I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about how to go about writing this post. But the points that I need to make are really absurdly simple:
+ White women benefit from, and uphold, systemic and structural racism.
+ Coming to terms with that complicity is imperative to building a more just and equitable future.
+ Listening to Black women and following their lead and their example is a habit shift that all people who call themselves feminists can benefit from.
This piece is decidedly not—to borrow a phrase from Black folks—to prove that I’m woke. My blind spots abound. I’m a White woman with considerable privilege and as much energy as I feel like I’ve committed to dismantling a misogynist patriarchy, I also benefit from it. I have work to do.
Last year, as the country reeled from the violent, outward expression of the myth of White supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia, I wrote a post which called for White parents to talk resolutely with their children about race. I wrote about how ignoring racism doesn’t dismantle it. At the end of the piece, I included a list of resources for adults to consult, too, but I didn’t really confront the adult part of the conversation head on. I’m hoping to do that now. In my own online community this week, a terribly sad discussion has unfolded that brings to the fore the consequences of White fragility and the failure of so many White women to reckon with our privilege.
I’ve chosen to center Black women in this piece because I’ve benefited from the labor of Black women activists and public thinkers specifically. What I’ve been hearing them say is that they need White women to both own their complicity in racist systems and to do more active work to disavow it. To be clear: What I’m saying here, Black women—and many other people of color—have said before me. My intention isn’t to regurgitate and reframe their labor as my own, but to invite other folks, and White women especially, to turn a generous ear in their direction.
Why hold myself accountable as a White woman?
I’ve found it to be helpful to look at the expectations I have for men. In the same way that I can look at the system that supports and protects and upholds the comfort of men generally, and White men, in particular, and feel enraged at the unfairness, I’ve learned I can also critique the privilege of White women like myself. I can—and must—recognize the comfort and protection that I enjoy by accident of my birth, and realize the role I need to play in dismantling it and reallocating it. I expect men to give up the privileges that they enjoy that might hurt me. So too must I give up the privileges I hold that harm others.
For other folks thinking about this work, a few guidelines that I’ve developed for myself that might be helpful:
Diversify your feed.
Not all of us live in diverse communities, but each of us has access to a rich online community. Two years ago, I realized with no small amount of shame that the majority of the people who I followed on social media were White women, around my own age. When I began to make a concerted effort to follow women of color—activists and otherwise— my experience of social media was enriched. Of course it was. In the September issue of Vogue, Beyoncé says: “The beauty of social media is it’s completely democratic. Everyone has a say. Everyone’s voice counts, and everyone has a chance to paint the world from their own perspective.” Let’s take advantage of that small d democracy and use it to broaden our understanding of other peoples’ experiences.
Don’t police Black women.
It can be deeply uncomfortable to reckon with my privilege. That’s the point. Part of the process of changing a system that gives women like me an unfair advantage is to spend some time getting more uncomfortable not less. My goal is to listen to Black women, not to ask them to cater their message around my feelings. Robin DeAngelo’s new book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism explores the ways that White people’s reactions to conversations about race in general have historically halted progress toward equity.
Think outside of yourself.
As activist Rachel Cargle so concisely advises White women, “Look for ways that you are racist, rather than ways to prove you’re not.” And as Brittany Packnett recently wrote for The Cut, “When a Black woman asks for solidarity, don’t react with defensiveness. Don’t think about your own self-interest. All of us must be willing to be pushed by the people most affected by the issue we seek to help solve. I am not an ally for the LGBTQ community if I am above correction by actual LGBTQ people. The same goes for us all, my sisters.”
Don’t ask Black women to do your homework.
When I have a question about what more I might be able to do, I return to the resources that Black women have already developed, rather than interrogating them personally to provide me with answers. Even more important, I’m trying to become more comfortable with sharing the burden of responsibility and speaking forthrightly myself. Again, Brittany Packnett has wise counsel: “As you learn, share what you know with other people of privilege, unburdening those of us already oppressed from doing that work. As you do this, apply a similar series of actions to issues of injustice where you live, work, play, and worship.”
Pay Black women.
Many Black activists doing the tireless work to change systems have provided easy-to-use methods—like Patreon and Paypal—to help folks pay them for their services. I’ve started to pay them. If you follow their feeds and rely on their work, you might consider doing the same. More than that, support Black-owned businesses. Reallocate resources to the Black community. Blk + Green is a really great resource for Black-owned companies in the sustainability space and Black Minimalists maintains an excellent directory of brands (and writers!) as well.
Who to turn to from here?
Here’s a shortlist of contemporary Black women activists, writers, thinkers, podcasters, etc. who I have learned from on issues of social justice in particular. (There are many, many others. Please share in the comments below.) These are women who do much of their work online, but of course there’s a rich history of Black literature that is also important to explore. To get started there, follow the work of Well-Read Black Girl and buy Glory Edim’s book of the same name!.
A few more names (updated on June 1, 2020):
Angela Davis: Freedom is Constant Struggle (among others!)
This post includes affiliate links. Reading My Tea Leaves might earn a small commission on the goods purchased through those links.