White fragility is real.
And white people don’t like hearing that we are part of the systemic oppression of black and brown people in our society. It makes us uncomfortable and defensive and we say stupid things like “Not all white people” in response to calmly presented statements from our African-American colleagues and acquaintances1.
Here are a few that are frequently tossed around:
- “Not all white people are racists. And there are plenty of black people that are racists too, by the way.”
- “Not all white ladies clutch their purses tighter if an African-American man approaches them.”
- “Not all white store managers follow African-American customers around the store to make sure they’re not stealing.”
- “Not all white cops pull over African-Americans without cause.”
- “Not all white teachers come down harder on African-American students.”
I’m going to tell you straight up that I made that last statement to one of my students, Tatiana, in 2010. I’ll never forget the moment, primarily because it’s one of those shameful memories that. will. never. fade. the. fuck. away. I’m embarrassed to be the chick who is trying so hard to listen and be woke, yet I threw down *the* white people conversation blocker years ago. Gah.
This is what happened:
Tatiana, a bright and insightful sophomore, used to come in before the start of the school day and chat with me about this and that. One day she complained to me about how she was having trouble getting along with her Physics and English teachers and she was sure it was because she was the darkest student in the class. I asked her what she meant by this. She replied that she knew that white teachers treated light-skinned and white students better and that “you guys” are always quicker to write up darker-skinned students. I immediately felt myself getting defensive and quickly replied, “Not all white teachers come down harder on African-American students. Maybe you should try to talk about this with your teachers.” Tatiana just looked at me, shook her head, and changed the subject.
After that, Tatiana didn’t come in for our early visits anymore. I tried to tell myself that it was because she was hanging out with new friends in the hallway, but in my heart, I knew it was because I had handled the conversation poorly. At the time, I didn’t know the phrase “white fragility,” but I knew that I had felt defensive and reacted too quickly. I felt a little bit attacked by her statement even though she had made it clear that she was talking about other teachers. I knew our friendship was damaged, but I didn’t know how to fix it. We still got along fine in class, but there was a deep crack in our once easy rapport.
Back then, I didn’t really understand the value of simply listening. But I knew that I needed to – somehow - do a better job of making my classroom a safe place for my students’ fragile hearts
1Notice that I’m not saying “friends” here. White people love to claim they have black friends, but at the end of the day, a lot of white folks have a lot of black acquaintances. It’s not right or nice, but we all segregate ourselves into our boxes pretty neatly. Go ahead and argue with me about this in the comments section. TIA
Before I continue with my story, I want to share with you some insights from an excellent blog post by Annalee Flower Horne. I’d love it if you would read the whole post, but if you’re pressed for time, I'll just share my favorite part about white fragility here:
“If what someone is saying about white folks and racism doesn’t apply to you, then it isn’t about you, and there’s no reason to make it about you. If you’re feeling a driving need to make it about you anyway, ask yourself where that’s coming from. If what they’re saying really doesn’t apply to you, then why are you feeling defensive about it?”
I’ve been subconsciously ruminating on that question ever since Tatiana shook her head at me in 2010.
This is another good bit:
“So when you equate generalizations about white people to generalizations about people of color, you’re not just asserting your privilege to shape the discourse around racism; you’re also demonstrating a staggering lack of empathy. You’re acting as if your implicitly limited understanding of racism is more accurate and ‘true’ than the lived experiences of people who actually face racism every day.”
Ms. Flower Horne is spot on here, but she’s more polite than me. For the slow folks in the back, I’ll break it down for you guys:
It’s time to shut the eff up, white people. We don’t get it and, really, we never will. But if we listen and try to empathize and – again – LISTEN, we might be able to help bring about some type of positive change.
Here is the link to Ms. Flower Horne’s post: "Not All White People" and Derailing Conversations http://www.flowerhorne.com/blog/2013/12/20/not-all-white-people-and-derailing-conversations
Oh - and here’s another super good post that came out just after the incidents in Charlottesville:
"For Black People Who Have to Deal with White People this Week" http://www.theroot.com/for-black-people-who-have-to-deal-with-white-people-thi-1797835711/amp
Speaking of Charlottesville...
I saw (too many goddamn fucking stupid white) people on Facebook posting about how the counter protestors, specifically anyone associated with Black Lives Matter and Antifa, were just as responsible for Heather Heyers’ murder in Charlottesville. I knew that I needed to do something.
And so it was that I messaged the Black Lives Matter Chicago FB page and waited and wondered if they would reply to The Random White Girl.
I never received a reply from Chicago BLM, but a week or so later, I was nervous-excited when they posted about their upcoming Peace/Restoration March on August 26th. I have a tendency to run directly towards anything that makes me feel worried or nervous2 and this was way outside my comfort zone. Sure, I had inquired about the possibility of a march, but now I needed to leave my white fragility on the kitchen counter and actually show up.
The march was going to be held in the Bronzeville Community Garden, which I had never visited, but it looked lovely online. And I was a little embarrassed that I loved Chicago’s neighborhoods so much, but had never visited Bronzeville. Was it because it was a historically black neighborhood? Seriously? So I’ll go hang in Chinatown but not Bronzeville? Time to check yourself, white girl.
