‘Prim and proper’ might not cut it

My mother and I can fight. Like, we can yell and scream at the top of our lungs sometimes. Last summer my daughters had friends over and my mother and I got in a fight about…I don’t even remember…but we were screaming at each other so loud my daughters (they tell me now) took their friends and went far away from our explosion. It happens less than it used to—oh my gosh, when I was a bratty teen or an active alcoholic twenty-something hoooo wow!—but sometimes even in our relative maturity, we still rub each other the wrong way and that can lead to loud arguments.

I got to thinking about this, this rare relationship where I might scream at the top of my lungs in anger or sadness or frustration, when I saw this video of a white woman in Portland letting out her feelings about how Black Lives Matter.

How any of us express big feelings is informed by so many dynamics including (but not limited to) how we were raised, what the larger society or smaller communities expect of us, where we live in the world, whether or not drugs or alcohol are involved—the list goes on and on. There are so many other nature/nurture elements that play a part in how we express big feelings. But one thing we don’t see very often is white women sharing—maybe releasing is a better word—the rage and pain so many of us feel about the dehumanizing and devaluing of Black people that is often the norm in this country.

A friend of mine is from Peru. Years ago we were on a walk (remember when we could go for walks with friends without fear of deadly diseases?) and we got to talking about swinging our hips. She talked about how where she grew up, women’s hips tended to swing freely whenever they walked. She had noticed the tightening that was happening after years in this country. We played around with walking with looser hips. It felt great! It also made me feel self-conscious, and that sucks.

I bring this up because as I try to uncover what it might mean to be white with a culture not based only on oppression, I realize how common it is for us white people to hold ourselves quiet and tight. Especially those of us from the professional middle and owning classes. My goodness. Even the phrase, “prim and proper” that fits so well includes the word “proper.” As in, “correct.”

Expressing big feelings in ways that are louder, or that include more movement, may not be a necessary goal in shedding whiteness. But, it might be? I’m not sure.

Watching that woman—if you haven’t watched it and you’re white and this issue of tightness and quietness resonates with you, please check it out—brings up a longing in me. What must it be like to be so free with those big feelings? And how clearly she makes it known that Black lives do matter, she has regrets, and wants to do better so she is doing something about it! She expresses it so much more clearly than I usually do with my careful words and “polite” tones.

Is it even possible for my oh-so-white measured words and calm demeanor to communicate my solidarity effectively to people from cultures and communities with louder and bigger expressions of the rage, grief, shame, and passion I feel about the need for justice for Black and brown-bodied people? Maybe not?

Then again, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color usually have to be multilingual so maybe my communications can be understood. But, I don’t know. I do know that the woman who was yelling and crying about her children recognizing how important it was for her to be out there in the streets communicated so much of the feelings I have inside me. I am very sure that many of my white peers feel the same. What will it mean if we only let it out in very careful and measured ways? Is one of the goals of shedding whiteness to learn how to release those feelings in big and public ways?

Instead of the yelling and raging that white woman in the video so beautifully shared, if I were communicating about issues around Black Lives Matter and what that means to me, I would be more likely to have tears running down my face while going quiet or speaking slowly. I would be expressing feelings similar to the woman in Portland, but in a way that might not convey the depth of my feelings. What is the cost to me when I’m not free to “let loose” with these angry, raging, grieving feelings? What are the costs to any relationships I have or may have with Black, Indigenous, or other people of color? I don’t have the answer to the questions I’m considering, but I suspect we white people should explore these questions if we want to learn how to be accomplices in dismantling white supremacy, instead of being performative and ineffective “allies.”

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 Black, Indigenous, and other people of color—so we can all work toward societal transformation; our collective liberation.

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