language

A Message to White Progressives

We call ourselves progressive, but what are we actually doing to progress our society toward a more just and equal future?


Too many children across our country open their history textbooks to a page like the one pictured above. I understand that most parents want to protect their children’s innocence for as long as possible, but when we use language like “brought millions of workers” to teach our kids about this country’s history – about the way white people kidnapped people of color, stole them from their homes and forced them to work in brutal conditions for masters who committed horrible atrocities against them – we are not protecting our children’s innocence. We are not making them safer. We are not helping them. Instead, this language – this lie – is protecting, saving, and helping white supremacy. And in teaching these lies over and over, we have created generations of adults who don’t understand how our history connects to our present, how the fact that our country was established on the idea that white people are inherently better than everyone else means that our black and brown neighbors are still being systematically oppressed and murdered.

I’m not saying we need to share every gruesome detail with our eight-year-old kids. But we do need to tell them the truth in terms they can process. Let’s start with “enslaved people” instead of “workers,” for example, and “stole” instead of “brought.” I understand the desire to present our children with a world full of peace and love, but instead of pretending like that’s true, let’s make it true. Right now, eight-year-old children of color are being forcefully separated from their parents. They are starving in cells where they’re held without reason. They are witnessing the violent shootings of their fathers and uncles, often committed by police officers who are supposed to be protecting them. Compared to this reality, using words like “enslaved people” and “stolen” when talking to young white children is nothing.

The fact that we recently elected such a diverse Congress filled with various races, ethnicities, religions, genders, and sexual orientations is thrilling to me. Representation matters, and voting for these candidates was huge. I do believe our children will benefit positively from growing up with this. But y’all, we have so much more to do. Voting in diverse people was step one. Now we need to demand legislation to end gerrymandering and reform our election processes – two ways in which the U.S. government currently operates against BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color). We need to call the principals at our kids’ schools and review the way slavery and race relations is taught. We need to write emails to textbook publishers and explain why pages like the one above are not acceptable. In an age where so many of us are always on our phones, there’s no excuse for not regularly calling, emailing, or posting on social media about these issues.

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Original t-shirt available now at Black on Black.

We also need to recognize that while these actions are important, altering our system from within isn’t enough. In order to be true allies, we need to put our bodies and our money where our tweets are. We need to show up at Black Lives Matter protests, patron local businesses run by BIPOC, donate to their organizations, read their books, visit their art exhibits, buy their music. Don’t think of these efforts as a one-and-done situation, but rather plan out how you can incorporate this into your regular routine. Maybe Sunday brunch can be at a local, black-owned restaurant like Daleview Biscuits and Beer. Or maybe all your friends can get birthday presents from a company like Black on Black. Or maybe instead of going to the same club every Saturday, you can try a new place featuring DJs of color. Taking action doesn’t have to feel like work.

But you know what does, and probably should, feel like work? The self-analyzation that needs to come along with these external acts. Healing our country requires that we white people look honestly inside ourselves, that we dig deep to figure out what’s buried in there from our own childhoods. A good starting point is to think back to what you were taught about the discovery of our country, our founding fathers, slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, and/or the Great Migration. What did your textbooks say? Hell, I wasn’t taught about Jim Crow or the Great Migration in school, but when I think back to my elementary social studies classes, lessons on slavery were definitely brief and always ended with how Abraham Lincoln, a white man, was a savior. Lessons on our founding fathers similarly focused on their positive traits, how they were strong, smart, and brave. And the pilgrims were to be heralded as the bravest of all because they fled persecution in their homeland, found a new home, fought for it, and flourished.

Now, let’s reframe these lessons using more honest words. For example, the pilgrims didn’t just fight for their new home, they actually committed genocide, or, “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group” – i.e., the Native Americans. And our founding fathers may have been strong, smart, and brave in some ways, but they were also terrorists, as in, they “advocated and practiced the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion.” Diving further into Merriam Webster, terror is defined as, “violent and destructive acts committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands.” What was slavery if not violent and destructive acts – beatings, lynchings, rapes – committed by groups of white people in order to intimidate a population of black people into granting their demands to work the fields, cook dinner, clean the house, have sex, etc?

For many of us, this process feels wrong. It goes against everything we’ve been taught, and it feels blasphemous to think this way about George Washington, our great American hero. But we can’t let our discomfort keep us from doing the work – remember, BIPOC are still being systematically murdered because we white people don’t want to feel uncomfortable about the reality of our country’s history. Instead of running from or explaining away our feelings, we need to be in and examine them. No one is saying you owned slaves or committed genocide. We so easily get defensive and start tossing around blame instead of being in our own emotions. The wrong-doing here isn’t the act of applying the word “terrorist” to our founding fathers. What’s wrong is that we’ve been taught to worship these white men while ignoring the rest of history. We as a country – and many of us as individuals – have never implemented a collective practice to reconcile our past with our present, to decolonize our society, to dismantle white supremacy. In fact, we celebrate it! And because we’ve never truly addressed what our white forefathers did to the African Americans and indigenous people, much less tried to amend it, we are incapable of fully addressing and amending what is currently being done to these populations.

