February 7, 2011

Continuing that Conversation (or: White people, we need to talk)

The most important thing to remember
Transgressive discourse is difficult, even for people who know what those words mean without looking them up. I'm not asking anyone who comments on this post to agree, but at the very least acknowledge and respect the difficulty of the task and not undermine my purpose for doing it. This is not merely a stimulating discussion for me. This is a purpose that has grown from experiences that have shaped every aspect my my entire life. Part of that is speaking candidly about things that I've been trained to be silent about. I am bringing a great deal of myself to bear in this - even the ugly and messy parts - not merely the stuff that makes for a lively conversation. Every time I endeavor to have That Conversation, I am going against my programming. Every time I speak on this issue, I do so despite what I've been taught rather than because of it. Every time I talk to you (I mean you reading this right now), I'm speaking through the pain and fear and sadness and exhaustion to reach you. I still have hope.

Do not make this hope be misplaced.

Owning my shit
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate [...] Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
-- MLK, Letter from a Birmingham Jail

I'm a queer Black woman who grew up in the South, so everything I say is coming from that experience. That's not to say other experiences are less important, but I've found that trying to speak for everyone means that I wind up not saying much at all. As a queer Black woman who grew up in the back yard of the capital of the Confederacy, here are a few life lessons I picked up along the way. I'm not saying they're good, or even right, but it's what I bring to That Conversation.
  1. It's far easier to deal with an honest bigot than with Well Meaning White Liberals.
  2. Most White women cannot be trusted with anything important - not my beliefs, not my values, not my feelings, not my humanity.
  3. Black men often love but do not respect Black women.
  4. Black women are often better at hating Black women than either White people or men.
  5. White people do not know how to treat Black women with both respect and compassion; it has to be one or the other - pity or fear.
  6. To most everyone except other Black women, to be Black and a woman (not merely female) is an oxymoron.
  7. In every interaction with White people, I am on guard for racial microaggressions they don't even know they perpetuate.
  8. My deepest and most enduring scars come from ignorance and indifference, not hatred.
  9. A lot of people really do believe that a Black woman's life is a public service.
  10. White people (particularly White men) need to be right, even if it makes them do wrong.
  11. By and large, I am afraid of White people (especially White women).

Where I'm coming from
We renounce no friendship. But it may be the part of a friend to rebuke a friend's folly.
 --JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion

About 2 weeks ago, I did a post on having That Conversation, where I laid down some guidelines on how to make That Conversation one that's worth having. I included a lot of stuff applicable to anyone who is participating in That Conversation. But now I want to focus on White folks for a minute because, in my experience, when That Conversation turns to shit, it's because of something a White person said.

I'm not talking about one of Those Other White People, either. I'm talking about White people who live in blue states, have dartboards with Glenn Beck's picture on them, march and protest against issues that harm people of color, and even maintain anti-racist blogs. But that doesn't stop you from fucking up.

Telling you that you're fucking up is not about hating you. It's not about making you feel guilty or ashamed of being White. Guilt-ridden and shame-filled White people are fearful White people. Fearful White people are angry White people. Angry White people have never been good news for Black people. Also, it doesn't make any sense. White guilt does not improve my situation in the least. As a matter of fact, it's more likely to make it worse because resentment doesn't live too far away from guilt.

As I said before, I'm not in this as a way of improving human relations. I am not from the Can't We All Just Get Along School of Racial Justice. I'm in this to transform society. This is my way of doing that: by changing the ways we relate to one another everyday without even thinking about it (see above). It has nothing to do with Good Guys and Bad Guys duking it out for the Fate of the World. It's about making our homes, families, neighborhoods, cities, and world a better place for everyone, including those who are not straight, White, and/or male. It's about becoming the change we want to see.

Oftentimes, having That Conversation with White people is like having an alcoholic in your family. You can't keep mopping up the puke, washing out the piss, making excuses for why they miss work, or explaining away destructive or abusive behavior because they were so drunk. You love them, and they're wonderful when they're sober, but things can't go on like this. Sometimes, the most loving thing you can do for them is to stop enabling them. Sometimes, the loving thing to do is hold them accountable for what they do. Sometimes, you show someone you love them by telling them what they don't want to hear. That's the point where I'm at now when it comes to That Conversation.

Think the alcoholism metaphor is a stretch? It isn't.

