On whiteness

I had already made up my mind not to go. I couldn’t possibly. I laid awake the night before agonizing about it. And now I was going to march into this woman’s office and just let her down easy. She didn’t miss a beat,

“You are the president of this organization and it is your responsibility to go.”

So I moved immediately to plan B: continue agonizing.

Isn’t a white girl going to the “Big XII conference on Black student government” wrong? Disrespectful even? But I was the president of my school’s diversity programming/advocacy group and my advisor, the director of multicultural programming had made herself clear. I was going.

I knew I wouldn’t be the only one. There were two other white girls in attendance and both had come with my school. I noted I was the only blonde. A fact that made me feel like I had a strobe light on my head. I was so nervous as to how I would be received that I just wanted to blend in with the wall. Strobe lights don’t blend well.

I felt like a fish out of water. Except in this case I hadn’t realized I was a fish. Or that my whole life was water. Until I was actually in a scenario where I was in the minority by the largest of margins, I didn’t realize the experience I was used to having was so… white. Or that being surrounded by whiteness provided me a constant ability to blend in, maybe even a subconscious sense of belonging?*

*I want to admit it felt gross to type that. But I’m here for the messy, so I’m looking right at it.

Some people were curious to ask about what had brought us there. Welcomed us, happy we had come to learn. Others were visibly less thrilled. I remember being particularly bummed out leaving an inspired, uplifting gospel performance and overhearing unkind words about our presence as we left. After such a beautiful shared experience, it hurt my feelings.

The last night we were there I decided to turn in early. I was alone in the hotel elevator when the doors opened and a group of young men from the conference were waiting to go up. They looked at me and confirmed with one another “we’ll wait.” But one of the waiting men got on.

Feeling a bit low but grasping for naive enthusiasm, I nodded toward our shared conference name tags and introduced myself. I can totally picture 21 year old me with her hand eagerly extended. Asking for some sort of affirmation. He looked from my hand to my face and replied, “I know who you are” and turned to face the doors again.

I’m sure I held my breath while my lip quivered. I don’t know how I made it to my advisor’s room. It’s entirely possible I crawled. I was completely devastated. I hadn’t meant any harm. I had been trying to do good work on campus and taking all the flack that came with activism on a small, 97% white, conservative campus. I was there because it was asked of me, and striving not take up too much space. I felt like he hated me. Not to mention the men who refused to even ride with me. I felt tiny and disposable.

I gasped for air to tell my story through sobbs. But as my advisor realized that no actual emergency was taking place, she began laughing. At once, one of the most confusing and life changing moments of my life.

It’s been around 15 years but the words she said next have hung around the forefront of my mind ever since.

“I don’t mean to laugh at you. The way he treated you was unkind. I’m sorry that your feelings are hurt. I really am. There is a saying that you can tell how Black someone is by how much oppression they can take. And honey, you are white. What you don’t realize is that I have that experience with professors at your University every day I come to work. Who won’t make eye contact with me or share an elevator when we’ve long shared a hallway. Professors you respect.”

She went on to talk about racism she experiences every day. I had made a choice to be in the minority at a conference for 3 days but she often counts the number of people who look like her in a room to find zero. The experience that had turned me into a puddle was an everyday occurrence for her in a space we both occupied. And as her words washed over me I realized just how much I didn’t know about the water I was very much a fish in.

While she spoke my eyes grew bigger. My skin got just a little thicker. My perspective was forever impacted.

This is honestly a story I don’t tell white people very often. Thinking that perhaps it would be upheld as “proof” of “reverse discrimination” when what’s really happening here is privilege, mine. Privilege to walk on a campus everyday and not be subject to racism directed at me. To not see these on going, everyday acts of dismissal. To be constantly slighted by peers, the only person who looks like me in the room. Privilege that made me feel entitled to pleasantries from a stranger in an elevator and broke me when I didn’t receive them. As such a thing had never happened to me before. Privilege to choose 3 days of discomfort others describe as daily occurrences, stretched across a lifetime. Ranging from annoying to hurtful to violent.

With that lense my “one time this guy wouldn’t shake my hand story” didn’t carry the same meaning.

