This guest post by Sarah Milstein was originally posted on The Huffington Post and is reposted with the author’s permission.
Last month, the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen erupted on Twitter. Started by Mikki Kendall, it immediately became a channel for women of color to call out how implicit racial bias, double standards for women of different races and overt racism are all baked into mainstream white feminism. If you’ve been following feminism for the past 150 years, you probably weren’t surprised by the range of grievances. But if you’re a white feminist and you were surprised or you felt defensive or you think you’re not part of the problem, then now is the time to woman up, rethink your own role and help reshape feminism.
While there are many reasons white feminists have to do this work, Kendall’s hashtag highlighted an important one: we cannot credibly or successfully seek societal change when we ourselves create the same injustices we rail against. In other words, the problems we face as women are often the problems we create as white people.
Since #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen trended, I have seen excellent pieces by women of color, many suggesting steps white women can take to be better allies. Their insights are leading us toward a more conscious feminism. White women, however, need to take responsibility for educating ourselves, too. So, here are five steps white feminists — myself included — can take to check ourselves, connect more genuinely with women of color and improve feminist outcomes for people of all races. As a test of the need for these actions, consider whether you’d want the men in your life to try each step in confronting their own sexism.
1. Recognize that even when your good intentions are truly good, that’s totally meaningless. This idea is hard to accept, because our culture suggests that we should feel like heroes just for wanting not to be racist. (Plus, it’s maddening to be misunderstood.) I have gotten hung up on those two horns frequently. But what matters is your impact, not your intentions, and you don’t get credit for thinking good thoughts.
Try this on for size: when you accidentally step on somebody else’s foot, you do not make your good intentions the focus of the episode. Instead, you check to make sure the other person is OK, you apologize, and you watch where you’re going. You don’t get annoyed with the person you stepped on because you caused her pain or declare that she is too sensitive or defend yourself by explaining that you meant to step to the left of her foot. When you crush another person’s toes, as Franchesca Ramsey has pointed out, everyone recognizes that your impact, not your intention, is what’s important.
Why isn’t that the standard for saying something when you didn’t intend to cause harm? For white women interacting with women of color, we may reflexively, unwittingly assume our experience — and therefore our intentions — are (or should be) primary. I’d argue that’s rooted in our internalizing cultural messages. But whatever the root, we have to get wise if we expect women of color to take us seriously.
So, when somebody points out that you’ve said or done something racist, perhaps something that hurt them personally, the game-changing response is first to understand that your intentions are not the centerpiece of the interaction. In other words: it’s not about you, which can be a genuinely hard to see. Once you let your intentions fall away, you can focus on what the other person is saying (recommended: assume she has a very valid point and try to understand where you went wrong). It changes no games to insist that you meant to be perfectly graceful.
2. If you feel defensive when talking about race with a woman of color or reading about race in a piece written by a woman of color, assume the other person is saying something especially true. That is: use your defensiveness as a Bat Signal, alerting you to your own biases. Sure, yes, of course, the other person may have said something insensitive or unreasonable. But if you want to change the dynamics of the world (reminder: you’re a feminist, so you do), assume your discomfort is telling you something about you, not about the other person. Then use those moments to listen more carefully.
Here’s a personal example. Writing on The Toast in July, Jessie-Lane Metz, a Black woman, called out supposed white allies for a number of harmful behaviors, including writing about episodes in which a white author describes racism they have perpetrated or witnessed:
My first critique is that this [writing] re-centres whiteness. When a person of colour speaks to their own experiences of racism, they are speaking to a collective pain, and speaking truth to power. When a person with white skin privilege gives an anecdote about racism, whether their own or someone else’s, they are exposing more racialized people to this discrimination, and reasserting their own privilege. The narrative is no longer about Black victims of racist crimes and a deeply flawed justice system, it is about white feelings about Black bodies and their experiences. This is not helpful to intersectional practice, as it implies that only by making an oppression about the oppressor can power-holders work towards becoming allies. Secondly, it disregards the feelings of Black people by exposing them to further racism in an effort to work on white privilege. I do not consent to being confronted with racism in the hopes that white folks can maybe start to exorcise their own internalized issues. Allies need to do this work on their own.
The first time I read Metz’s piece, I shifted in my chair a few times, recognizing things I’d done (writing about my own racism — which I won’t link to here, out of respect for Metz’s point) and trying to justify those actions (I think I’ve helped other white people become more aware of their privilege, which is good, right?). I felt distinctly defensive. Which made me want to dismiss what she was saying. Which made me realize I should leave the tab open and re-read the post when I could do so with a focus on her experience of white allies, not mine. (Obviously, I’m made my story of reading Metz central here; I realize there’s some irony and risk in that.)
I will admit that like many would-be allies, I’d like to be recognized for my open-mindedness — however minimal it may be (in this case, I left a tab open, hello) — when I feel put off. But getting rewarded is seriously, seriously not the goal, and you have to play through that desire for a cookie. Identifying a moment when you’re shutting down, and you instead shift to listening harder, with deeper empathy, and likely with quiet self-reflection — that’s the goal.
