The other day, a white friend reached out asking if I had ideas around how to acknowledge as a presenter that a particular course’s content might be especially loaded for Black folks in the room. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert in the topic, but I have been experimenting over the years with different ways to acknowledge my whiteness and position of power as a presenter, facilitator, or speaker. Some of the things I normally do include:
- Regardless of course content, mention that the course is taking place on occupied Native land, acknowledge my privilege as a white presenter, and call attention to the number of white people in the room if it seems to be a majority white space. This is mostly for the white people in the room, to draw their attention to whiteness since whiteness is often invisible or the assumed default. I also hope to signal to POC that I’m aware of these things, though I know that doesn’t make me a “safe” presenter.
- Acknowledge where a particular topic may have loaded or just different meanings depending on cultural context and give examples. I hope that doing this again is a flag both for white folks and for POC, and makes space for bringing up cultural specificity where participants feel comfortable doing so.
- Explicitly say that as a white person, I can’t comment on some things, beyond offering perspectives I’ve read or heard from POC, because I don’t have that experience. Acknowledge that the course content is less rich because of this. I’m just trying to offer some honesty here, and avoid falling into the “well X culture practices X way…” trap.
Recently, I wrote up a travel bucket list, and in the list of places I want to go, found my own racism staring me directly in the face.
But before I get to the contents of list, first some context. When I started traveling abroad, I set a personal policy that I would not go anywhere where I couldn’t at least speak enough of the language to have a logistical conversation about travel-relevant topics. I think that policy initially came from a good place–I was frustrated with the xenophobia I saw in American travelers who complained about how terrible Paris is because the French are super rude, but didn’t bother to learn a word of the French language. “Everybody speaks English!” always struck me as deeply wrong, and I was struggling a lot as a teenager with the meaning of American empire and my complicity in it.
In high school, I was drawn to the study of French because it had always seemed like a rather sophisticated, romantic language, and I already had some exposure to it. I picked German pretty much out of a hat because I needed another elective and it worked for my schedule. So I’m not going to blame myself too hard for starting with European languages, but I do think it had a role in how Eurocentric my perspective skewed over time.
In this post, I’m addressing my peers: white folks who are marginalized along some axis other than race. Poor and working class white folks, queer and trans white folks, white folks with disabilities, etc.—we need to be honest about whether we’re leaning into the identities under which we’re oppressed, at the expense of doing honest work around our whiteness, racism, and anti-Blackness.
I don’t think it’s an uncommon experience to focus on how we’re oppressed and marginalized, nor is it blameworthy on its own. Of course we notice those identities more—that’s what white privilege is. It makes whiteness the invisible norm, whereas our other identities are what make us targets of slurs, violence, economic disparity, and other injustices. But at some point in our journeys, once we get through our excitement of consuming all the literature about queerness/class/disability/etc. and sharing in righteous anger with our comrades (or ideally, even before then), we need to also address the fact that we are white and therefore in a position of extreme privilege. We need to read what people of color have to say, to listen to what people of color have to say in our communities and workplaces. We need to sit with the discomfort of our racism and fucking do something about it.
If your reaction to reading the words of people of color on racism (and particularly black people, as anti-Blackness is its own thing in this culture), is guilt and a desire to run back to the safe enclave of writing about your own people, good. Keep reading.
In recent years, I’ve seen a lot of posts and Twitter commentary on how insidious it is when folks claim that the “A” in LGBTQIA (an alphabet soup I’m not too fond of in the first place) stands for “ally.” All these commenters make good points about why allies shouldn’t get a cookie or claim allyship as an identity, as well as about asexual erasure. I too find it frustrating how corporate white gay America, institutionalized in various forms such as the high school gay student organization, equates being an ally with actually being a GSM, often defining “ally” only as someone who vaguely supports “gay rights” and shows up at queer events from time to time. But I’m even more frustrated when I see some of the same white queer folks who make these points about how ally is not an identity that gains you membership into the queer club try to simultaneously position themselves as allies in another space—the space of anti-racist organizing and conversation.
Yes, there is a role for white folks in anti-racist work. But we don’t belong front and center. We don’t get to name ourselves “allies,” or claim membership to a club simply because we manage to have a bit more humanity than our white siblings in naming and shaming racism. Simply by virtue of being white, we are part of a brutal genocidal culture, and no person of color should have to give a reason for wanting space away from us, or for wanting us to step back in anti-racist movements.
Listen up, white feminists.
We have a problem. I’m including myself because none of us are immune from this problem. We all fuck up. And you can say “fucking up is natural,” and that’s true, but it’s time for us to start identifying our fuck ups, and not just learning from them, but acknowledging the hurt they cause other people.
We need to acknowledge that we cannot know what it’s like to be an oppressed racial minority. Cannot. The end. Period. We don’t know because we’re queer, because we’re disabled, because we’re Jewish, because we were the nerdy kid in school. These things may have hurt us severely, but we need to stop playing Oppression Olympics and acknowledge that when we’re talking about race we Do. Not. Know. No more metaphors.
I’ve been struggling for over a month to write this review, not because I didn’t like the book–it’s an amazing anthology, in fact, and I think it should be a mandatory part of the feminist/activist canon–but because as an activist and a writer, my mode is always “do, do, do.” “Here’s how to make change.” “Here are five things you can do to improve your world.” “This is my experience and why it’s relevant to you.” This review isn’t going to be like that.
