white privilege

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

“Too Black, Too Strong…”

Jeffery Renard Allen’sjeffrenardallen most recent essay is stunning. Urgently Visible: Why Black Lives Matter is a powerful and important must-read that masterfully combines thoughtful commentary on race, politics, and economics with well-researched, academic analysis and haunting personal narrative. It’s long yet I found myself rereading sections, my brain and heart rearranging themselves with each pass (yes, this essay is simultaneously cerebral and guttural), only to return days later to read the entire piece once more, eager to gleam new insights and understandings from Allen’s poetic, painfully honest prose. Original artwork by Anthony Young using bleach and gunpowder only enhances the message, the multiple messages, Allen is giving us. It’s a valuable read for everyone, but I urge all progressive white folk out there to read it, really truly deeply read it, and learn.

“I’m White. My 4-Year-Old Son’s Black. How Do We Talk About ‘Bad Guys’?” by Kera Bolonik

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This 1973 photo of five children playing in a Detroit suburb has gone viral on the Internet. The children were Rhonda Shelly, 3 (from left), Kathy Macool, 7, Lisa Shelly, 5, Chris Macool, 9, and Robert Shelly, 6.

Kera Bolonik recently wrote a beautiful, thoughtful piece for The Cut on when and how parents should address racism with their children, and how her particular circumstances as a white, queer woman raising an adopted, black son affect these conversations. We as parents of young children have a deep responsibility to our future society to raise open-minded, empathic, not-racist adults, and we as white people really bear the brunt of this responsibility, but what is the best way to do it? I understand not wanting to shatter a child’s innocence too soon, and part of me wants to wait until questions naturally arise, but then I think of that poor little girl who watched Philando Castile’s murder, and of all the other kids who suffer as a result of racism and race-based violence in this country, and I suspect that this concept of not shattering their innocence is another aspect of white privilege.

I also wonder about my son’s abilities based on his developmental level. If he grows up hearing my husband and I talking about race-related issues, if we address things head on with him even if it seems too early, will that build a more solid foundation for him and make him less confused, or will it be too difficult and even more confusing? I know that so much of it depends on the individual child, but it’s hard to figure out that line. I want Lew to be the best Lew he can possibly be, and I want him to have the freedom to explore what that means to him, but at the same time, I want to ensure that he’s loving, thoughtful, compassionate, and not racist.

Perhaps I’m being hasty. He is only 18 months old. And as it is completely ingrained in every aspect of our culture, I’m sure there will be a million natural opportunities to discuss racism, from the toys he will play with to the characters in the movies he will watch to the ads in the subway he will walk by every day. Maybe instead of considering how to handle these conversations, I should for now just sit and luxuriate in the easy ones we currently have about ball balls, dog dogs, nanas (bananas), and agua (meaning water, milk, or any liquid, really). But either way, these are important things to think about and discuss with other parents; the more we communicate with one another, the stronger we (and our children) will be.

We Need More People Like D. Watkins

d watkinsIf you don’t know who D. Watkins is, get to know him. He’s smart, brave, strong, funny, and dedicated to teaching kids and the country at large about the realities of growing up black on the streets of Baltimore. This drug dealer turned teacher and writer tackles serious issues head-on in a completely relatable way, even if you (like me) grew up in a very different place. But don’t worry, he’s not all drugs and death; you’ll definitely laugh a little, too. Read him, listen to him, be grateful for people like him.

Check out his newest memoir, The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir, and his 2015 release, The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America.

Photo taken from NBC News.

“I’m Not Done Confronting My Own Bullshit on Race”

It’s encouraging to receive comments like this one from fellow writerparent Cari Jackson. People care. It might not feel like it, but they really do. If we keep speaking out, we can make a difference.

This is how Cari responded to questions about if we writers have a duty to start conversations about our country’s current crisis and how we can talk to our kids about racism.

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The Double Duty of Writing and Parenting

Art shouldn’t only be about self expression. Yes, that’s an important component, but I believe it is our duty as artists to also reflect on society at large, to spark conversations about important issues, and to challenge peoples’ way of thinking. As the famous Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei (pictured below) said, “I don’t think art is elite or mysterious. I don’t think anybody can separate art from politics. The intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention.” Most American artists I know don’t view their art as inherently political, but I agree with Ai Wei Wei that the act of separating art from politics is still a political act whether we are aware of it or not. Excluding politics from your creative work (or your Facebook page or Twitter feed) is a choice, and the act of making this choice sends a message. And, in my opinion, it’s a message that needs to be examined. I feel that we artists need to embrace our role as agents of change, as leaders, as cultural affecters, that we need to send a thought-provoking message to our audiences instead of one of apathy or avoidance. Artists have a special kind of power, and I think it’s our job to use it.

