Interviews with Artists and Activists on White Privilege: Melissa A. Fabello

I recently conducted a series of interviews with several people who are white/read as white about what white privilege means to them in their work to end racism and oppression. Following the killing of Mike Brown, I realized to my great disappointment that a number of white folks on social media became extremely agitated and angry at the very invocation of this phrase. Conceptually, though, I think it is critical to understand and engage if we are indeed to move towards a most just and fair world. I am humbled and grateful to the people who participated in this conversation for their honesty in talking about what white privilege means to them, and I hope this collection of voices serves to spark dialogue and ignite change.

It must and can never be only people of color who are charged with the work of dismantling white supremacy and racial injustice. I feel these conversations are critical for white people to have with each other if we are to move forward as a society. Thanks for taking time to read.

(First interview of eight)

Melissa A. Fabellohead (1)

1. Tell us a little about yourself.

I am a sexuality educator, eating disorder and body image activist, and media literacy vlogger living in South Philadelphia. I currently work as a Community Educator for a local domestic violence agency and as the Editor of Everyday Feminism. I’m also a PhD student in Human Sexuality Studies looking at the relationships between eating disorders and sexuality.

2. Where and when did you first hear the term white privilege? What were some of your initial thoughts about it?

That’s a great question, honestly. I’m not sure when the first time I ever specifically heard the phrase “white privilege” was, but my first encounters with the concept of privilege, I remember very clearly. I used to be pretty active on online journaling sites, LiveJournal in particular, and there were a lot of group spaces there that would throw “Check your privilege!” around in a way that always felt hurtful, demeaning, and dismissive. In fact, a friend of mine that I met on the site and I used to use it to joke around with one another because we found it so annoying that people were using it so frequently. And even when I first started blog writing, I didn’t entirely grasp the idea and would get frustrated when people threw it at me. “But it’s my experience,” I would argue — which is entirely laughable now.

At this point, obviously, I understand the concept much more deeply, and I feel bad for how easily I ignored it in my youth. I think that had the idea been explained to me in a way that felt safe, I would have been much more receptive to it. But because it was always used in an accusatory tone from people with that same privilege, I had a hard time taking it seriously, which is a problem that I think a lot of people who are new to the idea face; it ends up feeling more like you’re being yelled at than being taught something — and, of course, the notion that we should be taught, rather than yelled at is, in and of itself, entitlement, which is the result of privilege.

I think it was when I understood male privilege and straight privilege (two privileges that I don’t have) and how those contribute to my own marginalization that it occurred to me that I, too, experience privilege. And it was then that I started owning it and trying to figure out how to use it to advance justice, rather than to reinforce the status quo.

3. How and when do you use the phrase in your own life and activism?

Constantly — although it depends on who I’m talking to.

The social theory that surrounds oppression (of which, power and privilege plays a huge role, obviously) is central to my work as an activist and to my politics in life. White privilege, in particular, is something that I find absolutely necessary to discuss at every given opportunity. I feel strongly about calling people in (more so than calling people out, although that’s another form of discussing privilege that people take) and talking about how to deconstruct harmful messages that we’ve been socialized to believe. And I think that as a white person who feels strongly about racial justice, it’s simply my civic dutyto do that, although I wish it wasn’t necessary. And what I mean by that is that of course people of color are saying the exact same thing — and have been forever! — but people are more likely to listen to others who look like them, which creates the necessity for people attempting to work in solidarity with any social justice movement to make their number one contribution talking to others who share their same privilege. And I understand the social learning theory aspect of that (I would hope so; I have two degrees in Education), but it also comes down to reinforcing the problem: I have the privilege to talk to other white people because–well–they’re racist and won’t listen to people of color.

That said, I don’t always use the phrase “white privilege” when having those conversations. For one thing, the phrase itself can turn people off automatically to a conversation, particularly if they’ve had (what felt like) negative experiences with it, as I felt when I was younger. But also, the concept of privilege is one steeped in social theory, and I don’t want the point (usually being racist words or actions that someone is exhibiting and my trying to explain why this is a problem) to get lost in what might feel to others like psychobabble or jargon — or an accusation that they’ve “had it easy.” I think it’s possible to get the point across without necessarily introducing the phrase into the conversation, although I wouldn’t say at all that I actively avoid it either. Maybe it’s the educator in me, but I just feel strongly about knowing how to reach your audience — and your choice of vocabulary is a part of that.

4. Have you experienced pushback on the phrase from other white people? How do you respond? What are some common ways the phrase is called into question, and how do you address those?

Oh, of course. No one wants to own up to their privilege when they first find out that it exists. I’ve never known a single person to say, “I figured out what privilege was, and I felt so awesome about myself, and it didn’t feel uncomfortable at all!” We’ve been brought up (rightfully) to believe that oppression is ultimately bad; unfortunately, we haven’t been taught what constitutes and upholds oppression. We just know that, for instance, slavery was an embarrassing part of our history or that the mass genocide committed against indigenous people was a horror. We talk about oppression in terms of the past; we don’t talk about how it still applies today. And so I think that to be accused of having white privilege can come off to people as being accused of being racist.

The issue there is this: White supremacy is simply the other side of the coin to racism. They work together; one can’t exist without the other. So when your privilege is being pointed out, really, you are being called out on how your existence and the structures that afford you power uphold white supremacy, and therefore racism. But because we’ve spent our whole lives understanding, say, anti-black racism as the slave trade and forced labor, as Jim Crow laws and segregation, as anything that happened, essentially, before 1965, the knee-jerk reaction to that is “No way, not me!” Because as a culture, we think of racism as only extreme examples of hatred — like the Ku Klux Klan and lynching — we don’t understand how our own biases, stereotypes, and prejudices (which are often based in fear) play into that same structure.

So I think that when people push back, they’re pushing back against the idea that they could be compared to such atrocities — and I understand, psychologically, why that is. But we need to move past that. We need to understand that all of those horrible things were born from somewhere, sometime — and that that same place and time is right here, right now. So sometimes, addressing how behaviors reinforce structures can help people understand without feeling on the defensive.

5. Why do you feel it’s a vital phrase to use?

As I said, I don’t think it’s “vital,” per se, as a phrase, in every single situation. I think it’s vital as a concept to address constantly. But something that I think is necessary is for people attempting allyship to continually use the phrase to describe themselves and how their own experiences are examples of power and privilege. I think that can take some of the bite off of it when you use it to describe another person. It creates less of a “me versus them,” less of an “I’m going to tell you why you’re wrong, but I’m so far above that” tone. White privilege matters. It has to be addressed first and foremost if we want to address racism because the latter needs to be dismantled from the top. So discussing it openly and honestly (and personally!) is absolutely vital. We can’t change oppressive structures unless we first admit that they benefit us.

6. Are there any resources or links you would recommend to a white person newly acquainting themselves with the idea of white privilege? Any other links on the subject for the world at large?

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.


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