Confessions of a well-intentioned white oppressor

Several things happened in the past four months making my hand quiver as I struggled to open my computer and let my words flow.

Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer and the jury did not indict him, choosing instead to follow the media’s lead in a character assassination. Eric Garner was choked to death by a police officer. Despite the whole thing being filmed and chokehold’s being an illegal police protocol, the city neglected to even put the officer on trial.

#HandsUp, #ICantBreathe, #BlackLivesMatter developed as people expressed their outcry at what Cornel West aptly named a Jim Crow justice system. Protests and movements were born and revived demanding a better system for people of color in this country and around the world.

Tears, anguish, shouts, and pleas echoed off the fortress of the white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, threatening its walls to crumble from the quake of bold voices speaking love back into our wayward world.

You know these things, though.

The other, smaller, things that happened I’ve yet to fill you in on…

I watched without commenting as a friend’s Facebook wall became flooded with a 60-comment thread debating the extent or existence of white privilege in the United States.

My silence came out of frustration. Disbelief. I wanted to write it all off and only talk to people who are not living under a veil of privilege so threaded by advantages that they can deny its existence in the face of recent events.

Then I remembered a recent email to someone whom walks alongside me in the pursuit of racial justice. I put off a conversation with them because it felt hard. Until I realized and shared,

“Not responding [to an inquiry, to microagressions, etc.] is a function of my privilege. I can afford not to respond because I do not experience racial oppression on the losing end.”

Remembering this revelation, I still did not comment on the Facebook post. No blog of my own was produced.

I read many other people’s blogs, though. One stuck out from another friend who recently became a bit indignant in their activism. The way this friend’s writing reads feels a bit self-congratulatory to me. Like they’ve mastered something we all need to get. So this white friend, speaking up— being a better ally than I in that regard— also made me sit and stew.

My discomfort was in my belief that social justice is not something to ‘get,’ but to live. And here the irony ensues: as I neglected to use my voice as a platform to live what I believe, I squirmed with agitation at the dualism in someone I care about’s attempt to do this very thing.

How am I letting down the people in my life who want to join these conversations? Who feel alone in the ones they’re already having? Or who need to be pushed on the way they’re taking this up? Whether it’s being willing to share when someone asks to learn more, showing support for a fellow activist being ambushed, or voicing problems with our attempts to do this work, when is my neglect to say something perpetuating injustice?

Yet, while silence is complicity, not shutting up is a function of white dominance.

So how do I walk the tightrope of speaking up without talking over? I find myself lately doing too much of the latter. Making sure people, in particular my friends of color, know where I stand rather than simply creating space for them to be heard. A brave friend recently wrote a piece titled I am Black and I need you to see me. To do this, I needed to be looking at her. I needed to remove my glasses of self-absorption that still placed me, the white actor, at the center of the narrative.

In the midst of surfacing these problematic patterns, someone shared with me I don’t know what to do with good white people. In an effort to still be ‘down with the cause’, I literally read excerpts of this to my black friend and co-worker. As if she needed to hear it, not me.

Realizing this error made me throw my hands back up in the air. Or rather, away from my keyboard once more. Admitting this now still makes me cringe. A response to a comment on the article helped me keep at the Work, though. It read:

“If a person really wants to learn, my anger and criticism shouldn’t make  them suddenly change their minds.”

The criticism of the good white people archetype is not a reason to stop trying. It’s a piece of critical feedback for my efforts to be better informed moving forward; it’s an opportunity to learn and to reflect. So I asked, what is the difference between a good white person and an ally? What different behaviors, ways of accompanying folks of color, and understanding of oneself delineates the two?

Maybe it starts with the many confessions littering this post. Because all of this is about understanding that we are a part of the system. There is no system ‘out there’.  It is made up of me, of you: human beings living and breathing into reality the way that we come together; how we think of ourselves; what we know and see of others— most frighteningly, the extent of our safety or lack thereof.

And with this— with us as the system— maybe it is about understanding that I perpetuate racism all the time. Not being okay with that, but also not being afraid of that seems key in engaging with these issues in a respectful, critical, and productive manner. When I am still resisting this, I need to look “good” to assuage my own discomfort with this whole damn thing.

Yet, when I accept the difficult truths that come with how I’ve experienced the world based on my skin color, I can hear about, identify, and own my many mistakes. I can begin to unlearn the ways I’ve been socialized to dominate and oppress.

Maybe being an ally, then, means knowing that I am not a “good” white person. Knowing that that is not even the goal. White— same as black or brown or any other racial identity—is neutral. It is how we live into these identities that matters. And the adjective I am going for is conscious.

Being an ally= being a conscious privileged person. Which necessitates abandoning the pursuit (read: facade) of goodness for the more honest aim of increasing awareness in this lopsided, destructive world of our making.

Being an ally means responding to a post, despite the aggravation I might feel.

It means recognizing that aggravation is the least of it when it comes to the pains of racial injustice.

It means remembering that, for many, this is a matter of life or death.

It means not thinking I get it, as if consciousness is something you can check off or achieve.

It means seeking to live consciously.

Which means not talking over:

listening well,

and with humility.

I think it means saying sorry. Seeing my complicity. Taking corrective action. Staying in the fight.

Silence. Dominance. Dualism. Saviorism. I’m sick of it all.

Not as sick, though, as I am of the repeated terror inflicted against men and women for merely walking down the street with dark skin.

Perhaps what I should be sick of is the way that I help to maintain a system with such injustices. As Angelina Davis recently said, “perhaps we should always blame ourselves”.

Today, I’m taking the blame. I’m attempting to interrupt the ways racism continues to show up in my life and relationships. I’m rejecting the white supremacy I still catch myself being complicit in.

I’m writing, sharing, shouting— joining the chorus of voices screaming that this is not okay. Insisting that black lives matter. That brown lives matter. That we will not have our message be shot down, or choked out. That with every body you do these things to, the more our hearts break. The more our voices will rise above the tide of violent structures. The more clearly people will see the imbalanced realities which existed long before Brown or Garner were born, let alone killed.

The more— I hope— we all will look in the mirror, and then out the window. Both of which reveal, within and around, the work we have to do.

Here’s some of mine: I’m sorry it took me this long. I’d like to join and to listen. This is not okay.


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