Racism wasn’t a brand new concept to me at the time. I was spending much of my free time working to combat stereotypes and hate speech my school. A few years prior on a mission trip in Tennessee, our group was rerouted to an area “less” populated by Klan when the organization realized we had a Black student in our group. In the area we were rerouted to he was subjected to families refusing to open the door for him, sending their kids out to call him racial slurs while he worked on much needed repairs to their homes. It was there I was berated by a white boy for “disavowing my race” by dating outside of it, and the equally hurtful but less aggressive curious questions from white girls about if I just couldn’t “get” a white boy instead. I found these things shocking and my boyfriend did not. But as my cloak of whiteness allows me to not see racism in the water where I am a fish, I somehow believed this more blatant racism existed in a bubble in the South. Not among my liberal professors. Not in my daily life. I was wrong.

By the measure my advisor spoke, that was the whitest day of my life. The day the smallest slight left me in a fragile heap at her door. But I emerged aware of how very much I would never know.

In spite of the blatant racist language I’d heard from students on campus which brought me to my advisor and the organization to begin with, I’d thought the professors were completely different. To find out the people on campus who I felt most supported by were not safe places for everyone was a shock. And one I hoped to never forget.

From there I read more. I learned about the stages of racial identity, which helped me understand myself better as well as where other people were coming from in their own processes. I read about whiteness, fragility, privilege. I attended, organized and lead workshops about oppression. I began making a point in my life to notice who was represented where I was and who wasn’t. To listen and get to work whenever someone spoke up to say they don’t feel safe, or were facing discrimination. To find what is mine to do and do it.

I began filling in the holes of my knowledge and limitations of my experience but just scratched the surface. I acknowledged and felt all the very real feelings that came up for me in this process. Guilt, shame, feeling like I belonged nowhere, wanting to disavow parts of myself and coming to terms with it.

I found accountability to be the actionable place where unhelpful guilt doesn’t live.

I never wanted to forget that people and places that felt welcoming and safe to me could offer someone else insolation, belittling and hurt or worse. And yet that’s exactly what I’ve felt like for the past few weeks. When you’re a fish you don’t have to think much about the water. And ours is toxic in ways I genuinely held hope it wasn’t.

Living with my husband for the last 10 years continues to pry my eyes open to everyday differences in our experience and how we navigate the world. While I think little of accidentally leaving the house without my wallet, he never goes anywhere without ID. Because he has never had an encounter with police, even as a passenger in a traffic stop or just walking down the street where he wasn’t asked to provide it. When he still had his afro, the price he paid for it was being pulled over in the suburbs where he worked so often it affected his job performance. Several times a week he was pulled over without given reason or citation, but made to sit on the curb while his license was run for warrants and his car searched. Even though it was within his rights to ask questions or decline an unlawful search, he has learned to comply as though his life depends on it. Hands on the steering wheel at 10 and 2. Yes to whatever is asked of him. I drove the same streets without incident.

Just a few weeks ago a neighbor we haven’t met almost fell over in her attempt to get away from him. Skittishly looking over her shoulder in fear instead of at where she was going. He was taking our dog for her last walk before she would pass. A slow walk with lots of stops as her body was failing her. An already sad stroll in his own neighborhood.

Since the election a Brown family member of mine was accosted about her race and threatened with deportation. One block from my house. A small and intimate to me example of what we are seeing everywhere. Zooming out, white supremacists are coming out of the woodwork. Hailing Trump at meetings celebrating victory. Applauding his cabinet picks with links to white supremacist groups.

Trying to understand our very different world views, I did some poking around news sites trusted by conservatives. On the cabinet picks I saw discussion of how the Klan originated within the democratic party, pointing to the irony of displeasure with the group now. I saw narratives about “liberals crying about the loss” and calling everyone racist. But no actual addressing of what it means to have a president elect and his chosen advisors openly endorsed by the Klan. Another prevailing narrative is that all this talk of racism was somehow caused by Obama’s presidency or recent activism, as though it didn’t exist before. A perspective that can only be explained by the same thinking that allows me not to see racism all around me when I’m alone, as it’s not directed at me. A fish not seeing water.

