Last week’s project of discussing racism and feminism with women of color proved way more challenging than I expected, and left me grappling with my own racism and white privilege in ways that made me very uncomfortable. This was ultimately a good thing – a tough, emotional, soul-searching kind of good thing – and I made myself stay in this space and examine it. I felt it, thought about it, talked about it, wrote about it, and now that I’ve emerged, I am absolutely positive that more white people need to be doing this.
For those of you just tuning in, a few weeks ago I shared my thoughts on the modern feminist movement’s inclusivity problem in the essay Still a Feminist. In an effort to promote a more diverse dialogue and a culture of listening, I posed two questions to women who I thought identified as people of color, then shared their responses in two follow-up posts, Part 1 and Part 2. As I said above, this project ended up being much more difficult than anticipated, but even though there are so many complicated facets to racism, so many emotions, so many questions without answers, I feel that I – we – must continue this dialogue. So here goes.
I’ve hated labels for a long time. In my youth I viewed them solely as words that divided us, but now I see that humans are inherently tribalistic, thus rendering labels unavoidable, and that labels actually bring us together in solidarity as much as they allow us to discriminate and differentiate. After the experience of talking with a few women of color last week, I also now see how important labels are in identifying ourselves to ourselves and to the world around us. I’m reminded of an activity in a college class I took, “Race, Music, and the Spanish-Speaking Caribbean,” when the professor, Raquel Z. Rivera (pictured below), instructed us to make a list of words we used to describe ourselves. I was one of two white people in the class, and we were the only students who didn’t include race or ethnicity on our lists. I wrote female, daughter, sister, friend, student, but I didn’t write white, American, or even Kentuckian. However, the other students, all people of color, included their race or ethnicity as their first or second words. I was fascinated and perplexed by this difference, and I spent a long time thinking about it. Ten years later, I’m still thinking.
When looking at my experiences through the lens of white privilege, I find that I don’t have to explain or defend myself nearly as often as people of color do. Perhaps because of this difference, words commonly used as racial and ethnic identifiers don’t have the same personal connotations for me. I tend to view them from the cerebral space of dictionary definitions as opposed to what they mean on an emotional level. As a writer, I do also consider the cultural and personal meanings of words in general, but this consideration obviously comes from my own white perspective. I’ve always thought of “people of color” as all people who are not white, and the Oxford Dictionary agrees with me, saying that a person of color is “a person who is non white or of European parentage.” I’ve struggled with this term because it can be so widely applied to such a large swath of folk and doesn’t allow for cultural differentiation, but at the same time, it’s better than identifying people with the negative prefix “non.” However, I didn’t realize that other people might see this term as meaning African-American or black, and that Latinos, a group of people I’ve always assumed to be included under the “people of color” umbrella, might struggle with having it applied to them. I also didn’t realize that it doesn’t actually matter if the dictionary agrees with me or not; what matters is listening to people and using the terms they prefer when talking and writing about them.
This idea of who is included and who isn’t is at the heart of why I don’t like labels – they inherently create insiders and outsiders, and I believe we’re at a point in our country where we need to focus on bringing diverse people together and listening to voices that have previously been silenced or quieted as opposed to debating who’s in and who’s out. But through my efforts to ensure that those voices are being heard, I ended up creating a lot of anxiety for my friend Letisia Cruz, a Cuban American who participated in Part 1 of this project, because she doesn’t identify as a “woman of color” and felt that having this label applied to her meant she was usurping other women’s experiences. I looked back through our email exchange and found the origin of our misunderstanding, so in an attempt to make her feel more comfortable, I changed some language in the original post, including replacing one usage of the phrase “woman of color” with “marginalized women.” Her discomfort also sparked an interesting and important thread on Facebook, so at the end of the day, I sat back feeling pretty pleased with myself; I’d created a space for a valuable dialogue, I’d participated in this dialogue, and even though I’d messed up, I’d done my best to fix it.
Not so fast. The following day I received an email from a different contributor who does identify as “woman of color” but was surprised by my use of the word “marginalized.” She explained, “Certainly, I’m not a member of the white feminist movement by virtue of being a woman of color but… does that make me marginalized? It’s not a word I particularly identify with, but perhaps with elaboration, it could make more sense as a framing for who you engaged in this series. I definitely identify with ‘woman of color’ and engaged the topic from there, but based on all the privileges I carry, I can’t get comfortable with ‘marginalized.'” While reading this response I thought, Dammit, no matter how hard I try, I can’t get it right! I agreed with her that “marginalized” didn’t completely get at the heart of the project, but at the same time, returning to my trusty friend the dictionary, the actual definition is “to treat (a person, group, or concept) as insignificant or peripheral,” and I do feel that women of color across all levels of privilege have been treated as insignificant or peripheral in some capacity by the modern feminist movement.
