The Miraculous Power of Shutting Up

I did a very smart thing about 6 years or so ago: I started listening

Not very revolutionary, right?

Except, holy shit at the things you can learn if you just stop talking long enough.

Here’s the thing: encountering feminism in college gave me the mistaken impression I had license to talk all the damn time. I was tired of my desires and ideas being marginalized–I’d grown up in a super-conservative space in which women were fully expected to take a backseat to their husbands and all that bullshit. And, maybe, I didn’t do a very thorough examination of feminism (I can assure you there’s a lot more to it than just claiming center stage. Actually, center stage isn’t really so much even a thing…). I just heard what I wanted/needed to hear in that moment (the message to claim my voice) and ran with it.

In some ways, that served me. In other, long-term ways, my voice ultimately got all kinds of in the way of my ability to hear other people’s experience.

The first time I caught a whiff of intersectional feminism (a phrase coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, which examines overlapping systems of oppression, like being a person of color AND a woman) was when I took a head-over-heels-smitten deep dive into Alice Walker’s work in college. But, truth be told, when you aren’t ready for ideas, they just kind of slide off your psyche. And I totally wasn’t ready. The good news is that those ideas don’t just slide off into the abyss. They stick around, marinading in your brain until you are, in fact, struck down by the sheer magnitude of the truth of them one day, seemingly out of the blue.

For me, a woman with roots in Georgia and Alabama among people who were served by the social status quo of racism, I was afraid to take a serious look at my own internalized racism. Easier to just proclaim racism as “bad,”assure myself I’d never done anything (overtly) racist and carry on. I wasn’t hurting anyone, so I was a good person.

Right?

I think about that self (a little smug, but definitely full of fear and 100% lacking in understanding about the complexities and pervasiveness of institutionalized racism), and I want to shake her. Hard.

But that was my journey. And anything else just isn’t the truth. 

When unarmed black men started dying at alarming rates (or, more accurately, when cell phone video made it harder to deny that unarmed black men were dying at alarming rates), I started paying attention. And, once you see–really see–with your heart what is happening, when you witness the ravages in racism as real lives lost, real suffering, real and sometimes deadly inequity, you cannot unsee it. 

And it brings grief. So much grief. 

You can get overwhelmed by the grief. But let’s call that what it is: a cop-out. Because, y’all, there is so much work to be done. 

It’s instructive here to just grab a glimpse of what it looks like to people of color, who’ve been doing the grueling work of liberation and the uber-frustrating, often futile work of just getting white people to listen, when white folks jump into a shame/self-loathing cycle (which is mainly just a way to avoid actually doing anything). This excerpt is from a piece that appeared in The Root aptly entitled “Four Emails White People Send to Black People When Black People Talk or Write about Racism:”

I’m so fucking tired of White people and being a White person. We are so fucking awful. I hate myself. I hate my white skin and my even whiter than my white skin teeth . . . .Sometimes I look in the mirror in the morning and I just want to peel my skin off like an orange, taking each layer of whiteness off and tossing it in the trash with the rest of the fucking garbage. Actually, since oranges are covered in white pith after you peel them, that analogy doesn’t quite work. I guess bananas and apples and pears don’t either. Shit, have you ever realized how disgustingly white most fruit is when you peel the outer layers off? Goddamn there’s no end to this shit. Fuck racism, fuck white people, fuck whiteness, and fuck fruit.

Damon Young, Very Smart Brothas

While it’s true that sometimes if feel like there is no end to this shit, getting all fuck fruit on the systemic racism and white supremacy in the United States isn’t gonna work. Why? Because it completely lacks action. It centers whiteness and how “bad” we feel.

Feeling bad never changed anything. In fact, it’s a pretty clear path to self-pity and self-loathing.

Not helpful.

But one simple suggestion from Glennon Doyle a few years ago pulled me out of that fuck fruit cycle. She suggested that folks follow at least one person on social media that was different from them in some way. That’s it. Totally doable.

Rather arbitrarily I picked Ijeoma Oluo and Ally Henny. Seriously good choices that I deserve no credit for.

Here’s what these two women of color have offered this white girl: the ability to see the world from a different lived experience, deeper insights into the subtle ways of racism, and access to knowledge that I now don’t have to ask the black folks in my life for.

