#TheDress, Objective Reality, and the Optical Illusion of White Privilege

Trayvon and Dad

I don’t want to let it slide that yesterday was the third anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s murder. Yesterday also happened to be the Internet-breaking situation of #DressGate2015. And I’m sure you may think this is a stretch, but I can connect the two. #TheDress reveals a lot about how we argue, how we listen, and how we think.

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“Is it white and gold?”

“DUH.”

“No way! It’s blue and black! Anyone who says otherwise is lying!”

I will admit that when this first started to go down I thought it was a hoax – that everyone saying that this obviously white and gold (and let’s be real, ugly) dress was any other color was actually just playing games.

That is, until I saw the dress, in the same pictures I had looked at before, but this time it was black and blue.

I believed that this was probably some science-y shit – that the dress was probably REALLY blue (as the stock photo shows), and that my brain was doing what brains do – guessing at light and color and making it appear different to me and some others. I was frustrated for a bit, but then I was amused. Optical illusions are cool!

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But then I thought that I may not have actually believed the dress was really blue had I not investigated further, and if I had not seen it as both white/gold and blue/black.

And then I realized that this is exactly how white privilege (and other status quo privileges) tend to work – we see what we want to or are trained to see, until our minds allow us to see it otherwise.

Just like it is no one’s fault that we see a blue and black dress as white and gold, it is also not any individual’s fault that our societal default is whiteness: whiteness as goodness and beauty, whiteness as normative. And of course, the opposite: our society implicitly sees blackness as worthy of degradation and not worthy of life. Blackness as something that can be killed for any reason, or no reason, and still deserved. The cognitive dissonance that many experience when they’re told about racism and white privilege is just as natural a brain trick as those who are very firmly on #TEAMWHITEANDGOLD. Cognitive dissonance is denial of the existence of any reality other than your own. Just like this optical illusion.

Are you wrong?

Yes.

But what you see is what you see. So you argue what you see – until what you see changes.

This is why individual responses to the systemic problem of racism are so dangerous – because we see what we want to see – and believe we’re right regardless of any evidence.

Now that I’ve seen the dress to be black and blue, I can’t un-see it. It’s hilarious (and fascinating and worthy of thought) that I ever saw it as anything else. I know people who feel the very same about race and privilege.

I also know those who adamantly deny racism and privilege – despite any and all evidence or proof………because they can’t see it.
Keep this in mind, if you’re one who denies the struggles of blacks, LGBTQ people, and others.

Maybe we see what you can’t.

This is why it is so critical to seek evidence and listen when learning.

Maybe then you’ll see it, too.

Rest in Peace, Trayvon. ❤

Plantation Brown

I read way too many internet comments, so I see that many people believe that if we just stop “race baiting” and talking about race, it will disappear.

In case you were confused, racist shit keeps happening because people, usually white (but not always), keep denying it and repressing it, NOT because people keep talking about it.

For example, my friend Sarah was visiting her brother-in-law at Sherwin Williams today, and was shocked and appalled to find this paint sample color:

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“Plantation Brown”

PLANTATION BROWN, Y’ALL.

Part of the reason systemic anti-black racism is still so deeply ingrained in our society, is because people often have a complete and utter lack of awareness that leads them to believe that certain things like this paint splotch (or Benedict Cumberbatch apologizing after referring to black people as “colored,” or the supreme whiteness of the Oscars or Grammys or whatever) are not racist, offensive, and should not be challenged in any way.

I’ve realized there are certain things that are always seen as “in bounds” in the Offensiveness Department – one such thing being the Holocaust.

For example, I can say with like, 98% certainty, that there is no paint splotch called “Holocaust Gray”.

Why is that?

Well for one, the vast majority of the Holocaust’s victims were technically white. The victims of slavery and Jim Crow were black. And while this may not consciously be the reason why we consistently understand the badness of one, but not the other, it is certainly still the reason. I mean, face it, we’re not great at sympathizing with black victims of violence.

Implicit racial bias is an insidious monster.

For two, when discussing genocide and horrors of the past in schools, for example, the Holocaust is something taught in a very black and white (no pun intended) manner (i.e., Nazis = bad evil devils, their victims = their victims).

