So I upset a white woman today. A straight, white, able bodied, cisgender woman. I did this by saying her professions of being colorblind, or more accurately “I treat everyone equally; we are all the same under our skin,” were offensive.
Here’s what happens when you are a marginalized person immersed in communities largely populated by people with dominant identities. The upswell of support for this white woman was immediate and fierce. Her hurt feelings and bruised ego necessitated calls of “explain yourself!” directed at me.
Why is it never enough for me to say this is offensive, it’s not true, and it’s not helpful? Why is it never enough for me to tell you I am tired of swimming upstream while you hum Pete Seeger protest songs and pat yourself on the back? My heart is breaking from bearing witness to friends, acquaintances, and strangers whose bodies and lives are on the front lines of my white culture’s violent racism, but that isn’t enough for you. The tons of science and scholarship disproving colorblindness as possible or worthy of pursuit, curated for you by me on my Facebook wall, isn’t enough. Instead what I hear is it’s just “one opinion,” it’s just “semantics.”
Rather than feeling seen, and feeling heard, and feeling taken care of, I have to build a case—while the white woman didn’t have to explain herself at all.
So when you ask why I’m not saying #AllLivesMatter, when you say that pointing out difference divides us, my answer is this: You know me, you love and care for me, you know my social justice expertise and in fact you often rely on it, lift it up, and brag about it, yet it is very clear to me that one white woman’s hurt feelings matter more. This is why I must insist that #BlackLivesMatter, because it’s a knee jerk reaction to care about one white woman’s hurt feelings no matter how many clear, reasoned explanations someone you know brings forward. This is exactly why we have to keep chanting that #BlackLivesMatter—we have to keep chanting it long enough and hard enough to make a dent in the need to protect one white woman’s feelings.
As a queer white man, I am keenly aware that the burden I feel of swimming up this current is nothing compared to what my friends of color experience, and the pain I feel simply serves as a point of empathy. And I’m also aware that if my white friends won’t listen to me, they sure aren’t listening to a community of color expressing its outrage.
So what will it take? What’s required to call you forward? Why were the hurt feelings of one white woman so important? What would it take to shift from there to “I wonder what has my friend, who is usually so patient and kind, so upset?” What would our world look like if those of us on the margins could bring our selves, scars, and all and it was enough to trump a white woman’s hurt feelings?
9 thoughts on “I upset a white woman today”
Thank you for this.
So, what can a white woman do…other than apologize? Have offended someone myself recently – completely unintentionally – I wish I knew.
Alison- thank you for asking the question. Certainly apologizing in the moment does help when we make mistakes. The goal of anti-racism work isn’t to get stuck in a place of feeling guilty and powerless, but it’s natural to go there.
I would suggest starting with some education and then connecting with organizations like SURJ (Standing Up for Racial Justice). They have great resources for white folks seeking to become anti-racist allies. It’s going to take us as white folks to undo this on a personal, community, and institutional level. SURJ may be able to link you to organizations and people in your area who are coming together for this very purpose.
I found Tema Okun’s book, The Emperor Has No Clothes, to be helpful. She has a great 40 min video available on YouTube.
Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, speaks directly to the racial injustice at the heart of our criminal justice and prison systems.
I will also gather some additional links to resources and post them later today in this comment thread.
Saying that it is offensive isn’t always enough. People need to know why. When people can find the root of a problem they have a better chance at improving the situation. Some people like to bitch and point fingers with no urge to try and make things better. Some people enjoy playing the victim without ever trying to actually make a difference. Some people love being rude and angry. Just because someone is cisgendered and white doesn’t mean they don’t diserve to be heard because of their privilege. People are given privilege by other people that treat people differently based of many things… including race. My opinion… stop being ass holes to one and other. Try to understand someone and how they think. You aren’t always right. Understanding someone’s intentions. A girl says I don’t see color… you say I’m offended… and then say you don’t need to give a reason why. The intention of the girl wasn’t a bad intention. There are so many damn people that say things that offend me on a daily bases. If I know they are just ignorant and their intentions are in good faith, Im not going to rude to them and shut them out without educating them. I’m not going to start a fight and make things worse.
Alison – I may have misinterpreted your question, and if that’s the case, I apologize.
As a white, hetero, cisgender male, I’ve been called out a few times in my life, in person and through articles like this. Here’s the course of actions I’ve been able to put together as a response to getting called out, especially by folks for whom I want to be a good ally. Part of the goal of this chain of actions is preventing any kind of escalation.
(1) Take a few seconds to set aside whatever feelings of hurt or offense you feel in the moment.
(2) Next, set aside the notion that you are OWED an explanation. In situations where there’s a social power dynamic, the person calling you out has doubtless had to deal with whatever you said or did many, many times before, and they may be exhausted from explaining it so many times. They don’t owe you an explanation, and you can almost certainly get one elsewhere.
