As a NBPOC in a white dominated culture, I recognized discrimination against me before I recognized the social advantage I have in not being black. It took me longer to realize that our society is not only pro-white but also anti-black, and in fact this binary is the root of white supremacy and thus must be maintained in order to buttress white supremacy. This economic ‘necessity’ — placing African peoples at the bottom of the binary in order to justify ownership of humans — persists in our current context. Worldwide.
White supremacy operates to discriminate against NBPOC due to their lack of whiteness, but to privilege them through relative non-blackness as well, moderated by group behavior of white people with power. It may be called ‘white’ privilege or perhaps ‘not black’ privilege: a conditional privilege based on relative societal whiteness or nonblackness, and consistently determined by white people who are always the ‘deciders.’ Thus, all POC’s are manipulated in this fashion.
Regardless of what it is called, as a NBPOC (mixed race and ethnicity), I have privilege. I have the privilege of having no ancestral history of slavery and thus none of the institutionalized disasters that persist as a result of our onerous history as Americans. I have the privilege of being nonblack in an anti-black society.
I can vouch for a lifetime of discrimination. Having been subjected to discrimination since I have had memory in both the US and rural England — and continuously since then — I do not feel ‘white’ at all. Due to my very Middle Eastern-appearing first and last names, if my name is identified, I am automatically placed in the ‘Arab’ (terrorist) pile. If my name doesn’t show, people typically ask if I am ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Indian.’ I’ve heard “Go back where you came from” in kindergarten over half a century ago and as recently as a month ago, and countless times in between. During the course of my life, I have talked to NBPOC from a wide range of countries (I stopped counting at 40) who have heard the same words and who have felt the sting of discrimination. I’ve known people who have been assaulted for being their own specific race/ethnicity or simply for being not white.
But none of this is the same as being black in an anti-black society with a history of the slave trade. NBPOC, though we encompass a very wide range in myriad ways, are spared the anti-blackness in our society. This gives me relative ‘white’ privilege.
African-Americans and peoples of African descent are in a unique position due to the TransAtlantic Slave Trade, which included not only the horrors of transport and slavery but persist in a wide range of institutional oppression, including housing, prison complexes, and health care, to name only a very few.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states:
“the transatlantic slave trade [TAST] is unique within the universal history of slavery for three main reasons:
1. its duration — approximately four centuries;
2. those vicitimized: black African men, women and children;
3. the intellectual legitimization attempted on its behalf — the development of an anti-black ideology and its legal organization.
These facts necessarily dictate that the experiences of African-Americans and others of African descent, on a worldwide stage, will be different, ie, worse.
Nonblack peoples of color come in a wide range — some ‘whiter’ than others for various reasons — with a huge variance in experiences and obstacles. But none have been subjected to the historical realities of TAST or the persistent institutionalization with which it has stained this country. As soon as I was able to perceive this, I could see immediately that, as a NBPOC, I have social advantage within the context of white supremacy by virtue of not being black. This context is within the profound anti-blackness of our society.
Here are some pro-white statements that NBPOC may hear (ie, we are superior to you):
1. “You must be so happy to be in the US where women are treated equally.” (Middle Eastern/Chinese/Etc)
2. “You can have as many children as you want here in America!”
3. “Your hair looks so good. You must have gotten it straightened.”
4. “You actually look more Italian (Greek) than (foreign.) You could pass as white. If you really wanted to.”
This is a tiny sampling based on things I have heard. A comprehensive list would be tome-sized.
Here are some anti-black statements which NBPOC may (and do) hear:
1. “Our neighborhood is getting so diverse.” No black people, a sprinkling of Asians. “But none of them have moved in here.” (Any question as to who ‘them’ is?)
2. “I don’t really mind a few Indians and Chinese people. But they just bring the neighborhood down.” (We know who ‘they’ is, by the way. Pronouns are a poor way to try to hide racism. Also: besides the overt anti-blackness this expresses — and the way in which it victimizes the victim — there is also the implication that only a few of any POC are acceptable: maintain the white majority. (How is it possible to pack so much racism into so few words?!)
3. “Why is she dating someone black? She could do better.” (The Lindsey Vonn effect.)
4. “Do you have an appointment coming up with your hairdresser? From the back, I thought you were black.”
It is so hard to know that, as a person who was born and raised in a highly-penetrated racist, white supremacy society, I make racist assumptions even if they may be unconscious/implicit. It is hard to know that I benefit from being not black in this anti-black society, that my own existence may compromise somebody else. It seems we’re all infected, and the only cure is to eliminate the context of white supremacy regardless of whether or not it offers some benefit. I feel it is my responsibility, as a person who is not of African descent, to see this all the time: how else can we, as a nation, heal from the profound, horrific derangement of TAST? How can we be whole people if our choices support inhumanity? The deformation is part of each of us, as human beings, as long as we do not actively address anti-blackness as well as pro-whiteness, the double prongs of white supremacy.
As Toni Morrison said in her 1993 interview with Charlie Rose for Esquire magazine:
“If I take your race away, and there you are, all strung out. And all you got is your little self, and what is that? What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself?… if you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem.”
Morrison’s genius expresses the centrality of ‘anti-black’ in the maintenance of white supremacy: without the comparative black, white superiority ceases to exist.
One of my wise old aunts once told me that if we want to understand oppression, we must go to those who are closest to its actual experience. In our society, that means we must listen to African-American peoples and their stories. I must admit that, however I may have been listening, I may still not be listening enough, because I am embedded in a deeply racist, white supremacist society.
As a NBPOC, I may not get the positive attention that white women may get, but I may be ignored when a BPOC is present and receives negative attention.
I read a short story many years ago about a black woman on a train, and her experiences being treated as a curiosity: not only ‘othered,’ but dehumanized. Another way I attempt to explain the strange situation in which white supremacy places me is this story:
Imagine a NBPOC on a train with two darker- and two lighter-skinned POC’s in a crowd of mostly white people. Typically, the darkest (‘blackest’) one will get the negative attention (I have watched this myself in addition to talking to black people who experience it.)
1. #1: Darkest one is watched suspiciously/stared at, etc. She gets off. Attention switches to next darkest. Meanwhile, me as NBPOC is being ignored.
2. #2: Attention switches to next darkest. My privilege is the privilege of being ignored, ie, not actively derogated. She leaves.
3. #3: Attention moves to me: I am now the least white/the most black.
This is obviously a stark, black and white, so to speak, example. But it illustrates the ugly hierarchy which does exist, to some extent, in our culture and which places ‘black’ at the bottom by virtue of its white supremacist nature.
I feel obligated, as a human being, to acknowledge my nonblack ‘privilege’ in a white supremacist society because a lack of acknowledgement not only derogates people of African descent but also because a lack of admission fosters a form of ‘white’ ignorance. This is an inherent danger for me, and I believe for all NBPOC: that we will also participate in a form of anti-blackness. We have myriad backgrounds but are all subject to discrimination because, as NBPOC, none of us are truly white. All POC are derogated and damaged by white supremacy. All of us as human beings are deformed by the fact that the TAST happened, and we all owe attention to this.
White supremacy is a one-trick pony: its binary is suited for conquest only. As a human race, we have been in a state of global European conquest for 500+ years; black and brown peoples worldwide have been and continue to be dominated. Acknowledging my own privilege as an NBPOC means acknowledging the difference between discrimination and codified, institutionalized slavery as well as its stubbornly-maintained, ugly sequelae. It also means acknowledging the dangerous binary that continues to support it and continues to compromise all POC bodies, worldwide. I would argue that the entire human race benefit from the end of white supremacy: the dictates of constant conquest are harming us all.