When well-meaning white people talk about racism, our voices sound odd.
Her voice trembles, then rises, and I hear my white friend say, “I am just tired of it not being okay for me to talk about race. That’s bullshit.” I look around the table at the other women and wonder how safe it is for my friend to talk about race here. We are well-meaning liberal feminists, mostly white, one woman of color. I think it is pretty safe for my white friend. But I don’t know. The way her voice shakes and she seems about to shout, start an argument, maybe punch someone? She is defending herself, that is clear. She is ready to fight. But what I don’t know is, who is she fighting with?
For white people to cop to racism and our participation in it can be an act of courage. It can mean standing up to the slaveowners: family, mentors, teachers, pastors, people we love and admire.
At work if I talk about race everyone gets uncomfortable and I hear, loud and clear in their posture, that they would rather I just “move on”. By talking about race, I have raised up fear and anxiety. My white co-workers are afraid of saying the wrong thing, and my co-workers of color…well, I don’t know what they feel. But I can tell they would rather I shut up, too.
My friend Vanessa tells me that she knows that it is her job, at work, whenever the subject of race comes up, to make sure that white people are comfortable. If she needs to talk about discrimination, not just as a big vague institutional something, but as a personal call to accountability for specific behavior, in any context, it is important that white people be protected from uncomfortable feelings. She tells me that she was taught this, has learned it since she was young, because that is what a Black woman must do to survive.
To survive. Not to be accepted or liked or promoted, but to survive.
In my white experience I have not had to act a certain way to survive…not as a white (male) person. My whiteness has always protected me. Being female in a man’s profession has been dangerous. Being lesbian in a rural community was dangerous (and I moved back to the city).
I have sometimes leaned on being white to keep me safe. Stopping for gas late at night, I am relieved that if I must be female, I am still white. Out in the woods with my girl on a camping trip, when the “good” ol’ boys with guns drive by in their pickup, I am glad I am white. White is a cloak I can wear, over my lesbian female body, to help keep me safe.
A white lesbian acquaintance tries to explain about her mother. Her mother is definitely racist and is also the sweetest woman who doesn’t mean to be racist. The white lesbian wants us to know where she stands. She does not agree with the sweet racist woman who raised her. As she talks, the white lesbian’s voice gets loud and I can start to hear this desperate assertion, almost like exaggeration, a case being made to prove the white lesbian’s innocence.
Innocent means Not Guilty. But my acquaintance and I – we are both guilty. I am guilty. Guilty of wearing the cloak of white protection on purpose, in times of danger, and mindlessly, every day, because I can.
Melodrama. That’s what I’ve heard in other well-meaning white people’s speech. I hear it in mine. My voice is too loud, a little false, like a made-up story is coming, like I am not sure the words belong to me. Stepping out of line, out of the usual role, my words seem over done.
I have been working on cultivating gentleness, for myself, for others. But there are times when gentleness does not serve us, and when the courage it takes for white people to speak must be placed beside the courage it takes for people of color to survive. If my voice rings false, gets overloud, if I protest too much, how am I distancing myself? How am I trying to retrieve, in the midst of speaking out against racism, my mantle of white privilege to protect me from the possible consequences?
If I dropped my white protection on the camping trip, at the gas station, at work, what would happen to me? Would I be only female, only lesbian? How would I keep myself safe?
I come back to the system of oppression, of white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism. Racism keeps me in line as a white woman, as a lesbian. It keeps me clinging to my white cloak to protect me in a world which is inherently opposed to my whole survival. This world would like parts of me to survive but not all of me, and so it requires that I constantly act in a way that highlights the acceptable parts. I can feel this especially at school, at work, in places where rank and status are informed by performance, by what I am able to produce and deliver.
But they [white co-workers] are anxious, too, anxious (because it is work) to give the right response, to support me and my “pet” issue. So if I speak about racism at work I know that I am always walking into / answering against a mix of fear and anxiety [white anxiety about being held accountable or losing face as non-racist and color anxiety about survival]...and it is very clear to me that it is my fault.
By talking about race, I have raised up fear and anxiety [in white co-workers]. Part of why my [white] co-workers wish I would just shut up is because fear and anxiety are uncomfortable feelings. Work is about being a team, from bagels in the morning to happy hours at Sam’s, we are a family. “Let’s all get along” sounds like “let’s be white” to me…let’s pretend that race isn’t an issue, which means pretending we [all co-workers] are all white (we aren’t) and that the experiences of co-workers of color aren’t any different than white [co-workers] experience…at least not enough that we [white co-workers] should talk about it.
What I want to remember is the way in which my speech limits what I can think and, in that, how much I can hold myself accountable for my racism. I want to notice how my speech limits my effectiveness as an anti-racism activist. In arguing against the system, I perpetuate it. Not only in overt distancing behaviors, but in a lack of imagination for new words to describe my reality. Earnest, well-meaning, desperate to be of use and be helpful, my rhetoric itself still supports the system of oppression.
My friend’s voice shook as she spoke, her body trembling. I remember this clearly. It was her body trembling that made me notice her voice getting louder and the sense of readying for a fight. It is in my body that I can sense something I have written as not-quite-right. Subtle, elusive, but there…a flag to look for the hidden words, the language of the system.
In my body, too, I can feel the fear of being female, of being lesbian. I don’t know if you can hear this in the words I used, which are simple – “gas station at night” – “men with guns in a pickup.” I can feel it as I write the words. The words are rhetoric, the images generic, but the fear is deep in my belly and very real.
That note of melodrama that I hear in my voice and in other well-meaning white women’s voices…it almost has a tinge of hysteria. When white women talk about race we are afraid of what it will cost us, of how we will survive without white protection. So we want to talk against racism but we don’t want to lose white privilege, not really, more like we just want to broaden the mantle to ‘include everyone’.
If I can use my body to pay attention to my speech then my belly shows me the next question. How can I live dangerously? How does the fear of losing privilege and becoming vulnerable serve me as I do this work?
My gut sense is that the fear itself is useful for white activists – an opening point in which we can move forward with more authentic strength if we choose to be vulnerable. I choose to stay present / not run away / get curious. I choose not to defend / close down / fists up. I choose to be open. I choose to see what happens when the white cloak of protection goes away. I am willing to be vulnerable and unprotected, because white protection is not worth the life of my friend. White protection is not worth the half-life of myself, the survival of only parts of who I am, who I might be to my community, my world.