3. Look for ways that you are racist, rather than ways to prove you’re not. There are two key ideas here. First, you can’t change behaviors you’re not aware of, and if you’re constantly trying to assure yourself you’re not racist, you’re going to miss the ways you are. Second, once you’ve accepted that you are, in fact, racist some of the time, it’s a lot easier to drop the barrier of good intentions, let go of the defensiveness and take responsibility for your actions.
For most of us, identifying our own racism dredges up shame, which is a seriously unpleasant feeling and something we want to avoid. Plus which, assuming you’re not cavorting around your neighborhood in a white hood and sheet, it may not be that obvious to you that you are racist. But the thing is: you can’t avoid it. Everyone is born with the potential for racial bias and most children acquire it very early in life, so even if you do not identify as a racist, racism is baked into you. And then it’s reinforced by our culture. No point in feeling guilty because you’re a human and the product of a racist society. But, by all means, feel bad about yourself if you choose not to identify and work against your racial bias.
As I said earlier, you’re going to have a hard time challenging your own bias if you’re not even aware of it. So, seek out ideas and people that help you see yourself more clearly. If you need a place to start, diversify your media — consume articles, books, podcasts, radio, video and TV shows made by people of color — and when white folks are portrayed critically, find ways to identify with them rather than assume that you’re different than they are. The point here isn’t to take kick off a miasma of self-flagellation, but rather to gain perspective on yourself.
For example, I was recently reading, Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy. In it, Maggie Anderson, a Black corporate strategy consultant, talks about the experience she and her husband, a Black financial adviser, often have at dinner parties and office gatherings, as white people approach them:
People flock to us, asking about our backgrounds, where we live, even why my hair is “different” from most African-American women’s hair. (White folks never say “not kinky” or “more Black.” They say, “Wow, your hair is so thin!”)At some point, they tell us every detail about the lovely Black couple who attends their church or lives in their neighborhood. They want to introduce us. The logic goes something like this: They’re nice Black people. The Andersons are nice Black people. Nice people will like each other. And if both husbands play basketball, as I’m sure they must, we’re working up the Black friendship of a lifetime.
As I read, my first impulse was to think, “I’ve never mentioned (or touched) a Black person’s hair! Thank god I’m not one of those white people!” But when I let myself dwell for a minute in the scene Anderson describes, it’s clear I’ve done several of the things she rightly calls “clueless.” Centering my own behavior again: I’ve been awkwardly too friendly when introduced to Black folks at parties (see above on good intentions). When I meet people, I almost always ask where they live, without considering that my questions might come off as an investigation rather than as a way to connect (Ibid). I have definitely considered introducing Black folks in the tech sector just because they’re both Black (this, despite the fact that I really hate being introduced to women in business when the only things we obviously have in common are that we’re both women, and we both work).
These actions aren’t horribly destructive and virulently racist. But don’t be fooled by subtlety: small acts of bias make it harder to build genuine relationships. And maintaining personal distance helps white feminists stay disconnected from the concerns of people of color. So, accept that you’ll likely feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, but consider that you are like the other white folks that people of color describe.
4. Listen to people of color, even if you don’t know many. A common suggestion for white people who want to get a clue is to simply listen. Which is a critical step, and it’s especially important in your direct interactions with people of color. But what if none of your best friends are Black and you don’t work with many people of color either? As I mentioned earlier, you can make sure you’re taking in media created by people of color. You can also do a ton of thoughtful listening on Twitter — a medium that gives you legitimate access to the thoughts and conversations of people you may not know.
I’ve written before about how you can — and should — follow people of color in a respectful way on Twitter. You can also seek out some of the stellar women mentioned in the recent campaign kicked off by Feminista Jones that identified #SmartBlackWomenOfTwitter, #SmartLatinaWomenofTwitter, #SmartAAPIWomenOfTwitter, etc. If you’re already overloaded on Twitter, try a swap: for every new woman of color you follow, unfollow a white guy. You might be surprised by the effect such a simple step can have on your perspective.
5. Use your feminist powers to identify instances when people of color are under-represented or misrepresented, and speak out about it. You’re already in the habit of noticing when lists and groups include few or no women. Tweak your internal algorithm to notice when people of color are missing, too. Then say something.
Women of color don’t need us to speak for them, and there are times when standing quietly in solidarity is important. But very often, speaking up is important — not only because it may influence others, but also because it will likely influence you. As a recent Guardian piece noted: “when you’re confronted by prejudice and you don’t object to it, your own attitudes shift in a more prejudiced direction, to maintain consistency between your behaviour and your beliefs.”
Of course, there is a chance that raising an issue as a white person may help other white people see it more clearly or see it in the first place. (Indeed, if you’ve read this far, ask yourself: “Would I have stayed with the piece if it had been written by a woman of color — or might I have dismissed it early on as ‘too angry’?”) And you may wonder if inserting yourself is really progress. Instead, wonder this: If white feminists don’t strive to see what women of color see and don’t consider those perspectives as central as our own, are we truly interested in challenging injustice at all?