Dear friend and social justice maven extraordinaire Mary Rebecca asked me to host her words and thoughts in this space and I wanted to share with you. These lovely words are her own - but we share many of the same thoughts. It is hard to be aware and to continue moving forward, and sometimes we aren't even aware of out actions or their implications. Mary Rebecca unpacks that here much more eloquently than I can begin to.
Open Letter by Mary Rebecca -
To the white women in my personal circle, whom I hold dear in my heart:
I just wanted to take a few minutes to talk directly to my own “in-group” about what’s going on in the United States right now, because I can see, based on my Facebook feed, that so many of us are deeply concerned about it right now, as we should be.
Firstly, I am very proud of so, so many of you--not only my white female friends, of course--all of you who showed up to protest last weekend. Seeing my FB feed just “blow up” with protest photos from the women’s march and sister marches yesterday was awesome. I think it may have actually topped (at least within a single day) the extent to which my feed blew up with baby photos and ultrasounds about 2-5 years ago, and dogs and wedding photos about 2-3 years before that. :)
Secondly, I think we white chicks (note 1), specifically, need to talk more to each other as fellow white chicks, as cis-gender white chicks, as hetero and appear-to-pass-as-hetero white chicks, and as white chicks who actually give a #$*& about other people and what is going on in the world. The truth is that I probably have more white women in my personal circle--like many of us--than I do people from any other social group. And I think many of us are grappling with our identity as white people, as white women, and (many of us) as white progressive women who want to take responsibility at this particular moment in history. I think I speak for a lot of us in saying, openly and honestly, that a great many of us are currently experiencing a fairly overwhelming combination of anger, despair, shock, surprise, horror, outrage, despondency, guilt, shame, and regret. In an episode of NRP’s “On Being” with Krista Tippet, Ruby Sales stated that sometimes, “it’s almost as if we don’t think that white people are worthy of being saved.”
I think if we’re really honest, some of us probably feel that way about ourselves and each other. We’re not really sure if we are worthy of this historical moment. White women have a history of both oppressing and ignoring the existence of women and people of color, even and especially within the feminist movement(s). And some of us (me, too, partially) are probably in that anger-denial state: how could this have happened? How could so many of us have voted for such a tyrant? Why didn’t I get off my tired ass and knock on more doors or phone bank more calls for Hillary (even though she honestly was not my first choice)? I know that in many ways, I myself even feel betrayed by the hypocrisy of other white women (particularly the Trump voters), while at the same time, I continue to question my own complicity in this larger collective hypocrisy and failure to block a demagogue’s rise to power.
I want to point out a couple of things, but I want to do so in a way that points toward myself as much as toward anyone else. There are a lot of women of color posting right now about the problematics of white women suddenly feeling collective outrage on a new level because all of a sudden, we feel actually, tangibly included in oppression for maybe the first time in our lives (at least on this level, for many of us). I feel it, too, to be honest. And I felt, and feel, pretty damn low about it. However, as one woman of color activist reminded all of us white women: this is how women of color have pretty much always felt. And they don’t have time for our fragility or our overwhelm.
But I think the truth is that even in as deeply privileged of a position as we collectively occupy, feelings of white fragility and overwhelm are really real for a lot of us white chicks right now. We are becoming more aware of our own oppression at the same time that we are being asked to confront, now, immediately--yesterday--how much we have failed to notice the oppression of all the other women around us for literally millenia. It’s a hell of a feeling. And as my good friend Sara Liz Crouse called to my attention, many of us may not have felt self-aware or empowered enough until this point in our lives to stand up to oppression.
But it’s not the job of women of color, or people of color, to help us process that, unless we have really solid friendships with particular individuals who are okay with doing that kind of processing with us (and whose permission we have, hopefully, explicitly asked). What I am saying is, really, that we actually deeply need each other right now. And we need each other’s patience. Hell, we really need our own patience with ourselves.
And it’s complex, tricky. Because for those of us who have been trying to be the best allies we know how for a while now, it’s also hard to listen to those white women who are just now barely beginning the process of unlearning so much of the white supremacy and patriarchy that our society brainwashes us with. It’s hard to listen to those who have been complicit in all our oppression for so long, and I get that. There are those in my circle, too.
And it’s hard to be reminded at the same time, viscerally, emotionally, that I need to continue and continue and continue to check my privileges, to know I’m going to mess this up again and again, that in some ways I’ll probably never, ever un-learn all the racism our society has instilled in me just because I’ve grown up white in the United States of America. It’s hard to work really hard at this and be reminded and reminded that no matter how hard I work, it’s never really going to be ‘enough’--or at least, that’s how it feels. And it’s particularly hard to hear that, because as women generally, we hear more than enough of that message from society at large about just about everything--from our work and career habits, to our intellectual contributions, to our mothering, to our housekeeping, to our body sizes, to our dietary and exercise habits… of course we are all stressed out and exhausted. Being a woman at all is exhausting for so many of us.
