Despising an Identity They Taught Me to Claim

In Chris J. Cuomo & Kim Q. Hall (eds.), WHITENESS: FEMINIST PHILOSOPHICAL NARRATIVES (1999)
Abstract
This essay is a personal philosophical reflection on particular dilemma privilege-cognizant white feminists face in thinking through how to use privilege in liberatory ways. Privilege takes on a new dimension for whites who resist common defensive or guilt-ridden responses to privilege and struggle to understand the connections between ill-gotten advantages and the genuine injustices that deny humanity to peoples of color. The temptation to despise whiteness and its accompanying privilege is a common response to white privilege awareness and it is this initial frustration with the perceived inescapability of white privilege that I explore here. What I call the "dilemma of white privilege awareness," leaves privilege-cognizant whites trapped in the awkward position of knowing that privilege is at once impossible to dispose of, and impossible to use without perpetuating those systems of domination I wish to demolish. The dilemma works like this. On the one hand, if my racial appearance and mannerisms act as a magnet for special treatment, then I cannot simply arrange my life so as not to have benefits and immunities extended to me. There appears to be no way to divest myself completely of race privilege. On the other hand, if the focus on privilege divestment is misguided, then perhaps whites ought to find responsible ways of using race privilege that do not perpetuate structural inequalities (e.g. assisting persons of color in surmounting everyday obstacles). Yet, if the power accorded to privilege is made possible by structural inequalities, then the very act of using privilege will automatically reinforce those structural inequalities. If the claims made on both sides of the dilemma are true, then I am trapped: I can neither divest myself of unearned privileges nor can I use them without reinforcing the systems I wish to demolish. I carefully unpack each side of the dilemma marking detours, diversions, and natural sticking points (e.g. cultural impersonation, retreats to white ethnicity, and the temptation to shift discussions away from race to other oppressions) that prevent me engaging critically in discussions of racism. I suggest two possible solutions to the dilemma: conceptual and pragmatic. If there is one lesson we carry away from the dilemma, it is that privilege is impossible to shake, and that using privilege reinscribes it. Rather than frustrating us, this phenomenon should alert us to the strengths of privilege as a resource. To use privilege as a resource for anti-racist activities is to give up its abusive power.
Keywords Race Traitor  White Privilege  Race Privilege  Anti-Racist Identities
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