“First, do no harm.” – Hippocrates
This past weekend, I attended The White Privilege Conference and the first workshop that I sat in on was “Problem Women of Color—Re-imagining our Freedom and Institutional Oppression.” Given the twists and turns in my life, the session was a much-needed balm to my soul. Yet as I sat in this sacred space and listened to the women around me talk, I found myself wondering: Why must we bear such pain? Why must the non-white female body and specially the Black female body bear witness to such pain; why are our needs relegated to the end of the line and why must we always fight to be deemed fully human? And worst yet, knowing that when we assert our right to sit fully at the table of humanity, we are deemed problematic.
To walk this path in these nonwhite bodies is to be feared, to be loathed, to be merely tolerated at best in many spaces and to always find ourselves negotiating to get the crumbs—all the while being told that the crumbs of humanity are just as good as the entree. However, the crumbs never fill you up, at best the crumbs give you just enough energy to try again until you reach the breaking point, receive a few more crumbs and the cycle of oppression keeps going with the circle unbroken.
Working for change is not easy work and working for social change while Black, nonwhite, female or otherwise other is even harder because too many times, the very people who are supposed to be allies and collaborators will stick the dagger in your back all the while smiling in your face. Oftentimes people plunge the dagger in while not even being aware that they are replicating the same systems of oppression that they are supposedly against. Yet cultural norms make it hard to notice when we are acting out the dominant culture versus fighting it.
We are culturally standing on the shores of change, as the clarion call for racial equity has never been stronger—evidenced by the fact that Black Lives Matter is damn near a household phrase whether we believe it or not…or in the case of many Americans want it or not. At times it almost feels like racial justice is a hot new trend with many wanting to be on the cutting edge of the trend. Yet are we truly making change? Or are we fooling ourselves?
To create sustainable change that goes beyond several news cycles requires a constant state of self-examination that, increasingly, I believe few are capable of. It means examining the hows and whys at all times and making sure that we don’t fall prey to the seductive power of the ego which tells us we are “better” and “good” and that we aren’t like those people. “Those people” being the openly bigoted who proudly and openly cling to harmful beliefs. But for many of us people of color, the openly bigoted are far preferable to those who claim to stand for change and justice yet mistreat us. As a colleague often says “At least in the South, a white person will call me a nigger to my face and not pretend to care about me.”
Historically, women of color have been the backbone of many social justice movements, yet our stories and personhood are often not seen…or are seen as expendable…for the good of the greater cause. This pattern of inequity exists to this day and is something that I often witness and experience and, sadly, this past weekend was no different—which should be surprising but frankly isn’t. Still, that doesn’t take away from the very real pain of knowing that you are being relegated to the bottom rungs and that your safety and comfort is never a priority. Everyone wants to matter and be heard. The only thing that is worse is when we willingly give up our personhood and find ourselves participating in our own oppression and subjugation ourselves for what we deem the good of the greater cause.
This is one of those rare times that I cannot end on a high point because the truth is I wonder: Will the work that I and many of my sisters do will ever be valued? We live in a world where we understand and recognize misogyny is a problem but where too few understand that misogyny’s evil twin is misogynoir, misogyny that is specifically directed towards Black women and is where the intersection of race and gender meet.
If we are to create a racially equitable world, it will require a deep mining of our souls and a non-stop and unfailing commitment, recognizing that the moment we stop is the moment that we backslide into a place that perpetuates harm. Anything less than a full time commitment to change and the heavy lifting is self-delusion…of this I am convinced.
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