(3) Apologize. It’s helpful to think of this as its own, separate step, otherwise any sincerity will be lost in any riders you attach to the apology.
(4) Commit to educating yourself about what you got wrong, so that you don’t hurt people again. IF the situation allows for it, you can say something to that effect out loud. Again, though, it’s not really about you, it’s about the people or person you accidentally hurt. Whatever you do, don’t make it a conversation about you.
Often it’s best to leave it here, and look into what happened later. The worst thing you can do at this point is create a full-on confrontation, and forcing further discussion (a) makes it about you and (b) will almost certainly make it into an escalation.
If the situation allows, and you feel urgent about it, you can ask if someone could point you in the right direction, or you can just do what you did here and ask someone like Teo.
I hope that’s helpful to someone in some way.
I agree with you that going straight to confrontation is not usually the most helpful tool in our social justice tool kit. Now I do think this varies depending on where folks fall on the privilege spectrum and its inversely proportionate exhaustion & fear spectrum. It’s the very rational behind white allies doing anti-racism education and activism in white communities. It shouldn’t be the burden of peoples of color to educate us or even take care of us.
People who know me personally and as social justice/ anti-oppression trainer will affirm that I am known for my gentleness and my compassion when helping folks grapple with what it means for them to have privilege and how to accountably participate in social justice movements.
This piece was written from a place of pain and frustration after I had gently attempted to educate & provide resources. I wasn’t on the lookout for things to get riled up about. In fact I had stopped reading what this woman posted on FB because it was so racist & I had not found her willing to engage meaningfully.
One of the areas of deep work for me at present is in allowing myself to express anger when called for. I long ago associated anger with abuse because of my own trauma history. I have compassion and gentleness down. What I am learning is that sometimes outrage is called for. Some situations require a firm “stop this now.” The skill is in understanding that anger cannot be the full sentence. Fire can be life giving or destructive. I am learning that anger can be a spark that provides energy while rage may end up being the inferno. As a white man, it isn’t for me to have an opinion on where peoples of color fall on the anger to rage continuum. For me, using my anger to call attention to injustice after quietly offering education has failed is an important part of my tool kit.
Pam McMichael of the Highlander Center and SURJ posted this resource for white allies:
I actually found this conversation very helpful. Sometimes, we offend people completely unintentionally, without knowng how or why. In my case, I did apologize, I listened, I tried to “understand” as best I could. It seemed there was a whole history of anger underneath the reaction, just waiting to explode. For that reason, there was little else, in the moment I could do. I then wrote a piece (for very public consumption – a major media outlet) about how I had learned from this experience. I shared it with the person in question. And they put the kibosh on the publication. Fine. I killed it. But, now I really do want to learn how to do better, be supprotive, move the conversation forward, and almost most importantly, how to be a good citizen in a very diverse community, from what I know is a position of very great priviledge. I think for many white folks, it’s very hard to accept that place in society.
Teo, thank you for this post. I didn’t even know that you had a blog until this post, so I am grateful for the white woman in question for that. I am sorry that you have had to go through this, it sounds so painful. And please know that you have such beloved community at your back and your front. And thank you also for your recognition that however painful this is for you in this moment, the pain that Black people experience daily from racism is so much greater.
I found Alteredstory’s offerings very helpful, clear, and instructive.
In response to Alison, I think that those with privilege are bound to hurt people without that privilege. It is just going to happen, it is unavoidable, it is part of that privilege. And so, how do we behave in that moment of having caused harm? What is most helpful, skillful, loving both in the immediate and in the longer term? Something that has helped me in my work in social justice is to recognize that we have all been hurt, and we have all hurt others, and that, as one of my spiritual teachers has said, ‘pain is pain’. This helps humanize and leads to compassion. And some of us are put in harms way by oppression, colonization, legacies of genocide and slavery, witch hunts, medical pathologization, etc. And so, how do we work to expand our hearts to hold all the pain-and have the courage to continue to learn more about the pain in the world, and hold those in, and through trauma?
Teo I appreciate your statements about anger. It has such an important place. As one of my teachers says, anger tells us that something is wrong. That is so important. And for those taught to suppress anger, we must clear space for it in the process of (re)claiming our full humanity.
And then for people with marginalized identities, how do we practice self care, and cultivate the courage enough to keep coming into relationship with people across difference, knowing that we will be hurt? For me, I avoided certain kinds of people for years because I didn’t want to be confronted with the unskillful things that they may say. I also felt alone- at yoga teacher trainings, at Buddhist meditation retreats. Now I have found a true sangha, and the immense strength that that gives me enables me to turn towards the difficult, the pain, and my own fears of my past being reproduced. For me, growth, evolution, beauty is here, in the turning towards, AND I know that I can’t do it by myself.