Why you need to care about white male privilege

You (and I don’t care who you are) should read this beautiful and challenging essay by Syreeta McFadden: Teaching the Camera to See My Skin.

If you have caucasian flavored skin, it has likely never crossed your mind that there are engineering challenges inherent in capturing light bouncing off everything in our complex world and transferring it to paper so that our eyes can recognize the image, unless you’re a fairly advanced photographer.  And even if you are one of these photographers, you probably have not thought about the problems created by manufacturers of film as they made choices – theoretically innocuous tradeoffs – in pursuit of marketshare and profits.

It’s real.  And it matters. 

For a satirical take, try easing yourself into this problem with an episode of one of my all time favorite sitcoms: Better Off Ted – episode Racial Sensitivity (available on Netflix at the time this was posted; you can try this streaming service that popped up when I googled it – I haven’t investigated its usability or legality).

Now let’s go back to Ms. McFadden’s well contextualized concern.  There are so very many layers here, all of which need to be seen and considered by society…I’m just going to highlight a bare few that popped out at me.

Institutional racism exists. (Actually, you can extend that to all the other biases that come up – but let’s stick with this for right now.)  You owe it to yourself to see it.

I know white dudes who get defensive in a hurry, because it’s not their fault they were born white American financially comfortable cis-gendered males.  It’s awkward and emotionally complex to acknowledge your own privilege and the incredibly pervasive and tangled ways that such bias is institutionally reinforced, over and over and over.

I also know some women of color who haven’t directly experienced a lot of overt racism, and in a world that is – whether they like it or not – stacked against them, it’s much easier to be in denial because it allows the illusion that you have greater control over your own destiny.

But there are thousands of small things like the manufacturing of film and processing equipment that discriminate.  They have to – the technology requires it.  And you can acknowledge that such choices have been made, and have impact, without demonizing anyone.  Kodak made some choices based on financial incentives – they did something that they thought would be best for their bottom line.  We can argue endlessly about the rest of it – what’s right, what’s wrong, what the ultimate impact actually is, what can be done about it, what should be done about it, what role various stakeholders might play, etc., etc.

What I’m begging people to do is a first and universal step: SEE.  See that the world, in nearly infinite ways, is set up to institutionally discriminate between people based on things as arbitrary (or not) as their skin tone.

Small things are not inconsequential.  They ripple.  Ms. McFadden is clearly a more conscious consumer of photography products than most.  How many people shrugged and looked at bad photos and simply internalized: I’m not photogenic, I’m not beautiful.  Is that actually important?

It is, I think.  Our self-conception is composed of these small things, and feeling attractive has all sorts of impact on behavior.  But I’m not going to try to convince anyone of that – either you “get” it  or you don’t for today.

Think instead about all the ad agencies who might have put a broader slice of humanity into their graphics, but they couldn’t make a dark skinned woman look great (until more people started photographing walnut vs. mahogany furniture).  Think about the screen tests (I’m remembering the story of one of my heroines, Lena Horne, who didn’t look dark enough on screen to read as anything but caucasian, so they developed a special dark makeup to make her believable as a woman of color…which they promptly began slapping on white women like Hedy Lamarr and Elizabeth Taylor) that didn’t work out, contributing to the slow growth of diversity on TV and film.  Think about how that may have played into financial decisions of companies far beyond Kodak and Fuji. Think about how that may have impacted perception of various demographics as “worth chasing,” and how that impacts the availability of products, and less obviously, how that impacts the way non-target demographics feel marginalized and/or adapt to that status.

You don’t have to attribute malicious intent to anyone.  It may or may not be there for a given situation – but the end result is the same: institutional discrimination, real and tangible…and often perpetuated without any examination for years, decades, longer.

To change, we have to see the unseen.  

Most people are good and decent human beings who have a desire to treat other people as human beings.  I truly believe that.  It’s a choice you can make to look, actively, for your own implicit biases – the subconscious prejudices we all have.  Unexamined, they do us a disservice, giving us “gut” reactions that our higher functions would never accept.

Professionally, every one of us can help ensure that we stop defaulting automatically to “white male” when we mean “person”…just by asking whether that is our assumption.  Look for prejudice and insist that it be an active and conscious choice, even if your decision is to maintain the status quo.

Look next for the institutionalized prejudice that you can shine a light on.  Here’s the thing – going back to Ms. McFadden’s history of Kodak, you can see some reasonable economic choices that were made.  Even reasonable decisions have repercussions, sometimes subtle and insidious, sometimes entirely unintentional…and it’s easy for me to feel this is morally wrong from the comfort of my desk chair decades later, but what do I want to be done about such problematic institutional choices?  The answer is not in legislation (this time, certainly) – it’s an impossible morass to try and create governmental rules against every conceivable type of discrimination, and, frankly, I’m a bit more libertarian than that.  The answer is in basically good human beings changing the calculus that makes companies crunch the numbers in favor of racism.

Obviously, it’s not that easy.  Ask Brendan Eich.  (If you missed the Mozilla kerfuffle, this commentary by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic summarizes the situation and why it’s also discomfiting.)

But I do feel confident that the only way forward is to see every more clearly the landscape we’re dealing with, and in particular, not shy away from looking at and attempting to understand the obstacles standing in the way of the person next to us.

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