Source: Robin DiAngelo’s definition on an image by The Love Life of an Asian Guy
Dear Fellow White Women,
I want to tell you a story.
Today my friend D, a Black woman, made a Facebook post about a white woman–a total stranger–approaching her at the farmers market and hugging her without her consent. My friend couched that experience as a race-based aggression. Many other black women chimed in to say they experience the same thing on the regular.
As Maisha Johnson says, “The objectification of Black bodies has been part of US culture since slavery, and it’s still going strong as one of our everyday struggles.”
In spite of this, a white woman–let’s call her Jenny–commented at length to argue that the violation had nothing to do with race at all and she, too, had been touched without consent. This is what I told her and am sharing with D’s permission:
I think we all agree that touching other people without an invitation is a violation.
What makes it totally different here is the power differential. The consequences for a white person touching a black person are NOT the same as a black person touching a white person. The consequences for a black woman doing that to a white woman could be injury or death, as D already explained. The same is not true in reverse.
It is precisely BECAUSE of white supremacy that you don’t see the issue here. You don’t see the power difference because you don’t have to. D sees it because it is the material reality of her life every day. The fish, as they say, is the last to notice the water. That’s the nature of privilege.
It is precisely because of white supremacy, too, that white women feel entitled to touch black women; this is true even if it is unconscious. We can’t look at this ahistorically, as the entire foundation of interactions between white and Black women had to do with power and ownership. That doesn’t all just fall away because it’s 2017 in the farmers market.
When we tell women of color that their experience wasn’t about race, we are at the height of our ignorance and privilege. We are showing how little we have to consider issues of power and race in our daily lives because it just doesn’t apply to us. If D says it was about race, if she says she was violated, the best and only reaction is to believe her. When we question and argue, we engage in gaslighting and that (like touching women of color without their consent) is a power play and a show of white supremacy–again, whether intentional or not.
D’s analysis of what happened is built not only on her lived experience as a Black woman but also on history. I wonder if you might get curious about your resistance to taking D’s word for what happened and trusting her analysis of it. What do you think that’s about? I’d argue that your unwillingness to believe her probably says a lot more about you and white supremacy than it says about her or the event itself.
Jenny wrote back with a wall of text, admonishing me and D for “making everything about race,” and she said we all had a “skewed reality,” that “all that stuff is behind us.” It was almost like hysterical jabbering, as if perhaps if she could keep talking and writing she wouldn’t have to confront or interrupt her own white supremacist programming. This, too, is an effect of that same programming.
Fellow white women, when lots of people make an effort to educate us? That’s a thing we should be grateful for. When we feel like resisting, we have an obligation to get curious: why are we resistant? What feels dangerous about accepting the truths that are being offered? What does it say about us when we can’t accept the experiences of people of color and their classification of those experiences as racial violence? Why do we feel compelled to hang on tightly to this particular piece of our white supremacist programming? What are we afraid to lose?
I’ve been schooled and returned to my lane by women of color and white women alike and sometimes I’ve handled it less gracefully than others. I understand the desire to put our pants back on (because our white asses are hanging out for sure), but that’s not the answer. Don’t be like Jenny, who totally deleted our entire exchange and vanished; leave the embarrassing shit out there for everyone to read. Stick around and learn something. Endure the humiliation, because it’s a tiny thing, relative to the entire U.S. history of colonialism, conquest, slavery, and violation.
Here are some protips:
- Stop talking. When we jabber about how we, too, experience pain in response to a woman of color describing violence she has experienced, we are centering ourselves. Do not pull a “me, too!” This is white supremacist programming. Instead, ask yourself, “Why am I talking right now?” Listen, acknowledge, and learn.
- Be grateful and endure the embarrassment. When someone reveals our white supremacist programming and it feels humiliating and we want to get defensive, hide, or lash out: don’t. We ought to be grateful to be given the chance to detect a piece of the toxicwhite supremacist programming inside ourselves when it would otherwise remain invisible to us. Collecting this data gives us the chance do less harm going forward and that is part of the work. Instead of walls of text, we can simply say, “Thank you. I hadn’t thought of it that way and I appreciate what you’re saying here. I’ll change my behavior going forward.”
- Don’t delete that shit. When we want to delete our embarrassment, we must not. Deleting is another show of white supremacist programming–it’s power and control, based in terror and shame. We need to grit our teeth, endure, and leave it out there because: 1. Deleting the exchange robs other people from the chance to learn from our mistakes. 2. It’s a form of silencing and rhetorical violence. 3. Deleting erases the labor that people put into educating us.
There is a reason we ought to say white supremacy and not racism; it is a more specific and accurate description of the race-based system of power that is embedded in the history of this country. Calling it white supremacy and white supremacist programming reveals this history in an accurate and specific way.
Still arguing with me and refusing to accept my friend D’s classification of her experience as a race-based violation, Jenny wrote, “I believe that there is a skewed sense here that unintentionally or intentionally touching someone whether black or white could get someone hurt. Those days are behind us.”
If multiple black women have told us that this is part of their lived experience and it can be traced back to the origin story of this nation, then we have an obligation to honor the gift of their sharing by listening with the grain (rather than against, always ready to deny and argue and re-classify). We ought to be grateful for any and all efforts to help us dismantle another piece of our chronic white supremacist programming.
If I found out I had a terrible tumor (let’s call it White Supremacy) growing inside me and it had been there my whole life but I never noticed because it had always just been there and a doctor asked me if I wanted to try to cut it out of me little by little for the rest of my life, I would know that it would hurt. But I would want to do it.