In the fear of being racist, failing to be an ally

Trigger warning: this essay discusses sexual abuse and assault.

When I saw Dave Chappelle’s skit in 2003 of a music video parodying someone named R. Kelly, I’m ashamed to admit I thought it kinda gross but also kinda funny. (My shame today wants me to not tell you this, but I won’t let it stop me.) At the time, I didn’t know why he created the video. I also didn’t try to find out. So I didn’t know it had anything to do with sexual assault victims of R. Kelly. I just cringed, hummed along to the song, and laughed. A lot. I’m now horrified I was so dismissive of Kelly’s victims, but this isn’t about me and my feelings.

If you don’t already know about it, a documentary called “Surviving R. Kelly” recently aired on Lifetime television last week. The documentary exposes Kelly as a serial and sadistic abuser of young girls and women. Highlighting interviews with women who survived his abuse, it shows how his career has been “riddled with rumors of abuse, predatory behavior, and pedophilia.” And, “[d]espite damning evidence and multiple witnesses, to date, none of these accusations have seemingly affected him.”

It’s only because I follow many Black women on social media that I became aware of this documentary. In addition to the palpable pain and outrage the women expressed, I saw anger at white people’s silence. Anger at how we didn’t listen, didn’t see, didn’t hear when Black girls and women told us about the abuse.

For example:

Or this powerful tweet thread (several tweets connected together) by @DrSamiSchalk:

I tried to answer her questions (in my mind). Because I’m a sexual abuse and assault survivor myself, I certainly had thoughts about his predatory behavior, but it didn’t feel right to tweet about it. Why? Because he’s Black. I’m not saying I think it’s racist to bring awareness to his crimes, but I am saying part of me preferred speaking up about white perpetrators instead of a Black one. I am sure, too, that I was afraid it would seem racist to “pick on” this particular criminal. Tweeting about Jeffrey Epstein? Sure, but a Black man? Should I really do that?

Back to Dr. Sami Schalk:

Yes, I think my fear of being racist—and in this case, I mean causing harm to people of color as an individual rather than racism as the structure on which our country is founded—my fear is sometimes stronger than my solidarity with Black women and girls. (I recommend reading the whole thread, here.).

The solution for me is not to criticize the abuser himself—though I certainly wouldn’t defend him—but to talk about the system that allowed him to continue harming Black girls. A society that doesn’t value Black girls, doesn’t hear Black girls or women when they speak, or tells them to shut up when they raise their voices loud enough that they’re harder to ignore.

So many people were just like me, laughing along with Dave Chappelle. (Chappelle even went as far as saying 15-year-olds are old enough to offer informed consent to sexual acts with an adult.) Again, I won’t let my shame about the truth silence me: It must be that I didn’t care enough about Black girls and women to notice what they were saying.

It’s because of this that I will be talking with people about the systems that allowed Kelly to abuse these girls and young women. Twitter white woman Erynn Brook has some good thoughts on how to be white and against R. Kelly. The #MeToo movement, started by Tarana Burke, a Black woman, is a movement that stands against all abusers. But the truth is, not all survivors are treated equally. I will actively make sure my fellow white people know about “Surviving R. Kelly,” bringing to their awareness how our society has especially let down Black girls and women. Yes, all abuse is bad. But we’ve got to start recognizing that all survivors are equally deserving of our response; that thus far we haven’t acted like that is true. We need to care about Black girls and women more. We need to do more for and with Black girls and women so we can, together, destroy misogynoir.

If you want to learn more, check out Feminista Jones’ “Surviving R. Kelly’ and the Inherent Violence of Being a Black Woman;” this piece by Morgan Jenkins in Teen Vogue, “R. Kelly and Other Powerful Men Have Always Manipulated Their Teen Fans;” or, especially, this piece that includes viewing advice for those of us who haven’t yet seen the documentary: “After Surviving R. Kelly, What Now? How About Trusting Survivors and Dismantling Systemic Misogynoir?


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What does it mean to be white?

[An evergreen reminder: I am a white woman writing about racism so I might share with other white people what I learn—mostly what I learn from people of color—so we can all work toward societal transformation.]

What does it mean to be a good white person? Most of us white people who have lived in white culture long enough that it’s the default—it’s our “normal”—don’t think much about being white. In fact, we spend a lot of energy trying not to think about it.

People of color, on the other hand, are much more likely to include their racial and/or ethnic identities into their overall sense of who they are. Beverly Daniel Tatum explains in “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, And Other Conversations About Race” that because racism impacts people of color directly in ongoing and regular ways, they are more likely to find their racial identity plays an important role in their understanding of who they are as they are growing up. Most of us white people haven’t examined what it means to be white, or how we fit into the world as white people. Because we haven’t explored the way our race impacts our identity, we don’t know who we really are, we haven’t fully developed; we are not whole.

As I’ve been exploring what it means to be white with my daughters, we have found our tendency is to associate being white with oppression, greed, and violence. And, it’s true, as of this moment, I haven’t yet found a quality that I associate with “white culture” that is entirely positive. But I also know there have always been white people who have fought for justice, who have resisted oppressive systems, and who have lived in ways that did not uphold white supremacy. Those white people have and do exist. I used to think that learning about them would be just another way to excuse (me) white people by saying “look how we weren’t all awful!” but I can see now how it doesn’t have to serve that role. My daughters and I will be studying white racial justice advocates as a part of our larger process of self-exploration.