And I’m trying really hard to check my own self-righteousness and defensiveness because, while these protect my ego a bit, they ultimately do not serve the larger movement that is so necessary for all our liberation, and deep down I know that.
Thich Nhat Hanh says that in order for love to be present in our lives, we have to grow our hearts large enough to accommodate others. Let’s not kid ourselves, though: that is one of the most difficult challenges any human being can rise to, especially in times of crisis and pain. Can we make space in our hearts to hear our own pain, to acknowledge it as real, while we also grow our hearts to be large enough to comprehend that the pain others have faced, in skins darker than ours, is even so much larger than the very real, jagged-edged pain we have experienced daily from our girlhoods on?
Because--can I have a moment of total honesty here? Sometimes I also feel like I really hate other white chicks. Actually, I think a lot of us do. For me, it’s a combination of abhorrence for the ignorance of privilege and a certain insecurity that I’ll never be able live up to the image of a “Virgin Mary” (an image deeply personal to me for obvious reasons) or a “Jennifer Garner” type of white-womanhood perfection that society seems still to demand of us. It’s a certain rage left over from childhood when the deepest psychic wounds that I experienced were the wounds other white girls and women inflicted on me because of my body size, the way I talked, my sense of humor, my intellectual and extracurricular preferences, my social shyness, my lack of natural athleticism. My guy friends and my female friends of color really didn’t do nearly as much of that.
It’s also a certain abhorrence of the way so many of us seem to be trend-followers, and last to arrive at the table of social justice but first to take credit for cooking we never did, or only helped with. It’s also a certain self-hatred, a certain internalized misogyny that has me internally cringing when I hear the dreaded and demonized “up-speak” or “vocal frisson” of other white women, even while I outwardly espouse the legitimacy of other women’s voices (including my own) no matter how they sound. It’s feeling trapped within a white-walled world where giving up the privileges I have feels literally, physically dangerous, but not actively working to dismantle them feels even more dangerous to my soul and self-respect.
Fellow white chicks: we are so very imperfect, but as Brene Brown says, we are enough. We have to affirm and believe that we, as white women, as human beings having human experiences, are enough. It’s fucking hard to believe that in this society, and to be honest, there are a lot of days I don’t believe it myself. There are a whole lot of days I try to front, or ‘fake it till I make it’ because deep down I don’t feel like there is any way I’ll ever, ever be enough. There are days my white skin feels like a snake’s epidermis I wish with all my being I could slough for the sake of my integrity, which is why, I think, so many of us progressive white chicks fall into patterns and traps of cultural appropriation.
There is incredible and toxic self-loathing and fear and fragility inside many of us white chicks. And a lot of it was internalized so early in our girlhoods that we’re never really sure, even in the fullness of adulthood, that we’re ever truly rid of it. It might rear one more hydra-head at any time, especially when everyday sexist microaggressions (or macro-aggressions) slam into us sideways at moments when our guard is down.
The truth is some days it just feels too damn dangerous to ask (for the shrinking middle-class among us): “and wherefore do I deserve cute boots and a $4.50 latte and Burt’s Bees face wash and new skinny jeans and all the good vitamins and supplements and kombucha I could wish for while so many women of color and trans women can’t afford basic medicines at the pharmacy, or food for their kids beyond instant mac and cheese, or a car that’s even halfway decent?” Because I think we fear that the answer might just do us in (note 2).
Our self-esteem is so damn tenuous, even with all these privileges and luxuries--and I think sometimes we feel like: why can’t women of color, trans women, etc. at least just see that much--see us as scared and human, too--even if they’re rightfully and righteously pissed at us collectively?
The truth is, I think they do. They just have had so, so, SO much other shit to deal with that they just don’t have the time or energy left to do our healing for us, and what we often don’t realize is that our fragility often comes with and from a subconscious entitlement to have others do our healing work for us. And I think too often, we don’t believe we can do it for ourselves.
I will admit that my soul, too, has been saved by women of color too many times over. Without the writings of Zora Neale Hurston early in my life, bell hooks later in my 20s, Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou in my late 20s and early 30s, and the examples of women and feminists of color in my personal circles also in my late 20s and early 30s, I think I would have given up at least 20 times over by now.
Last weekend was yet another example of this. The leadership of the women of color who organized and participated in the women’s marches buoyed my flagging spirit yet again.
White chicks, we have a LOT of healing work to do. First and foremost of ourselves, and each other. We owe this to women of color if we want to be worthy of being called sisters--and they’re telling us we haven’t done enough of this work to have collectively earned that title yet--so we owe it to them and to ourselves to calm down for a minute and listen. And think. And love.