What almost never happens
Let me tell you about an encounter I had in a grocery store. I was picking up a few ingredients for the dish I was bringing to the next Community Dish meeting. Grocery Store Dude and his girlfriend(?) Grocery Store Chick were standing in the aisle chatting right next to the canned tomatoes, which I needed to look at to find what I was looking for. The guy tells me to go around them. I say, "Actually, I needed to get these," reaching for the petite diced tomatoes, and make my way. I am genuinely upset by this because I do not go out of my way to be rude to people. In fact, I'm usually excessively polite even when someone doesn't deserve it (like a neighbor playing loud ass techno at 2AM on a weeknight). My roommate -- one of the geekiest-looking, Starbucks-drinking, Macbook-carrying, NPR-listening, most good-natured Wonderbread motherfuckers you'll ever meet -- has cursed out more people than I have. I tend to internalize a lot of my aggravations and irritations. So Grocery Store Dude is now Entitled Asshole. I'm trying to shop, and this shit has been bothering me. Now I get in the line, and I see GSD/EA.
ME: Excuse me? Sir?
HIM: Sir? Who? Me?
ME: Yeah. Do you have any idea how rude you were to me back there.
HIM: Rude to you? What did I do?
ME: I was trying to get a can of diced tomatoes. You were talking to your lady, who just happened to be in the way, and you gave me some smartassed one-liner.
HIM: Oh. I didn't mean anything by it. I apologize.
ME: Thank you.
Now he's Grocery Store Dude again. I leave feeling a lot better because I stood up for myself and had my experience acknowledged and validated.

If only it happened like this with That Conversation.

Whenever I have That Conversation with a White person, and I talk about a particular kind of behavior that I see a lot in White people and what that says to me as a queer Black woman, it almost never leads to a White person saying, "Damn, I do that. I thought I was [doing something else] but looking at it that way, yeah, that's kinda messed up. Hey, if I ever did that to you, my bad. I'm sorry. That's not what I meant. I'll be a lot more careful about this from now on."

What often happens is some variation of, "Fuck you! I'm not racist! I majored in African American studies! I fucked a Black person once! I voted for Obama! I watch Tyler Perry movies! I adopted an African baby! How DARE you call me racist!"

Wanna know how many times I actually called someone racist when having That Conversation? Zero. Even in the rare instances when I directly said, "Soandso is racist," I was talking about Mel Gibson, Dr. Laura, and that guy 99Seats cursed out last year.

What you usually do -- and what it does to me
When you grow in a racist, patriarchal, homophobic, classist, sexist culture your way of thinking becomes infused with ideas that are necessarily counter to freedom and basic human respect. Even the most conscious amongst us will continually revert to patterns of behaviour, thought, or speech, that are counter to our stated beliefs. Due to a constant desire to privilege our experience and our existence over another often we do not even recognize these lapses.
--Womanist Musings, "Get Your 101 On"

When you do things like this, you look a lot like Oedipus. Trying to avoid a prophecy, he does everything that makes him wind up killing his dad, fucking his mom, and gouging his eyes out. Despite all his efforts not to be called a patricidal motherfucker, that's exactly what he became.

We're storytellers here in theatre blogosphere, so let's tell a story.

You are an actor. You've got your MFA from Yale. You did Juilliard. You were personally instructed by The Great So And So. Finally, those years of preparation paid off! You've been cast in the lead role for a new play by Hot New Playwright. Throughout rehearsals, you're thinking and reading about this character. You are really living this role. You even keep a diary from the character's point of view. On opening night, you give your performance. There is applause. The next day, you read a review in The Village Voice, and the critic has slammed your performance. He calls it cliche, self-indulgent, and lifeless. All that work, and this what he has to say! Who the fuck does he think he is? Does he have an MFA in Acting from Yale? Did he go to Juilliard? Did this asshole study with The Great So And So? Did they keep a daily diary from the character's point of view? Did he see how the audience responded to you? No! So fuck him and his bullshit plebe aesthetics (hi, Josh). But those voices are still in your head. Am I really any good, or am I just fooling myself? Did I truly give a compelling performance? Was my audience engaged with how I portrayed this character? Were they just clapping to be polite? What if The Village Voice is right? What if I failed? Will I be able to land a leading role ever again? Am I really any good?

If this fictional performance were the same as That Conversation, the actor would have rallied the other actors in the show, gone to the critic's birthday party, cornered his at the bar, shoved his resume in the critic's face, and demanded a public apology for the unflattering review (complete with groveling, preferably on broken glass).

Really, White people, what do you expect to happen when a person of color tells you that something you did smelled a little fishy?
THEM: That shit you just did sorta raised my racism red flags.
YOU: What the hell are you talking about? I [insert Not A Racist Credentials].
THEM: Oh. Well, now that you put it that way, forget everything I said. It was completely baseless. Carry on.
Want me to shut the fuck up right quick? Act like you have nothing to learn about racism. Want me to stop talking to you? Keep doing it. Don't be fooled. It's not because you convinced me with the power of your argument. It's because you've proven that you cannot be trusted with That Conversation. Frankly, it leaves me with the pain of being silenced and doesn't mean a fucking thing to whoever does this. It's very difficult to describe what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this. How about I share an experience of mine? One of the few cases in my life where I burst into tears in front of a crowd of people and started crying uncontrollably was when White person (a sociology major!) told me (about racism, mind you), "We already know this stuff."

