The white privilege epiphany, the trend of anti-racism and the reality of mutated oppression

There’s someone out there who can help me articulate what I mean when I talk about anti-racist work being a trend, because I don’t have the word or words for it. And I’m almost positive that some scholar has already written about the topic that I’ve yet to see — but since I don’t have access to my personal library right now and I’m behind on my reading, I’ll have to explain what I mean. I’m perfectly willing to admit that my antenna is raised around the issue because of my perceived skepticism — or whatever that word is I just learned from watching a video by a local psychologist who does antiracist work here in Seattle. It means I’m suspicious.

Let me tell you what I’m getting at.

For me, most noticeable in learning the history of oppression directed towards communities of color, and especially in the direction Black people, is that the so-called ‘post-racial’ society we live in today is nothing more than a reflection of hundreds of years of domination that dons a veneer of equality, yet the foundation remains rooted in racist ideology. It just looks different. I recently revisited Black Sexual Politics — a text by Patricia Hill Collins because I wanted to see if she could help me understand and then explain what I had been thinking about. In it, she discusses one of the ways racism continues to maintain its forces, all while appearing to have disappeared. Dr. Collins discusses the global quest for dominance and the continued disadvantages of groups. My emphasis is on restructuring the racial hierarchy, as Dr. Collins explains in her chapter ‘The Past is Ever-Present: Recognizing The New Racism’:

It is important to note that the new racism of the early twenty-first century has not replaced prior forms of racial rule, but instead incorporated elements of past racial formations. As a result, ideas about race, gender, sexuality and Black people as well as the social practices that these ideas shape and reflect remain intricately part of the new racism. The new racism thus reflects a situation of permanence and change (Page 43-44).

One example Dr. Collins uses to describe the new racism is via the film industry. She says that even though our society has progressed and Black people are now ‘allowed’ in various so-called desegregated spaces like films, rarely are they prominent figures. This dynamic not only further marginalizes Black bodies, but it perfectly maintains the dominating forces of whiteness. I recently discussed something along these lines in a brief post regarding the maternal-infant Mammy, and my experience being at an institution that appeared to be inclusive and encompassing — de-segregated on the surface, but to me was simply a breeding ground for the production of white-centric birth and breastfeeding practices.

I’ve come across more and more white people these days who are talking about the recent revelation of their whiteness — that their entire lives they had no clue that strategic methods have been built and maintained with them in mind. Many, usually through taking courses at school, appear to have just learned that for no other reason than their skin color, they are afforded access and advantages in a society that values people who look like them. What I’ve noticed is that often times these manifestations come with a desire to put a hand in ‘fixing’ things by ‘helping out’. I will be the first to admire anyone who works at creating change in this world, and I also understand the importance of allies in anti-racist work — or in many other areas, but to me the larger picture just looks like something else.

The other night I was online looking for articles to share with the anti-racism breastfeeding committee I joined a few months ago. I was in search of articles on the topic not only because I wanted to see what was out there but I also wanted to know just who was writing, and exactly how they expressed their desire to end racism — and what new ideas I could find. Unfortunately, when it comes to breastfeeding and racism there isn’t much. I did, however, come across a few birth articles on the topic, and what stuck out to me the most were the ones on antiracism and anti-oppressive work in these practices. What caught my attention from the few individual and group organizations who appear to be working towards a ‘liberatory culture’ were on gathering funds to send women of color to midwifery school, or the coalition here in town staffed with white people who focus on supporting people of color and on informing other white people how they benefit from whiteness. They even go so far as to tell their members to shop at certain locations in order to help keep the doors of Black-owned businesses open. I have also begun to see these ideas in both personal and structural spaces that speak to other whites that their advantage can be used in order to give people of color a ‘hand up’. It sounds admirable, I guess. Except for I have yet to see any real substantiative critique of the underlying structure that strengthens the framework of these issues — how are these anti-racists working to end a system that values their whiteness?

I’m not accusing anyone’s sincerity. I’m not saying people don’t have good intentions, and I’m not calling anyone racist. What I am saying, however, is the issue is much larger than someone you or I know, and that even historically though many white abolitionists spoke ardently against the institution of slavery, had no interest in finding ways to garner true social equity for those enslaved, more than they did at working towards the greater attempt at preserving their own moral consciousness — or, as one of my former (white) professors put it “They just wanted to remove the stain from their soul.” And it appeared progressive. But this type of ‘help’ only worked at fortifying the ill practices and legal segregation which emerged in the subsequent years after abolition. It did nothing to change the foundation.

