Recent events in Ferguson prompt me to write this now
Through most of elementary school, my best friend was Leslie. I loved her. We were a couple of nerds who didn’t really fit in with anyone but each other. She was very quiet and shy – that is, with everyone but me. We endlessly played jacks. We were the rulers of the game at our school – we mostly just played against each other because no one else could really challenge either one of us. Leslie was black.
We were best friends for several years, which my mother knew. She had heard all about Leslie-this and Leslie-that. Finally, I asked my mother if Leslie could spend the night, since that’s what little girls who are friends usually do. That is when I got “the talk” – no, not the sexual one, but the racial one. “It is all right,” my mother instructed, “to be friends with black people at school, but we do not invite them to spend the night.” I was heartbroken. I didn’t really understand why my mother suddenly found there to be something wrong with my beloved Leslie.
In high school, I joined Junior R.O.T.C. to get out of taking P.E. My school didn’t have its own program, so we boarded a bus to go to a nearby school for one hour each day. Through that class, I met a young man who attended the host school and we developed a mutual crush – for this story, I will call him Dan. We only saw each other during that one class, so we developed a note exchange system in which we used a few trusted classmates as mail carriers. Dan was black. Interracial dating was a definite taboo in the New Orleans suburbs of 1984, hence our need to rely on just a couple of trusted friends to relay our top secret messages.
I made the mistake of confiding in my mother that a black guy at another school had a crush on me and I on him. She didn’t really say anything. Some weeks later, however, she had a rather bizarre meltdown. I had gone to a school function and then afterwards a group of us went cruising New Orleans in a caravan of several cars. I was usually free to go out with my friends as long as I was home by curfew. This time, however, my mother called the venue to find out what time the event had actually ended, the only time she ever did that. By the time I returned home hours later, at curfew, she had completely torn apart my room, just totally wrecked it, emptied out contents of dresser drawers, pulled out everything in my closet, and emptied my school backpack. She greeted me in a rage and demanded, “Where were you? Were you with that black boy?” She said she had torn my room apart in an effort to find his phone number.
I should point out here that many years into my adulthood, my mother apologized about both Leslie and Dan, saying that she had been racist and wrong. It’s one of the few apologies I’ve ever heard her make – perhaps even the only one. Still, I think the damage was done. She likes to think of herself as anti-racist and liberal. About ten years ago, she even designed the website for the local chapter of the NAACP, of which she is a member. I, however, am ever aware of her hypocrisy, that being anti-racist is her thing except for when it came to policing her own daughters’ social lives – that whole “but would you let your daughter marry one” thing. When it comes to one of the most important areas of anti-racism work, what we teach our children, she had one shot and she blew it. Or maybe her heart did change over the years. I can’t say.
So while we were all out cruising that night, we at one point drove through my neighborhood. I lived in one of the most affluent suburbs of the city. We couldn’t really afford to live there – we had a bargain rent for that area, half of a duplex that an enterprising contractor had recently wedged into the last bit of empty space on the edge of the neighborhood right up against the railroad tracks and each month, my grandparents chipped in a portion of the rent so that my sisters and I could go to the best schools. That night in my neighborhood, Dan bent down low in his seat, shuddered, and said, “God, your neighborhood makes me nervous.” I was so naive back then that I actually laughed and said, “What the hell are you talking about? This is one of the best parts of the city!” “Not for me,” he muttered. Indeed, my old neighborhood is also called home by the infamous Klansman and sometime politician David Duke. Still in my neighborhood, we stopped at a gas station to use the restrooms. Dan escorted me into the store, but was gone when I came out. When I found him once again hunched down in the car, he said, “I apologize for not being a gentleman and waiting for you, but did you hear those white guys in there?” I said that I hadn’t. He informed me that they had stared him down most menacingly and yelled to me, “Hey, baby, why don’t you try a real man, a white man for a change? You won’t go back to black.” When we got to the City Park area of the city, Dan sat up tall in his seat, let out a deep breath, and said, “Okay, now this is a safe neighborhood for me.”
We didn’t just deal with judgment from white people either. Black students constantly accused him of acting white. At his school, both he and I were at different times surrounded and challenged by groups of a dozen or so very angry young black women.
