This is a post written mainly FOR other white women about how I am working with my own internalized racism. It’s a snippet of my journey to understanding (ongoing work) and my attempting to do better. It’s a draft. It’s imperfect and incomplete. It’s a start… just like this process.
First, a poem:
we all got tickets to The Truth
finally we thought finally
when the curtain fell away
our indrawn breaths could be heard
even in the next theater
even the gasp of the mime
who had slipped in among us
a loud whushing like reams of litter
whirling upward in a gale
hands shot to mouths and mouths
fell open I couldn’t say within
how many seconds
all our minds shut some
slamming others just a click
like 300 parallel
rows of tipped dominoes
a racket of almost unison
believe me we wouldn’t
have resisted anything
but the truth
so instantly and universally
yet we sat there and waited
for something else
which you could say we also got
if you count the mime’s
so she wasn’t even a real mime
probably part of what was
clearly just a performance
“Believe me, we wouldn’t have resisted anything but the truth so instantly and universally.”
I saved this poem back in September, but this line strikes me now as I continue to work deeper into my anti-racism work, studies and conversations.
I became sensitized to my own unconscious racism many years ago in grad school, at the age of 28 or 29. I had traveled from The University of Texas up to the University of Wisconsin to attend a National Feminist Graduate Student Conference. It was early in my career as an aspiring academic, and I was ambitious and excited. This was my first multidisciplinary conference, where I was exposed to feminist thinking on a lot of subjects I hadn’t thought about before, or even knew existed. On the last day of the conference, the organizers, who were grad students at UW, invited attendees to consider organizing and hosting the conference at their school next year.
It didn’t take a lot of coaxing for me to volunteer.
I returned to Austin ready to pull together a diverse, multidisciplinary organizing committee to put on the best conference EVER!
I started with people I knew in my department and college. Then I reached out to faculty in other colleges to help me recruit motivated feminists to join the effort. We had a core group and eventually enough people for committees, and I sort of saw myself as the central organizer keeping us all on track. We used this new thing called a “listserv” to stay in communication with each other (it was 1998!!)
I thought things were going pretty well. We had many colleges and departments represented. We had women of color and LGBTQ women on board.
But, somewhere pretty early in the process, the women of color let it be known that they considered the process itself inherently racist, and the white women involved part of the problem.
As the self-appointed leader of the effort, I took this very personally. How could they accuse me of being a racist?!?! I was NOT a racist! It was a complete impossibility!
There were many impassioned emails exchanged—DAILY, for months. There were efforts at teaching. There were efforts at learning. Concessions were made. I was not alone among the white women befuddled by what was happening, but others engaged in dialogue. Chandra Mohanty was going to be our keynote speaker. She took our situation to heart and even worked with us white women to break through our resistance, our defensiveness.
From my perspective at the time, our project of putting on a conference was being sidetracked by conversations about this baseless accusation when we needed to be raising money, sending out calls for papers, inviting speakers, and the other important work to make the conference happen. That was my singular focus. I felt a responsibility to the group from which I had inherited this project. So basically, I pushed through with the logistics and details.
The conference did happen and was actually a pretty great success, in spite of — and looking back, perhaps BECAUSE of — the underlying racial dynamics.
At the time, though, I was simply glad it was over.
As I look back on the experience now, reading these few paragraphs, I can see how my women of color colleagues weren’t wrong.
Think about that. It has been more than 20 years and I am just now beginning to understand what was unthinkable to me at the time—my own role and responsibility in racist structures and processes reflecting unequal power.
The experience pierced the veil of my racial innocence.
It was a critical experience in my life, one that forever changed me because it opened me up to a fundamental Truth that I have been grappling with now for 20 years. This Truth was not that I was or am a racist (although, that is a part of it). The Truth it opened up is that I might be wrong. I might study and be critical of dominant ideologies, but still might not recognize them when they are in play. In essence, I cannot view the system from outside the system. I am inherently in and OF the system. We all are.
Here’s how I work with it.
WHEN I GET DEFENSIVE about something racial, when I feel that I am taking something said about white people personally and defensively, I STOP. I just stop. LISTEN. CONSIDER. They might be onto something. They almost always are.
