Saturday, December 20, 2014

Can I Talk About Race Without 'Whitesplaining'?

I received an invitation to speak at a diversity conference as a result of this blog. In particular, the organizer read some of my blog posts about white privilege (like "The Silences I Don't Hear" and "I am Not Trayvon Martin's Mother," both of which were personal reflections on my position as a white woman raising a child of color.) I accepted the invitation and am looking forward to putting together a presentation that weaves together some personal narrative with some current events, including how my St. Louis neighborhood reacted to some of the Ferguson protests as a way to talk about white privilege. 

I don't consider myself a race "expert," and I am certainly not trying to make a career out of talking about race and racism. However, race and racism do bleed into my profession as a community college writing instructor, which I've also reflected on many times. I am the mother of a biracial child, the wife of a black husband, and the teacher of many students who are racial minorities. If I didn't spend some time thinking about race and racism on a regular basis, I would be shortchanging people I love and to whom I have responsibilities to uphold.

But those responsibilities involve changes in myself, not in them. I'm reflecting on race and racism not because I need to understand them, but because their presence in my life makes it impossible for me to ignore how much I need to understand myself and my place in a larger cultural narrative.

I wish I could say that I know I would do this level of reflection and work toward dismantling racism in my own cultural training if I didn't know these people, but part of me fears that I wouldn't (something I reflected on in this post). It's not that I only think racism matters if it is directed at someone you personally know and love, it's simply (or maybe not simply at all) that privilege's most insidious factor (in my opinion) is the way it shields itself from view. There was a time in my life when I didn't know I had white privilege, and I don't think that it's any coincidence that that time is exactly aligned with a time when I didn't regularly speak to any non-white people.

It was with these reflections and that invitation to speak in my mind that I read this really great article from Brit Bennett: "I Don't Know What to Do With Good White People."

In it, Bennett weaves together personal experience, historical context, and critical analysis to explain, in part, her frustration with white people who claim to be allies constantly wanting praise for their contribution to the cause of anti-racism:
Over the past two weeks, I've seen good white people congratulate themselves for deleting racist friends or debating family members or performing small acts of kindness to Black people. Sometimes I think I'd prefer racist trolling to this grade of self-aggrandizement. A racist troll is easy to dismiss. He does not think decency is enough. Sometimes I think good white people expect to be rewarded for their decency. We are not like those other white people. See how enlightened and aware we are? See how we are good? 
Over the past two weeks, I have fluctuated between anger and grief. I feel surrounded by Black death. What a privilege, to concern yourself with seeming good while the rest of us want to seem worthy of life.
I hope that I have not been one of these "good" white people, but I suspect that I have. Maybe I'm being one right now, by writing this. Maybe I'll be one by speaking at a conference on diversity. I hope not, but I certainly know that I haven't always gotten it right when it comes to thinking and talking about race and racism. I've made mistakes. I've ignored voices I should have heard, and I've talked when I should have been listening.

I've been thinking a lot about how to get it right, how to do better, and there has been a lot going on to give me reason to pause and reflect.

There have also been two high-profile incidents of people seeking "cookies" for doing anti-racist work in my recent social media feeds.

The viral picture of a young black boy hugging a cop during the recent protests has been criticized for being a staged event orchestrated by the child's white mothers.

Even more recently, a picture and story from Leigh Anne Tuohy (the real-life mother from the film The Blind Side) made the rounds after she confronted two black boys in her restaurant who were talking in a booth to prove to her friend they weren't up to no good. As this post from The Belle Jar points out, sharing this picture and story smacks of a kind of entitlement and self-aggrandizement that should be completely antithetical to its stated purpose:
Black people aren’t things. They don’t exist just so that white people can make a point about themselves. These are two real kids who not only had to endure this woman’s microaggressions but have now had their image splashed all over social media – the Facebook picture alone has 150,000 likes and over 12,000 shares. Step away for a hot second from this white woman’s narrative, and think about how those teenagers must feel – having their privacy invaded, having assumptions made about them based on their race, and now having a white woman use their images to get praise for herself.
She updated her post when one of the boys from the picture responded on Instagram to explain that the story went down a little differently from his view, and it was largely awkward and misrepresentative of his situation.

