In the wake of the Bernie Sanders Seattle appearance incident, I've seen a lot of white folks on the Net lecturing black folks on how misguided their criticism of Sanders is, because he marched with MLK and he's a good guy who wants justice and equality for all and they should be happy to work with him because he's far more an ally to them than all the other politicians running. And the hard thing for them to understand is that while all they say about Sanders is true, it's not relevant in the way they think it should be.
Which got me to thinking about one of the most insidious aspects of white privilege - insidious because it's primarily found among white people who are honestly trying to be allies, to work for social justice and equality, to fight the good fight.
And that insidious aspect is that we white liberals start thinking that we're doing all this work, all this fighting, "for" other people, and that we deserve something in return - gratitude, a pat on the back, a bit of slack when we backslide, some acknowledgement of what we're doing.
I totally get that. Sometimes I feel that way myself. And then, because I'm a white woman who is therefore lacking privilege on that axis (and a few others, but let's not get complicated here), and have known men who want some kind of acknowledgement for what they think of as their efforts on my behalf, I get myself out of that space of white fragility pretty damn quickly.
Because there's no way I am going to - or should be expected to - thank a man for not raping me, for not harassing me, for not limiting the work I can do, for not thinking he owns me or has some kind of natural rights to my emotional work or sexuality or submission and service, for not doing any of those things that demean, devalue, or limit me as a woman. There is no reason why I should have to be grateful to another human being for treating me, and others like me, as human beings. You don't get accolades for the basic social requirement of not being a total jerk.
It's easy to understand why white people (and indeed anyone in a position of privilege who is working to be an ally and bring about social justice) feel they deserve something in return. It's hard work, coming to understand your own privilege, rooting out all the institutionalized racism we imbibed with the very air we breathed as children. It's difficult, challenging yourself, your friends, your family, your community, your government. And we live in a society where things we define as work - even if they are things that are enjoyable, or personally rewarding, or obviously the right thing to do, receive a return. We are paid for the work we do for employers or clients, and if we do a particularly good job, we expect bonuses or promotions or raises or repeat business. If we do community or church work, we expect to be recognised for it. We want the acknowledgement of our peers for our generosity, our charity, our kindness, for the things we do for others.
But there are kinds of work we don't expect praise or perks or payment for. No one is going to reward us for keeping our house clean, for washing our dirty socks and underwear. We do these things for ourselves, because a house with shit on the floor is not a great place to live, because clean underwear feels better than crusty underwear. We do these things because they are part of the basic life functions we engage in for ourselves.
And that is what white liberals sometimes don't realise, or remember. We aren't engaging in social justice action "for" other people, like a white knight or lady bountiful, we are not saviours who deserve cheers and special considerations - we are doing it because not to do it would be to fail at the basics of being a human being.
There is no reason why anyone should be grateful when I treat them like human beings, because that is the bare minimum to be expected of one human being in relation with another. And there is no reason why I should get a break when I fail to respect the humanity of others, just because there have been times when I didn't fail. It's my own responsibility to behave like a human being, and my own reward when I get it right is knowing that I did.