Friday, March 16, 2012

Race, Class, and Privilege: A Brief Reflection

I'm writing for many, many reasons. The first is that I've gotten A LOT of responses from people on my post on biking and privilege. Some of it has been quite positive, some quite negative, others have respectfully challenged my positions, and I try to respond to them all. I've actually really enjoyed the back and forth with some thoughtful commenters (I see you, Fern) and I realize that in the interest of brevity and being provocative, some of my larger critiques were not entirely clear.

The second is because earlier this week I went to a critique at my university's architecture school and I got to witness third-year architecture students try to describe their designs for a "hip-hop" community center in East Portland. The result was seeing a bunch of kids, and professors and professional architect reviewers. with no familiarity with hip-hop, no connection to the neighborhood or communities that this building will serve (it was noted at the beginning that the Rosewood neighborhood was "unique" because it had population characteristics similar to the rest of the country [read: it had people of color] all while the students and professors in charge we uniformly white and middle class). The results, after viewing three critiques, were a series of strained metaphors of what hip-hop is and how these buildings would save Rosewood's kids from lives of crime and gangbanging. It perfectly illustrated how having such a homogeneous student body can deaden creativity but it also illustrated the problematic nature of a field like architecture that purports to represent varied cultures, communities, or arts when many architects have no familiarity or intimacy with the concepts or communities they purport to represent.

My last reason why I feel this post is necessary is because of Trayvon Martin. The inadequate summary of events thus far is this: two weeks ago, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch member shot and killed Trayvon as he was walking back to his stepmother's house from a local convenience store to pick up food for his little cousins. Zimmerman, while sitting in his car, saw Martin walking back home at night in the rain and decided he looked "suspicious". He then called 911 to report the suspicious character to police and he was told by 911 dispatchers that a cruiser was being sent and to stay put. Zimmerman decided he would pursue Martin, so he got out of his car, chased Martin down the street, they got into a fist fight and then Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. Where is Zimmerman? He's walking the streets of Sanford, FL and the local police have not charged him because they claim there is a lack of evidence to charge him and they have kicked the case to the local prosecutor.

What do these disparate topics have to do with issues of privilege, race, or class? In short, everything. First let's try to unpack this concept of "privilege". All three of these examples are textbook cases of "white privilege". Succinctly, white privilege are the benefits that white people accrue simply from being white. While this idea is not particularly new, Peggy Mcintosh's classic essay on "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" is a great exposition from a white woman on exploring the implications of privilege (starting from the subject of male privilege in feminist theory) and extending that to issues regarding race. She gives a series of statements illustrating many of the unstated benefits of white privilege, here are some examples:

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area, which I can
afford and in which I would want to live.

3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely

6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my
color made it what it is.

7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their

8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.

9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket
and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone
who can cut my hair.

And the list goes on from there. As you can see, white privilege is a nuanced, complex, subtle phenomenon and the greatest example of white privilege is the ability for white people to ignore that it exists. This is not the case for people of color in this country. The reason why I bring up this idea of white privilege is to point out that there are many forms of privilege and they shift and change depending where you are. As a male, I have male privilege. I recognize that the ways I learn and communicate are often rewarded compared to other forms. I know that people will assume that I am more rational based on my gender than a woman and a myriad other small advantages I receive every day based on my gender. I can't necessarily eliminate sexism or the structural and cultural institutions that exacerbate it, but I can recognize my privilege and attempt to act in a way that is self-reflective and that respects the views and experiences of other people. I cannot impose my own particular worldview, and by extension the advantages that I unfairly receive that they may not benefit from, onto other people. It's counterproductive and if you are actually interested in addressing a problem, then it distracts from looking at deep, structural causes of many issues.

In my biking post, I wanted to illustrate that the normative rhetoric regarding voluntary bike commuting and sustainable living often comes from a privileged position that does not recognize the lived differences and experiences of people that would lead to choose not to bike. I tried to describe how simply lambasting non-bikers for not living sustainably, for not living close to their place of work, for not being willing to take a shower at their job after biking, is counterproductive and misses the multitude of reasons, structural, cultural, institutional, economic, and behavioral that go into someone's choice of their dominant mode of transit. Frankly, we cannot talk about getting more people to bike without talking about housing-jobs geographical mismatch, we cannot talk about getting more women to bike if we don't talk about the beauty standards that women have to meet in the professional workplace that make bike commuting a less viable option for them, we cannot talk about getting more people to bike if we don't seriously examine the multitude of factors that go into transportation choices. The situation is much more complex than simply building more bike lanes (although we should have better infrastructure for cyclists). I am not anti-cyclist. I wish that people could live where they could choose a multitude of affordable and sustainable transportation choices, but until we get to a point where everyone has that opportunity and we live in a culture that does not unfairly penalize individuals for choosing to bike, then we are NOT helping the situation by criticizing people who choose to not bike for legitimate reasons. We should be examining much more deeply how people feel about certain modes of transit and how can we best offer them services that they want/need, and not simply champion one mode over another and pathologize those populations that choose not to participate.