As the date approached, I reflected on my goals for the day.
- I wanted to be there as an ally.
- I wanted to listen more than I spoke.
- I wanted to show my children that we weren’t the kind of soft white people who turned away when bad things happened to people of color in our community.
Part of my way for coping with anxiety is to stay busy with preparations3. In the days leading up to the march, I fussed and fidgeted around the house, ordered a shirt, and brainstormed ideas for my signs. I had originally wanted all three of the boys to go with me to the march, but Joe and Bill just weren’t feeling it. Mike and I had some long talks about why it was important for white people to attend, but that we needed to keep our mouths shut. The last thing I wanted was for him to start doing some well-intentioned fifteen-year-old whitesplaining to anyone there. Sweet Jesus, no.
On the morning of the march, we finished our signs and looked at our transportation options. I wasn’t sure about taking the train in because we would have to switch to the Green Line at Roosevelt. I had never taken the Green Line to 51st Street and I was super annoyed with myself that morning. Really, Lor? You have been taking the El for a million years, but you never took this line because...? Because it led to Black Neighborhoods? Because you were afraid someone would Bother Your Whiteness or something? Holy crap. This is pathetic. I still have such a long way to go.
I kept vacillating and it was a stupid mental argument to be having with myself. On the one hand, I am a mediocre driver. On the other hand, I didn't know if taking that particular train line was the right choice for us. And so it was that my mind churned away: Well, I’ll have Mike with me. If I run into trouble, like if *someone dangerous* bothers us, I’d rather not have him be in a scary situation. Plus, we’ll have the protest signs and that will draw attention to ourselves. PLUS, if people see my shirt, will they think I’m, like, trying too hard? Oh, for fuck’s sake. I’m a mess. Why do I think anyone is going to give two craps that there are white people on the train? Where are the potato chips? Whose idea was it to not buy any potato chips this week? I’m stressed out over a fucking train. Gah. I can’t believe there aren’t any chips in the house. Okay, we’re driving. Enough. Grab the keys and let's go.
So we drove. And I felt stupid.
2There are moments when I’m still like, “Holy cow, I can’t believe I actually wore hijab for 120 days. That was some hard, scary stuff. And the fights with the crazy Boy Scout people? Unreal. How did I ever make it through that?!” And then Jesus taps me on the shoulder and is like, “Um, hello...?” Oh, right. ‘Kay. Thank you again.
3Exhibit A: Training for Philmont for TWO YEARS because I was afraid I would fall apart on the trail and then someone would say, “Oh, she couldn’t handle it because she was a woman and just wasn’t strong enough.” So if you need for someone to randomly carry thirty-five pounds on their back for twelve hours, I’m totally your girl.
We parked (for free!!!!!) at 53rd and King Drive and I took a lot of deep breaths as we walked the two city blocks to the rally point. Mike and I carried our signs at our sides and chatted about the lovely architecture in the neighborhood. As we walked, I smiled and said hello to the folks we passed. With the exception of one white, possibly homeless, woman who screamed at us “No white people!!!” most of the African-American folks we passed didn’t respond to our hellos. Their eyes flicked from our faces to the signs at our sides and that was it. We saw folks having picnics across the street at Washington Park and I raised my hand and waved hello to them. No one waved back.
I felt self-conscious and reminded myself that this was the tiniest, the most miniscule, the most microscopic taste of how people felt who were outside of the White Privilege Bubble. Told myself to suck it up. Told myself that this experience was clearly overdue.
Within five minutes of our arrival at the rally, I realized – again – that I knew nothing about anything in the entire universe and that it would probably be a good idea for me to never talk about anything at all ever again. Like ever. I heard – and didn’t understand - the words “libations” and “MISSHA” and I knew that this was the day I was going to get schooled.
When Mike and I arrived, there were about a hundred and fifty people milling around the intersection and community garden. A cameraman was there and several folks in BLM t-shirts were using a megaphone to address the crowd. They were thanking the group for coming out and standing up for their community. Most of the attendees were African-American, but there were about fifteen white folks and one Middle Eastern woman in hijab.
The speakers for the rally stood in the middle of the garden and the rest of us stood in a semi-circle around them. Initially, Mike and I were among the very few with signs and I found that a little surprising. However, within about ten minutes, another BLM group with signs came marching up King Drive and cut down 51st Street to join us.
Prior to this second group’s arrival, one of the organizers said something about “the libations” being on their way and, I swear, I turned my head and wondered if there was a refreshment table somewhere. The get-a-clue phone was ringing off the hook for this white girl.
However, I slowly realized that one of the next speakers, who was part of the second group that had arrived, was the holder of the aforementioned libations and that his purpose was to take us through an oral (African? Particular tribe....??) ceremony. At the start of his piece, he asked the elders in the group if they would permit him to speak and commence with the ceremony. The elders in the crowd gave their consent.
