Note on White Privilege and Speedy Gonzalez

Here’s the thing about racism (sexism, ableism): the obvious stuff is easy. When an individual standing next to you at a bus stop says, “I hate your kind”, you know that some kind of ‘ism’ is at play. The latter happened to me at a bus stop in East Lansing a decade plus ago.

But my own horror involves the invisible and unconscious shit we say without thought. Words like lame, gay, crazy, idiot, bitch, freak, and gyp infiltrate our language, even the language of progressives.

Frankly, I worry often about the sorts of oppression I am unconsciously caught up in.

This morning, in the very process of talking about white privilege, in my energetic, lightning-like teaching style, I said to a student near me who was reading quickly: “Wow, you are like Speedy Gonzales.”

She just happened to be Hispanic, though I don’t think I was clear on that point. The class roared in laughter. And, embarrassed, I apologized and used it as a case to prove my general point about the invisibility of privilege.

This is the problem. Our society prizes quickness, speed, the electric reply. But what we need (and what I am ill suited for) is hesitant, patience.

I’m reminded of Ursula Le Guin’s retelling of the Eden story. Against a feminist understanding of the naming of animals being an act of patriarchal categorization, Le Guin has Eve remove the names from each animal.

What happens then? Without names, Eve feels closer to animals. The names had interfered, had objectified. Now there is relationship. Now there is some pain and awkwardness. Now, without names, Eve (we) will have to move more slowly and more carefully through the world.

The problem is our privileging of speed and efficiency and clarity. We hurry when we should listen, treading carefully on our way to the awkward bodily thing which is human-animal-plant community.