“It Looks Ugly On Me”

Beers in the sun.My friend Christina posted a link to a blog entry a few days ago that introduced a somewhat flippant but easily interpreted approach to understanding heterosexual, male, and white privilege:

Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?

Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.

This got me to thinking about how I understand my own privilege as I, as many regular readers might know, identify as Scalzi’s target audience, a straight white male.

Firstly though, I think I’d like to touch on why so many straight white men resent or get their back up when that dreaded word “privilege” comes up. It is easy to interpret the discussion of privilege as blame thrown at straight white men, crediting them for all the social injustices that take place in the Western world. These men become defensive because they didn’t create the rules to the game or select their role any more than Scalzi’s Hardcore mode players, gay minority females, did.

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A light but relevant pic I picked up at feministdisney.tumblr.com

But I agree with Scalzi’s model and don’t find discussion of white male privilege to be a personal attack but certainly something to be aware of. And adding to Scalzi’s argument is the notion made popular by Michael Kimmel is the idea that privilege isn’t actively enforced but rather it is something that a person does not need to think about.

For me, when I have moments of privilege awareness, they arrive in flashes, oftentimes when I am engaged in an activity that people of differing ethnic backgrounds or sexualities could not perform without an incredible amount of social scrutiny.

Take me and my friend James, for example. A few days ago we were celebrating the completion of a simple construction job and decided to have a beer to toast the occasion. We sat in a public place, outside, in the late afternoon and enjoyed a nice cold beer each. It really was just a simple act of relaxation and required no further assessing on our part. James and I wanted to share a beer, therefore we shared a beer.

And then an aboriginal family of four passed by and I was hit by one of my privilege awareness flashes.

James and I, being white, can sit outdoors and drink alcoholic beverages and not worry about the social stigma of our actions. Of course, someone might regard us as engaging in light hooliganism or a police officer might chance by and tell us to dump the beer and head on home but apart from that, our potential consequences are pretty mild. And in the event we are judged, James and I would represent no one else other than James and I.

That is a privilege that people of Native descent in Northwestern Ontario don’t have. As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, the relationship between Canada’s aboriginal population and the descendants of settlers is complicated and racist undertones permeate society. A particularly strong stereotype that gets thrown around an awful lot is the notion that all Aboriginals are rampant alcoholics.

Had James and I been Native, we would have been regarded as a threat to public safety, changing nothing of the situation except the hue of our skin and the colour of our hair. Additional, we would no longer be regarded as simply two young men drinking beer, we would be representing all Aboriginal people of Northewestern Ontario and maybe even Canada.

It’s odd to think that the simple act of drinking a beer on a hot day is something that is only really open to “club white” but it is. There’s an Aboriginal performance artist around these parts who confided in me how he absolutley refuses to allow anyone other than his father to see him bring alcohol to his lips because, as he tells me, “It looks ugly on me”.

And he is right, as far as society is concerned. The permeating racist stereotype informs many people to fear the drinking native so it’s really no wonder that an identifying aboriginal man would show such an aversion to public drinking even after the successful completion of a performance or just simply a long day of hard work.

And that really struck me. Suddenly something I took completely for granted was given the “white privilege” stamp. Since then I have been acutely aware of the sheer lack of aboriginal people in the regional drinking stops. I have been even more acutely aware of the general vibe of my fellow “club white” members when someone of aboriginal descent does enter a bar and order a drink or two, the same as us whities.

Returning to James and I, this flash was the awareness that public drinking means very different things when performed by white people as opposed to Native people. This is just one more thing I don’t need to think about.

I suppose that’s why it’s called “Easy Mode”.

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2 thoughts on ““It Looks Ugly On Me”

  1. Great article. I get this all the time. When someone is walking down the street, my friends and family will say “there’s a native walking down the street” but when it’s a white man, the’ll say “there’s a man walking down the street”. Even if they said “a native PERSON” it would maybe be a bit more humanist. Now that I think about it, I didn’t need to know whether it was a man or a woman or a native man or anything about the person other than the fact that they are walking by…

    • I hear ya. It’s a privilege that I don’t think many white folk realize. We get to be regarded as individuals in ANY circumstance. There are very few generalized white stereotypes I can think of and those that I can think up are fairly inconsequential. While I am stereotyped as having lousy rhythm and an inability to jump, others are generalized as thieves and alcoholics.
      I have an awful personal story where a couple of friends and I were jumped and beat up by several aboriginal young men. The situation was awful and I was shaken by the experience but I was further appalled by the reactions to those around me, crediting the whole experience to the fact that the jumpers were native. I tried vainly to explain to these people that I was not jumped by “four Indians” but rather by “four assholes”.
      I am convinced that had I been jumped four fellow white guys no one would have said, “Well, it figures! Whities! What can you do?”

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