When humor reveals privilege: Facebook edition
Like many white Americans, I've been learning a lot about white privilege. I've also been learning about what I can best do in the work of dismantling racism. This has been a long journey for me, and my steps and missteps in online spaces have made me cautious about responding to white privilege and racism online without first carefully considering the subject, the particular online space, and the people involved. I've taken many well-deserved criticisms from others online about things I've said, or failed to say, in response to content about racism or white privilege, having fallen into the traps of white savior, or white centering, or oppression olympics, or any one of the many faux pas white people make in their attempts to help. I try to learn from these criticisms, and do better.
I am an active member of a Facebook group for my professional community. This particular group is for social engagement, and not strictly for serious topics, so members frequently post funny memes, some of which others may find offensive. The group is diverse both in colors of Americans, and in members from other nations. American racism has been discussed in the group before, and my colleagues of color have represented themselves just fine without my interference. Well-informed white colleagues have also done a splendid job of responding in these instances. I aspire to be one of those well-informed white people in online spaces.
Today I have a chance to use what I've learned so far. Someone posted this meme from "Mommy Has a Potty Mouth." (Link for attribution.)
The first thing I thought when I saw this was, "None of your Black friends will offer to help you with this prank." Because I pay some attention to the news and to Black writers and thinkers, I know many Black people would consider a prank like this to be suicide. Many Brown people would likely feel the same. This joke is a good example of white privilege. White people can think this is funny because they won't be shot for running in an orange jumpsuit.
So here I am, trying to be the helpful white person doing my part. What do I do in this online space of my peers? I've learned from prior interactions that first and foremost, my colleagues of color do not need me to speak for them. So it seems wrong to just jump in and point out the white privilege that is smeared all over this meme. But I also know that in the absence of voices of color, white people need to step up and educate other white people. What to do? I decided to stalk the post and see if any of my colleagues took up the cause.
22 hours later (nearly a month in Facebook time!), no one has pointed out the white privilege of the meme. I feel a growing responsibility to respond. Now I have to decide what to say. I could launch into a long explanation that runs a high risk of sounding condescending. And these are my colleagues; they are not stupid people. I could go for a short, damning comment like, "This mocks the deaths of all the Black people who die being shot by police." But shame generally incites anger and/ or withdrawal. And I don't want my white colleagues to be angry or withdrawn from this issue. I keep turning the words over in my head.
What I settled on was, "I think this prank is only for white people." I am hoping these words will strike a balance between pointing out the white privilege, but not implying people should feel stupid or ashamed. I've had many stupid and ashamed moments in my journey, and I want to use my white person to white person comments in a way that keeps people engaged. Ten minutes later, and I am watching for the response. Fingers crossed.