Women of color have publicly rebuked me three times. I didn’t appreciate it when it was happening but now I’m thankful for these experiences. They helped me begin to remove the space suit of privilege that keeps me hermetically sealed from inequity and oppression. This post is for white folks like me. Learn from my ignorance.
I attended my first step show in college. I was astounded and captivated by the rhythm, the discipline, and the air of celebration in the packed auditorium. A woman of color in front of me noticed some of her friends behind me, prompting a delightful outburst of joy and hand signs. (I would later come to learn that hand signs are a part of sorority culture.)
Wanting to join in on the conviviality, and not knowing any better, I locked eyes with some of the women and attempted to replicate the hand gestures. Their faces dropped as they saw what I was trying to do. Stop. This isn’t for you, one of the women behind me said. My face flushed fire engine red as I pinned my hands to my sides and sat down. Mercifully, I was quickly forgotten as the women went back to enjoying the event and each other’s company. My white shame was overwhelming.
The next day I recounted the story to a friend in an attempt to figure out what happened. What had I done that was so offensive? My friend gave me a quick rundown on the Divine Nine. He said that the rituals and knowledge of African American Greek and fraternal organizations were closed off to me because I wasn’t a member. Fascinated, I pressed him for more. But no matter how hard I pleaded, he refused to yield. This isn’t for you, he echoed. As a privileged white male, this was the first time in my life when I was denied access to knowledge. The situation caused me to reflect on the history of slave masters denying African Americans access to education, rightfully compounding my guilt.
Three years ago I created a Twitter account for professional purposes. One morning a lively discussion about racist curricula and school discipline dominated my feed. I found myself nodding along and cosigning on everything that was being said. Without thinking I charged into the conversation, inserting my unsolicited voice into a space it didn’t belong. Even though I thought I was helping out, I had no business butting in.
With all due respect, one of the discussion participants Tweeted to me, please stay on the sidelines for this. I froze. So great was the embarrassment that I raced to delete my comments, unfollow everyone involved in the conversation, and close my laptop. I slunk down into my chair, saturated with the same white fragility I experienced at the step show. I wasn’t upset at anyone but myself, but I still didn’t “get it.” I must have been misunderstood, I thought. After all, I was just trying to help!
Last summer, determined to “get it right,” I barged into another Twitter conversation about the representation of girls of color in the movie Moana. I had just finished the revelatory Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique Morris. The conversation was about the hyper-sexualization of girls of color in popular media, a topic Morris explores throughout her book. Spurred on by the privileged notion that I had an inalienable right to participate in every conversation and speak on every topic, I fired off a few pedantic tweets about the book and how it refers to hyper-sexualization as “age compression.” It did not go well. The discussion leader immediately called me out, rightfully excoriating me and demanding that I get off of their timeline. My privilege stood between their words and my own understanding.
Determined to get to the bottom of what was going on, I sought out people of color on Twitter and followed them. Academics, pop culture critics, authors, organizers, students, it didn’t matter. At the time, my goal was to figure out what was going on in order to be able to join discussions without getting called out. It had nothing to do with critical consciousness; I just didn’t want to get shamed.
But the more I followed and listened, the more I started to “get it.” The discussions I was inserting myself into were not mine. I realized how I was treating conversations among people of color as something to be commandeered and dominated for my own gain. As if every public space was simply another venue for me to broadcast my own beliefs, whatever those beliefs may be.
This blog post is written to white people like me. People who need to talk less and listen more. People who need to remove themselves from the center and elevate others. If you’re interested in improving, here are some quick and easy ways to get started.
- Be mindful of the social media accounts you follow and rebroadcast.
- Read or watch a quick primer on privilege. It will help.
- Talk with the women and people of color in your life. Develop relationships with them and listen to them.
- In case you hadn’t heard, online spaces can be extremely toxic and hateful for women and people of color. When you see white people engaging in inappropriate and disrespectful behavior, engage them. There’s no value in ‘feeding the trolls,’ but there’s value in holding each other accountable and assuming that once we know better, we can do better.
- Stop talking and listen more!
If you find yourself getting rebuked, take the loss. Lick your wounds, dab your white tears, and move on. Head back into the conversation, but this time just listen. As white folks we must keep each other in check and amplify voices of color. It’s not about us.