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As writers, it’s even more important that we embrace this role because our art is based upon language, something that all people use every day to communicate. We’ve studied, practiced, and honed this language, and no matter our genre, we are better at communicating than a typical person is. We must use our expertise and skill to begin conversations, encourage deep thinking, and urge others to talk about important issues. I’m not saying that every single piece we write needs to connect to a news article or shooting or Congressional bill, just that we need to be aware of the gift we have and use it to lead and guide others through important conversations. Or, at a minimum, we need to include people of color in our fiction, reference current affairs in our poems, and speak honestly about our own thoughts and feelings in our essays. Communication is an important element in fixing and healing our country. We writers have above average communication skills. Therefore we have an obligation.

Writers might have the obligation to inspire deep thought and motivate change, but one can always turn his computer off or shut her notebook. Parents have the obligation of raising a healthy, decent human, and they never get a freaking break from it. When you try to fulfill both obligations, you’ll question your sanity. But seriously, how do you talk to kids about race in a way that makes sense to them while also ensuring that they’re eating well and finishing their homework and going to bed on time? And then, after all of this, how the hell are you supposed to find energy to write? There are so many intricate layers and confusing double standards when it comes to race relations in our country. The day-to-day of parenting is already so grueling. It’s tempting to “preserve their innocence” and preserve our own sanity. But we must talk. Kids understand more than we realize. We need to have these conversations so that we can help them understand even more and encourage them to build a better future, but also so that we adults can hear what they have to say. Part of me thinks that adults are the reason this all got so shitty in the first place; sometimes I think we need to vote some kids into Congress.

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Hooray for peace and equality!

When it comes to conversing, my job as a parent isn’t that difficult yet. My son is only 15-months-old, so we’re obviously not having real discussions about anything, much less the layers of race relations. But I do talk to him in the inane way one talks to a toddler about respect, equality, the importance of peace and nonviolence and being kind and compassionate. I’m not sure how I’ll handle these conversations when he’s older and able to see that our police force and government don’t tend to espouse these same ideas, but I hope that growing more aware will not completely shrink his beautifully wide open heart.

I think a lot about white privilege when I think about these future conversations with my son. I won’t be answering his questions about why strangers hate him because of his skin tone. I won’t have to teach him how to behave around a cop so that he *maybe* won’t get shot. The fear black mothers live with every day is unfathomable to me. No one should have to hold that much fear in her heart. How do I make my son understand this?

In her essay, “The Conversation We Must Have with Our White Children,” Courtney E. Martin goes into more detail about this topic, citing specific examples of the advice parents give to their children of color and explaining why it’s important that our white children understand their black peers’ reality. But is this enough? Is it enough to teach our white kids to be aware of white privilege, or are we as writerparents supposed to instill a sense of activism in our children? Perhaps having these difficult conversations is a form of activism in itself. But is that enough? What will ever be enough?

Maybe being a writerparent actually makes it easier. Maybe embracing this double duty gives us a deeper understanding or insight. Maybe our honed communication skills will make these conversations smoother. Or maybe we can just email our kids our blog posts and then read their comments. Whatever method we choose, we really do have a double duty. Some days will feel like a success, other days a failure, but the true success is in trying.

I’m Listening. Are You?

Comments on the essay I posted yesterday, “White People: It’s Time to Change,” have been pouring in on Facebook, and let me tell you, the stories are heartbreaking and enraging. We need to read these stories, truly hear these stories, and not dismiss them as one person’s experience but understand that this happens to ALL people of color, that in the United States of America, aka “the land of the free,” this is what it’s like to be black, and that race-based police brutality often extends to Latinos, Middle Easterners, and anyone who is simply darker than “white.”

Do you, white friends, worry that whenever your family members leave the house, chances are great that they won’t come back because a police officer killed them?

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This mother’s comments sparked a string of replies about how black parents and teachers “coach” their children in how to behave around cops yet still worry for their lives:

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Do you, white mom and dad, tell your young son that on his way to school, he needs to fear for his life? Do you, white people, consider that the way you interact with cops would end in gunfire if you were black?

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“Death defying.” This man is not being dramatic. These people are not lying. This is their daily reality because of the color of their skin.

Still not convinced? Here’s a firsthand account from a Latino man about his encounter with violent cops and how deeply it hurt him:

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People of color have “been conditioned” to believe that when a cop kills their children or turns their safety into a joke, it is NORMAL. This is unacceptable. Our police officers are supposed to protect us, to make our neighborhoods safer, and instead they are killing our people, our fellow American citizens, and we white folk are sitting comfortably in our safe homes pretending like white privilege doesn’t exist. It’s time to get real. It will and it should feel uncomfortable to confront this, but we HAVE to. Recognize your own prejudices. Become aware of your racist thoughts and behaviors and change them. Smile at people of color. Ask for their names. Listen to their stories. Tell them you are sorry on behalf of this country and give them your love and support. Call your mayor’s office and demand police reform. Do whatever you can because it is not okay to idly sit by and let this happen. It is time to act now.