Here is what my mother didn’t know though – Dan was the only true gentleman I ever dated in high school. I had been a fatherless girl since the age of six, and starting when I was just thirteen I became a very mixed-up young woman looking for male affection in all the wrong places and all the wrong ways. In other words, I was promiscuous and confused sex with love. Every other guy I dated while I was in high school – all white – was older, used me for sex, and treated me badly. Dan once very shyly brushed his hand against mine and loosely held it for a very brief moment, but beyond that, he never expressed any sexual interest. He was not only a perfect gentleman but a real romantic – he wanted to be a virgin on his wedding night. It was a sacred dream of his, his virginity most precious to him. One weekend, I ended up with the house to myself. I invited a group of kids over to play Dungeons and Dragons. Afterwards, I worked up my nerve and invited Dan to spend the night. He was appalled. Not only did he refuse my invitation, he also gave me quite a long, stern lecture on chastity and virginity and morality and what behavior was ladylike and what was not. So you see, my mother tore my room apart in a frenzy over the one guy she should have trusted most, had she known the truth of my life, but all she ever knew about him was the color of his skin, and that was all she felt she needed to know. The night she tore my room apart, it was so on the tip of my tongue to just angrily blurt out, “Know what? Every white guy I’ve ever brought into this house has fucked me! ‘That black boy,’ as you call him, is the only guy who won’t!”
Things with Dan didn’t last. He was actually far too straight-laced for my tastes. When he found out that I sometimes smoked pot when friends had some, I got another stern lecture, this time about the dangers of the demon weed as well as a judgment that partaking was unladylike because I could possibly be taken advantage of while under the influence (which was exactly what had been happening for some time, although I didn’t tell him so). That weekend that I had the house to myself and invited everybody over, I played a live album by my beloved Rolling Stones that opened with Keith Richards playing the American national anthem on electric guitar. Dan asked me to please change the song, as he found it “disrespectful” and “unpatriotic” to do the anthem on electric guitar. I was very annoyed. Furthermore, he ran hot and cold in ways I could not, at the time, figure out. We could spend an hour on the phone and he was warm and friendly. His notes to me often contained lovely poetry, sometimes love poems. Other times, however, when other people were around, he acted like he hardly knew me, frustrating me greatly. The last straw came when I took a bus on a winter afternoon to surprise him at his school where he was on the football field leading the color guard in marching drills. When the drills were over, he came to me in the stands and was definitely not happy to see me there. He asked me about taking the bus so far, warned that it would be dark and therefore unsafe by the time I made it home, and said that it was unladylike for me to be out taking buses alone and even after dark. I had officially heard the word unladylike from him one time too many, my feminist sensibilities offended. I knew he was trying to be protective in his way but I had, after all, traveled a good way just to surprise him and to support him in his role as an R.O.T.C. captain and color guard leader and I found his protection thing patriarchal and stifling. He was just too conservative for me. I stopped writing him notes or calling him and soon ended up dating someone else.
With my new – white – boyfriend, who would become my husband, the subject of previous relationships came up. I told him about Dan and how he ran so hot and cold, talking to me on the phone like we were close and then in public acting like he hardly knew me. “He would never ever hold my hand when we all hung out at the mall,” I complained. My new boyfriend was aghast. Although we were parked in his car and no one else could hear us, he lowered his voice to a whisper and said, “Hold a white girl’s hand in the middle of Lakeside? My god, are you out of your fucking mind? What the hell were you doing – were you trying to get him killed?” I had always known what the risks of interracial dating were for me if we were discovered – I would have a permanent bad reputation, become a social outcast, and many white guys would forevermore refuse to date me. I was completely ignorant, however, of the risks for Dan. “You don’t actually think someone would have hurt him?” I naively asked. “Are you for fucking real?” he asked me. “Not just someone but many someones, in a group. He would have walked out of his house one morning, been jumped by a bunch of white guys and either killed or left wishing he was dead.” I stubbornly, angrily insisted that I was free to date anyone I wanted. Now he very much raised his voice – “On what fucking planet? Not here in Louisiana, we’re not free. I had a black girlfriend for all of three days and then a group of black guys surrounded me, told me to stay away from her, and then beat the shit out of me. No, we’re not actually free to date who we want! Wake the hell up, lady – you’re dangerous!”
About two years after high school, I wrote to Dan while he was in the Army and I outright asked him if he had run so hot and cold with me because of the racism around us. He wrote back about his current life and also told me that I had been his first true love, had broken his heart, and that he hadn’t found anyone else since. He confirmed that race had very much been a factor, had been why he acted like he hardly knew me in public, writing, “I loved you so much, but I was also terrified of loving you. It was dangerous.”
Next, I spent four years with my Air Force husband, stationed in England. I took a job in a British factory where a number of other Air Force wives were working, becoming friends with African-American women as well as women from various island nations and protectorates on which the U.S. had bases.