Feminism for Real is a challenge to white feminist academics and activists to stop doing. It’s hard for a lot of us to listen actively and compassionately. It’s hard to say “I am wrong, my ancestors were wrong, and I cannot fix it.” I’ve known this for a while, but it’s such a depressing thought, such a disempowering thought, that it’s hard to know what to do with it. And maybe that’s the point.
This is not our battle. What white feminists can do is show some respect, be conscious of history, make space for indigenous feminists and other people of color to do good work, and make an effort in our own communities to stop harming others. We need to recognize how colonialism and imperialism continue to impact huge segments of our societies, and we need to constantly fight against these forces. It isn’t our job to trumpet indigenous feminism, tell everyone about how the cool ideas native people have about women and other genders, or talk about how down we are with indigenous causes. Indigenous people are doing that just fine on their own. It is our job to address the pervasive, continuous, active harm we are perpetrating.
There are a thousand ways to do this. Attack bad government policy, attack the media, attack educators who wouldn’t know education if it bit them in the face. Support indigenous communities by giving indigenous people room to work–by speaking out against policies that take away land, culture, and freedom; by fighting rape; by challenging patriarchy.
As Robyn Maynard explains in her piece, “Fuck the Glass Ceiling!” it is important to recognize that the problem is not just marginalization but exploitation. The harms discussed in this book are not historical, rather we continue to actively perpetrate them. This is a structural problem for which we need to take collective responsibility. Maynard explains:
Justice means–justice has to mean–an end to people deliberately destroying generations of cultures, of women, of lives, and of dignity, for personal political and economic gain.
We can do this, but only by taking responsibility and recognizing where law and policy actively harm rather than help. I would encourage other white feminists and academics to join me in this self-critique, and in the challenge to listen without appropriating. Feminism for Real provides a collection of essays, poetry, and interviews that are a great first step to listening. You can find others on the web at Racialicious, SisterSong, INCITE!, and People of Color Organize, to name a few.
You can purchase your own copy of Feminism for Real from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The centre provided me with a copy of this book, and I was not otherwise compensated for this review.
Today I read Miriam Zoila Pérez’s essay, “When Sexual Autonomy Isn’t Enough: Sexual Violence Against Immigrant Women in the United States” for day eleven of the Blogging “Yes” project. You may know Miriam from Feministing, or from her own blog, Radical Doula. She’s one of my favorite bloggers out there, and in this essay she sheds light on an important issue, namely sexual violence faced by immigrant women. I also want to recommend a related blog post on Feministe written by brownfemipower, Confronting Citizenship in Sexual Assault.
I would by no stretch of the imagination consider myself a racist, but like anyone I have internal prejudices, whether a product of socialization, education, experience, or whatever else. When I was a teenager, I would say that “no! I would never have a racist thought!” and then feel terribly guilty when I had one. I do from time to time have such a thought now, and feel guilty, but I’m trying to figure out more productive ways to address and confront my own racist thoughts so that I can be more effective at fighting against racism externally, whether in the gay community or elsewhere.
I’d like to note, incidentally, that any racism on my part has nothing at all to do with my parents. They raised me to be colorblind, and to respect everyone. As I got older, I learned to go beyond colorblindness, and to embrace and respect and learn from everyone’s backgrounds, whether race, nationality, ethnicity, hometown, etc etc. I’m sure I got some racist messages from school and the media, but for the most part it’s a couple of unfortunate experiences that I tried hard to block out, and wonder now if I should in some way confront instead.
When I was a kid, I went to a school in a neighborhood where I was in the minority, and I was a perfectly happy camper. Most of my friends were black or Latina, and I didn’t really understand race in elementary school. I told my mom that one of my friends was black, and the other was “brown,” because I was just analyzing how their skin tone physically looked to me. My best friend in the neighborhood was also black. Unfortunately, after that experience, I went to two schools that were probably 97% white. One was a magnet school, and the other was a charter high school for academically gifted kids.
One of the negative experiences I had was when I was eleven, and a fourteen-year-old boy upstairs who was black became my friend and then wanted to be my girlfriend. I should point out that I said yes, so he wasn’t doing anything wrong, really. Nothing was his fault, personally. I just didn’t know how to say “no.” So we kissed a couple of times, and I felt uncomfortable, and then when we were with another friend of his (that friend was white, incidentally), he touched my breast while the other friend smirked and the guy’s six-year-old brother looked rather embarrassed. After that, I was extremely freaked out, and started having nightmares about rape. Again, no fault of that individual whatsoever, I just didn’t know what I was doing and unfortunately it triggered a negative association. I shoved the memory down into the recesses of my brain, but as a teenager I ended up having a generalized fear of black men.
The second incident involved a coworker, also a black man, who flirted a lot, kept trying to get rides with me, would occasionally attempt a grope, and also happened to be a cocaine dealer. Now he did do something wrong. He shouldn’t have been trying to touch me. But that said, I do think it fed into my stereotype. I have a bad habit, when I pass someone who has a certain look – usually but not always black or Latino, wearing certain clothes, smirking in a certain way – to be frightened. I smile, but I walk a little more quickly. I should note that I’ve had several great black male friends since that time, and one adult black male role model when I was an undergrad, and so it’s not so much that I’m afraid of black men. It’s just a certain “type” that gives me the heebie-jeebies, and I want to try to get that out of my head.
So I’m wondering – any suggestions? Anyone else been able to successfully combat this sort of internal racism, or do any people of color have any thoughts? I’m starting to write and talk more about how lesbians of color have been marginalized in the gay community, but I feel that it’s unfair to accuse others of racism when I haven’t dealt with this problem in my own head.
Also, on a completely unrelated note, another slam poem, this one much more safe for work, and more on the humorous side.