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Eighteen-year-old Nia Wilson died on July 22, 2018 after her throat was slashed in a hate crime.

Sure, we’ve outlawed slavery (except in prisons, which are disproportionately filled with black people working for little to no pay), we’ve granted people of color the right to vote (then created tons of obstructions to purposefully block them), we’ve passed the Civil Rights act (then did not enforce it), but these amendments have been treated as an end rather than a beginning – a measly beginning, at that. And now here we are, feeling defensive and claiming “not me,” or “I’m one of the good ones,” or “It’s not fair to lump all white people into the same category.” Basically refusing to get past our own egos, insisting that our immediate reaction is more important than whatever anyone else may feel, thus blocking ourselves from truly examining how we benefit from and even contribute to white supremacy, no matter how unintentional it may be. And because so many of us white people keep getting stuck here, people of color keep getting murdered. No, I am not the one who shot Maurice E. Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones in a Kroger store while yelling racist slurs, nor am I the one who stabbed Nia Wilson to death in her car. But I am a part of a society that allows this to happen. I am a part of the race that perpetrates it. And as long as so many of us continue to deny our role, nothing will change.

It’s okay to be ignorant. It’s okay to not understand. But it’s not okay to stay like that. Our kids are watching us – all of us, including those who aren’t parents. We have the resources and the power to change things, so please, let’s do the work and make some real progress toward a better future.

Resources for Learning More and Taking Action:


Instagram Accounts to Follow:

There’s an inspiring and educational dialogue happening on Instagram about race relations, art, music, gender identity, American history, and how this all intersects. Do not follow these accounts if you have not already started on your own work. It is not okay to go into their spaces and be disrespectful or to center the discussion around yourself. This is a wonderful opportunity to listen to and learn from others. Don’t waste it.

 

Images:
1. McGraw Hill textbook via Diversity Inc.
2. Black on Black original design.
3. Nia Wilson via CNN.

Writer’s note: A previous version of this post used the word “slaves” instead of “enslaved people.” I have since learned about the phrase “enslaved people” and prefer it to “slaves,” as it demonstrates the idea that slavery was done to a person rather than the idea that a person’s identify was being a slave. However, others feel that “enslaved people” is too polished, and that it glosses over the dehumanizing experience of slavery. Yet another testament to the importance of language.

How We Tell (and Edit) Our Stories

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the micro memoir. I’m a wordy writer (and person in general), and I typically fall victim to over-explaining my ideas in an effort to be extra sure that what I’m trying to say is understood. This often results in clunky sentences and unnecessary repetition, not to mention how time-consuming it is. When I edit both my fiction and nonfiction, I try hard to channel my inner Hemingway and delete, delete, delete. Focus on the power of what is left unsaid. Except I’m bad at leaving things unsaid.

I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about the choices we make when it comes to the mood and tone of our stories, about the language we use silently in our minds versus the language we share with our mouths and our fingers. So much of how we see the world, our place in it, ourselves in general, is our own choice, and this is so deeply affected by the way we frame our own stories. Yet how much of this framing really is our choice? How much of our personal narrative comes from our parents their parents, and their parents? How much comes from early childhood memories we don’t remember but feel like we remember because our family has remembered them for us? From our genetic makeup, from the makeup of our neighborhoods, from the makeup we put on before we go out into the world?

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Last year, Lew loved the ocean water. He would run into it and shout with glee, jump, splash, run away, run back. This summer he is two-years-old and has developed the capacity to fear. Now when he goes close to the water, he freezes and screams, partly playful, mostly afraid. He loves it when I carry him in, he’ll beg me to go deep enough that the waves splash against his delicious round belly, yet he clings to me so tightly that I can let go of him and he doesn’t even slip down my torso. The other day, as he and I were digging holes in the sand and filling them up again, my friend asked me if Lew liked the water and I said, “Oh he loves it but he’s also scared of it. It’s a new development this year. I hope it doesn’t last long.” Later that afternoon, Lew and I walked to the shore hand-in-hand and then right when we approached the ocean’s edge, he stopped, scrunched his nose and eyes together, reached his arms to me and cried, “Mommy, up, up, I scared of ocean water!” He had never used the word scared before.

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In thinking about my story, Lew’s story, the story of my family, and the tiny pieces that come together to make up these stories, I am deeply grateful for all the things I get to experience. Yet at the same time, I am deeply exhausted. An editor might say that my story is going in too many directions.

Leave more unsaid.

I’m reminded of Rivka Galchen’s book Little Labors, a beautiful, unique collection of short essays about new motherhood. I feel like these snippets, these micro memoirs, capture the reality of our existence so well. In the end, isn’t life really just little pieces of memory put together and called a whole?

The Moral Obligation of White People

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.


“Fill in the Blanks” by Shareheads / Creative Commons

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.

“Shame, Street Art by Clive Punk, Windsor” by Urban Pixel / Creative Commons

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.

“Speak Up” by Sara Deming / Creative Commons

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 to tackling my white privilege. 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.

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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