The speaker then began by referencing our ancestors and the value of family in our present day lives. With each statement he made, he poured a small quantity of the liquid, or libations, on the ground. One of his statements was along the lines of, “We give thanks for the Motherland Alkebulan, the cradle of civilization” and the crowd responded with Ashe or So be it. He probably called out ten such statements and to each one we responded, “Ashe!” It was very moving, even though I could feel myself peeking out of the corners of my eyes at the folks near me, wondering if I was doing the Ashe response correctly. Too loud? Not loud enough? Is there more of an emphasis on the second syllable? Does anybody think it’s weird that the white folks are responding too?
After he concluded the ceremony, several other speakers came forward to talk about their concerns within the community. Specifically, they referenced the astronomical amount of money spent by the CPD every year to police – and, in their opinion, not protect – their communities. They spoke of the heartbreak that came with having their family members shot on their own streets. They described the need for businesses and industries to invest in the community; folks were commuting out of the Bronzeville area every day to work in the suburbs.
The speakers also repeatedly called for the removal of something called MISSHA. Several of the protestors in the second group had signs that showed blurry photos of people in what looked like a store. Mike and I were mystified, but later in the day, we learned that MISSHA was the name of a beauty supply store in the Bronzeville community. Apparently, the store owner also owns a store in North Carolina where a manager punched and attempted to choke a customer who he believed was shoplifting. The manager was not fired and the Bronzeville community was outraged. They protested the store in March of 2017 (check out this article5) and utilized the BLM peace rally as another opportunity to protest the store again.
4Here’s the link to the Kwanzaa ceremony that pretty well matches what we observed: http://www.sababuland.com/shule/kwanzaa/libation.html
5 MISSHA Boycott: http://abc7chicago.com/amp/news/protesters-call-for-boycott-of-bronzeville-store-connected-to-viral-video/1803017/
When the speakers were finished, we marched as a group down King Drive to 47th Street. Along the way, we picked up a lot more people and probably ended up with a total of three hundred folks by the time we got to the intersection. The police escorts bicycled alongside us and stayed stone-faced as the marchers chanted. The cars honked their horns and folks yelled out their windows at us, “Yes! Yeeeeesssss!”
When we re-assembled at 47th and King, we formed a semi-circle and spilled into the street and intersection a bit. The police formed a protective ring around us, but one of the officers stepped forward and asked if she could address the group.
She started her comments by reminding the group that if they wanted to see a change in the police department, that those changes could come from them.
She said, “I am one of you. I live in this community and I take off this shirt at the end of the day and go on with my life. I shop in these stores. But I put on the blue shirt in the morning because this is my job. And I believe in what we do. But again, it’s just a job. And I can still take off the blue shirt when I’m finished for the day.”
Folks in the crowd shifted their weight and folded their arms.
She continued, “And just so you know, the police department is accepting applications right now. So if you want to be a part of the solutions, I would encourage you to submit that application. You’re going to go to www.chicagopolice.org. That’s chicagopolice.org, folks. Check out the application and be a part of the solutions we need here.”
Her smile was sincere as she concluded her comments and many of us smiled back at her.
One of the hardest things was listening to two people who were there in wheelchairs.
The first gentleman was young and very clean-cut in appearance. I had noticed him at the original rally meeting point and wondered why he was in a wheelchair. I mused, I wonder if he has a disease? He doesn't look like he has CP...? And he took a picture of our signs and seemed okay...? It's so weird that he's in a wheelchair. It wasn’t until he shared his story that I realized – again!!!! – how little I know, even with working in Blue Island.
He said that he was shot five years ago when he was seventeen years old. The shooter was never caught and he didn’t know why he was shot. He said that he was an athlete and good in school, but that he had to drop out after he was shot and paralyzed from the waist down. Most of his friends ghosted him and he went through a dark, sad time. However, he finally finished his education and eventually became a guidance counselor for a local community facility. He had chosen to turn his life into a positive in spite of being shot within his own community.
Mike and I stared at this handsome young man in disbelief. When he wheeled over to our side of the sidewalk, I leaned forward and shook his hand saying, "Thank you for sharing your story with us." He nodded graciously, but it was an awkward moment. And I couldn't help but look afterwards at my teenage son standing - standing! - next to me and think, Of all the things I worry about with this boy, him getting shot is not even on the list.
The next speaker was a mother whose son had been shot on their street one year ago.
Friends, I need to stop at this point. It’s super late and I’m going to turn into a pumpkin soon. I'll try to keep working on this tomorrow. I've also thrown some pictures down there at the bottom that I'll work into the story soon.
I want to close by asking for your forgiveness if I have hit any wrong notes here with my observations about BLM. I don't know everything, and I feel pretty vulnerable in talking about this with you. This experience was far different from when I wore hijab as part of my protest of the travel ban. And so I put on a scarf and stepped off the cliff into empty air. I tried to figured it all out as I fell through the sky. I didn't know any Christians who had ever worn hijab and most people didn't have an opinion beyond "She's crazy for doing this" or "She's awesome." But with BLM, folks have strong opinions and they'll shout at you until they feel like you've heard them. BLM rattles our cages of white fragility.
So if you have something to say, I can take it. Post it in the comments and, assuming you're not an asshole, I will gladly reflect on your perspective.
And as always, thanks for reading. I do appreciate it.