And we’ve got to stop body-shaming, slut-shaming, and woman-shaming generally. I include myself in this charge. We’ve got to check the impulse to feel jealous of each other and constantly compete with one another for the tiny slice of the patriarchal pie that has been left for us. We NEED to amplify each other’s voices AND the voices of women of color. As hard as it is, we desperately need to help each other check our many privileges and commiserate when the work of checking our privileges feels too heavy to bear alone. We’ve got to stop slamming each other morally, intellectually, and subconsciously without engaging each other from a place of mutual respect. As bell hooks says, ‘respect’ fundamentally means ‘to see.’ We have to see each other, and see the pain and fear behind the privilege. We need one another’s affirmation as we heal, and we need to be able to give one another constructive critique out of love. We have to see each other as human and as intersectional, too. Some of us are poor. Some of us are trans. Some of us are lesbians, pansexual, bisexual, asexual, closeted or out. Some of us are gender-fluid or agender. Some of us are parents, some are not. Some of us have chronic illnesses or physical or mental disabilities or are not neurotypical.
We have to recognize that our whiteness does not and can never define us as human beings but that we also cannot divest ourselves of the responsibility we bear for perpetuating unearned racial privilege, even if only through passivity or ignorance. We’ve got homework to do--we need to be seeking out, reading, and listening to the voices--both past and present--of women and men of color--including women and men of color from other places in the world. And we need to remind ourselves of the legacies of other anti-racist white women, and create our own healing, writing, and support groups where none exist. These should not be spaces of racial exclusion--people of color should be welcomed if they want to be there--but they need to be spaces where white people feel safe enough to mess up, fail, and pick ourselves back up without having to show the whole world (or make the whole world deal with) our flaws and our desperate neediness and our short-sightedness while we’re still learning. Without that safety, the unfortunate but true reality is that too many of us will feel too threatened and defensive to open ourselves to this kind of healing work. Even though it’s not the same as being racially oppressed, it is hard work, especially when we’re not used to it and weren’t expecting to need to do it.
If we don’t already (and I suspect many of us don’t) have at least one or two other white chick (or other white) friends who are also aspiring anti-racists, we should establish a few friends upon whom we can call if we’re having an #EPICPRIVILEGEFAIL to break down feelings of toxic shame and anger and entitlement--because, let’s be real--we all have those moments--but let’s do women and men of color a solid, and if the work of unlearning privilege starts to make us nauseated (because we are purging toxins), as it more-or-less frequently is bound to do, let’s not burden them with having to see, smell, or otherwise do the work of cleaning up our proverbial privilege puke. They’ve done enough of that throughout history. We white chicks know how to hold each other’s hair for that (;-)); let’s learn to do more compassionate privilege triage with each other--and to have a bit of a sense of humor about it when and where appropriate.
Additionally, I think, we ought to give each other space to talk about the ways that we sometimes feel ashamed of and betrayed by our own mothers’ and grandmothers’ racism and misogyny--and how, sometimes, this may even cause some of us to feel (rightly or wrongly) jealous of the kinds of intergenerational relationships women of color seem to be able to have. Some, though not all, progressive younger white women (and some progressive older white women) too often feel like we have no elders upon whose wisdom and compassion we can lean when we feel weak or confused or lost. We need to find each other. We need to listen to each other’s pain and create wisdom of our own. We need to create spaces for this listening and sharing that don’t burden people of color with doing that work for us.
And, I think it bears repeating: we have some serious healing work to do with ourselves so that we can hear and grow from constructive critique, both from women and people of color and from each other.
Don’t let anyone tell you this doesn’t suck. All of this sucks. It SUCKS! Yeah, I said it.
It may not suck NEARLY as much as enslavement, racial profiling, murder because of our color, having our babies routinely poisoned or killed, or having our legacies routinely erased from mainstream history, but it still does suck.
Because we didn’t ask for racial privilege when we were born. But neither did anyone ask for racial oppression. So we’ve got a responsibility to do our part in dismantling what bell hooks so succinctly calls this “capitalist imperialist white-supremacist patriarchal” society.
And here’s the hope: Yes, we are strong enough, good enough, badass enough, worthy enough to do it. We can stand with women of color and follow their leadership without feeling threatened or entitled, knowing we still have an important, vital place at the table of social justice--just not the only, or always the main one. This is our power as white women. Yes, we can.
Author's Notes:1. I am attempting to use the term ‘white chicks’ in this article playfully, both to draw attention to our privilege and fragility as white women as well as to make an attempt at reclaiming the term ‘chicks’ which has so often been used by men in patriarchal society as a disempowering term. I may or may not prove successful in this attempt, but I do welcome feedback on this issue.
2. Yes, I acknowledge that this is a stereotype that many of us do not fully, or even partially, live up to. I am hoping to use it as a bit of levity but also to make a larger point. Again, feedback welcome.