This position of privilege is also reflected in my other two examples. It is mindboggling to me that you have a profession that purports to represent and serve communities, yet it was obvious that not only did this particularly university group have a decidedly monochromatic make up, but they spent very little to zero time actually talking with the people in the neighborhood that they are designing a building for, AND they had very little actual connection with the art/culture, hip-hop, that this community center was to be based around. When your entre into hip-hop culture is a hip-hop dance course (really) and you live in a city that doesn't have a hip-hop station other than your top-40 pop station, it is absurd to think that you could reflect the feelings/desires/needs of a community. It's beyond arrogant. Combine that with an especially offensive presentation that made the Rosewood neighborhood sound like Beirut (seriously, this one student designed her building with bulletproof glass and put the kids common area of the third floor because she said people often shoot at eye level, not up) and not a SINGLE reviewer called her out on her assumptions regarding the neighborhood and you see how institutional racism is reproduced in the academy and in other professional fields. And what makes this worse is that such attitudes are precisely the kinds of attitudes that lead people like George Zimmerman to look at a kid like Trayvon Martin and not see just a kid walking home but to see a criminal and someone deserving of being killed.

Until we ALL step back and examine our own privilege that comes from our gender, race, income levels, religious affiliation etc we won't be able to move forward and we'll certainly have a hell of a hard time communicating with people that are different from us. Being "colorblind" or saying you "don't see race" doesn't eliminate the privileges you receive, all it does is ignore the real differences that other people live every day. And that's a crying shame.


Steven said...

Being a former architecture student, I can tell you that at least the Arizona State University architecture program does not offer any better training. That was one of my many reasons for choosing to go into planning instead. Even seeing some of the completely inane projects my classmates had come up with, none of which were so completely outrageous as that person you described as having put it on the third floor.

There's so much that can be said about the differences between architecture and planning and their own roles in perpetuation of racial stereotypes and privilege, but then again, the differences are not so great. Architects, at least in my experiences, have a horrible knack of designing out of context except where they are required to by planning rules. Architecture is a field largely dominated by white men (1.6% black and 20.7% women). And with a job that does not require communication with anybody but clients (not usually the users) and contract negotiators or an education that required any kind of sociology courses, architects are not trained to do anything but express their own white male privilege through the built environment. Practicing planners should know at least a little better than architects as courses often had some kind of sociological component to them to expose students to the problems of segregation, cultural differences, and poverty. However, practitioners often set up codes that express white privilege in so many ways. When architects have to follow context, it is usually a context set up and required by building codes, building codes that are set up far too often to express the white ideal of where they want to live and the white prescription to a daily life situation they do not and possibly have not lived through. Building codes often skirt by the public participation process so the representation of other cultures in the codes doesn't even get the chance to be included. Of course as planners we know that the public participation process is flawed to begin with and with cities that are overwhelmingly white or influenced by the power of white money, the voices of minority groups is acknowledged but not incorporated.

Under no circumstances though should pure ignorance of race and class problems be allowed to go forth unquestioned like the 3rd floor common room. Those reviewers should have known better. But then there is also the white privilege of not wanting to confront ignorance of race and class issues, especially in public.

Stewart said...

I can't agree more with this post. As Steven noted, architecture is dominated by white men. I think so much of the problem is historically rooted. Who had the resources to attend the École des Beaux-Arts in the nineteenth century? Who designed Chicago's "White City," or the St. Louis World's Fair? Further, who had the resources to hire those architects and realize their ideas?

The answer is white men. With apologies to Clarence Wigington, other professional architects of color, and families that built their own houses--and thus, designed their own variations of American vernacular architecture--American cities were designed and built by white men, for white men. I think many white architects (well, may white people in general) have yet to fully understand the privileges they have.

But some do understand. I found this interesting piece that questions a 2005 "Jeffersonian" plan for the Uva campus: http://tinyurl.com/79r9jml. Maybe slow, slow change is afoot, but not here in Portland?

Sarah said...

Half of my Economics of Sustainability class did their class research project on the thesis that we need more people in Portland to bike. They all suggest various economic "incentives" such as raising gas and parking rates. No one discussed why people choose not to bike other than 1)they are lazy or 2) they are unaware of the benefits. I tried to channel you - but I am pretty sure my "there are larger socio-economic things at play here" comments were unappreciated. You can imagine the demographics of said class.