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Dismantling White Privilege Means We Have To Engage

Confrontation, Education, Engagement

Five months ago, I wrote about white privilege on this platform. Acknowledging my white privilege for the first time meant coming face to face with the harsh reality that I was a part of the problem: white feminists, specifically white spiritual feminists, did not include women of color in their fight for equality.

I asked the ON OUR MOON community to engage instead of ignore; to not repeat what I had previously always done.

But what did that even look like? What does engaging look like in our community, but also for us individually, and for myself?

Frank deBoer’s response to George Yancy’sDear America,” an essay asking white America to address their role in a racist society, was a question that hadn’t occurred to me when I first started learning about white privilege: what does addressing your white privilege actually accomplish?

Acknowledging your white privilege is a big step, one that took me 29 years to learn. But then what?

Yancy argues that many white people are hiding; hiding from their privilege, hiding from their complicity. And he’s right. What he seems to fail to consider is that by placing a premium on the disavowal of white privilege — and treating it as its own end — he’s making it easier for the heirs of white privilege to hide in plain sight. 

Frank deBoer

 

White privilege is about the systems and beliefs that were set in place long before we were born that devalue people of color’s experiences and overall existence. White privilege is about structures that are in place to benefit those with white skin. White privilege is an unspoken ideology that upholds one race over the other. The lighter your skin, the higher your value in society.

Acknowledging my white privilege was the first step. But then it was time for action and doing the work. It was demanding, and it involved challenging everything I learned growing up, especially every belief I had about race and people of color.

I educated myself on race and white privilege so that I could rewire my beliefs that uphold white supremacy. Following and participating in online conversation, started by women of color like Rachel Cargle and Leesa Renee Hall, was crucial. It was important to listen to and learn from women of color in my pursuit to unlearn my deeply subconscious beliefs. But I quickly learned that I couldn’t just rely on women of color to share their experiences of race and racism. It was like asking a survivor of sexual assault to explain to a group of men what their experience was like. It’s inhumane and unsustainable. I needed to do my own research, and luckily Google made that fairly easy. All it took was making the decision to make the effort. In my Google results, I found the following books that particularly helped me: White Fragility, Why I’m No Longer Talking About Race To White People, and Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?

Racial stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in our subconscious beliefs that it’s challenging to even address them, let alone shift them.

 

Reading these books wasn’t easy; it felt like they were holding up a mirror to all the ugly that being white looked like. The ugly history, the ugly discrimination, the ugly oppression. Though the hardest mirror to look in was the one that reflected the racial bias and prejudices that I upheld. In the mirror I asked myself, What were my views of black men? What did I consider beautiful? What did I consider “good” and “safe” neighborhoods? Have I ever made indirect insinuations of feeling unsafe just by mentioning someone’s skin color? Did I ensure the few women of color at our moon circles felt safe at our predominately white gatherings?

Racial stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in our subconscious beliefs that it’s challenging to even address them, let alone shift them. But these books made all of that impossible to ignore.

While reading these books, I came face-to-face with some deeply rooted (and very painful) realizations about my upbringing. I am a white-passing woman, my mother is Pakistani, and challenging my beliefs around race made me realize how much race played a part in our fragile relationship. It was something I had previously never cared to admit. I needed to then address the influence my sometimes openly racist family had on my subconscious; how their comments have shaped how I viewed people of color, including my own mother.

These books helped me understand privilege tremendously, to see and confront my racial history, and now I needed to listen. This meant actively listening, deeply listening, to stories from people of color to challenge and rewire a belief structure that I have benefited from my whole life. When I thought I was ready to respond, I shut up, and continued to listen. The stories of people of color humanized the theories all of these books taught me. And I did finally speak, I spoke with women about these stories particularly white women. Their response was often  defensive, further instilling the us versus them mentality, something Robin Diangelo explains in depth in White Fragility. The common response I heard from these women was, But they’re so angry. I just don’t relate or learn from anger, and I don’t think using anger to try to get people to understand your point helps. (If you want a play-by-play of what white fragility can look like, read what happened when feminist Alison Brettschneider was challenged by her own followers for not having posted about Nia Wilson, an 18 year old woman who was murdered in broad daylight at a train station in Oakland. Note: it gets ugly; she tried to fire a woman of color.)

