Let me say at the outset of this essay that I in no way consider myself a Linguistic’s or Semantic’s expert-no, I guess I’m just a mental explorer, and what I explain below is a kind of “What if I …?”or a “I wonder what’s in that gold box?” Perhaps it’s one of those ideas that may or may not be collectively owned. A hunch? A strange acidic feeling in the pit of my stomach? Etc., Etc., Etc.
When it comes to comprehending the meaning & definitions of words, in a semantic mode of looking at words, a word in itself doesn’t contain any universal, inherent, and changeless meaning, except perhaps in a denotative way. Words may also be spoken connotatively with the companionship of non-verbal communication, and other forms of Object Language.
Since words don’t image meanings themselves, then how can they possibly reflect meanings? We, people, give words their meanings. General Semantics uses this aphorism: Words don’t mean, people mean.
Here’s an metaphor that may help us to understand the distinction between words and people’s meanings given to words (or it may flood your head with sludge). Your back door is opened with sun shining through it. You notice on the rug, the shimmering outline of what looks to be a flower or plant. OK, so what’s more real-the organic plant outside on the porch or the shadow on the rug?
Think of the reflection on the rug being like a word, and the real one on the porch as a person engaged in human interchange. True meaning is given by human beings, not by the words or how they’re used; we write and say the words, but we also give flesh-and-blood meanings to these words in human-communicative-acts.
Human beings are a symbolic species using the various aspects of semantic communication, and since each brain is totally unique & self-identified, thus, each brain may give its own, unrepeatable (alluding again to our unique personas) meaning(s) for the words people choose as meaningful to them.
So, when someone uses the words white privilege (WP), what does it mean, does it mean anything, does this happen all the time, most of the time or a little bit of the time? The specified connotations of WP here, could be used prejoratively or in a more positive way.
Any word, even a so-called neutral word, may exert meanings for an individual, but it may also be freighted with traumatic or conflictual- emotional baggage around the word.
When it comes to using the word privilege in the proximity of white, it’s helpful not to use a very broad brush when describing it, but here may be a time to think “incremental, more concrete, more specific, less abstract, etc.”
Accurate and aligned (aligned with the operational functions of the natural, bio-systems, and the basic structure of the reality of life; two of these are the diversity & interdependency of life); then, a common language (emerging from intentional conversations with one another) must attend our uses of the term “WP” so that all parties can be on the same page of conversational meaning.
“White Privilege” can be misused or mis-emphasized because it’s an emotionally-laden term and many of our human responses to WP, being perhaps one of the cruxes of white racism, the word may then become uni-dimensional, rather than a multi-profuse term, that enables us to listen, and gather-in around a constellation of prerequisites for “privilege” to be alive and well in our American culture.
When some whites hear the term, WP, it often sets off a deep, inner, defensive-resistance, because many whites in society, don’t believe they’ve lived privileged lives: “I grew up dirt-poor and poverty was my playing field,” and a white person may reflect this notion in conversation, behavior, or in one’s worldview.
A basic grasp of WP includes the notion of receiving some “kind” of immunity or advantage gained by the simple fact of being born in white skin.
In effect, WP, is one privilege that may be be offered-advantages over disadvantages-well, who wouldn’t want this if there weren’t other side-effects?
In the U.S. each citizen, upon reaching voting age (except in locations where felons legally can’t vote), and has the free right to vote, by virtue of citizenship.
At the age of eighteen, anyone has the right to enlist in one of the branches of military service. Different privileges come on reaching hallmark ages like eighteen or twenty-one.
Every human, who exists in our culture, under the rubric of Civil Rights or Human Rights is equal & free; why? because we’ve been gifted at birth, innately, and graced with a universal set of human rights, inherently these are the rights of each inhabitant on the planet.
Here are some more uses of privilege:
*the privilege of education & learning-each person has the privilege & right to seek the education that will help them achieve their greatest human potential
*the privilege of leaving their homeland or their country to improve the economic lives of one’s family, and increase safety when in countries where military conflict is occurring
*the privilege of having adequate health care for oneself and her family
*the privilege to work in a safe environment in order to feed their families
*the human right of working to organize co-workers into unions for protection, safety, and preservation of their lives and their family’s life
*the privilege of being a Veteran of the military-Veterans Day was November 11, 2017, and Vets ceremonies were held around the nation. One of the privileges for Vets on this holiday is receiving free meals at local establishments and franchises.
The above items are all part of the picture of privilege that we or others may or may not have, living as responsible change-agents, in our respective native cultures.
What are some ways we might be able, by extending & outreaching our WP, to enhance life’s meanings & offer change?
Let’s say another white person makes an obvious faux pas, when they say something like, “Hey, don’t you know white makes right?” The implication that perhaps most of us would acknowledge is that WP gives more bangs for the buck when it comes to what’s considered “normal” behavior. The norm-though, is whiteness, white supremacy, a white-centered culture, and how a person of color relates to others that don’t look like him or her.
One way to confront these attitudes & ideologies is to ask simple questions of someone, that may explicate more of the subject: “Can you tell me what you see, in such a word as “‘right?'” (referencing the phrase “white makes right”); don’t whites make mistakes, too, after all, they’re not perfect but oh so imperfect!”
What does the adjective “white” include in its definition, denotation or meaning? Does anyone, even those who perhaps don’t have the background of speaking or writing with comprehension in their own language, have a chance of coming to a consensual meaning of the word “white?” For example, a white person may not know what “white” means for skin coloring, and far more folks have no idea how to give any words or definitions for the word “white.” What’s it mean to be “white” in America?
If they do know what “white” means, as one of the partners of privilege, they most likely wouldn’t know exactly how to respond-it would be challenging & difficult-don’t worry if it seems like this is just for you. It isn’t. It’s possibly the most sought after answer that whites want the answer for. So, none of us is alone in this. Remember, too, there are no experts in racism, just those playing it out in life, as healthy or unhealthy processes in their lives.
Here’s another example: what if you, as a white person, and another white person, and an African-American, are checking into a hotel together for some type of conference-the hotel clerk looks at the white person (no tandem welcome, no eye contact for the African-American guest), and asks “how can I help you?” with the most pleasant, inviting voice she can use, but my guess is that this wouldn’t include the black person, who also is a guest of the hotel.
The other white person doesn’t pick up on the white clerk’s WP, and is clueless; but you, on the other hand, can see what’s happening in front of your eyes, and it’s making you mad as hell: this is a good time to use your privilege to interrupt the racism you see going down; you might consider saying something that draws out the white clerk’s behavior; granted, all of this is a judgment call by the whites engaged in an incident such as this, and this part of the process takes its lead from, and is relative to the social context.
Keep using your inner conversation and whatever other defense mechanisms that work for you; you have permission not to be excited, anxious, mad, upset or angry-you have to own this yourself; speak in calming & caring tones to the clerk (or whoever the person is), maybe explain why this happens a lot in our public domains, and you may be able to offer possible alternatives to the individual to employ should it happen again.
Here’s one way anti-racism might describe WP: when privilege or advantage is used to perpetuate & maintain this cornerstone of racialized privilege, this is a form of denial or resistance; finally, to differentiate whether this privilege is known to the person’s consciousness or whether it’s an unconscious privilege, that may often be used with the intent or “knowing” of a superior attitude to those with whom you have difference. And in this case, it might refer to all non-white people, or only certain communities of color.
Copy: Christopher Bear-Beam 11/12/2017