Discomfort in many ways is similar to pain, the internal warning system that all is not right and that perhaps we need to check in or perhaps figure some things out. Ignoring our pain or discomfort often comes at a high price. Case in point, for the past several weeks, I have been physically wiped out. Despite waking up every day feeling as if a plastic bag were tied around my head, I brushed off my physical discomfort and chalked it up to allergies and stress from my day job. After all, trying to save a struggling non-profit agency is tiring. This weekend my physical discomfort escalated to the point that I could no longer ignore it once my eyes and face started swelling up and I found myself at the local urgent care clinic on a beautiful Sunday morning. It turns out all the pesky things I had been ignoring for weeks were a low level sinus infection that has now become an acute case of sinusitis and despite my dislike of all things pharmaceutical, I am on a heavy dose of antibiotics to knock this thing out. Looking back, I am kicking myself for not noticing all the clear signs that all was not well, but I wasn’t paying attention or rather I chose not to pay attention.
In many ways my refusal to acknowledge and pay attention to my body is very similar to how many Americans view matters of race and difference. It is uncomfortable, and no one likes to feel uncomfortable. Yet when we continue to ignore situations, they rarely go away. Instead situations that we ignore have a pesky habit of growing into things that eventually spiral out of control.
I don’t think that America is spiraling out of control because of racial matters, but it seems clear to all that are paying attention that much of the progress that we thought we had made as a nation when it came to matters of race, was either in our heads or on paper. Laws have changed and we have our first Black president but the rate at which we hear about injustice and inequality is going in the wrong direction. The fact that so many of us do not have friends of different races speaks volumes about how we really feel. Yet whenever someone dares to bring up these issues, it is seen as divisive and it is uncomfortable, so we shut it down or block it out.
No place is this seen more clearly than in the feminist community, where mainstream, predominantly white feminists are often the official voice of all women/feminists yet often their agenda is not inclusive of all women, particularly women of color. Women of color often find themselves shut out of larger discussions and in recent days the situation came to a head with the offline and online breakdown of Hugo Schwyzer. Schwyzer is a gender studies professor, blogger and writer who had a hell of a run for quite a time but to blunt, he shat upon many of women of color in the process of making a name for himself. Without getting into the gritty details since there are players who know far more about the details than me, mainstream feminist and feminist publications often made a place at the table for Schwyzer despite knowing that his record among feminists of color was less than ideal. In the end, he was not who he claimed to be and to say that there is a seismic gulf between most mainstream feminists and feminists of color would be an understatement.
Today that disconnect played out on twitter with the hashtag that started trending globally #solidarityisforwhitewomen which was started by Mikki Kendall where many, including yours truly, posted insights about how dismissive the mainstream and predominantly white feminist community is towards people of color and how people of color are often missing from larger and relevant discussions that should involve all women. Without a doubt it was uncomfortable for many; a local Twitter user who I have met commented that “ #solidarityisforwhitewomen is making me feel like I should be ashamed to be white. Being a woman is hard enough. Why add race into it?” Great question and really that question is the reason why I am writing tonight when I should be resting.
Too often when women of color talk openly about their experiences as women of color, white women often in an attempt to achieve solidarity are quick to mention that as women we all share a common hardship and that we should focus on what we share in common, not our differences. In theory this sounds great but the uncomfortable truth is that women of color and white women are not playing on an even playing field at this time. Even when we level the playing field and take into consideration the class factor, my reality as a college educated, middle class Black woman is still not the same reality as my white peers. One need only look at the never-ending Mommy wars, which primarily focus on middle class and above white women. Even the Lean In discussions are primarily focused on high achieving, upper middle class mothers, most of whom are white. Sheryl Sandberg pretty much admits that the focus of “Leaning In” is not inclusive of all women. So that means while the national discussions in the U.S. talk a great deal about motherhood and related topics, those conversations which seem to take up a lot of words actually leave out quite a few.
If our goal is to achieve solidarity as women, that will never be accomplished as long as only some women get to have a voice and others are stifled. To move forward means we have to hear all the players and allow them a place at the table. It means the ability to move beyond our own egos and feelings and take a look at our own discomfort. As I noted before, discomfort serves a purpose and we have to be willing to examine it and not ignore it. I suspect that for many well-meaning and well-intentioned folks, matters of race and difference are uncomfortable because to truly examine that discomfort may bring us face to face with something that we would rather not deal with. However, the cost of ignoring that discomfort may eventually leave us with something larger, messier and nastier to deal with…the choice is ours.