That time of having friends from all over ushered in the period I now disparagingly refer to as my “I don’t see race” period. My husband was next stationed in an almost all-white town in Eastern Washington State. For me, I had decided, the racism I’d learned growing up in New Orleans was a thing of the past. I was over it. Race officially didn’t matter anywhere, mostly because I said so. Then, after having lived in Washington for a couple of years, I was one day walking through the park when a black man headed towards me. Before I had a chance to think about it, my heart began to race and I had pulled my purse tighter to me. And just that quickly, I realized what I’d just done. I was so devastated that I sat down right there on the curb and sobbed. I realized then that the racism I’d been taught growing up was a part of me yet and vowed right then and there to dig deeper, much deeper, even to places that were painful to visit.
Through my Unitarian Universalist church, I attended many anti-racism seminars and workshops. I began college in my thirties, majoring in social justice issues. In addition to taking lots of Women’s Studies courses, I also took every African-American studies class I could find. I took a sociology class on racial diversity that changed my life. The professor, who remains a hero, friend, and mentor of mine and who I’m proud to say still refers to me as “one of my all-time smartest and favorite students,” had us do some unusual exercises. Once, we were assigned a partner and were to sit staring into each others’ eyes for five very long minutes. In another, we were lined up standing on a board, blindfolded, and had to rearrange ourselves on this board in some particular way that I no longer remember, but we had to stay balanced on the board and the effect was that we had to be guided without sight by other people’s touch. In another, he had us go outside and line up side by side. Then he said, “If you are a race other than white, take a step back. If you are a woman, take a step back. If you don’t identify as heterosexual, take a step back. If you grew up with limited financial means, take a step back.” And so on. The class ended up spread out all over the place, some bewildered looking white guys still standing where they’d started, and then he explained that the dynamic showed how we’d entered life, not all from the same starting line but rather from different places, many of us well behind the starting line.
It was in that class that I was introduced to the concept of white privilege. We read, among other things, Peggy McIntosh’s “Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege” (if you are white, please read it if you haven’t already; it’s important stuff). It was like someone had suddenly turned the lights on for me when I read that, an epiphany. I rushed home to tell my husband what I’d learned, that we in fact benefit from white privilege every hour of every day. My husband took great offense at the idea. He had grown up very poor, had gotten just a seventh grade education before his abusive stepfather had thrown him out to live in the streets, and had enlisted as a mechanic in the military at seventeen when he simply could find no other prospects. He definitely didn’t feel privileged. “No one has ever given ME a damn thing just for being white,” he angrily insisted. We argued bitterly. Not even a week later, he was pulled over by the cops. He was very near the base and he was in military uniform (realize that cops respect military people). He was driving what was obviously a brand spanking new pick-up truck. For some reason, that brand new truck had a short in the headlight and so he was pulled over for having a headlight out. Reaching for his wallet, he realized that when he’d removed his greasy maintenance suit at the end of the work day, he’d left his wallet on top of the lockers, so he had no driver’s license. The cop just let him go with the comment, “Okay, Sarge, next time, pack some i.d.” When my husband came home and told me the story, I immediately said, “Oh, by the way, about that white privilege you insist you don’t have – what if tonight, you’d been black? Brand new vehicle – hmm, how can he afford that, maybe it’s stolen. No driver’s license. What would have happened to you?” I saw his light bulb finally come on and he admitted, “If I were black, I would have been arrested.” He never argued with me about white privilege again.
Some years later, I was an early supporter of Obama in his Democratic primary. Like many people, I had been impressed with the speech he’d given introducing John Kerry four years prior. It also got my attention that he, unlike Hillary Clinton, had opposed the Iraq War. I followed him closely, eventually knocked on doors for him ahead of the primaries in both Louisiana and Mississippi. I will always remember knocking on the door of one elderly black woman and enthusiastically asking her if she would be voting Obama. “Oh, honey,” she said, as her eyes watered up and she took my arm, “I won’t be voting for him. Don’t you know, honey – they’re going to kill him.” Many young black men I encountered just told me, “Oh, sorry, I would, but I can’t vote, you know,” opening my eyes to the issue of felons who have served their time remaining ineligible to vote for the rest of their lives.