Let me switch perspectives for a moment. Let’s say you don’t believe the president elect is a racist, and you’re a supporter because you are fiscally conservative. It’s important to pay attention to the fact that 700 hate crimes were reported to the SPLC just in the first 5 days since the election. White supremacists are counting Trump’s win a victory and celebration looks like terrorizing people who don’t look like me. That is worth standing up against no matter your party alliance or views on debt.

I still want to believe we are better than this. But to get there we have to grapple with a lot of uncomfortable feelings. Paying attention, listening to the experiences of those around you can bring about wild discomfort. It’s hard to imagine that our experiences are only our own. Especially if it means someplace that has always felt safe and welcoming to you is not so for everyone.

That talk 15 years ago may have been the whitest I’d ever felt, but November 9th felt much the same. The hateful aftermath of this election cycle had me in a heap of myself again. Confronted with embarrassment, guilt, shame and overwhelm. The swastikas graffitied all around the country, the “out and proud” racism on video. Countless stories of women not wearing hijabs for the first time in public out of very real fear of violence. There is no excuse to not see what is happening, to not at very least read about the experiences of people of color at this juncture. There is no denying it.

But the thing about whiteness is that as a whole, we do deny it. We deny it’s power in structures built by whiteness. We seek to believe that racism is a thing of the past. We want to believe that we see reflections of ourselves in leadership everywhere only because we have earned it. We uphold stories like my “he wouldn’t shake my hand” as “proof” that racism (power + prejudice) goes both ways. We want desperately to believe that men like my husband deserve mistreatment from the police, believing it somehow impossible that our history and our present are intertwined, that no public servant could possibly operate with racist ideologies. That a badge and a gun are somehow inherent markers of equality.

To be white is to be a fish in water we can choose to not see. But the alternative is messy, it’s work, and it requires the discomfort of looking at our own systems of operation. Of who we seek to uphold and whose experience we seek to deny. It means me looking again at the gaping holes in my understanding, and examining my own beliefs, even about the block I live on.

With tensions running high I have found myself in a state of paralysis. I fear misstepping and causing harm. I fear the harm caused by my silence. I struggle to find words to comfort my baby, as speaking as a family about racism was not a part of my white upbringing. It wasn’t necessary for my safety, one of the more jarring realizations from my first short reading on white privilege. But paralysis is scarier than anything else to me, so in moving to accountability I have recommendations. It is my hope you will consider them as calls for unity only work when we unify against hate.

