WHITE PRIVILEGE IS REAL, AND POWERFUL, BUT NOT UNBREAKABLE.
To say we live in a white world is something of an understatement. What I mean specifically is that, no matter what you call your profession, it’s likely the people at the top are white — and even more likely that they are men. It doesn’t matter what profession you are in, where you live, or how hard you work, the truth is that in this country you will always be affected by the expectations and power of white men.
But recently I found myself face-to-face with a white man who taught me that white privilege is not as solid as I thought it was, that it can also be fragile; you just have to look at it from the right angle.
Clad in 14-ounce boxing gloves, going toe-to-toe with a 6-foot-plus white dude who has a few muay thai fights under his belt I began to see his white privilege waiver. I am a martial arts enthusiast, and have been practicing since 2005. What I didn’t expect on this occasion was that this particular round of sparring would help me to sort out what it is, exactly, about white privilege thrusts white men towards keeping as much for themselves as possible.
In the first round I was feeling him out, trying to see what he would bring. Men usually feel uncomfortable about sparring with women — they can’t get over the idea that women are inherently weaker than they, and so purposely “hold back” in order to not hurt you. Granted, men are usually physically stronger than me — but that doesn’t mean they are more talented or better fighters. Plus, coaches in any good gym are not setting their students up for a beating, sparring is pointless unless those doing the work are more or less evenly matched.
As our sparring progressed, however, not only did I repeatedly beat the crap out of this young man, but he was sweaty and winded as I was jumping in place between rounds so I didn’t get too cold. Additionally, the more rounds we sparred, the more he began explaining away his inability to beat me to his fellow male fighters in the gym.
“Wow, she’s pretty good.”
“I didn’t expect her to put up such a good fight.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
Pant, pant, pant, “Man, I’m tired, I haven’t been in the gym in a while…”
By the fourth round, it became apparent to me that not only was this man physically exhausted, but he was emotionally and mentally exhausted by what he perceived to be his utter emasculation in front of all his “bros” at the gym by a woman in a sport in which he perceived himself to be a bad ass. When I looked into his eyes as we readied for the next round, I took pity on him, and told him that we could stop there, but that I would be around all week if he wanted to spar again. He was all too happy to “take a break.”
Since, I’ve learned a few interesting things.
One, the same man who was always trying to make flirtatious passes at me before we sparred, now did not so much as look in my general direction the next time I saw him. Secondly, when I looked in his eyes after that last round, I found the answer to why white men fight so hard to keep hold of all of that privilege, no matter the detriment to their long-term happiness, success or comfort: he was scared of me.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t think he was scared of me because I hurt him — on the contrary, I wasn’t hitting him very hard. But, during those 20 precious minutes that we were sparring, I took something from him that no one had ever taken before: his power. In front of all the men he came to associate with power, all of whom are shorter than him and not white, I showed myself to be more powerful he. I do not think he knew how to deal with that feeling of powerlessness.
Although there’s a part of me that feels sorry for white men in our society — they have higher rates of heart disease, suicide, hypertension and all kinds of other ills for the amount of pressure and stress it takes to stay on top — there are many other parts of me that do not. When you make the choice to keep everything to yourself so that other people cannot, and will not, have it, you pay the price. When I looked into the eyes of this young man, he had gotten one of the first tastes of what it feels like to be beaten by someone else and he didn’t like it. I don’t think he was looking forward to repeating the experience.
The rest of us, however, know this feeling all too well. We know what it’s like to be tossed aside for no reason, to be dismissed, mistreated, looked down upon, looked over, and downtrodden, oftentimes for no other reason than our name, our face, our story, our gender. It was, I will admit, a bit empowering to see how truly fragile this erstwhile powerful white man could be.
The only consolation I took away from my encounter with the broken face of white privilege was a very important boxing lesson one of my coaches taught me once. “Don’t look at the guy’s eyes,” he told me, very seriously, as though he were passing on a family secret. “You need to look below his eyes, keep your eyes on his shoulders, because then you will be able to predict his every move.”
Not only because I love martial arts, but because after over a decade working in media for white male-dominated institutions, I get that trying to go head-to-head with people is a losing battle and I see the value in this knowledge. You have to be smarter about it, otherwise you will lose before you begin, discounted as being extreme or crazy or racist or undeserving or ignorant before you even get to showcase your talents.
Just like I saw with this young man, white privilege is not impervious, it’s not forever, and it’s beginning to crack — you only have to think about how every politico is jumping on the good ship immigration reform to see that! But while it lasts, I feel strong in the knowledge that it’s not an impossible foe, and that by keeping my eyes just below my target, I have an advantage when it’s time to get in the ring.
Copyright 2013 by Sara Inés Calderón.
Sara Inés Calderón