My aunt and mother were huge Hillary fans, white liberal feminists of an older era who had their hearts set on having Hillary as the first woman president, a woman president in their lifetimes. I, a radical feminist a generation behind them, saw Hillary as part of the establishment problem. I was not and am not a believer in “just add women and stir” feminism, which is all I see Hillary as being. I am a radical and radical means “root,” which means changing things from their very foundations – Hillary did not represent that for me. Also, I was enchanted by Obama back then, his soaring rhetoric stirring my soul. My aunt and mother were furious with me when I announced that I would be knocking on doors for Obama rather than Hillary (although neither of them actually got out and knocked on doors at all – they could have). I naively believed that their anger just came from a sense of sisterhood betrayed, a feminist letting down feminists by not supporting the woman, and I was extremely sensitive to that charge and felt totally sympathetic. Finally, however, after many emails through the family email circle, my aunt spilled it: “You aren’t really going to vote for a black man, are you? How can you?” I kept staring at my screen in disbelief. I was devastated. My aunt had been my first political mentor. As a child who was babysat by her each day before and after school, I spent endless hours reading over and over again the many plaques on the wall of her den that celebrated her lifelong civic engagement. I decided, back then, at an early age, that I wanted to be an activist too. I had never forgotten that it was she who was able to get her civic groups to donate for me, the child of a poor single mother of three, to attend the Close-Up program in D.C., the trip that ignited my life-long passion for politics. She had even been a Jimmy Carter delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Learning of my beloved political mentor’s closet racism hurt me deeply. It angered me too. I fired off an email that challenged, “Didn’t you know back when you were a Carter delegate that he first got involved in local politics because he was disgusted by racism?” “No,” she wrote back, “I didn’t know that. If I had, I might not have been a supporter.” I was stunned. She was a lifelong Democratic activist – I thought that being Democrats meant we were against racism. I realize now how naive I was. There are of course racists in the Democratic party – they just hide it better than Republicans do and I’m hard pressed to figure out which is more offensive. At the time, I was reminded of a quote I had once read by a famous black female activist: “I will begin trusting white feminists the day they are willing to vote for a black man for president.” How right she was not to trust white feminists like my mother and aunt!
I spent a week before the general presidential election staying in a cheap hotel room in swing state Florida at my own expense, knocking on doors of registered Democrats from dawn to dusk, encouraging them to get out the vote for Obama, so dedicated to the task at hand that fellow canvassers kept having to remind me to eat, caringly warning me about my own diabetes. The local woman hosting the get out the vote effort was an African-American woman who was stunned and heartened to see so many white people coming in to the office to help. “You,” she said in her home late one night, looking deep into my eyes and pressing her index finger to my chest, “white people like you, that’s how we’re going to elect the first black president.” She was such an amazing, wise woman. With a half dozen or so African-American women around the kitchen table, the subject of cheating men came up, and I shared my own horror story of my fabulously attractive husband and his endless and used opportunities to cheat. Later, she got me alone and said, “You talk a lot about how good-looking your husband is. And you got married when you were seventeen. Your problem, honey, is that you have tried to love someone else before you ever learned how to love yourself.” I was shocked by how very right she was. She had only known me a few days – how did she already have me so figured out, right down to the deepest secrets of my soul?
When it came up in conversation that I was paying for a hotel room, several local black women volunteers all invited me to stay with them. I truly do regard staying in a hotel as one of life’s most fabulous and fun luxuries, and I had already squeezed the money for the expense out of the tight family budget, so I thanked them for their kindness and said I would just stick with my hotel. When I got back to my room that night, however, a deeply troubling truth suddenly punched me in the gut – hard. Here were a half dozen women of color all inviting me to share their most intimate spaces, their bedsheets, their bathrooms, even sort of vying to be my host, one bragging that her place would be nicest for me since she lived right on the beach, another saying she already had a designated guest room that was quite lovely. What hit me right in the gut was this – had these women joined the white people I knew and loved back home in Louisiana, they would not have been invited into any of those homes, definitely not to share bedsheets and bathrooms. Over and over, I heard my mother’s voice in my head – “It is all right to be friends with black people in school, but we do not invite them to spend the night.” We do not invite them to spend the night. We do not invite them to spend the night. Yet, here were black women warmly, enthusiastically doing just that for me. Had I invited any of them to stay with me in my trailer, which I would have been quite willing to do, the owner of my trailer park, a retired white rural small town Louisiana sheriff, would have, without any doubt, promptly evicted my ass. Why couldn’t my people be as loving and accepting of these women as they were with me? The pain and the shame of it made me ill beyond words.
