Shavasana I and II. From “I am Speaking: Are You Listening” installation at the Legion of Honor/San Francisco. by Kenyan visual artist Wagechi Mutu.
“…we still need to discuss this. We live in this world together….
…so what is this conversation really about?”
~Wagechi Mutu in an interview.
This one is meant to elicit something deeper than reaction: thought. The whole point of life is to learn and grow and we do that by struggling, discussing and that isn’t pretty. Maybe your initial reaction will be outrage. Still, please try to read it with the bigger point in mind. Because you can only see that if you actually read it and take a moment to take it in. Which we are not used to doing in our world of soundbites.
It started when that awful man got elected.
Thousands of “resistance sistahs” friended me on Facebook. Women whose politics were leftward, like mine. Smart, activist women. Women of every nationality and color. All on my feed every day, posting about everything from the latest moronic utterance from the buffoon in the oval to their cat’s vet visit.
Politics was by far the most frequent topic. Until George Floyd.
What I think a group of women working together to tear down racist institutions should look like.
After the George Floyd killing we all struggled to understand how we could fight institutional racism. Fact is, many of us who are not of color struggled to understand exactly how it works. We had a lot to learn. Racism was not our reality and we knew it. We had no control over how we arrived in the world and we arrived white.
Posts about race flooded my feed. We listened. And responded, sometimes expressing our feelings. Sometimes, those feelings showed a lack of understanding. Or even a failure to listen. Pretty soon, things got heated. No punches were pulled by a few posters. White women were told to shut up and listen. That our race had spent enough time talking and it was our turn to listen. The resentment of centuries rained down on this group.
I couldn’t argue that we needed to listen. Or that we white folk had dominated discussions for centuries. Definitely more listening and learning were needed. No question.
I also couldn’t quarrel with the resentment. I’d be resentful, too, if I’d been faced with a legacy of discrimination.
But those responses troubled me in a different way.
Sit down, shut up
From teaching college, I knew that the most effective learning comes from dialogue. That telling people to sit down, shut up and listen simply isn’t a good way to teach anything. As a teacher, I saw that some of the best learning came from the give and take, the struggle to understand, the back and forth.
Active listening on both sides. And discussion. Working it out. That’s how a needle is truly moved.
Not by turning the power off.
The discussions deeply disturbed me. The rationale appeared to be that these Black women holding the social media stage at that time were right in their opinions, their thoughts, just because they were Black. Just like white people used to be “right” just because they were white. At that point I stopped, puzzled.
Yes, their experience as women of color did give them a perspective we needed to hear. I needed to hear it. I wanted to hear it. But I didn’t want to sit down and shut up. I wanted to discuss and come out the other end more informed and more educated. With deeper understanding. That aha! moment.
Then I saw white women toadying to those posters. “I have nothing to contribute because I’m white,” they posted. “I’m sorry I’m white,” I read. “I don’t know anything.”
White people’s guilt.
But guilt isn’t very productive.
Apparently, someone had to be downtrodden. In this case, white women. Role reversal kept everyone in place. No one moved forward in understanding. Now, maybe you don’t think this post is very politically correct. I couldn’t care less. What’s PC, what’s not PC, “woke” and not–all BS. Let’s not dance around it. Let’s get in the trenches and work this stuff out.
Role reversal is not “woke”
I raised my eyebrows at these obsequious responses. What kind of person apologizes for who they are? It’s what Black people were supposed to do back in the day. Now, these few (and one in particular) Black women took as their due that White women were doing the same. They ate it up. And that made me sad.
If someone dared post something that wasn’t deemed “woke” enough, there was no discussion. Not even if it was clear the poster was struggling to get it. No attempt to help that woman learn. No. Instead, there was a piling on of nasty comments and then massive unfriending. “I unfriended her!” “I blocked her!” “I’m blocking her, too!”
I rolled my eyes. It reminded me of Lord of the Flies:
“We’re strong – we hunt! If there’s a beast, we’ll hunt it down!
We’ll close in and beat and beat and beat !”
You could argue that no one had cared if Black women understood a thing back in the day, so why should they care now? Well, maybe because we can’t get anywhere if there isn’t a dialogue. Nothing changes. Just the victor. In a Pyrrhic victory.
Truth: most of the Black women I know aren’t asking white women to apologize for being white, because they’re more interested in engaging them in the fight to tear down the oppressive systems that hold people of color back. That we whites have benefited from. I am all for that. Help me figure out what I can do to support efforts to dismantle institutional racism. But the women I’m talking about took great satisfaction in making white women their whipping girls. And many complied. Enough groveling to make a dominatrix happy.
I’m not a big groveler. No one should be.