  1. Stop saying you aren’t racist. I know that’s a big, hard, horse-pill of discomfort. It’s impossible to live in a culture that upholds some lives as inherently valuable no matter their choices and others as expendable and not have those same ideas in your consciousness. It’s just not ‘real’ to believe that you “see everyone the same” when messages all around you from the time you are born teach you otherwise. I’m still unlearning the damaging things our culture has taught me about me. Of course I’m still unlearning damaging things I’ve learned about others. Taking solace in not owning a white hood allows us to believe we aren’t a part of the problem and therefore don’t need internal work to be a part of the solution. I am white and benefit from white supremacy. I am accountable for looking at holes in my learning and experience. I will seek voices that don’t reflect my own and listen. That is a better starting point than, “I’m not racist.”
  2. Make space for your own messy feelings. Guilt, sadness, anger, shock, whatever you feel is valid. There is a difference between showing up at an event meant to support people of color and taking up all the space with your sadness about the state of the world, and acknowledging your own feelings alone or with those willing to sift through the mess with you. I’ve never met a feeling that miraculously dissipated by being shoved away or denied. My friend Dr. Tee had to call me out on not following my own advice on election day. “Erin (he interrupted me babbling in my messy thoughts), I’m going to have to stop you. I think it’s important that you allow space for your own feelings. Like all the time.” That moment probably accelerated my movement from paralysis to accountability more than I can know, for which I am so thankful. Show up to the discomfort of whatever you feel in your awareness today.
  3. Hold yourself accountable. First for your own awareness. For undoing covert and overt effects of being raised in a culture founded and currently upheld by white supremacy. Look at your own belief systems. Does looking at the words “white supremacy” make you defensive? That’s worth exploring as a few days ago white supremacists rallied to support our incoming government officials. We have to be able to talk about this. Is the history you’ve learned skewed toward glorifying whiteness, glossing over things like slavery (as in the widely distributed text book that called slaves “unpaid workers”), almost erasing contributions from women of color entirely? Yes. Do you know about racist acts happening outside your front door? In the internet era, there are countless (mostly free and freely available) places to read about oppression. Steph “Iron Lioness” just wrote this just for you. Start learning about white privilege, intersectionality, oppression. For me this sometimes means reading, noticing myself feel defensive or upset when confronted with my own privilege and walking away for a moment to enable myself to come back with fresh eyes. I keep talking about this book by Luvvie Ajayi because I’m really enjoying it right now, and it’s a great starting point. I want to learn more about misogynoirgender identity, and how to be more inclusive in my work while respecting the limitations from which my experience allows me to speak.
  4. Show up authentically to conversations about what you learn. How you do this is 100% yours. But I will offer that I aim to enter difficult conversations remembering that this information was once beyond my own experience and education. I don’t seek to “call people out” or shame them for what they don’t know, but rather to openly discuss what I’ve come to learn. Every meaningful conversation I’ve had that has impacted another’s point of view was had with the intention of not shaming them. I spent my first few years as an activist exhausting myself by thinking only about my responsibility to respond immediately to both blatant racism and casual (but equally harmful in impact) ignorance. I realize now that part of the privilege of not enduring racism on a daily basis is that my exhaustion was a choice. And one that wasn’t serving anyone (aside from perhaps my own ego) or impacting others perspectives the way I’d hoped. So while I never let a moment “slide,” my aim is to have an effective (not shameful) conversation and a positive impact, not just “make sure I’m heard.” My ego might be stroked by my ability to belittle someone in their ignorance, but if I’m only causing defensiveness I’ve done nothing to create more safety for someone else. While I cannot determine others’ response, I choose to be mindful of how my approach affects my impact. Patience is my privilege which I aim not to waste.
  5. Find what is yours to do. The veil is lifted. Not talking about the impact of racism because it’s impolite at the dinner table or historically hushed in the name of “not being divisive” is not an option. If we want to live in a world where hate crimes are thought hateful and not dismissed as the result of messy politics, where our children genuinely have the same opportunities including to live through the day- we have to roll our sleeves up. So we claim our own whiteness, do the work of self-examination and re-educating ourselves about the very real impacts of oppression, and we talk to other white people about it. But what else is yours to do? What talent, time, resources do you have to contribute and how?
  6. Be open to feedback and keep going. I’m writing this to future me when I hit publish here. Writing is something I know is mine to do. And to stay in personal narrative out of respect for me means focusing on whiteness. But maybe I overstepped. Or understepped in my focus here primarily on racism and not on multiple intersections of oppression. Maybe in an effort to stay in my lane, I just whitewashed this whole piece. These are risks I’m taking in hopes that my words might move someone toward discomfort to deepen their humanity and awareness. To look at themselves instead of denying racism as a whole or stopping at “I’m not racist.” In the little corner of the universe I occupy, I know there are people who care what I have to say. So it’s simply more important that I risk screwing up and learning from it than remain silent and without criticism. I have plenty to learn.

This is perhaps the first time it’s been widely uncomfortable to be white. To think about race on an almost daily basis. To see headlines that confront us with the very different reality we experience. It means realizing that “not thinking about this stuff” is a profound privilege based in not having to experience racism on a daily basis. “Unity” from here comes from deepening our understanding of one another’s experiences, and examining more closely the limitations of our own. It’s messy, uncomfortable, imperfect and urgent. Please choose discomfort with me.

Erin Brown

Dr. Tee and I are working on resources and a project to aid those grappling with these ideas again or for the first time. For now, making sure you are on my mailing list will ensure you get the info as soon as it’s available. I send emails around once a month, so this is not a sales pitch, but to keep you in the loop.