“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” -Lilla Watson
As a white woman, the time I have spent reading Black authors, including Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Amina Wadud, James Cone, Manning Marable, and others, has been a crucial part of my process reaching the point where I can say with full confidence I am a committed anti-racist, and have, inshallah, good politics around racial issues. Reading Black authors, in my opinion, is one of the very best ways for white people to work on their own racism, and deprogram themselves from white supremacy in society, and all the messages that we are inundated with from birth all the way through life.
The label “racist” is very vague, and until people define it, it has almost no meaning. Firstly, it needs to be said that racism in the U.S. is a very place-specific thing, and different from racism in other places in the world, and I recognize this fact. In the U.S., the label “racist” can include all white people if you mean people who benefit from the historical oppression of people of color, or it can mean merely people who espouse hatred for people of color explicitly. What is the primary reason people hate “racism”? For me, my hatred of racism stems from the fact that actual individuals who are melanated suffer concrete pain due to people’s ignorance.
Confronting My Own Racism
In light of our racist president with his KKK slogan “America First,” I want to comment on white racism. I was raised in an upper middle class white home, and it came as a shock to me at the radical age of 19 that I had blindly ingested racism for years. It had infected my mind, although it had not poisoned my soul.
This shocking realization was something I expressed by saying to likewise ignorant young people, “God help me, I’ve got serious work to do, I’m racist.” Unfortunately, the young people I spoke to about my consciousness were not aware that the white women who confront their racism with horror and disgust are part of the solution. White people are never supposed to admit they’re racist. Often, it’s a matter of cowardice, as racism is often a fear-based problem (Toni Morrison wrote on white cowardice in an article in the New Yorker).
What had triggered this realization was my initial disagreement with the concept of the Third World People’s Week, a student orientation only for students of color. I thought, in my ignorance, and before a wake-up call coming from empowered Black women at an Ivy League College, that we should all be together. My mind, at the time, insisted that of course people separating off to be in solidarity would only lead to separation, and division. Right? Surely, we needed to be together from the start?
My family, and many in my community, believe that people shouldn’t be discriminated against or judged by anything but their actions and their character. But this attitude of “colorblindness” misses a crucial piece of the puzzle for how we can correct our collective history of oppression of people of color.
Just a few days ago, I was talking with my parents and saying that my bi-racial son was joining a Black students club where he would be mentored by other Black students. They responded with concern by saying that all people should only be judged by their character and that emphasizing race was divisive, and not in his best interest. What if he felt like a victim and used that to opt out of working hard and being a good person? I politely agreed that people should be judged by their character, even though I totally disagreed with their point about focusing on race.
It led me to realize the roots of this racist attitude that I had held. My family, and many in my community, believe that people shouldn’t be discriminated against or judged by anything but their actions and their character. But this attitude of “colorblindness” misses a crucial piece of the puzzle for how we can correct our collective history of oppression of people of color. And how do we even do this on a personal level?
I had the mentality, learned directly from my parents, clearly, that leads people to say that “All Lives Matter.” With work, I reached a different consciousness about race, understanding why saying #BlackLivesMatter is not a threat to white people, and should not be taken as a threat to white people. There’s that saying that you don’t have to be of color to be horrified by racism, you don’t have to be queer to be horrified by homophobia, and you don’t have to be trans to be horrified by gender-based violence.
All lives are not being treated equally by all people, and we as white people have to add our voices in support of people of color who want the same safety that white people have as a result of our skin color.
White people of good conscience need to embrace movements like #BlackLivesMatter because we care about our Black brothers and sisters, men, women, and children being targeted by racially motivated violence. All lives are not being treated equally by all people, and we as white people have to add our voices in support of people of color who want the same safety that white people have as a result of our skin color.
So I “got it” quickly for a variety of reasons at some point. I went from very asleep to awake rapidly when I realized how I had internalized racism without even meaning to, just by virtue of being brainwashed by society. Years of work later, reading, classes, thought, prayer, and more work, I am a social worker working with HIV+ homeless youth. I work with a woman who is a true queen. She has been a foster mother, and a worker with people for many years, a grandmother, and a radical. She is one of those powerful women I have spent years loving and respecting. I totally respect her. I feel blessed to work with her. And sometimes, we’re in conflict, but I just don’t stress about it.
Let’s Talk About White Shame
I know when I walk in a room, often women of color look at me and see my white skin and inwardly flinch with the trauma of all the white women who have waltzed into their place in life, and don’t have the humility to have some shame about how privilege has played a role in their reaching the station they occupy, and who proceed with entitlement and disrespect to expect so-called “equal treatment” which often translates as more respect than people really deserve.
I’m not talking about how white women should feel guilty. If we work, try to labor and leverage our privilege responsibly, I don’t think we need to feel guilt. I feel I leverage my privilege in multiple ways; I am a Muslim woman who wears hijab, so I don’t have all the trappings of white privilege. But there is a concept that I have been working with for years that I call “white shame” that white women need to practice (I understand this is an unpopular stance, and that generally white guilt and white shame are considered unproductive with the exception of a few minority voices such as my own).
I truly believe white women such as myself need to be aware of the disrespect people our color throw off on an ongoing basis, even in our less aware moments…So it’s not about guilt, but taking a step down, taking a stance of humility and awareness about other people’s wounded-ness.
There’s that old saying: guilt is about individual guilt, shame is about community guilt. White shame is about recognizing our collective guilt, and being sensitive to the impact we have had as white people on people of color and the planet. I did not understand this at 19, and I understand a lot of white people, maybe most, still don’t. But I truly believe white women such as myself need to be aware of the disrespect people our color throw off on an ongoing basis, even in our less aware moments. So it’s not about guilt, but taking a step down, taking a stance of humility and awareness about other people’s wounded-ness. We can’t just blindly expect that since I personally am okay, have deconstructed and confronted my racism, therefore everyone should no longer react to me with dislike. It isn’t always readily apparent that I’m an ally.
Leveraging My Privilege
To make sure that I really leverage my privilege the right way, I believe whole-heartedly that we have to practice the principles of being good allies. We all know white girl privilege. The upper ranks of organizations filled with white women speak to it. The whiteness of women CEO’s speaks to it. A white woman driver expecting other people to yield; a white woman going first through the open door. And it translates to us being able to sometimes be more heard, be louder, and not as readily be considered that “angry,” “extra,” or “too much,” as Black women are so often labeled.
So if we white women can be more heard sometimes, let’s use it to elevate and lift up our sisters because that is their Black Queen Privilege. They have a right to our privileged voices and platforms.
Not that this has stopped or slowed down Black women from speaking out, speaking truth to power, and demanding to be seen, heard and respected. It hasn’t and never will. So if we white women can be more heard sometimes, let’s use it to elevate and amplify the voices of Black women, rather than trying to speak for them on their behalf.
Ideally, Black people’s suffering and struggle should be addressed by interventions like a United States Bureau of Reparations which could begin to really address crimes against Black people and the genocides carries about against them. This would obviously be more meaningful and appropriate than isolated white women talking about how we can solve a problem that is maintained and sustained by forces out of the control of people of good conscience.
Until then, there are still white people who think I am too deferential. They think I’m subservient; they think I’m a reverse racist. (Reverse racism does not exist, by the way.) I don’t care. Goddess willing, they wake up some day. Until they do, I’ll just go on celebrating Black women at work, in my life, in my interactions with the world. As the Queen of Soul said, just a little respect.