At the time, and for years after, I interpreted the criticism of my women of color FemConf colleagues as an attack me personally as a racist. And, in a way, it was; but their actual criticism was of the process, which had been shaped by a structure (the university) that was—in fact—functioning as a result of and a perpetuator of systemic racism. I went first to the people I knew. They just happened to be predominantly white. (That wasn’t MY fault.) I started with my own department and college—which happened to have no tenured women of color faculty. (That wasn’t MY fault, either) I created a committee structure that placed me, a white woman, at the center, and “invited” others to “participate.” (How ELSE was I supposed to do it… I brought this conference to Austin.) Etc Etc Etc. There are probably a whole bunch more things I still don’t recognize about how that whole thing went down.
My whole point right now is that EVENTUALLY I learned (am learning) to use my own feelings of defensiveness and discomfort—my own reaction of “NOT ME!”—as a signal to slow down, back off, step aside, listen… and learn. It probably isn’t a personal attack on me. But, it doesn’t mean I am not implicated. I might be. The thing is to figure out HOW I might be implicated and what I can, cannot, should or should not do about it.
All this is coming up right now because once again, a majority of white women voted for Trump, and I’m trying to figure out what I can do about it. I shared a post the other day on Facebook that I had seen on a (white, male) friend’s FB Story:
What I wrote with this post was, “Things to think about. I think she’s right.”
The post got a few reactions… just a few. But I have been thinking about those reactions, and the comments they generated. And the feelings (I imagine have been) aroused by those exchanges.
So, consider THIS little essay Part 1 of my own response to those responses.
I’ll start with why I shared that post on Facebook in the first place: When I first read it, I felt defensive. Just for an instant. but it was there.
I felt she was talking to me. Perhaps the thoughts accompanying the feeling were along the lines of: “But I AM one of the good ones! I am NOT like the women who voted for Trump.”
I stayed with the feeling.
I remembered, she gets to have her own opinion AND she gets to be angry.
And then I decided, she’s not wrong. If white women are perpetuating this thing, white women are part of the problem, and that’s the appropriate target for my own work, even though I am also a white woman.
Do I know what that looks like? Not yet, not exactly.
I don’t need to defend the (white) social workers she called out, or the white teachers in low income schools, or nonprofit professionals. I don’t need to attack them, either. And I really don’t need to defend Trump’s white women voters…
… finish that sentence: For being white?
White women, I believe our defensiveness in these situations (for those of us who feel it) stems in part from the fact that we DO recognize ourselves as part of this category, white. I believe this defensiveness is a reaction that reflects our own confusion around race and racism; around race as a personal characteristic versus a social construct. The defensiveness belies the fact that we do believe it is both. It’s a social construct except when it’s talking about us, so we take is personally… BECAUSE we have mistaken having a race or being part of a race with being racist… BECAUSE we have mistaken NOTICING racism, or ACKNOWLEDGING race and racial difference as being racist. BECAUSE in the status quo, if we notice the difference in power by race, we MUST acknowledge our own place, by virtue of our race, in these systems of unequal racial power. BECAUSE, if we acknowledge our own race and we acknowledge unequal systems of power based on race, then we must be racist.
And we don’t want to be racist!
I could keep going around and around and around.
Put simply, I think a more productive approach is to drop all that and acknowledge that we might actually be racist sometimes, without meaning to, or without knowing it. You can’t fix it if you can’t acknowledge it.
We want racism to be about systems… but these systems are made of people. And we are the people. Our actions, our customs, our beliefs, our rules, our relationships constitute the systems in which we live.
None of us is immune to it — how could we be? It IS the water we are swimming in. Does a fish need to feel shame for swimming in water it didn’t know was there? No. But once you know it is there, you must do something about the quality of that water.
I guess my approach is to accept that I might not always know what all the water looks like. Is this water, too? It might be. Are we swimming in it? Probably.
I FELT defensive.
That’s really all I need to know.
How to conclude? I don’t know… because I guess I’m not finished. More to learn and do. My hope is that I continue to grapple, and do more good than harm in the process.