White Privilege and the Politics of the Midnight Snack

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by Christopher Vitale

Race, sexuality, class – all forms of mediation. Mediology is about understanding the dynamics of how these, and other, forms of mediation function in society, and to help us figure out ways to engage with these, and figure out ways to mitigate the damage certain structural relations between media and power inflict upon the world. But the realm of theory is in many ways easier than the intersectional stakes of everyday life.

Here’s an example. Walking home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, after seeing some friends the other night, I find myself wanting a midnight snack. After passing by several grocery stores that are closed for the night, one store has its lights on. As I pass by, the lights are on, but the front door is locked, and then I see that there is a plastic, seemingly bullet-proof window type thing with a rotating flap on it so the worker inside can sell food after-hours without putting themselves at risk. These exist at various points in the city, though where I’m at is far from a dangerous part of town, and its not even incredibly late.

I ask the man who comes to the window for one type of chips, but he brings back potato chips, not quite what I was looking for. Rather than going back to the shelves to get more things, he says, ‘Just come on in’, and he hits a button and the front door unlocks.

Now, I’ve had this happen before. You know when you’re getting ‘white privilege’. I’ve read my Noel Ignatiev, and the whole idea of being a ‘race-traitor’ – that is, trying to mess up the white-privilege system –  but I’m really not sure quite how to handle this situation.

The man who let me inside seems to be an immigrant, has an accent that to my ears sounded Arabic, and was dressed in a manner similar to many imigrants from Islamic countries. Getting white privilege in this situation is a bit more complex. Certainly there is a long history of prejudice between immigrant groups, and between immigrants and African-Americans. And I have heard cab drivers, often from Middle Eastern or South Asian backgrounds, tell me that they wouldn’t ‘pick me up if I was black.’ And in those situations, I have usually tried to find a way to say something that worked to show that I didn’t agree with seeing the world that way, or to otherwise undo some of the work of that stereotype in this situation. But then again, I can remember being at other grocery stores closer to home and seeing African-American teens teasing and egging on a shop-owner for his heavily accented English. I wanted to say something to them then too, but felt loathe to do so because they seemed like they could be looking to pick a fight with the shop-owner, and I didn’t want to put myself in danger.

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But back to the scene at hand, would asking the attendant at this midnight grocery store if he’d let me in if I was black make sense in this situation? I have no doubt this man himself has been subject to discrimination here in the US. Of course, the situation makes me think of all the issues related to the strife between Korean-American store-owners in African-American neighborhoods in LA during the riots of ’96 inspired by the Rodney King crisis. It also reminds me to Malcolm X’s words in 1964’s ‘The Ballot or the Bullet’, that one of the key priorities towards the goals of creating empowered African-American neighborhoods is to support African-American businesses, and to fight the drainage of surplus profits by white, or in this case, non-African-American business owners operating in largely African-American neighborhoods.

But none of this quite fits here. I’m in a pretty gentrified neighborhood, largely de-facto white, liberal, and upper-middle class. A few years before, however, many sections of this neighborhood had been Puerto Rican, but many of the original residents had been chased out by gentrification. None of this is where I live, however, a pretty mixed block in a largely Caribbean neighborhood sandwiched between Mexican, Russian, and Jewish neighborhoods.

But here in Park Slope, where I often go to see friends and for the better selection of bars and restaurants (my area being largely residential), I find myself wondering – what to do? I don’t want to recieve white privilege in this case. I think one-time this happened in the past, I might have said something like, ‘no, that’s fine, I’ll stay out here’. But I forget. And in my hesitation, I just go in and get my chips, and wonder the whole way home if I did something wrong, but not able to for the life of me figure out what to do differently.

I don’t want to call out this guy for being ‘racist’, because I feel the situation is much more complicated than this. And in fact, had I been dressed in a less mild-mannered looking fashion, the color of my skin might not have been enough to gain me entry. I’m sure if I’d worn a motorcycle jacket he’d have thought twice. But considering the harassment I’ve seen shop-owners get from kids, African-American and otherwise, I can understand wanting some safety at night. And even when I think back to the time the African-American teens were harassing that shop-owner in my neighborhood, I know that what I’m seeing is really two sets of victims of the racist and neo-colonial system which is contemporary American global capital. The fight those African-American teens might have been looking for has been looking for them for over 400 years. Growing up in a structurally racist country, in neighborhoods full of poverty caused by the American geo-political-economic system, its hardly surprising that they were looking for someone to be angry with. The ‘foreign’ seeming shop-owner is an easy target, someone who allows these kids to feel like they’re on home turf, even if that home turf is heavily biased against them. Fanon has spoken at length about how ‘horizontal violence’ between oppressed groups is so often an outlet when taking on the real cause of inequality, the dominant system, simply doesn’t seem like an option.

I also think of a time when I was in the town I grew up in, and saw a different group of teens make fun of and harass a store-owner who also had a thick accent, I think from South Asia, but I’m not sure. I grew up in a dominantly Italian-American neighborhood in a decently well-off yet still working-class New York City suburb. These kids were either Italian-American or Irish, but either way, were quite secure in their white-privilege. And I didn’t say anything then either, despite wanting to. Is it just because I wanted to avoid trouble? Or is it because, being gay, I knew that a bunch of teens could possibly pick that up on me, and shift their anger from the foreignness of the accent towards my sexuality? The area where I grew up used to be quite homophobic. And though that has gotten much better in the last twenty years, and the racism and ethnocentrism there hasn’t, I still don’t feel quite comfortable there when it comes to not being given shit for being gay. I still stay on my guard a bit. But these were young kids, either late junior high, maybe early high-school. And it never ceases to amaze me how even kids can, in the right situations, be able to ‘unperson’ you simply by saying the word ‘faggot’, especially in a neighborhood where that word might pose more than normal amounts of danger. I mean, there is still anti-gay violence even in the center of New York City, though it is now thankfully rare. But I know that had I said something to those kids, it would’ve been me that would’ve become the center of their anger, not the shop-owner. Was it wrong to not say anything? In hindsight part of me wishes I had, but its easier said than done. I’d like to think that if I wasn’t gay, and had full ‘masculine’ privilege, I could use it in this case to do some good. But how would I have reacted if I wasn’t gay? I don’t know, cause I wouldn’t be me. And its a split second decision, because two seconds later, you’re no longer in there, or the kids move on. Hard to say.

All of which brings me back to the midnight snack. I left feeling guilty about having gone in, but not sure what would’ve been a better option. And I ate my chips, feeling much better for having food, but still unsatisfied. And it hit me then that this is the sort of thing to put on a blog. To solicit advice. On how to be responsible in this sort of situation in the world.

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~ by chris on September 27, 2009.

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