In keeping with my particular embodiment of femme-identity, I was doing some online thong underwear shopping when I was hit with the unfortunately common feeling of, “Are you kidding me? Still? Really?” You see, as I was deciding on what color Lacie Panties I wanted to bring into my collection, I was confronted with something my mom warned me against when I was three. Two of the underwear panel color-tiles were called “Bare” and “Nude,” and coincided with tones that would be much more likely to match a white person’s skin tone than a person of color. I sat jaw-dropped remembering the time my mom threw away a Crayola crayon that was called “Flesh,” because, she told me, not everyone has flesh that is light peach!
Now, full disclosure, I was shopping at Victoriassecret.com, a company not exactly lauded for progressive marketing. Certainly there is an occasional model of color, but she generally matches the Victoria’s Secret aesthetic in every other arena: straight hair, large breasts, skinny every where else, probably looks really pissy or pouty, and is never really ‘dark’. In my time on the website, I could go pages and pages without seeing a woman of color, and I have never seen a non-white model grace the website home page.
Still, though, I was extremely surprised that in 2010 a company would name colors with an assumption that all their shopper’s “bare” or “nude” skin would match the associated fabric. Or perhaps what’s both more likely and also worse is that the CEOs at Victoria’s Secret don’t think they have an all-white clientele, and are thrilled to get money from any person regardless of skin color, but that they just don’t give a fuck because they don’t have to. Why cater to what is certainly the minority of shoppers when they can get away with manifestations of white supremacy without consequence?
In the academy, if you want to talk to your students about privilege, many would point you to Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (1988). In the essay, McIntosh, a white woman, creates a list of all the ways that white folks get to go through life more easily based on the color of their white skin. She includes things like: “I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race;” “I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without people attributing these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race”; “I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race”; etc. But the one that seems to always stick in student’s minds is: “I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.” Her article was written in 1988.
I bring in the McIntosh article not because I think it’s the best piece of critical race theory out there (certainly not!), but because that last example was so obviously parallel to what I just experienced at VS, and because, while my critical brain scoffs at all the problematic elements of the metaphorical knapsack, it is an article that seems to really sink in with students.Question 1: why, over 20 years later, is the easy-to-change stuff (renaming colors is a pretty minor ask compared to the undoing of a culture of white supremacy) still so prevalent? Question 2: if the article has seemed so profound to the undergrads I’ve taught (and, yes, to the undergrad I was), what does that say for the potentiality of academic work for social change? If this is the one that sticks with us, and we still have “nude” color-labels, how do we expect any scholarship to work beyond enlightening students in the classroom?
Because I need to get it out of my system, let me first explain why I think the Invisible Knapsack article is not ideal. First, because it has become somewhat canonical for anti-racist educators’ syllabi, what does it say to students when we present them with an article about white privilege that celebrates the humility and thoughtfulness of a white woman? I wish I could say that McIntosh’s article is often put in conversation with critical race theorists of color, but I know in at least one undergrad class I took, this was what we got during the “race week,” and the authors of color we read were narrative-based essays about experiences of discrimination. That framing, of course, puts people of color as the problem (“complaining” about being harassed, targets of violence, etc), and white folks as the solution (McIntosh was able to theorize about privilege in self-reflexive way). And McIntosh never discusses any people of color who helped her come to this realization (although she does quote Elizabeth Minnich, a white woman, as an inspiration for the essay); it is as if she had a brilliant epiphany one day without ever being called out on her shit by the colleagues of color whom she victimizes in the beginning of the essay. Of course I think it’s important to examine the category of whiteness as white people, and have been impressed by the work of most whiteness studies scholars and activists I know, but there is something insidious to me that student reactions and instructor choices triumph a white woman’s voice over voices of color.
The other glaringly evident problem with this work is the metaphor itself. As a friend of mine and member of Anti-Racist Action (ARA), once stated: “White privilege is not like a knapsack, it’s like a loaded gun.” The portrayal of racism as innocuous distances it from the material and rhetorical violence perpetuated by our racist system, and erases the way that privilege directly impacts people of color, it doesn’t just allow things to not impact white folks. Continuing on with that problem is that few of the examples given are structural issues. While it is absolutely important to address daily, lived experiences of racism, this tacitly implies that the solution would be to fix these daily offenses, rather than subverting the entire system of white supremacy itself.
A dear friend, (with whom I lovingly butt heads almost always), wrote her critique of this essay by highlighting the way privilege scholarship and “diversity trainings” use guilt as their main pedagogical framework. She writes (in a fiction blog that she admits is often based on her own experiences): “…I don’t think it’s a particularly useful way to think about race, or class, or sex. It seems to me simply to have as its objective the provocation of guilt, an assumption of social naivete, and a disavowal of exception to these naturalized rules of thumb. It’s a pretty narrow view of political possibility, don’t you think?” Her accusation also reminded me of another white-woman-project-to-make-racism-go-away, Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eye/Brown Eye” activity that requires students with brown eyes to be viciously cruel and exclusive toward students with light eyes, in an effort to get light-eyed students (usually white) to “know how it feels” to be a person of color (although she’s attempted to expand this to other marginalized populations, just not very successfully).
But I don’t want to be dismissive of either of these methods as “not useful,” because I’ve seen it transform student’s awareness about privilege in pretty profound ways. I don’t think we should discount activities that help aid in the process of making more radical structural changes, but I fear that activities like Elliott’s and writings like McIntosh’s become “enough” for both instructors, students, and some varieties of anti-racist activists. This is not rhetorical, I really want an answer: What can anti-racist activists and educators do to build a powerful anti-racist praxis that goes beyond classroom discussion? How can we incorporate what seems to “work” (at least a little), but commit that those things only be step 1?
Right before I sat down to write this, I was actually provided with a rush of optimism that countered the defeat I felt in viewing the VS site. A friend of mine posted a link to a Sesame Street video on her facebook, entitled “I Love My Hair” (you should watch, it’s absolutely wonderful!):
This reminded me of another article I give to undergrads, called “Hey Girl, Am I More Than My Hair?” by the black scholar, Tracy Owen Patton. Her wonderful essay discusses the struggle of black female embodiment in a way that is, to me and most of my students, more effective and memorable than McIntosh’s article (and, curious-instructors-that-want-to-know, she explains ‘hegemony’ in a way that is super accessible to undergrads!). I’m not saying that the folks at Sesame Street got a hold of this academic writing and decided to put it to use to make what will surely be a big impact on young children of color, but these endeavors (academic scholarship and public media) need not be separate. Sesame Street gave me one answer as to how it’s possible to take anti-racist ideas (like the radical notion of loving oneself in spite of white beauty standards) and apply them outside of my lecture notes, but I am not so bold to think that Sesame Street will offer us tools to overthrow the system itself.
I’d love for this to be a space for ideas on anti-racist pedagogical strategy and activism, so please leave comments if you have found successful means of teaching and doing anti-racist work in the classroom and beyond.
Oh, and: while I should probably just stop patronizing VS altogether, I can at least assure you that I did *not* purchase any Lacie Panties that assumed white-as-a-given.