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Race & Identity

LEIA #5: White Male Privilege

Photo on 20-02-2016 at 11.36

I recently had a discussion with a man about labels. This man (let’s call him TM from here on in) works in the entertainment industry, like me, and recently was introduced on stage to perform as “another white male”. TM was riled that this description was used for him, even though it’s true – he is both white and male. When I pointed this out, he told me that he doesn’t like labels.

In fact, TM loathes labels. In his own words, he is pro-equality, and doesn’t think people should be judged by their race, sexuality, beliefs, or in fact anything other than what kind of person they are. TM treats everybody the same and doesn’t get why everybody else can’t do as he does, because he thinks that if we did then as a society we could finally just do away with those wretched labels once and for all. TM is attempting to live in this utopian society already; he ignores all instances of labelling because he doesn’t want any part in it. Instead he lives by his own ideas of equality – being friendly and treating everybody with equal compassion unless they give him a reason not to.

In theory this is a nice sentiment, but in practise, this is absolute bullshit. TM only gets to feel and act this way because he occupies a position of extreme privilege and power. Of course he can hate labels! We all hate labels, but only TM gets to bemoan labels and then ignore the fact that they get used: his labels (“white”, “male”, “cis”, “straight” “middle class” etc) make him into the best Top Trump card in our society. He’s a unicorn: magical, powerful, untouchable, unaware of his own status. He has been granted immunity. He has an inbuilt Get Out Of Jail Free card. He’s the centrefold, the leading man, the hero; he’s fucking Wolverine.

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If TM had a different set of labels, he would realise that there is no option other than to speak out. His labels have never resulted in him being denied a job, targeted in the street or questioned on his family background. TM has never had to run home to avoid getting raped, or ignore a cat call in the street, or move seats to avoid being touched on public transport. I could name a million other experiences of my own to explain that I have to suffer, justify, defend and arm myself every day of my life, in ways TM has never even had to contemplate.

One of the easiest ways to see this TM’s white male privilege at work is that for TM, not taking action is an option. I disregard my labels just as much as TM, but because my labels hold me back, single me out and invite problems on a regular basis, I do not have the option of ignoring them. This is a monumental luxury for TM. He’s not even aware of it, because society tells him he is just a regular joe and not a unicorn; our media, government and culture at large is dominated by white male unicorns just like him, reassuring each other that they’re the norm, the mainstream, the modus operandi. The fact is, TM could spend his whole life ignoring problems and he’d have probably the same exact opportunities, the same pay, the same safety, the same option mobility. TM’s place in society, his worth as a citizen and his influence and bearing on others is never called into question.

It’s important to acknowledge the hierarchies that exist. It’s important to recognise the labelling, the assumptions, the profiling, the problems. It’s important to know where you fit into everything. I’m certainly not advocating some kind of minority oneupmanship, but whether you like it or not you are part of this society, and these societal problems belong to everybody, and unless something changes, they will be inherited by all of our kids. These labels may not affect you in the same way, but if you don’t like them, staying silent isn’t going to do anything to change them – and for a lot of people isn’t even an option. And if staying silent is an option, then you might have a lot more privilege than you realise.

More reading: What It’s Like Not Being White, How To Stay Safe At Night 1 & 2

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18 Comments

  • Reply jessthetics

    Laila, you explain it all so well! I think people often suggest that being colourblind or genderblind is a soution to inequality but actually those aspects of us are often important parts of our personal identity that we want to be acknowledged. By refusing notice someone’s gender or heritage or some other aspect it makes it impossible to celebrate a culture or a gender that is historically ignored. It also makes is impossible to point out the difference in opportunity and treatment that someone of a different race or gender might receive. It is unccomfortable to acknowledge our own privelidge and it can be painful to feel guilty for that position of power, but it pales in comparison to the feeling of actually having less power or less opportunities in life, so I think we just need to learn to get over it.

    Jessthetics xx

    March 12, 2016 at 11:22 am
  • Reply paully

    A tree is a tree, we call it a tree.

    March 12, 2016 at 11:41 am
    • Reply tapeparade

      What?

      March 12, 2016 at 12:12 pm
      • Reply paully

        If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck

        March 12, 2016 at 12:45 pm
        • Reply tapeparade

          I’m sorry, I don’t understand what point you’re trying to make.