I am incapable of responding rationally to that shit. When you do shit like that, this is one of the things you're triggering for me. The response would be similar to what you would get if you told a sexual assault survivor that you know about rape and sexual abuse because you used to work at RAINN. If that's not what you're going for, don't do this to me. If you have done this to me, you probably owe me an apology because you hurt me more than you think you did and definitely more than I trust you enough to tell you.

(And before somebody jumps down my throat about not comparing the trauma of racism to the trauma of sexual abuse, do not fucking go there. I speak from experience, and that's all the fuck you need to know.)

Just tell us what to say! Tell us what to do!
The problem of course with White men is we've just got to have an answer. We never just say, "Hmm, I dunno, let's look that up. [...] We're the authority. "I'll tell you even though what I'm telling you is total crap."
--Tim Wise (at 1:21:10)

As HAL 9000 would say, "I can't do that, Dave."

Which of the following is more likely?
A. I'm deliberately keeping this information secret.
B. I don't know what I'm talking about when it comes to race.
C. I lack the drive to find out how.
D. There are no simple rules or simple answers.
In case you were wondering, the answer is D.

I have a vested interest in getting White people to stop doing some of the shit I talked about before. I have a powerful, personal stake in White people getting a fucking clue. If there is a magic combination of words and body language that would get you to that point where I can talk about racism with you and not worry about when you're going to fuck it up, I would use it. Trust me on this.

On "false accusations" of racism
Sometimes, even after you’ve given it serious thought, you’ll come to the conclusion that a criticism was unfair. Great! Now please let it go. Don’t insist that everyone agree with you. Don’t enlist the people of color in the room to certify you as Officially Non-Racist. Don’t bring it up again and again, weeks or months after everyone else has forgotten about the original discussion.

You would think that, for a White person, the main question they have about participating in That Conversation would be: How do I not fuck this up?

But it's not.

The question they usually want answered is: What do I do if a person of color -- fuck it, let's be honest -- what do I do if one of those evil loudmouthed Black bitches says that I did something racist?

I honestly don't get this. I mean, if I were cleaning your house or cooking soul food, you'd listen to me about without a problem. But when it's That Conversation, suddenly everything I say is suspect? When it's That Conversation, White people seem ready and eager to write us off as crazy, stupid, lazy, and/or evil. It won't be those words, of course. But that's what the arguments would boil down to.

It sucks to be accused of doing shit you didn't do. Nobody's denying that. Innocent Black people have been accused of wrongdoing too, with consequences way more serious than our feelings getting hurt (Ask my uncle why he doesn't have front teeth). I had a classmate in middle school (a White girl) threaten to kick my ass because someone else played a prank on her and said I stole something from her purse. So I know what it's like to be accused of doing stuff I didn't do and made to feel unsafe because of it.

Yet, sometimes I do the wrong thing. Sometimes I'm careless. Sometimes I hurt people. I don't mean to. I'm not a sadist. It still happens, though. At that point, my responsibility is to acknowledge the impact of my actions, not to defend my honor or prove my innocence.

The vast majority of the time, that's what a "false accusation" of racism is -- someone reminding you that what you just said or did brought something hurtful, even harmful, to their interaction with you. At that point, it's not about That Conversation being productive for you but for you not causing pain to another human being.

And that's what it's all about, really -- being better at being whole human beings. It's hard to do that when we keep playing the same roles and the same rules.


  1. It's interesting you mention the grocery store incident because I've had a few episodes recently where when I call out racist white folks on their bullshit in real life, they aren't as quick to argue back or at the very least will shut the fuck up.

    Note: they didn't learn anything or admit fault, but the usual BS they pull on the webs doesn't occur as quickly when it's a face to face encounter.

    Maybe there's an underlying fear of getting popped in the mouth, but they at least seem to think it through first.

    And it's also interesting how when they're looking for a POC to co-sign on their speshul white non-racist status or their mighty whitey "non racist" ideas, suddenly our words are the gospel on high yet the second we tell them something they don't want to hear, our words are suspect. We're too emotionally invested or not objective enough or we don't know what we're talking about when it comes to racism.

  2. Great post. Particularly liked the link about microaggressions. Thank you.

  3. @neo_prodigy

    I feel ya. I'm reading Audre Lorde's Sister Outsider right now, and it's pretty sad just how old and tired that shit is.

  4. This was great. Can I link this in something I'm writing?