This is not a neat, wrapped-up-with-bow kind of post. It’s just a list of thoughts: messy, challenging thoughts. These are thoughts about what happens when white women talk about race, and what goes wrong, and why. And, most important, what we can do to make things better.
Thought #1. Stereotypes actually change what we see.
This is such a racket, girls. It’s the devil. Here we are, perfectly intelligent people, and we can be going through our lives saying things like, “I see that black people are in service jobs, while white people are the ones being served. That’s really awful.” And “I see this horrible division, that all the people of color are in one place, and the white people are in the other place. I feel terrible about this.”
Meanwhile there is a young Asian pastor preaching the gospel and we can’t hear her.
Meanwhile, there is a black family in a white neighborhood who are socially isolated because their neighbors don’t really believe they live there.
Meanwhile, there are POC excelling all over the place in a myriad of fields, and although we and our media are ALL OVER THIS in isolated cases, we don’t extrapolate from those points. Still we hold on to our vision of a divided world, in which certain levels of power and privilege are unavailable to those not coded “white.”
This. Is. The. Problem.
Thought #2. Our feelings are valid.
I believe in the innate goodness of all human beings. Not at the surface, unfortunately, but somewhere deep inside, we all have potential for goodness. Yup, even the white people. AND I believe that we desire to act out of that potential for goodness.
I hang out with a number of white women — mostly Christians, because, hey, these are the circles I run in — who are very passionate about what we call “justice.” We want more than anything to help. I’m going to say this again, we want very, very badly to help. We want to be doing the right thing to help all people.
I validate this.
I validate it because, among other reasons, we are just not going to get anywhere until we do.
Thought #3. Just because we mean well doesn’t mean we are doing well.
Women, do you remember that time that a man showed up to “help” you? Or take care of you? Or fix you? Do you remember that sometimes that was actually helpful, but other times it was suffocating or condescending? And sometimes it was actually a frame-up for abuse?
Do you remember how badly you needed the freedom to say for yourself which is which?
Privilege = defending your right to believe you did the right thing because you meant to do the right thing.
— Esther Emery (@EstherEmery) May 22, 2014
Women, hasn’t somebody ever done that to you? And didn’t it totally suck?
Thought #4. It’s time to hang up the super suits.
Believe me I feel this. I feel that it is scary and painful to have somebody tell you there’s no such thing as an ally so step off.
So sick of “feminist” men and “anti-racist” WP taking up space, naming themselves “leaders” and “allies” all while abusing women/POC. — Reasonable White Man (@BlackGirlDanger) May 28, 2014
Especially when we were just trying to help.
White ally: one who is convinced they hold the tools to end racism and speak over people of color. #realdictionary
— Suey Park (@suey_park) March 8, 2014
But we absolutely must hear this.
A vision of the world in which non-white people need white people to show up and help them with their non-whiteness = white supremacy. A vision of the world in which white people are the saviors as well as the aggressors perpetuates the problem instead of solving it.
The super suits are not cute and they are not harmless.
Thought #5. It isn’t time to cry about it, either.
I don’t want to crucify anybody. If every white-identifying person who has ever had the impulse to tearfully seek absolution and validation from a POC is going to hell, then I am for sure going to hell. (See Thought #2.)
But bringing our feelings of white guilt into public discourse on race = emotional violence.
I say this to my kids when they cry at the dinner table. “Look. I understand that your heart is crying right now. But you need to find a way to point that somewhere other than me.” For lots of reasons, our hearts are crying about race and racism. Because pain sucks. And it sucks to see other people feel pain. And it sucks to have to cope with our complicity. And also, somewhere in there, we kind of also don’t want to give up our privileges.
But an uncensored expression of our feelings is aggression towards those who work for justice.
Why? Because when we express our feelings of white guilt we potentially silence every narrative that motivates these feelings. Which is every narrative that exposes the truth of white privilege…which is every narrative that works against systemic racism…which is every narrative that will do what we are supposedly trying to do.
This is my case for thoughtful self-censorship.
Thought #6. And yet…staying out of difficult conversations can be as much an act of privilege as dominating them.
Woah. Which is why this blog post.
Look. I don’t really blog about race. Pretty much ever. I prefer to RT the folks who know what they’re talking about. Because what am I, some kind of expert? Hardly. I keep my mouth shut. I keep my Twitter fingers out of places where they don’t belong.
But in the last few weeks, issues of misogyny and racism and the intersection between the two have entered my Twitter feed and my social circles and my life in way that I can’t ignore. And if I’m not ignoring it, I think I’d better not pretend to be ignoring it.
It’s absolutely true that I am liable to say the wrong thing. (See Thought #1.) It is absolutely true that unless I am receiving guidance from outside of the stereotypes that uphold white supremacy, I will be a part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
But if that means I don’t say anything at all? Well…that doesn’t really work either, does it?
Thought #7. Although sometimes I act like I live in an all white world, I really don’t.
A couple of WOC friends of mine held my hand a bit while I wrote this. (Here’s A’Driane, and here’s Osheta.) I asked for their support as I was doing something I wasn’t very comfortable with. And you know this already, but they were super cool about it. They were immediately and enthusiastically willing to help, as soon as I asked.
(This is probably not so much because they’re black but because they’re people.)
But you guys, even if these women had looked me like a cockroach when I asked for their support? Even if I didn’t have any mutual trust relationships with women of color in the first place…? I still wouldn’t have an excuse. The Internet and the library are both full of information, thoughtful commentary, strong voices, and compelling narratives.
If I am clumsy when I talk about race, that is because I do not practice.
If I am ignorant about race, that is because I do not listen.
If I am insecure about race, that is because I prioritize my ego over the safety and well-being of other human beings.
This is my case for thoughtful self-censorship…instead of silence.
Thought #8. (In conclusion) I have a choice about which stories I tell.
I have a story from my theatre directing days about the time I cast a teenage black girl in a professional show, and she was homeless, and I coached her into a very solid performance, and for sure it stiffened her spine and gave her confidence to receive that opportunity, which without me she might never have received.
I ALSO have a story from the exact same moment about how I was both employed and mentored by a black woman artistic director, who for a certain period of time spent a half hour on the phone with me EVERY SINGLE DAY helping me to navigate my artistry, my humanness, and my womanhood in a male-dominated profession. And for sure Delicia stiffened my spine and gave me confidence by handing me an opportunity I might not have otherwise received.
I have a choice, about which of these stories I tell. I have a choice about which story I tell first. As a writer, I am not helpless. I do not have to be ineffective. I do not have to be a victim of systemic racism. I can make choices about what I do and do not say.
This is my case for thoughtful self-censorship.
Image: Library of Congress, 1909. Anonymous