          March 12, 2016 at 1:56 pm
          • paully

            That’s all I can say. It will come to you.

            March 12, 2016 at 4:05 pm
  • Reply Everyday Voices

    You are so right to call him on his BS. He has the luxury to not have to see labels because he isn’t labeled. I go one step further to say, to deliberately not ‘label’ or not ‘see’ someone’s heritage, race gender etc is in a way diminishing their worth and their whole life’s experiences. To not see label means their life’s experiences and hardships up until this point do not matter. Again, you explain it so well, just like your piece about what it’s like to not be white.

    March 12, 2016 at 3:15 pm
  • Reply Cesar Lardies

    Some people are unaware of how lucky they were to be born into privilege. That is the tragedy of all this, that the very people who have the power to change things are completely oblivious to the problems our society is facing.

    March 12, 2016 at 4:16 pm
  • Reply rimon75

    society change human being

    March 13, 2016 at 8:38 am
  • Reply Jordan

    this is stupid, you are stupid, go get a job.

    March 13, 2016 at 4:41 pm
    • Reply Laila

      Oh Jordan, how insightful you are

      March 23, 2016 at 10:36 pm
  • Reply berolahragamatras

    Good Post,Some people are unaware of how lucky they were to be born into privilege. That is the tragedy of all this

    March 14, 2016 at 7:47 am
  • Reply Tara | C&CO.

    Some men get so upset when you call them out on their BS. We need to keep doing it!

    March 15, 2016 at 3:42 pm
  • Reply Laura

    yass, i’m here for this and loving all your leia posts:-) the majority of the male population is so touchy about hearing about white male privilege and that is so disturbing. i know i am privileged and it isn’t and shouldn’t be all that hard to use any privilege or advantage you have to actually use it to even out the inequality instead of denying its existence. it really is important to acknowledge the reality of the hierarchies that exist, and also how very true that last sentence is! xx

    March 16, 2016 at 12:57 pm
  • Reply pagedescoupes

    Really not trying to start something, I read your blog regularly and for the most part agree with your views. Just feel like this time around I need to speak up.
    I have personally witnessed a white male (born in poverty with no social status) being denied jobs specifically because he was a white male. I’m not trying to say that western-society privilege is a myth, but you make a lot of generalizations. You assume TM has the luxury of seeing no labels because he doesn’t have to deal with any, but the truth is that ‘White Cis-Male’ is turning into a very negative connotation and they too struggle with stereotype and labels. In not wanting to be identified as such, he is fighting the concept that “White Male” is synonym to Ignorant, Corrupt, Entitled and Advantaged. As an artist, I can only imagine what a strange stamp this must smear to his work.
    You can inform your friend on your perspective of the world and how it’s treated you, share your experiences and create an environment of exchange, but you have no right to assume that he’s had it perfectly easy his entire life simply because he’s a white male and that the only reason he doesn’t like labels is because he’s oblivious to the plights of others. You seem to be falling right into the trap you are trying to denounce.

    March 16, 2016 at 6:58 pm
    • Reply Laila

      In this post I’m speaking about one specific person, who I know intimately in real life. I think his situation applies to a lot of people out there but I’m not attempting to lump anybody in with him – hence my closing statements about turning the critical gaze on yourself.

      In your comment, you mention the stigma he faces. How is this stigma meant to be overcome if he shuns his own labels? Surely better to accept his labels, his standing, his own position of authority and use that to create a new standing for himself. He can be a white, cis, straight male who is an outspoken feminist or activist, thereby redefining himself in a less negative light than the one perhaps originally cast. Ironically that’s what we are all trying to do – reach the best version of ourselves and not be defined by what we are.

      You say I assume he’s had it perfectly easy his whole life and continues to do so. He agreed with this statement and found the conversation we had (as documented in this blog) to be particularly eye-opening, as he’d never considered any other view points before. His reaction only served to back up my original points.

      March 23, 2016 at 10:42 pm
  • Reply Parveen Sabharwal

    Hi Laila, you are on trot to bring out the labelling as one’s own figment of mind by the white or black. The story seems to be real indeed and the concluding part depicts your own matured observation

    April 3, 2016 at 2:51 am
  • Reply libertylisgaras

    Thanks for writing this, articulated so well. I don’t think I could write a post like this without getting massively angry, props to you!

    April 20, 2016 at 10:52 am
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