There are many ways that white allyship can go wrong. Here's a post from Resist Racism talking about an incident in 2008 where a Kent State student received notice from the FBI. Her piece on her experiences of being called "a white bitch" and her fight against "reverse racism" had garnered the attention of white supremacists. The need to turn anti-racist work into a discussion of how "all people experience racism" is a problem:
This is just one of the arenas in which white people demonstrate their inability to relinquish their dominant position. So even when they want to do anti-racist work, they replicate racist behavior.
Here's another post from Spectra Speaks that was really eye-opening and made me reflect on how I present my white ally status:
I learned very quickly that being a “white ally” had nothing to do with how I, as a woman of color, needed them to show support when it mattered. Shoot, it was in a conference room of “white allies” that I found myself on the verge of tears (of anger and frustration), my voice shaking as I tried to explain to a privileged white gay dude that doing community outreach to people of color for a program that claimed to be advocating for diversity wasn’t a “distraction.” The “white allies” in the room sat back and watched the carnage as I pushed, and I fought, and I fell back, defeated. Then the “white allies” came to me after the meeting was over and denounced their brethren — “privileged white guy, he needs to do a lot of work on himself.” Apparently, being a white ally meant reminding women of color that they weren’t “those kinds” of white people, that they had our backs, just only ever in private, conveniently away from any of the actual emotional work involved in standing up to racism.
More recently, Spectra Speaks published another great post along the same lines. In this article, there's a call for white allies to stop unfriending other white people over their racist Facebook posts specifically because the emotional work of engaging them needs to be done and is an excellent place for white allies to step in:
I need you to step up in a major way, and leverage the connections you DO have to address ignorance with conversation and interrogate white privilege with compassion. Because I will not do this. I cannot do this.

And with that, I get to the heart of the two things that have really been twisting and turning for me in this conversation: the first post's point about not seeking cookies for reaching a very low bar of decent human action and the demand that white allies take on their fair share of emotional work when it comes to battling racism.

The thing that's really important to me is that when I talk about white privilege, I'm talking to other white people. That doesn't mean that people of color "shouldn't" read what I write if they want to (and tell me when I'm getting it wrong), but they are not the audience I have in mind when I speak on this topic because I don't have anything to teach a person of color about racism. I'm the one learning in that equation.

Since so many of these articles and stories have revolved around social media, I think it's important to remember that many white people have no friends of color in their social circles at all. A recent article in The Atlantic revealed that three-fourths of white social media circles contain no racial diversity:
In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent).
Now, my social media feeds do contain diversity in many ways. I am lucky enough to know people who come at the world from a variety of perspectives, and it's one of the reasons I love social media. While I do have friends representing multiple races in my feed, it is still mostly white. It's not by design, but a good chunk of my Facebook friends are high school acquaintances from my nearly all-white hometown. Another good chunk is from my graduate school experience, which is also overwhelmingly white.

What this means is that when I share a link on Facebook, I'm mostly talking to white people. When I hit publish on this blog post and then link it to Facebook, it will mostly be white people who see it. I think that when I go to this conference and speak on white privilege, it will mostly be white people in the audience.

And that's important to me because I am not an expert on race and racism. I do not have personal experiences that let me know what it is like to be a racial minority and experience systemic racism. I do not have the authority to be an expert on this topic, and I don't want to try to claim it.

What I do have a lot of first-hand experience with is getting my own bubble of white privilege burst. I went from living in a rural town without any racial diversity to living in a very racially diverse urban environment. I went from being one of those people (like many of my friends on Facebook) who would hear about the Eric Garner or Mike Brown or Trayvon Martin case and think "surely he did something to provoke this; no one just kills someone without reason" to understanding how narrowly that view was looking at the issue and how much that line of thinking was contributing to the problem.

I know that I don't have all the answers, but I do hope that I'm asking some of the right questions. I also hope that when I go to give this talk, I do the part of the work that I need to do and detract from none of the work that I can't do.

I'd like to end with these posts I've been reading lately on how to be a better ally:

"So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All 'Allies' Need to Know"

"12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson"

"This is a Really Helpful List on How Not to Be a Good Ally"

Photos: Steven Shorrock, Justin Lynham

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