suffering with institutionalized privilege is not appropriate, because it distracts from the fact that white supremacy exists regardless of personal suffering, joy, or any other internal and/or personal experience.
I am sure that A. has suffered as a result of having freckles, and that this suffering is sincere, and just as legitimate as any other person’s — not more or less — on a personal level. By definition, suffering is subjective, and therefore all suffering is worthy of acknowledgement. Acknowledging that a personal experience may lead to difficulty for that individual is important because it acknowledges the import of that person’s emotional experience.
But, I disagree with his decision to weaponize his personal suffering as a way to distract from his institutionalized advantage so as to avoid the discussion, because dodging the discussion sustains the status quo.
Here is one bird’s eye view:
Personal Difficulty: All PEOPLE HAVE IT
Institutionalized Difficulty: White people have an advantage which comes at the expense of all POC.
This is an important difference.
The one above that *doesn’t match* is the place where POCs experience difficulty. Distracting from this difference by channel-shifting from social issues to personal ones is a psychological avoidance tactic.
We ALL have personal suffering. Only POC’s are subject to constant disadvantage as a result of the establishment of white supremacy, worldwide, in the last 500 years. These are two different conversations, at least when it comes to the socialized power of white supremacy. The conversation about white supremacy and institutionalized white advantage which benefits one group of people at the expense of other groups of people cannot be negotiated with the distraction of freckles, or any personal experience, if as a society, we expect to exhibit true anti-racism.
He has essentially refused to discuss white supremacy by channel-shifting to his own personal suffering. By doing so, he further reinforces his (apparently subconscious) investment in white supremacy which is exactly the behavior he accuses those real racists (overt white supremacists he knew in 1950’s N. Carolina) of exhibiting. He may be reinforcing it in different ways, and his intent may be more admirable, but his attitude still caters to him and as a result supports the status quo.
Obviously, if these defensive maneuvers continue, their relationship will have to negotiate this rift. As this woman has expressed to me, his stance — through ignorance — helps maintain her subordinate social standing in the larger society. They may connect on the basis of a personal experience, but his investment in NOT seeing that this psychological stance works as distraction indicates that, at some level, he wishes to maintain his power even if, at a social/institutional level, it compromises hers.
This conundrum does not place all peoples at an equal level. It allows white people as a group to maintain superior social status while refusing to acknowledge its true impact by replacing it with an inappropriate conflation of personal victimization. All humans deal with personal suffering. Only white people have a socialized advantage that works against POC in myriad ways. Any white person who claims to be anti-racist must do the anti-racist work of examining their own socialized advantage regardless of their personal difficulties.
When this man was given evidence that he is upholding white supremacy, instead of acknowledging it, he let the back-up generator of white ignorance do the work of upholding it for him. This isn’t liberal, or ‘nice,’ or any of the other things he claims to be in the context of anti-racism. It’s more white ignorance, and it supports white supremacy.