I love Kenyan visual artist Mutu Wegechi’s question: “I am speaking: are you listening?”
Because hardly anyone listens on social media.
Anyone who spends a significant amount of time on social channels knows how distressing the constant barrage of nastiness, negativism and high-minded attitudes can be. Each time I scrolled through my feed I wanted to yell, “But..! But…” There was no point, though. So I got more and more anxious. I had a case of social media anxiety.
I did some strategic unfollowing and even some unfriending. I began with the ringleaders of the sit-down-shut-up camp. Once I no longer had to see them pontificate and their followers apologize for being themselves, (not to mention watch the ringleaders pimp for contributions of money either outright or to a Patreon account –that REALLY lit me up) my mood improved. Instantly.
My feed was a happier place. Not conflict-free. But happier.
So am I bigoted white bitch? Not hardly. Do I care about being politically correct? “Woke?” I don’t. As you can see. What do I care about: CHANGE. Forward movement. An end to institutional and other racism.
Bottom lines for me:
- Without dialogue, we get nowhere.
- No one should be expected to apologize for who they are.
- Asking questions is powerful, and so is listening, as Mutu Wagechi shows us in that powerful installation.
- People need to work together to dismantle institutions that have held people of color back.
- And don’t ever tell ME to sit down and shut up.
A few years ago I was friends IRL with a very liberal woman. A Californian. Not a full-out WASP (I think only one side of her family is) but with that tone. No one uses that term any more, it’s White Anglo Saxon Protestant. But in upstate New York, I grew up hearing it. Why, will become clear in a minute.
We seemed in agreement about the important issues. We’d been talking about discrimination. I was starting to explain how it was for my Sicilian immigrant grandparents at the turn of the 20th century. They were illiterate and did not speak English. At the time, the factories and large employers actually posted signs that said NO ITALIANS NEED APPLY.
That’s because Sicilians were considered lazy and shiftless back at the turn of the 20th century. They didn’t speak English. They had darker skin (Moorish blood). They smelled like the garlic they ate. Their lunch bags were soaked with olive oil from eggplant sandwiches.
They were different. There was… discrimination.
Am I white?
Yes, they were “white”. Maybe. This NY Times piece on that kind of racism called “How Italians became ‘White’” may help you understand. They were considered “less-than.”
(Side note: in a fight, my racist ex-husband came up with the worst insult he could think of to throw at me: “You ..you…have MOORISH BLOOD!” Which was hilarious to fair-skinned me. But true. I just laughed, because I didn’t see it as the insult he did. Other side note: in my culture we’ve always referred to non-Sicilians who didn’t understand our ways as “white people.”)
This was the way it was for my grandparents and also for my father’s generation, early on. They were raised with the memory of that discrimination and it colored everything in their lives.
Now, I wasn’t then and I’m not now saying that it’s the same as centuries of slavery and discrimination. Not at all. But I AM saying that it’s a part of our nation’s history that many don’t know about. And a big part of the culture I grew up in. So I’m not totally unfamiliar with cultural discrimination. And that also colors how I think, if anyone cared to hear.
In the conversation with my friend, I said that I thought my grandparents and even my parents had a working knowledge of discrimination, too.
My “friend” told me in no uncertain terms that there was no comparison. Scolded that I was insufficiently “woke.” Then, on principle, she flounced out of my life.
Here’s the thing:
A lifelong Californian and an heiress, she had no knowledge whatsoever of what life in the northeast was like back then for immigrants like my grandparents. Her family all spoke English. Had property and some money. Knew no kind of discrimination.
This discussion was an opportunity for her to learn a little something. And also for me to hear about how she saw the differences between discrimination against people of color and my kin. If she’d been willing to discuss. Of course, as a white woman she really wasn’t in a position to teach me much about this. So the irony was rich.
Still, we might have both learned something from talking it out. But she chose to slam the door shut. Just like those women on my Facebook feed who kept their blocking finger busy for anyone they deemed not-woke.
I consider her departure a lucky break, actually, because who wants someone like that as a friend? But that kind of shunning of discussion–even on the same side of the political spectrum–is on display every day in our current world.
Listening is powerful. Dialogue is also powerful. Discussion is important. Especially when we’re on the same side of the political spectrum. ESPECIALLY.
If we don’t do that? We’re doomed to destroy ourselves.
I see it happening now, don’t you?
PS. Just to be clear: I’m liberal. I do my best to walk that talk. And yes, I do struggle to understand some things. I don’t struggle and let go. I struggle to work through it…to figure it out. Out loud. That struggle has even helped me change my view from time to time.
If that struggle made public makes you uncomfortable, see ya ’round.