wholepeace

“I’ve Changed!”: Why expecting forgiveness for past bigotry is just another form of privilege.

In PeaceAble, Politics on February 11, 2019 at 12:50 pm

If you are a white person over the age of 30 in America (I’m trying to be generous here.) you need to accept, understand, acknowledge and learn to deal with the fact that you were raised in a culture that supported, even promoted, racism and white superiority as normal. It was normal for real estate agents to direct people of color away from white communities. It was normal for businesses to reject black job applicants. It was normal for advertising and film to make their heroes and heroines white; their servants, their inferiors, their attackers, their enemies non-white; it was normal to see things like blackface as harmless remnants of minstrel shows and the memory of performers like Al Jolson, and Amos and Andy. It was normal to see native Americans portrayed as either villainous or noble savages. It was normal to assume that non-whites were less intelligent, more violent, poorer, and generally less civilized than whites.
If you are a male of the same age you need to also accept, understand, acknowledge and learn to deal with the fact that you were raised in a culture that supported, even promoted, misogyny and male superiority as normal. It was normal to assume that a man would get paid for his work and a woman would not. It was normal to assume that when a woman was paid, she would be paid less than a man. “The weaker sex” was a normal thing to say about women. It was normal to expect that strong, virile men would be sexually active and non-monogamous, but that only immoral, wicked women would be. It was normal to believe that women were less intelligent, less mechanically inclined, less interested or credible in matters of politics or the world in general, and more suited to domestic duties than men. It was normal to believe that women were intended to serve men, not compete with them.
Because of these things, if you have always been a normal, ordinary white person, it is quite possible that you have, sometime in your life behaved in ways that reflected what that culture was teaching you. Perhaps you went to a Halloween party dressed in blackface, saying “yesiree, boss” as you shuffled along in too-big clothes with patches. Perhaps you went as an “Indian,” with leather fringed clothing and a feather in a head band, saying “kemo sabe” or using “me” instead of “I,” giving out “war whoops” as you did a “war dance” around the room. Perhaps you found it funny to dress up as Charlie Chan and pronounce your Rs like Ls. Perhaps you thought you were not affected by racism because you had some non-white friends or co-workers that you liked. Perhaps you told yourself that it wasn’t Malcolm X’s, or Muhammed Ali’s, or Martin Luther King’s race that was the problem, but their politics.
Because of what the culture had been teaching you since your birth, as a normal, ordinary male, it is quite possible that have, sometime in your life, behaved in ways that reflect the culture’s misogyny and chauvinism. Perhaps you found it disturbing that a woman was put in a position of authority over you. Perhaps you thought that putting a woman on a pedestal was the same as respecting her. Perhaps you thought that being able to seduce a lot of women into sex meant that you “love women.” Perhaps you thought that getting a woman drunk and having sex with her was consensual. Perhaps you thought that a woman you met in a bar should have expected to have sex with you. But you wanted your wife to be a virgin the first time you took her to bed, and you vowed to “kill” any boy who tried anything with your daughter.
If any of this is true, perhaps you don’t see that it should be a big deal now. It’s unfair that there should be consequences now for how things were then. You’ve changed. Times have changed. All that was a long time ago. You apologize, explain, seek redemption and forgiveness, what else can you do?
The argument has always been that human beings are products of their time and their culture, so we should excuse their past behaviors and only judge them on who they are now. The problem with that is that who we are now are products of our own past, and that includes our past prejudices, our past behaviors, and our past privileges. And the people who were subjected to who we were then are also products of that past. Expecting forgiveness is just another expression of the normative privilege we have always enjoyed.
And here’s another thing. The normative rules haven’t really changed all that much. Racism persists. Misogyny persists. Religious bigotry persists. Xenophobia persists. Homophobia persists. Fascism persists. The class system persists. And we are still raising generations of white men who believe that they are the normative measure of all things, who are being taught that cultural change is an assault against them, not just culturally, but individually. They are being taught to fear the change, to see themselves as the victims.
So, what can we do?
We can embrace our own past and learn from it. We can learn to empathize with the other, to see our past in the context of the other’s experience of it, not just our own. We need to become who we say we are now not in spite of our past, but because of it. We need to take personal responsibility for cultural privilege.
We need to shift our focus from proclaiming that we support progressive change in spite of our past to understanding how and why we can support progressive change because of our past. It’s not enough to apologize for past sins and promise that you are a different person today. You need to be able to explain how those sins changed you then, are changing you still, and how they inform your actions today. And if you can’t do that, then expect neither forgiveness nor redemption.
The truth is, it will be difficult for white men to present themselves as the champions of changing cultural norms that have benefitted them for a very, very long time.
Is that unfair? Is it more unfair than the historic injustices suffered by people of color and women?

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