This cannot (always) be said for the way we learn about slavery and racism in schools, and how we talk about it in society. As this article from Vox notes about a recent report on lynching during Jim Crow,

“The New York Times’ coverage of a new report on lynchings in American history in a piece published today failed to mention the race of the people who were responsible for these acts.”

Herein lies an example of passive voice being used to protect white people, the perpetrators of racial terrorism and violence, thereby absolving them of wrongdoing. As usual, intent is irrelevant to me; regardless of the conscious intent of the NYT author(s), the impact is still the same.

Now think:

Have you ever read a factual report about the Holocaust in which we don’t name the perpetrators?

I definitely haven’t.

We, as a society, make the Nazis (and often, unfairly, the Germans) take responsibility for the massive crime that was the Holocaust. But we don’t always do that with Slavery and Jim Crow.

As hard as we may try, Slavery is not something Americans can escape. It is our history. So when I see shit like this paint name, I recognize that there are people who would gladly defend the name of that paint sample. However, remember that our society is not a vacuum – we don’t exist in a space where “plantation” for some reason does not evoke American Slavery, regardless that this word has history prior to and following the institution of Slavery. Just like with the words “plantation” and “slavery,” the word “holocaust” (little h) was a word in use before the (big h) Holocaust, but has since been inextricable from Hitler’s regime.

The point here is not to say that Slavery was worse than the Holocaust; they were both awful human atrocities committed for no reason. The point is that we tend to recognize just how bad the Holocaust was, but are unwilling or unable to always do the same with anti-black racism.

Public Service Announcement: I’m Done With Intent.

In light of a very frustrating week, I want to explain to y’all, as directly as possible, how your beliefs, actions, and rhetoric can be counterintuitive to your ally role. And even if you don’t identify as an ally to those in oppressed groups, this is for you, too.

Because I keep seeing those on both sides of progress doing these things.

For starters, it is with great privilege that you can still have frank and earnest discussions about the intent of people perpetuating oppressive systems. I see it all over Facebook, in comments on this very blog, and in my personal interactions with others. Intent has very little meaning to me in regard to systemic oppression. Focusing on intent is damaging from where I’m standing, since people think they’re only hateful (racist, sexist, ableist) if they intended to be. Seriously, y’all. Even people in the Klan believe this.

Thus, I have no patience, time, or energy to investigate whether someone meant to be sexist when he told me my argument was invalid because I was “emotional” (while he was “logical”). I have no reason to investigate whether or not Jane Doe meant to be racist as she told me “to get over racism (and slavery).” I do not care about the intent of the very ableist person I had a discussion about the R-word with – he claimed he was just trying to expand the larger social vocabulary.

It doesn’t matter.

Like, at all.

The impact – the sexist, racist, ableist actions, matter far more than what they meant to do. Period. It is from the most privileged of positions that you can be so concerned with intent – because you’re not feeling oppression. So if you’re overly concerned with intent and you’re not a character on SVU, fall back.

It is exhausting and disheartening for me to continuously have to defend my humanity: why I (and others who look like me) are worthy of justice, why I am not overemotional or an angry black woman or a too-sensitive social justice warrior (SJW) just because I called out your perpetuation of the white heteronormative patriarchy. It is exhausting to be told that my education – my advanced degrees – mean nothing because you don’t want to hear what I’m saying or take responsibility for what you’ve said or done.

In addition, if you are policing my tone, my grammar, making a free speech argument where it isn’t applicable – you are derailing, and patriarchal as fuck. I do not need your thoughts on my tone, and my grammar is just fine, thanks (#EnglishMajor), so

1) Boo fucking hoo.

2) I can guarantee you that in reality (whether intentionally or unconsciously), what you don’t like is what I’m saying. You don’t want to hear how you can be implicated in perpetuating racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or ableism.

I can assure you, it doesn’t matter how I say what I say. Someone will find fault with it because the content makes them uncomfortable.

I don’t know whether it is a trend or a select few, but rhetoric like this, seems to be more concerned with the hurt feelings (and intent) of those saying, doing, perpetuating varying amounts of racism, sexism, ableism, etc, rather than concerned with the feelings of those being oppressed, put down, and dehumanized with those sentiments!

Please recognize how ridiculous that is.

And please do better.