Part of the problem with this response is that there hasn’t been any self-reflection. Because once you see white privilege for what it is, you understand the anger very clearly. The fear for black bodies is real. And fear turns into anger. When you’ve seen enough people that look like you being killed, prosecuted, raped, harassed, ignored, disrespected, and devalued, anger would be a common response for anyone.

And anger should be a common response, not just for people of color. Trying to communicate this anger and converse with my white friends about white privilege felt heavy and frustrating at times. And so then, like I had chosen to ignore women of color in the past, I found myself choosing to ignore the privileged white. Yet again acting out another privilege women of color don’t have.

It is my duty as a white person who sees and understands my own white privilege to take the torch and alleviate the immense burden this work puts on women of color, who have been advocating for change of these racial inequalities for decades.

 

But ignoring one side, either side, does not help the fight to end white supremacy. If anything it further instills a divide and continues putting pressure on people of color to fight this fight alone.

So we have to engage.

Through all my unlearning and rewiring, this is what engagement has looked like for me:

Engaging means deeply listening to not just people of color, but also to white people, even when their responses and discredits about white privilege frustrate me. It is my duty as a white person who sees and understands my own white privilege to take the torch and alleviate the immense burden this work puts on women of color, who have been advocating for change of these racial inequalities for decades.

Engaging means checking any defensiveness I may have when I am challenged by a statement that I do not yet have the tools to understand. Instead of getting defensive, I will take the time to sit with it. The privilege of taking the time to learn and rewire is also deeply part of the privilege my skin color brings, but I would rather pause and reflect, then stomp and get defensive.

Engaging means talking about race and analyzing the way race is being talked about. It means taking the time and making the effort to do the research, to listen to stories, to challenge the way news is being shared through indirect, and sometimes overly direct, racist headlines, and most importantly to challenge my own beliefs on race and people of color. Talking about race does not make you a bad person, nor does it make you a racist. But ignoring color and how I have benefited from my white skin only furthers a society that values one skin tone over another.

Engaging means continuously thinking about representation. Who am I leaving out? is a question I am constantly asking myself. I was recently at an event called “An Evening With Successful Women.” Of the entire panel of six women, not one woman was a person of color. Examples like this further the narrative of a hierarchy when it comes to what success looks like, one that is based on the color of your skin first and foremost. It was a brutally eye-opening experience that proved to me we still have such a long way to go when it comes to making sure representation is at the forefront of every single conversation.

Engaging means being attentive to where my money goes. Does my financial contribution support businesses run by people of color? Am I financially supporting healers of color alongside white healers? Am I financially contributing to businesses and/or platforms that do not represent all people and all women? If so, how will I respond to them?

Engaging means broadening my community to include people of color, both personally and professionally. If everyone looks like you in every facet of your life, you are at a loss. Robin Diangelo said it best, “I was raised in a society that taught me that there was no loss in the absence of people of color — that their absence was a good and desirable thing to be sought and maintained — while simultaneously denying that fact.” My friend group and work team looks drastically different since starting to unpack my privilege, something I think naturally happens when addressing your racial biases. It makes me feel like I have a better understanding of the human experience, not just the *white* human experience.

Addressing privilege is an ongoing conversation, with both white people and people of color. As a white woman, my learning will never end. I need to do my part and use my privilege as an opportunity to share what I’ve learned and spark a conversation.

Join me in this conversation. Please comment! This is a safe space. The more conversations we have, the more change will actually happen. White privilege is hurting a lot of people. The more we address our own beliefs about race, the more we can change as a society. This will affect the way we vote and impact the structures that only benefit one group of people, white people.

It has to start somewhere for everyone, and maybe that somewhere can be here.

How are you engaging? How are you unlearning your beliefs about race and racism?

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Alexandra D'amour
About the author

Alexandra is a writer and the founder of On Our Moon. She believes vulnerability is healing the world. And cats, cats heal everything. Though she just got a puppy and now believes puppies can cure just about anything. TBD.

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