Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Chelsea Hill, Queens University.
“Why am I not allowed to say I’m proud to be white?”
This is a question I’ve heard a lot, and it makes me feel confused, frustrated and even a little angry. It never crossed my mind to ask: why can’t I say I’m proud to be cisgender or proud to be able-bodied? Because quite frankly, I’m not. They are privileges, unearned and often invisible ones that I do not have to think about day to day. These aspects of my identity are not regarded as inferior in mainstream society, nor are they obstacles to my success. So, maybe the real question should be: “Why do you feel the need to say you’re proud to be white?”.
Saying you are proud to be black, trans, disabled or proud to hold any other identity that has historically been an oppressed group is an act of resistance. It is a declaration that despite what society may say, you are equally as worthy of love and respect. On the contrary, saying you’re proud to be white is not. Saying you’re proud to belong to a community that society already deems as superior, just says you are completely out of touch with how your privilege leads to unearned advantages and to someone else’s oppression.
If you remember Boston’s straight pride parade in 2019, you may remember the outrage and confusion that followed. You may also recollect the organizer’s arguments about why they thought the event was at all necessary. The event’s website claimed the event was to celebrate and raise awareness for issues facing straight people. Co-organizer John Hugo even stated: “Perhaps one day straights will be honored with inclusion and the acronym will be LGBTQS. Until that time, we have no other choice but to host our own events.”
A more recent case, is the Black Lives Matter protests that were sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Many white people were resistant to acknowledge their white privilege or acknowledge that systemic racism was even a problem in America. Many responded with anger. It reminded me of being in high school when a classmate, seething with anger about Black Lives Matter, said “Black people need to get over slavery already.” As if that was all BLM was about, and as if the legacy of slavery doesn’t manifest itself in racial discrimination and inequalities today. She was essentially saying: racism does not exist anymore, and therefore white people were the victims for constantly being attacked for issues that no longer exist.
But all this conflict begs an important question – why do people from a non-marginalized group feel oppressed when others advocate for themselves and celebrate their identities? Why does it seem like they want to feel oppressed?
When you have privilege, it is often invisible. This can make it seem as if all people experience the world just like you. When privilege is invisible you may not realize the inequalities that truly exist. It’s like how many companies provide band-aids with only one color – for white skin. If you are white, you may have never had to consider how hard it might be to find band-aids that match your skin tone. So, when they see other people celebrating their identities, they wonder: well, what about me? This need for non-marginalized people to claim space for their identities in movements for equality is the erasure of real oppression, plain and simple.
Straight Pride, dismisses the very real struggles that LGBTQ+ people faced 50 years ago when Stonewall protestors marched in resistance to oppression, and it continues to dismiss the very real struggles LGBTQ+ people still face today. Pride is more than a celebration; it is a fight for equality and for recognition of identities that are not always seen as valid or even acceptable.
Similarly, the phrase “All Lives Matter” diminishes the unique challenges that people of colour face. The phrase’s colour-blind approach effectively diminishes the actual aims of the Black Lives Matter movement: fighting racial discrimination and oppression. However, despite the inequities faced by people of colour in America, many White Americans today believe that they are the primary victims of modern day racism. A poll by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that 52 percent of the white people surveyed agreed with the statement: “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” Though regardless of how white people feel, the odds are not stacked against them. A study from the Harvard Business School highlights that when it comes to any measurement, from education to employment, the outcomes for Black Americans are poorer than that of their white counterparts.
White fragility can have many consequences in the fight for social justice. According to Mutale Nkonde, of Harvard University, this fear was enhanced by Donald Trump in the midst of the BLM movement to mobilize white women to support him. It appears to have worked, because despite Trump’s well documented sexist behaviour, 55 percent of white women still voted for Trump this year.
Wanting to be oppressed can be more comfortable then acknowledging your privilege, especially when that oppression is not real, and you are not really suffering. It is a way to dismiss inequalities and say that the people who are fighting injustice, are really just attacking the ‘other’. This rhetoric was evident in Donald Trump’s response to BLM. His perceptions of the world are influenced by his failure to realize the privilege he receives due to his race, so he is reluctant to see the legitimacy of the people who are working to counter systemic racism in policing and beyond. He even downplayed the suggestion that police violence against black people is a problem, because more white people are killed by the police. This is true, but that is only because White people make up a much larger percentage of the US population. However, Black Americans are dispassionately victims of police brutality whose fatality rate is approximately 2.8 times higher, and this is what Trump was neglecting.
Some people even profit from those who want to feel oppressed. Matt Broomfield argues men’s rights activists are doing just this. In his article he points to men’s rights activist, Daryush “Roosh V” Valizadeh, whose rhetoric is meant to target angry men looking for a sense of inclusion and importance, and hungry to be a part of a resistance movement. Broomfield suggests that Roosh V’s big meet-ups were never really about gaining support for his message. Instead, it was primarily about the money, and to encourage his book sales. He used his supporters as bait to gain media attention instead of actually wanting to create a space for men concerned with standing up for ‘men’s rights’.
However, men’s rights activists typically operate from a false narrative that constructs feminism as an attack on men. It’s rejection of the patriarchy, and by extension the privileging of hegemonic masculinity as an ideal is seen by them as an attack on men that they must resist. Roosh V calls feminism an act against men and has said that “those who don’t pick up arms… will suffer most.” However, feminism is not about men versus women. It’s about all genders being treated equally. The patriarchy hurts everyone, regardless of gender. Breaking down outdated ideals of masculinity and femininity opens a greater possibility for everyone to express themselves in any way they see fit. It is not about oppressing men.
It’s often said: ‘When you’re accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression’. While that may be true, equality is not oppression, no matter how much it may feel that way. When someone’s perception does not align with the reality of the situation, it only works to encourage people to maintain the status quo. This benefits them, but not those who are truly oppressed. Think about Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’. America was never great unless you were a white, cis-het, able-bodied man, but for some people this is the only reality that they can envision where they don’t feel oppressed. So, maybe instead of wanting to be oppressed as a way to deny your privilege, it’s time to admit that you may actually be part of the problem.
Boeskool, Chris. “‘When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression’.” Huffpost 6 December 2017.
Broomfield, Matt. “How Men’s Rights Activists Make Money Off White Dudes Who Want to Feel Oppressed.” Vice 14 March 2016.
Foley, Elise and Emma Gray. “It’s Four Years Since Trump’s ‘Grab ‘Em By The Pussy’ Tape Leaked. Here’s What’s Changed Since.” Huffpost 7 October 2020.
Lang, Nico. “The distraction of Straight Pride, as explained by LGBTQ activists and historians.” Vox.com 1 July 2019.
Peters, Jeremy W. “Asked About Black Americans Killed by Police, Trump Says, ‘So Are White People’.” The New York Times 14 July 2020.
Scott, Eugene. “‘I don’t feel that at all’: Trump scoffs at White privilege in Woodward book.” Washington Post 11 September 2020.
Touré. “White People Explain Why They Feel Oppressed.” Vice 17 September 2015.
White, Nadine. “How It Feels To Be Black And Know Racist Trump Got Millions Of Votes.” HuffPost 10 November 2020.
Image Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Black_Lives_Matter_Protest.jpg