My own racial identity follows along a path of racial and ethnic identity development (and loops around and returns to where it was and then moves forward and then back—this stuff isn’t linear!) that has been well studied and is described in Tatum’s “Why are all the Black Kids…” book. Here is a table outlining racial and ethnic identity formation, using the data described by Tatum, based on the work of Janet Helm, and then adapted by Lisa Sung in 2002. Can you see yourself in this identity development chart?

The chart says that we white people who explore our racial identity go from “pre-contact & contact,” where we aren’t aware of the “significance of group,” and we see ourselves as unprejudiced, or “colorblind.” We then become aware that racism is impacting our lives. Maybe we say or do racist things (“racially insensitive” if you prefer) by mistake and maybe we lose a friend, are moved to tears after viewing online a recording of violence against people of color, or participate in a “diversity workshop” at work. We move to “reintegration” where we feel tension, guilt, and shame. What does it mean that I’m a part of the group that’s been causing all of this harm?

For me, the cognitive challenges of these new views of myself have been significant. I’ve spent a lot of time in the “pseudo-independent” stage where I “understand the problem of white privilege,” but am “unsure what to do about it.” I can see myself having touched the even more “advanced” areas of racial identity in the last few years, for moments at a time. But, mostly, with some dips and darts into contact-disintegration-reintegration and psuedo-independence, I’m in the phase where I’m trying to figure out what it means to be white (“Immersion/Emersion”); that is, how can I be white and not support white supremacy?

Thus far, I know that historically and presently, being white means that I am a part of a group that created white supremacy, that it is a system that benefits me, and causes me to have an inflated sense of superiority. It is a daily practice to recognize how the qualities of white supremacy (I mentioned in my last post) permeate all of my life, and to practice doing things in different ways. In this way, I am sure I will learn more about what it means to be white.


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Every area of my life is permeated by white supremacy, even this title

There’s a fine line between sharing my experience so others might benefit, and sharing my experience simply because I think it’s interesting. I understand from my conversations with other white people that most of my questions about racism are common questions. My intention when I write for BGIM is not to navel-gaze and say “my life is interesting!” I want to share the awkward and uncomfortable process of learning how to actively take white supremacy apart so it no longer serves as the foundation for my own life or the lives of everyone impacted by it. I am doing my always-imperfect best, and I hope my intentions match the impact as you read.


Over the last couple months, I’ve been taking a class by Lisa Graustein, a white queer woman who has been a racial and gender equity and justice trainer and facilitator for more than a decade. With the support of a grant from New England Yearly Meeting (Quakers), Lisa has been sharing resources and spiritual guidance while modeling communication styles that don’t reinforce oppression. The class is called “Racial Justice and the Beloved Community,” and we are practicing looking at how white supremacy informs almost everything we do as Quakers; most importantly, we are practicing changing our attitudes and behaviors.

To understand my part in supporting white supremacy, I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time studying the history of the social construction of race (see Nell Irvin Painter’s “The History of White People” and/or Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped from the Beginning”). Building on that fact-finding I look at where in my life I’m being guided by white supremacist culture. When Lisa shared this description of white supremacy culture in our class, gathered together by Tema Okun of dRworks, it nearly knocked the wind out of me. Dear readers, please take a moment to read the description of white supremacy culture.

Okun details the following qualities of white supremacy culture, summarized here: perfectionism; sense of urgency; defensiveness; quantity over quality; worship of the written word; only one right way; paternalism; either/or thinking; power hoarding; fear of open conflict; individualism; I’m the only one; progress is bigger, more; objectivity; right to comfort.

Do you recognize yourself in those terms? Do you, as I did, find yourself defensive? Thinking, sure, I can see how those qualities could be problematic, but there are lots of reasons we feel and behave this way. To say it’s “white supremacy culture” is a bit of a stretch, we might say.

But scholars and activists who have studied and lived with the oppression of white supremacy are telling those of us who benefit from the systems that those qualities are white supremacy culture. Every single quality described makes it possible to keep white supremacy alive and strong; research and evidence support this statement. This holds true for people of color as well as white people—all of us living in the United States of America are impacted by white supremacy culture.

What does this mean for us? Well, I hope you might join me in learning about the history of white supremacy in the USA, to inform your understanding of how we got here. I’d also like to invite you to notice where in your life those white supremacy culture qualities appear. Are there places or times you can try something different? Do you have people in your life with whom you can talk about these issues? Remember, white supremacy wants us to be alone—individualistic, I’m the only one—so even the act of finding others to offer mutual support can be a step toward dismantling white supremacy.

In the title for this piece, I mention that the title itself is permeated by white supremacy. In it I see my tendency to think that my own experience matters so much that it seems appropriate (as it usually does in my posts here!) to center the title of the post on me and my experience. As I said in the beginning, there’s a fine line between sharing my experience just because I find it interesting (see “white supremacy culture“) or sharing my experience—most especially sharing what I’ve learned from others—to try and benefit others. I hope what I’ve shared is beneficial. We aren’t alone in stumbling and bumbling through the lessons we need to learn. I welcome any feedback you’d like to give me.

And, I’d like to put in a plug for supporting this blog. Black Girl in Maine pays the writers on this site, doesn’t use advertising, and does this work mostly as a labor of love/survival. Please consider making a contribution—one time or (preferrably) monthly—in support of the work done here.


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

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