Because literally one of the last things your black co-worker, black neighbor, black friend wants to do is answer your questions about racism.

Totally not kidding on that.

If you have questions, if you’re having trouble envisioning how our culture looks stripped of the privilege of whiteness or if you want to know what you (as a white person) can do to make things better, ask the interwebs. Use Google. I hear its a pretty good search engine. Follow folks on IG or Facebook.

But remember that, to learn anything, you have to be willing to listen. Not justify. Not speculate. Not excuse. Not enable. Just listen.

It will break your heart. That much is true. But then you’ll know. And then you can move into action. Because make no mistake: racism a white folks’ problem. And now, NOW, is the time to fix it.

Take a Knee

I have strong feelings about taking a knee during the national anthem. As in, there is no way in hell I am going to be anywhere near the national anthem and NOT take a knee. Because systemic racism. Because the murder of black and brown people at the hands of police officers. Because white supremacy.

On Saturday morning, I got up before the sun to run a 5K. I made myself some coffee, real-quick-like washed Jane’s soccer uniform for her game that morning (planning ahead isn’t always my strong suit), and headed over to Avondale Estates to run. The 5K supported the elementary school of one of my very favorite kiddos, so I was extra excited to go and see his family and participate in the race.

I parked my car and headed to check in. Cheerful volunteers beckoned me over. There were no lines to contend with–which was both pretty unusual & pretty rad. Usually, on race day, the lines to pick up race numbers are LONG. But I quickly realized that this inaugural race would be an intimate affair. Cool. I love supporting fledgling efforts.

The weather was a bit chilly, so I was hanging around in the gymnasium instead of outside. And that’s when it happened. I finally focused on the singing that had previously been kind of melodic background noise. I realized that it was a choir. And that they were practicing the national anthem.

DAMN. They sure as hell were going to sing the national anthem before this 5K.

I have strong feelings about taking a knee during the national anthem. As in, there is no way in hell I am going to be anywhere near the national anthem and NOT take a knee. Because systemic racism. Because the murder of black and brown people at the hands of police officers. Because white supremacy. Because freedoms that should apply to all actually only apply to some. Right now, our country is wrong on so many levels. I see that. I feel it. And I have a responsibility to respond.

So, here I am, in a neighborhood that is not my own, faced with the necessity of taking a knee during the national anthem. Did I mention this was a really small crowd? It wasn’t like no one would notice. Oh, they’d notice all right. And as strongly as I feel about taking a knee–well, folks feel just as strongly on the other side. Sometimes their feelings involve death threats. So, yeah, I was a little nervous about this whole situation.

But the first bars of the national anthem rang out, and I put my knee on that asphalt. It hurt like hell. And I was shaking like a leaf. As I knelt there with my head down, tears stung my eyes as I thought about all the professional athletes who have taken a knee, the performers, the high school kids… Because that shit is BRAVE. When you’ve got an audience that matters to you–whether its millions of football fans or hundreds of folks gathered for a high school sporting event–it is wrenchingly frightening to take an unpopular stand. There is peril in telling the vocal majority that they are wrong. But they are. They are wrong. And the people who stand up in big and small ways–who call out systemic racism, who reject white supremacy, who really believe that we are not truly free until ALL OF US are free–they deserve our commendation and our respect. Kneeling there, marveling at how long the national anthem is (it’s real, real long), I prayed for every person who’d been brave enough to take a knee. I prayed for their safety, their strength, and their continued conviction.

At the end of the national anthem, some woman behind me said “Amen” (that’s a problem for another day, this God & country business), I got up and ran my race. People probably felt irked by me. Or made assumptions about my “white guilt” (of which I have none, by the way. Guilt is useless. Action trumps guilt every time). Or maybe they didn’t notice me at all–people, including myself, can be way too ego-centric, always assuming folks are talking about, looking at, or focusing on them. So maybe no one even noticed.

But I noticed. And every step I take to disentangle myself from white supremacy, to stamp out the racism that I’ve been exposed to all my life (as we all have), to create something different for my daughter’s future–that is important. Ending racism will happen in momentous moments and in seemingly inconsequential ones. But, as a white woman, I know I have to take steps every day to reject racism. My liberation is tied up in this, too.