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Jessica Chastain’s Tweet Highlights White Privilege and the Focus on “I”

Jessica Chastain has generally been a positive voice speaking out against injustice. If you look at her Twitter feed, you can see that she is someone who takes activism seriously, and tries to use her large platform for good. That’s why a recent tweet of hers in response to someone challenging her use of a Martin Luther King quote was so surprising.

It started with the tweet below, where she used a King quote about non-violence to highlight previous tweets in which she expressed her preference for non-violent protest, and cited studies and sources that say that non-violent protest is more effective in actually more effective in creating actual, lasting change. Fair enough. I totally understand having that preference and wanting to encourage it in others looking for a way to fight injustice.

A fan then challenged her use of that particular quote, especially considering the more revolutionary side of King’s activism that too few people ever want to address. Then, this exchange happened:

Whoo boy. A certain Carly Simon song is coming to mind all of a sudden…

The exchange continued a bit after that, but this is the important bit. A fan brought up a Martin Luther King Jr. quote, the same man that Chastain herself was quoting, talking about a specific type of white person, and Chastain’s gut response was to take it personally and get defensive.

This is telling for two reasons:

  1. Because she clearly sees herself as that particular kind of white moderate King is talking about, and so feels insulted that this historical figure from the Civil Rights Movement that she quoted might not be so willing to throw ally cookies her way, and
  2. It demonstrates a broader tendency within any group that has institutionalized power. The tendency to hear their own group talked about and think “I” rather than “we,” whereas marginalized people rarely have the luxury to think about themselves as individuals, because their entire group is oppressed.

I don’t doubt Chastain’s good intentions. What I doubt is how thoroughly she understands what her role as an actual ally should be, and how her own response to this demonstrates the very privilege she should be doing her part to fight against.

This Twitter fan was not insulting Chastain, they were simply reminding her of the fact that King’s work and opinions about how to fight injustice were more complicated than Chastain’s original quote, which is exactly the kind of quote that is used by non-black people to make King seem like “one of the good ones” when compared to other, more militant black activists (hello, racism! sure! Let’s all play the “model minority” game!). Chastain may not have been doing that intentionally, but someone who is as intelligent as she seems to be should certainly be able to connect her own use of that quote to the actions of the wider group. Right?

In a piece I go back to again and again, “I, Racist” by John Metta over at the Huffington Post, Metta illuminates really eloquently why the “I” vs. “we” difference between white people and non-white people is why he as a black man no longer talks to white people about racism. He says:

“Racism affects us directly because the fact that it happened at a geographically remote location or to another Black person is only a coincidence, an accident. It could just as easily happen to us- right here, right now.

Black people think in terms of we because we live in a society where the social and political structures interact with us as Black people.

White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals. You are “you,” I am “one of them.”

What they are affected by are attacks on their own character. To my aunt, the suggestion that “people in The North are racist” is an attack on her as a racist. She is unable to differentiate her participation within a racist system (upwardly mobile, not racially profiled, able to move to White suburbs, etc.) from an accusation that she, individually, is a racist. Without being able to make that differentiation, White people in general decide to vigorously defend their own personal non-racism, or point out that it doesn’t exist because they don’t see it.”

This is hugely infuriating. But that’s the thing about privilege. Privilege means having the luxury of individuality. Privilege means not feeling like everything you do has to lift up your entire community all the damn time.

What Chastain and others might try to do if they want to be better allies is try “we” on for size. Rather than being so concerned with protecting their individual reputations, they might instead recognize that they don’t exist in a vacuum; that every white person, whether they want it or not, has a certain amount of privilege, and that as a group they wield that privilege to their own benefit.

I know it sounds hypocritical. Why is it wrong to see non-white people as a group, but it’s okay to see white people that way? For the same reason that we need to assert that #BlackLivesMatter without the disclaimer that “all lives matter”; because the value of white people has never been up for debate, whereas we always seem to need reasons cited and studies posted in order to explain why non-white humans deserve to be treated like humans the way white people are treated like humans.

In other words, suck it up. If you’re more worried about being called a racist than you are about actual racism, you’re doing it wrong.

(via Courtney Enlow on Twitter, image: DreamWorks)

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