Finally, election night came. When Obama was formally pronounced by CNN to be the next president of the United States, I sank to my knees and cried, firmly believing back then that he was going to bring the change he’d so movingly talked about. Everyone around me cried. Then we rushed outside and screamed into the quiet streets of the neighborhood. My host disappeared for a bit. When she returned, she announced that she had searched her home to find gifts for each of us to remember this magical night by. Her home was jam-packed with African-American art and figurines. Handing me a little stuffed white angel, she said, “ As you can see from my home, I don’t usually buy Caucasian dolls. When I bought this one, I didn’t really know why I bought it, but now I know – it was for you, even though I hadn’t met you yet, because you are a white angel.” It was one of the most touching moments of my life.
So there it is, just one white woman’s journey. I was born a descendant of slave-holding south Louisiana sugar planters. As a child, I thought my best friend could be any race and as a teen I thought I could date anyone I liked. My mother and my culture soon enough taught me otherwise. Then I went through my young adult “I don’t see color” phase, not realizing that for people of color, of course, racism is a given, an every hour of every day thing and that white people who insist on not seeing color are, at best, naive and ignorant, and, more to the point, arrogant, privileged, and part of the problem, for how can you ever be an ally if you insist on not seeing race and its interlocking systems of oppression?
Then I entered where I am now. I know I benefit from white privilege. I have for many years worked long and hard to educate myself about how to be an ally and an activist, never asking anyone to take time to teach me (just as I, as a feminist, want men to educate themselves about sexism and patriarchy) or to hold my hand through white guilt, which I’ve often heard people of color complain about. I will definitely admit that I’ve wrestled with white guilt in the past, especially as my work as a genealogist led me to dozens upon dozens of bills of sale for slaves my ancestors owned, but I have concluded that white guilt is self-indulgent and I have heard from people of color that it is just that. I don’t think people of color can afford for me to take time feeling guilty – they need action from me and right now, for they are dying. Consider the following, from White anti-racism: living the legacy:
Guilt allows white people to maintain the status quo. Guilt creates paralysis. Guilt transfers the responsibility to people of color. Guilt continues the aspect of racism wherein white people put people of color in a situation of taking care of us.
By saying, “I feel so guilty, so bad,” it puts the other person in a position of comforting. The other person is then silenced, must reposition or restate their truth. Or worse — maintain their truth and risk being viewed as mean, insensitive and angry.
Guilt is where most white people get stuck. Guilt is the ultimate obstacle in the personal journey to being a white ally.
I know I’m certainly far from perfect. I’m sure I still make mistakes and fall short.
As a feminist, my heart constantly hurts over the split between white women and women of color. I know that women of color talk and write disparagingly about “white women’s feminism.” I was recently saddened by the Twitter explosion of the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen – saddened but not at all surprised. I think of women like my mother and aunt and I get it. I know black women’s loyalty is claimed by both black liberation movements and women’s liberation movements – as always, they stand at the crossroads of intersectionality. I have made it my business to read and become well versed in the feminism of women of color, including the powerful Womanism.
I say that I am a “recovering racist,” because I know I was influenced deep down inside by a racist culture and that it’s up to me, every single day, to work to get better, and I try hard to do so. I mostly don’t trust white people who insist that they aren’t at all racist. I concede that there may be a tiny minority of white people out there who really aren’t and never have been the least bit racist, but I believe their numbers to be few, far, far fewer than the many who make the claim. To me, saying that you grew up white in this culture and didn’t learn any racism is rather like claiming that you swam in deeply polluted water but never got any of that nasty water in your mouth. I think, generally, that white people who claim to have no racism inside of them probably haven’t actually dug deep enough – and I include failure to recognize white privilege and systemic oppression as racism. May we keep digging, no matter how painful what we find turns out to be.
Just a couple of resources I’ve found helpful if you’re interested:
White like me: reflections on race from a privileged son, a book by Tim Wise (Note: Wise is white and has been criticized for making money for saying the exact same things people of color have always said. Still, sometimes having something smack you right in the head and coming from a white person gets our attention, just as I have found that within feminism, it is oftentimes books or articles by men that say the exact same things feminists have always said that get the widest readership and also explain things in a way that finally gets more men’s attention. So I see both sides there.)
Two clips on YouTube, about five minutes each, from my all-time favorite film “The Color of Fear” in which eight men of different racial backgrounds sit down to have a long, hard conversation about race, including a white man who wants to know why people of color can’t “just be American” since he doesn’t “see race.” The question is put forward in this clip. The response, in this second clip, is raw, powerful, and unforgettable.
If you have other links to things you’ve found especially helpful in thinking about race, I invite you to leave them in a comment for me. I will definitely go to your link and read it.
Image credit: Monisha.pushparaj @ Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under Creative Commons.