It was fascinating to me that one woman wasn’t down with “of color” because she was afraid that having a lighter shade of skin meant using that phrase was usurping the experience of a darker-skinned woman, while another wasn’t comfortable with “marginalized” based on a similar line of reasoning, of wanting to respect and not step on the experiences of people who aren’t as privileged as her. I didn’t anticipate these differing interpretations and was flustered by it, but what struck me more was how these women were so caring about understanding their own privilege and not assuming anyone else’s experience, whereas so many white people I know make no effort to understand even the most basic ways in which their privilege affects them and others. I’m baffled and angered by the vast amount of white people who choose to stay disconnected from other people’s experiences, rather than analyzing and reflecting on these different realities.
Which brings me to a confession I’m having trouble writing out. You know how I said that while I was reading the second email, I immediately thought about how I couldn’t get the wording right? Well, that’s true to an extent, but it wasn’t my first thought. My first thought was actually, Why are they being so sensitive? It really doesn’t matter this much. I instantly regretted this thought and got straight to editing the post again, ultimately changing “marginalized” to “women whose voices we need to hear,” a phrase that explained my intentions a lot better than either term I’d used, anyway. But when I reflected on this reaction again later that evening, I was flooded with embarrassment and shame. Not only was I handing out labels as I pleased, without fully considering other people’s perspectives (even though I myself don’t even like labels), but I was also feeling like other people should simply accept my labeling? All because the dictionary said so?
Basically, I was yet another white person telling people with darker skin who they are, and then getting annoyed and defensive when they didn’t like it.
I spent a good chunk of the weekend feeling like shit over this. I reread everyone’s answers in both Parts 1 and 2 and was even more embarrassed and ashamed over the questions I’d posed; I’d asked about how to make my concept of feminism more inviting to them rather than asking what they or other women in their communities are doing to battle the patriarchy or stand up for women’s rights. But you know what? I’m glad for these bad feelings because ultimately, they changed my way of thinking. White people need to spend a lot more time feeling like shit about racism or else nothing will ever truly change.
So how do we package and sell this to the masses? No one is gonna raise their hand and be like like, Sure, sign me up for an exhausting weekend feeling bad about myself! I have no real answer to this question, but I keep coming back to the idea that it’s a matter of morality. The relationship between white people and people of color in this country is based on that of master and slave. We can’t keep pretending like slavery is some far away story told in a textbook. It is our moral obligation as white people to confront our country’s history of slavery, segregation and racism, and all of the horrible feelings that come along with it. And we have to recognize that this isn’t a one-and-done situation. Last year, when the police murdered Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in the same awful week, I felt such an intense, guttural reaction that I wrote an essay in a single sitting about my white privilege and how I finally understood systemic racism. It received a lot of positive feedback and I thought that I’d done my work, that I had an easy path ahead of me. But now I’m seeing how anti-racism is an ongoing, evolving process that we must stay committed to.
After all of this introspection, I have been left wondering if I spend too much time trying to find the right language and not enough time protesting or marching or going to meetings. These thought loops and discussions feel very cerebral and not quite tangible. But perhaps this analysis of words is a form of revolution in itself; if thought shapes language, then language can also shape thought. Listening to different people’s ideas about language can serve as a window into understanding their way of thinking, which can ultimately (hopefully) result in more empathy. Language isn’t simply a form of communication. It’s a way to identify ourselves, our culture, our traditions and creativity. It’s how we tell the world who we are. It’s our natural form of expression. What might seem like a semantic debate to me may feel to someone else like a debate over who she is and what value our society places on her and her culture. As a writer, perhaps my role is to facilitate these conversations and to model my own process of battling racism. Language gives us power. Not enough women, especially women of color, are being heard, and the whole point of this project was to give them a format to speak. I reached out to my friends and neighbors via email and Facebook, and the people who responded are all women who are already expressing themselves in some capacity. It’s crazy and depressing and utterly enraging to think about all of the people out there who don’t feel empowered enough to even speak up, much less fight to be heard.
In the end, this project was a good lesson for me in many ways. As a writer, I’m reminded that it’s always better to be clear and to choose my own descriptions rather than looking for the “right terms.” As a white person, I’m developing a clearer understanding of how culture and race affects the way we interpret words, and I’m more deeply committed to listening and trying to understand perspectives that differ from my own. And as an activist and educator, I am reaffirmed in my commitment to help other people improve their language skills. Literacy is a right, and if we truly want a more just and equal future, we’ve got to give everyone the power of language.
Many thanks to all of the contributors for being a part of this project and for engaging me in this way, and thank you, my dears, for reading. This has definitely changed the way I view my role in the struggle. I’ve always loved language and believed in its power, but I’ve approached the importance of words from a writer’s perspective more than an activist’s perspective. My mind is spinning, in that tough, emotional, soul-searching kind of good way.
Further reading material:
What Makes Someone a Person of Color or White in America? by Daniel Rivera, Fusion Magazine
The Term “People of Color” Includes Asian-Americans by Frances Johnson, The Ithacan
The Journey from “Colored” to “Minorities” to “People of Color” by Kee Malesky, NPR
Urgently Visible: Why Black Lives Matter by Jeffrey Renard Allen, The Evergreen Review
Anything by James Baldwin