Because I want to examine more closely what lies below the surface and engage in more dialogue in order to find ways to challenge oppressive behavior that continuously mutates between generations, I’m calling on more critical thought from birth and breastfeeding advocates, anti-racist and anti-oppression activists. I’m concerned that the current structure of antiracist work serves as nothing more than a gateway for this cycle of dominance to continue. Without remaining aware and criticizing the structure that supports this ideology that values whiteness in society, anti-racist work is moot, and is indeed just another reflection of our current times, where just like Patricia Hill Collins’ example of mutated racism, the more things seem to change — the more they will only remain the same.

Please share your thoughts.

4 thoughts on “The white privilege epiphany, the trend of anti-racism and the reality of mutated oppression

  1. “Without remaining aware and criticizing the structure that supports this ideology that values whiteness in society, anti-racist work is moot”

    Thank you for this, and for the whole blog. It’s the first extended writing about breastfeeding I’ve come across that sees the real social and political stakes of the issue with clarity. The way pro-breastfeeding activism frames the whole thing as a matter of personal “choice” — where some people make good choices and others make bad ones — contributes directly to obscuring the structural problems. Activism that tries to “help” disadvantaged people make “better choices” — as opposed to trying to change the range of options and possibilities available to all populations — is part of the problem.

    1. Yes, we will only continue a cycle that does not get to the underlying issues. There are far too many so-called breastfeeding activists who gloss over the issues that we need to address in order to make critical changes and changing the range of options, just like you said. And racism and white supremacy are two of the biggest. You CANNOT advocate breastfeeding without challenging these. Thank you for your comment, zugenia. :O)

  2. I agree with everything that has been said about our society, its ideology, structure, etc. favoring white people. Absolutely. And I agree that activism that tries to help disadvantaged people make better choices is very different than trying to change the range of options and possibilities available to all populations…but in the end it still sounds like you want other people, regardless of color, ethnicity, etc., to see things your way and make the same choices that you make. Aren’t you arguing that if everything was the same for black women as white women from one end of life to the other then your chances of convincing them to breastfeed or enabling them to breastfeed or creating circumstances where they would automatically choose breastfeeding would be possible? And if, after all of that, they still chose to formula feed would you judge them? I’m white, 38 years old, was born in Berkeley, CA and raised in Los Angeles. I have three degrees including a masters degree in child and adolescent literacy. I have eaten only organic food since I started eating solid foods. I am a stay at home mother with a 1 month old baby. I have a lady who comes and cleans. I ought to be the poster child for breastfeeding…and I am formula feeding. If I am wrong and my choice not valid how in the world will you ever begin to understand people who are even more different?

    1. Wendy, what I am talking about in this post is about mutated oppression. Throughout the years what has appeared to look progressive and forward-moving as far as equality and such, has only taken on a new form and has become harder to spot — so it makes it worse — and much more devastating. What I am suggesting here is that even though there may be a surge of white people with a desire to level the playing field and do anti-racist work, it is quite possibly another tacit maneuver of whiteness to remain in dominance. I’m not saying this is intentional of these people, but the way white supremacy is formulated calculates it as such. This is why I have asked anti-racist advocates to take a critical look in this area in order to find ways to bring attention to this mutation.

      I think using yourself to explain that even though you have attributes that are considered ideal, you still are bottle-feeding. I think your choosing (or not choosing) to breastfeed is on a completely different scale than women who have a more unique and complex history of being deemed radically other and invisible. And there are still reasons behind this — maybe insecurity, body image issues, or a zillion other reasons. I’m not pinning those things on you, but I’m saying they exist and people are still affected regardless of their position. However, they fall hardest and remain longest on vulnerable populations.

      I somehow have this strange feeling that if we were operating in a more just society and everyone had equal access to resources, information, education, etc. things would be different. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that if the field were leveled it would be too much to expect Black women to breastfeed more — after all, that divergence is what is at the backdrop of disparities. I think Black women would be breastfeeding more without ever having these conversations, because it wouldn’t be the same issue that we have today, and we wouldn’t be challenging the same things. And I’d definitely be on vacation more often.

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