Interviews with Artists and Activists on White Privilege: Kelly Johnson

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.

(This is the third interview in the series. Check out the previous ones with Chris Crass and Melissa A. Fabello.)

Kelly Johnson

kelly johnson color small (1)1. Tell us a little about yourself.

I work with children and adults creating experiences and resources that keep humans connected with nature through the arts and gardening through my radical little company Wings, Worms, and Wonder. The after school gardening programs I develop and facilitate are in the south, which tends to still be quite segregated by neighborhood, so the concept of privilege is very important to consider. When working with communities and introducing health and lifestyle ideas involving food and culture, I have found that it is incredibly important to be aware of the fact that I am a visitor with an idea, not someone in any sort of entitled position to say how another person should live, eat, or plant their yard. In the south, there is still resistance from many in the older generations with regard to farming and African American culture because slavery was agrarian. I hope to help evolve that feeling of resistance to one of empowerment in the youth as way to take back their rich land based culture and liberate “grow your own” DIY spirit. 

For me, being born, raised, always living and working in the south, and coming from a long line of family that identifies with being “southern,” white privilege is a really important concept to stay conscious of.

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

It is hard to say exactly. I think I may have been late on the scene because I feel like I heard the exact term “white privilege” in grad school 4 years ago, but I have definitely been conscious of privilege since I was an early teen. Growing up in the capital of the confederacy (where many people don’t want to forget that fact) classism, racism, and white privilege abounded. I remember being very young and being confused by people fussing over race.

For most of my life I understood privilege experientially. I grew up white in a privileged environment, and I never felt quite comfortable with that, even though as I child I didn’t understand those feelings. As a teenager, I volunteered at an urban women’s shelter and was very interested in researching the Black Panther movement, reading Noam Chomsky, and listening to smart punk bands gave me a solid point of reference for the disconcertion I was feeling and experiencing revolving around privilege, class, and race in my environment. Perhaps that is when I began to understand privilege in terms of race more specifically than class.

During and after art school I worked painting murals and teaching art with “at risk” youth. This gave me ample opportunities to understand who am I to tell anyone anything and to never make any sort of blanket assumptions about anyone ever. It also taught me clear lessons that what seems easy for me and my confidence level is not the same for everyone.

I would say though the glue that put the privilege puzzle together in my life was taking a workshop in grad school about insider/outsider teaching. The woman who taught the workshop had been working with University Students in Lesotho to help educate rural populations on HIV/AIDS. Her experiential advice on being an outsider in a community and attempting to teach a subject with cultural and historical stigma has been invaluable.

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

I would say I use it regarding my work bringing art, gardens, and fresh local food to low income neighborhoods. I have cringed as other members of organizations I work with have made blanket statements that assumed just because you live in a certain neighborhood and are say black, that you receive EBT benefits and things like that. Sadly, the majority of the southern population, even in organizations that would consider themselves progressive, do not consider white privilege or the subtle, and many times unconscious and/or not meaning to be harmful, ways that white privilege is exerted.

I hope to help continue to lead by example ways in which caucasian people can understand how aspects of white privilege are inherent in southern life. I say southern, because that is the only life I can truly speak on. Just because you have the great idea to build a garden in a low income neighborhood, doesn’t mean your idea is the best idea for that community. You must work within a community, investing time and energy in work and leisure, building trust, and understanding the true needs of the area to be beneficial and not just another white person coming over and saying what another person should or shouldn’t be doing, starting a project, and then moving on.

4. Have you experienced push back 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?

Definitely, people always think that they are the exception to privilege. I have behaved in privileged ways and not realized it at first for sure and I have also worked to undo my southern white privilege conditioning. So when bringing up white privilege down here, if you want to be effective, you have to choose your words very carefully. I have heard thing like, “Yeah well ‘they’ could do better if they really wanted to” or “There are poor white people too” so many time and tha’ts the tip of the iceberg. Sadly, these ridiculous statements are very common where I live.

To these, I always use Non-Violent Communication techniques and say something pointing back at myself and experience, rather that what that person should be doing or thinking–something about how it is important to be conscious of the privileges that I have and to always consider that I am in no position to judge the way anyone else’s choices. I have found this to be an effective way of having that person reflect on their point of view and to consider another way of looking at the subject.

That said, push back still infuriates me on the inside. If I hear, “Yeah but you know me, you know I didn’t mean it like that” or “You know I’m totally not racist, but…” one more time I will scream!!! Push back shows how privileged that person really is so you know what you’re dealing with!

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

We must be aware of our strengths and weaknesses, where we need to keep working and evolving to be a strong community, so using the term white privilege is incredibly vital to clearly describe a way of thinking and acting that is hurtful to others. Recognizing differences is a strength, behaving in a way that exerts power over others because of those differences is a weakness. Everything from interrupting a conversation rather than waiting your turn to imposing a lifestyle change on someone must be considered inappropriate acts of privilege. Calling people out in a way that they can understand is important and the phrase white privilege offers a theoretical foundation from which to draw your argument.

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?

Listen to Propaghandi’s Less talk, More Rock record and The Coup’s Genocide and Juice, volunteer in a community other than your own and keep your mouth shut, listen, and reflect.

Check out the work of Katt Lissard and her Winter/Summer Institute and Split the Village work. She is an excellent example of being an extremely helpful “outsider” without imposing dominance on “insider” community through both the actual work and narratives when in the United States.

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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