I was pregnant and gave birth – twice – I know what it means to be uncomfortable. Braxton Hicks contractions, bladder kicks, 24 hours of labor, Pitocin… I mean, I know discomfort! Many of us do. Hell, we wear bras in the summer. And Spanx! And heels! WE know discomfort. But somehow when it comes to Whiteness and racism we become suddenly unable to be uncomfortable. We’ve gotta talk about this.
Before you close out of this and stop reading, hear me out. I am a white woman. I am a Spanx and high heel wearing, fashion over comfort, sweating in my strapless bra in the summer kind of uncomfortable white woman. I’m also a white woman who has cried in the midst of an uncomfortable conversation willing for it to end and for me to be taken care of. I’ve been defensive, squirmy, quiet, and kept my head down in the midst of uncomfortable conversations when I didn’t know what else to do or say. I have avoided giving feedback or addressing a concern out of fear for how it will be received – and how I would be perceived. I am you. My intention isn’t to attack or shame you – I am you. Instead, it is my goal to share with you some things that I’ve learned about the impacts of these reactions and how I think we can do better.
First, it took me a long time to realize that every time I shut down a conversation about race or identity because it made me uncomfortable, I was flexing my Whiteness muscle and upholding white supremacy by silencing the concerns of folks of color. This was a hard thing for me to recognize. After all, I am a nice, liberal voting, suburban mom, not some racist White Nationalist marching with a tiki torch! But I now know that while the KKK may be horrible and scary, they are not the only racists in America. By avoiding, disrupting, or ignoring important conversations about race and identity, nice white ladies like me uphold our positions of dominance. This is not only really problematic, it’s also racist.
You might be wondering why… I know I did. When I heard things like this I had 4000 different responses that all offered a perfectly logical explanation for what I intended to do. But none of these explanations affirmed the impact of what I was doing. It’s the impact of my actions – and not my intentions – that is what matters.
Let me offer a couple of examples. When I choose to opt out of a conversation about race or identity, because it makes me uncomfortable, it is the epitome of privilege. It’s like saying that because I don’t have kids, I don’t care about your kids. Or any kids. In my life I have a lot of privilege. I have always had access to clean drinking water. I am often assumed to be innocent, kind, and safe. I am generally trusted by strangers, and police officers readily come to my defense. I am treated kindly in most places that I go – certainly not all places, the patriarchy is still alive and well! – but most places are safe for me. This means that I don’t have to think about the water in Flint, because it doesn’t affect me. I don’t have to think about police brutality and the hundreds of folks of color who are killed by police officers. I don’t have to think about how policies have impacted housing for generations, the impacts that systemic racism has on communities of color, or why there is a “school-to-prison pipeline” in many communities of color. The reality is that none of these issues impacts my life directly. I don’t have to think about them. And sometimes hearing about them can trigger guilt and shame that are deeply uncomfortable, leading me to want to wiggle my way out of a conversation the way that my toddler tries to wiggle out of a timeout. But opting out of an uncomfortable conversation, simply because it is uncomfortable, ignores the real trauma that is being experienced by the folks who are experiencing it every day. Wiggling out is saying that my comfort is more important than your experience. Impact vs. intent. Plus, no one is trying to talk to us about this just to trigger up some shame and guilt. This is not about us and our feelings. This is about the lives of our neighbors, friends, and colleagues. This is about people’s lives and those lives are important.
The other thing that happens when we ignore, deflect, avoid, or shut down conversations about race is that we silence the folks who are raising the concern – often folks of color. There is a long history of silencing folks of color in this country and newsflash – it’s all rooted in racism and dominance. Asserting that my comfort or interest in a conversation is more important than another person’s lived experience is a direct act of dominance. And when you add in my privileged identities as a white cis-woman asserting dominance when engaging with a person who has identities that have been marginalized, like a woman of color for example, this dynamic is not only problematic and rude, but also deeply racist. I think that many of us would agree that no one voice should be more important than any other, after all I know how it feels to have my voice silenced by a man who seems to think that he can better explain whatever phenomenon I am discussing in a meeting. Yet somehow, even though it happens to us often, we engage in the same behaviors with people of color. Every time we shut down a conversation about race and identity, for any reason, we assert ourselves as more important or more worthy of being centered in conversation. This is an act of white dominance and supremacy – it’s racist, friends.
Listen, this is just the beginning of a conversation that we need to be having about our role in upholding white supremacy and the impact of our behaviors. I needed to get it off my chest and I really hope it will open up a dialogue that we can continue to have. We have work to do, ladies. And I hope that we can keep talking and muddling through together. I hope you’ll comment with any questions you have – or your hesitations. Let’s talk! I’m invested in all of us appreciating our role in this and working to eradicate it together.
I know you may be wondering what you can do about this - how do you change it? I have some ideas. More on that later!
PS - here are a few links to articles by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a white woman who has done a lot of research on who white people respond to talking about race. Here, here, and here. And here is are 4 questions for white people to ask ourselves during discussions about race.