Several years ago, I shared in this space how terribly difficult it is for me to have honest and real friendships with the vast majority of white women that I know; the only exception being white women who hail from working class backgrounds similar to my own where we can meet at the intersection of class. To admit such a thing is not comfortable but as my own knowledge of systemic and structural racism grows from both a personal and professional perspective, I now understand the awkward dance that exists between myself and most white women. It is the same awkward dance that exists between many white and Black woman in a nation founded on the backs of enslaved Africans.
Despite the lies that we tells ourselves and the truths that we are not comfortable uttering and the false belief that some of us cling to that race is irrelevant, the fact is that even in 2014, race matters. It matters because ours is a culture very much rooted in white supremacy and whiteness is the default setting for acceptability in the eyes of many. White supremacy is not just people in hoods burning crosses on the lawns of non-white people, but it’s also a system that privileges whiteness and white ways of being over all others regardless of the presence or absence of racial hatred. In other words whether or not you like or dislike non-white people, ours is a culture that values whiteness. Whiteness and white ways of being set the tone for how our culture operates. The inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that uncomfortable truth creates a myriad of problems for all of us. We cannot and will not move forward and dismantle systems of unfairness when we cannot even name said systems.
This past week, several stories came across my mobile device that left me shaking my head and made me realize that any forward momentum as a whole will be halted until we (and to be frank, when I say we, I mean white people) start to move beyond talk of just acknowledging white privilege but start to become intentional in dismantling the systems that work in their favor.
XO Jane, an online publication published a piece “It Happened to me: There are No Black People in my Yoga Class and I’m Suddenly Uncomfortable with it”, this piece was horrible and on a personal note as a yogi, I felt that the writer needs to spend less time on asana (poses) and more time learning the eight limbs of yoga. However the writer in sharing her personal feelings and observations on seeing what she describes as a heavyset Black woman struggling with the poses juxtaposed against her own skinny white girl body and her imagined feelings revealed not only a sense of personal ignorance but the insidious nature of how white supremacy operates: “Over the course of the next hour, I watched as her despair turned into resentment and then contempt. I felt it all directed toward me and my body. I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of my high-waisted bike shorts, my tastefully tacky sports bra, my well-versedness in these poses that I have been in hundreds of times. My skinny white girl body. Surely this woman was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me—or so I imagined.”
The question is how did she know any of this to be true? She didn’t; but in a culture that promotes the idea that whiteness and thinness is the desired way of being, the writer assumed that the not thin, not white woman must clearly be upset to not be the writer. This piece is an extreme exaggeration of what white supremacy can look like and chances are that if you are reading this piece, you are thinking what a stretch?
Later in the week, The Nation published a piece “ Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars” where the writer talks about the changes in the feminist movement as more nonwhite women enter the movement and utilize tools such as twitter to create change, give voice to our struggles and to connect. However the tone of the piece is less than complimentary towards women of color. As the face of feminism changes and more marginalized women come forward, the rules of acceptability in the feminist world are being changed as the marginalized create and make spaces that address our needs. This change is unsettling as change often is and more so when the old ways of being suddenly end. In theory as women, we should all just be able to get along but the reality is that we are coming from vastly different places. Middle class white women want women of color and other marginalized women to play by their rules lest they be seen as bullies but to quote Audre Lorde “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” To ask women of color to bend in order to be accepted is just another subtle way that white supremacy lives on in our culture. We use language that describes social norms but who created the social norms that dictate how we are to engage? The norms come from a white perspective and in our culture we either adapt to those norms and as people of color are seen as “safe” or we don’t and we wear labels that “others” us. In my case as a Black woman, that often means being seen as an Angry Black Woman.
In the end though, we can move beyond this but as I stated earlier it takes intentionality and a turning inward to examine ourselves and the ways in which we are held hostage by systems we didn’t create but that we still live with and in some cases benefit from through no effort of our own other than being born a certain color. Of course the flip side is that some of us are held back by these same systems through no fault of our own, other than being born a certain color.
I am reading a book, Waking Up White that I would highly recommend to any white person interested in moving beyond this matrix of race that we all live with in this culture.