Interviews with Artists and Activists on White Privilege: Andy Spiers

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 final interview in the series. Check out the previous ones with Chris CrassMelissa A. FabelloKelly JohnsonSean MahanPetra Zeh ParedezCory Stowers, and Jes Skolnik.)

Andy Spiers

andy

1. Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Andrew. I’m a 32 year-old Philadelphia resident. I’m white and I identify as a middle class, queer, transmasculine person. I was born a U.S. citizen, and I am also an able-bodied person. I currently work as the co-coordinator of the Trans-Health Information Project (TIP), a resource and advocacy program run by GALAEI, a queer Latin@ social justice organization. I have a master’s in Social Service from Bryn Mawr College and a B.F.A. in creative writing from Pratt Institute of the Arts. In my spare time, I sing/play guitar/perform, write, hang out with other people’s animals, and participate in social justice activism, particularly around issues of mass incarceration, trans* rights, violence against trans* folks, and HIV/AIDS. 

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

I can’t remember exactly when I first heard the term, but my guess is that it was initially brought to my attention sometime during my undergraduate studies at Pratt. I minored in Cultural Studies, so I took a lot of women and gender studies type classes, and I’m certain that it was discussed in my “Transnational Feminism” course, though that may not have been the first time I heard it. I went to middle school and high school in Langhorne, PA, and my classmates were overwhelmingly white and middle class. My parents weren’t particularly political and never really talked about social “issues,” so there was little to no discussion of race in my life until early adulthood. I don’t remember ever feeling adverse to the term. I think, at that time, I was really hungry for new information and had a desire to conduct some self-inquiry. Learning about white privilege was one of my first entry-points for better understanding my place in the world, and that was something that I felt was healthy, responsible, and necessary.

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

I talk about white privilege regularly in both my professional and personal life. At my job at GALAEI, we work to serve a target population of LGB Latin@s, while my program, TIP, primarily sees trans* men and women of color. My co-workers at this, and all of my jobs in the social service field over the past few years, are/have been predominantly people of color (POC). The social justice issues with which I am concerned (mass incarceration, trans* rights, violence against trans* folks, and HIV/AIDS) disproportionately affect POC, and therefore, many of the folks I learn from and work alongside are POC. Issues of race are constantly discussed in all of these contexts, therefore, acknowledging white privilege is also necessary. And when I forget to call my own white privilege, or white privilege as a concept, into question, my life is full of both POC and other socially/politically astute white people who are willing to point that out for me so I can use the experience as an opportunity for learning and growth.

I use the term white privilege to acknowledge any situation in which I myself, or others, benefit from not being POC. As a white person, I am not subject to the same level of scrutiny or surveillance in public settings (retail stores, driving my car, sitting in a park at night, etc.) as a POC. As a white queer/trans* person, I am not subject to the same amount of discrimination/violence as a queer/trans* person of color would be. As a white person, I am not predisposed to the employment discrimination faced by many POC. Etc. Etc.

The point is, I use the term to highlight disparities between the way POC are treated/regarded versus the way I am treated/regarded as a white person. So, the way I’m treated/regarded as a white person is based on assumptions about the type of person I am because of my whiteness—assumptions that are not based on my actions, my clothing, perceived class status, level of education, the car I drive, my profession, how I speak, etc. For instance, I’ve done PLENTY of things that could have landed me in jail or prison, yet I’ve never been arrested, detained, or even stopped by police for anything more than a traffic violation, and I’m really not that slick. That’s white privilege.

So, white privilege is really a way to identify all of the “free passes” I get in life, all of the things that are easier for me—all of the smiles from strangers passing me on the street who aren’t inherently afraid of me, all of the discrimination I don’t have to face just for existing in my own skin and moving through the world, all of the weight of decades of intergenerational trauma my family members have withstood, having to work harder and feeling like I need to “prove” I’m good enough all the time because others might just assume that I’m not as competent as my white counterparts, and so on, and so on.

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?

I have definitely had several people respond negatively or defensively to my use of the phrase, mostly via social media. I don’t know if that’s because white people feel safer criticizing white privilege from behind their computer screen, or because when I’m discussing it in person I am usually surrounded by like-minded individuals. But I think a lot of the pushback against the phrase comes from a misunderstanding that white privilege has to do with class, because the word “privilege” is reminiscent of financial advantage, and there are plenty of poor white people or working class white people who don’t feel like they’ve been in any way privileged by their race.

I’ve had a lot of white people try to “play devil’s advocate” in discussions about white privilege. They’ll say things like, “Well, how do you KNOW that that person was arrested because of their RACE?” and I’ll respond with something like, “Well, I don’t know for sure that that’s why. But I DO know for sure that POC are overrepresented within the criminal justice system. And I DO know for sure that studies show POC are routinely given harsher sentences than whites who commit comparable offenses.” Clarifying with statistical evidence is often helpful for folks.

In response to an Upworthy video I posted about white privilege a while back, a white friend of mine sent me a private message, saying, “I’ve been racially assaulted by a gang of black guys. White privilege didn’t do anything for me in that situation. I was also called a cracker once for cutting someone off.” This person then listed a few more scenarios in which they felt like their white privilege hadn’t protected them, and I think that’s part of the problem. A lot of white people feel entitled to being treated a certain way, with a certain amount of respect and dignity, simply because they’re white. Basically, white people are often surprised when their race is used against them, while POC are not. It’s a matter of frequency. Sure, I’ve been called names based on my race, but it doesn’t happen EVERY DAY. I don’t have vivid memories of being called racial slurs as a young child on the playground like a lot of my friends who are POC. This friend stated, “I was called a cracker once.” Once. Find me a POC who has only been called a racial slur once.

I think there’s also an assumption by a lot of white folks that POC just commit more crimes or do more drugs and that’s the way it is, and there’s no examination of the systems of oppression that influence those outcomes/stereotypes. I mean, the only reason I know about this stuff is because I had the class privilege to go to a private art school and take classes that taught me these things. Sure, anyone can go to the library and check out a book and learn the same things, but that’s not always realistic when you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from or where you’re going to sleep that night. So, I don’t go straight to blaming/“you’re wrong, you’re racist,” because maybe someone just needs an entry-point into learning about white privilege because no one’s ever talked to them about it before. And I am a person with white privilege and class privilege so it’s important that I have those conversations responsibly with others who are open to engaging, even if it’s combative and disheartening at times.

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

Because sugar-coating shit doesn’t dismantle systems of oppression. Because not calling it like it is feeds those systems. Because I can’t change the world with niceties. Because it’s important to be accountable and transparent in my professional and personal life.

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?

I recently read and liked:

And then, of course:

And read Angela Davis’s autobiography. And read something by James Baldwin.

Musician/writer/believer.

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