What does it mean to be a white woman in America when it seems like every answer is wrong? When you don’t know how to simultaneously fight against white supremacy while wearing your white skin? After the Women’s March on Washington, writer and activist ShiShi Rose called upon white women to “unlearn, acknowledge, and do better.” But for me, like many others getting into the resistance for the first time, I wasn’t sure where to start.
The past two years have transformed me in ways that I never thought possible, and I have been surprised and humbled by what I have discovered. Based on Janet Helms’s white racial identity development model, I reflect on my journey and on those who have walked before me, and extend a hand to other white women for them to join me in this work.
Sixteen years ago, fresh out of college, I was offered a teaching job at an inner-city African Centered Education (ACE) high school in Kansas City. This was not because I had any particular talent or experience teaching an Afrocentric curriculum, they just needed a warm body in front of the classroom—and I needed a job. So I was hired as the Psychology and Peer Counseling teacher.
I was just self-aware enough to announce to my students, “I’m not here as a white woman savior!” but I realize now that my words back then were entirely surface level. I did not really take that statement to heart, and was years away from any sort of reflection on what it meant for me to have a white identity. The concept of “white teacher in the hood” was such a standard paradigm, that I just accepted this as normal instead of confronting it as a power structure that reinforces racism.
Part of coming to terms with who I am as a white woman is to admit that I failed spectacularly in my endeavor as a classroom teacher. I taught the most conventional Psychology curriculum straight out of a textbook, the standard primer of white male psychologists from Freud to Skinner. I entirely missed the opportunity to adapt any resources for my class related to black psychology or identity in order to meet the mission of this ACE school. I knew no other way than to be the white woman blessing my black students with my established knowledge.
Although I have many positive memories of those times with my students, I know that I was never able to shift away from my own white-centered perspective. The summer I was hired, I bought an African-American history textbook with the intent of reading it, but then was quickly overwhelmed with the task before me. I admit, with shame, that I never opened it again during the course of my two brief years of teaching. At age 24, I was not ready to challenge my whiteness. I was oblivious.
As a crossover Gen X/Millennial, my social currency was edgy sarcasm and smug snark. I vividly remember being with a group of post-college friends, smirking and casually quoting Debra Messing from the end of a Seinfeld episode, “Not to mention the Blacks and the Jews!” I don’t even remember the context of what prompted me to say that, but I do remember getting a rooom full of awkward silence.
I still have that yearning to go back and find every single person at that party and say, “No, really! I’m not racist! It was funny because it is so inappropriate! Didn’t you see The Yada Yada episode? When Seinfeld was at that wedding? See there was this dentist…” But if you have to explain a joke, you’ve already bombed. And it wasn’t even my joke to tell, especially as a throwaway line.
I was in that blissful “post-racial” mindset where I felt so NOT racist that I was somehow fighting racism with a racist joke, because mocking racism takes away its power, right? We had a black president who I loved, I had black family members, and I had just moved to Chicago and was loving all the diversity this city had to offer, so how could I possibly be racist?
There is much to be learned from Robin DiAngelo in her new book, White Fragility, but one of the key elements is that racism can manifest itself in many different ways. It is not just being part of the KKK or spraypainting swastikas on bus stops. The self-congratulatory narrative that many nice white people have told ourselves does not absolve us of the responsibility for perpetuating white supremacy.
The most effective adaptation of racism over time,” DiAngelo claims, “is the idea that racism is conscious bias held by mean people.” This good/bad binary, positing a world of evil racists and compassionate non-racists, is itself a racist construct.
I had to face the disintegration of my perception of myself as a “good person” and admit that I did hold racist beliefs, both conscious and unconscious. As much as I fought against hate speech, I was still guilty of not seeing people as individuals but as stereotypes of their identity groups.
I reflected on how irritated I became at some of my Asian colleagues when they didn’t do a task as quickly as I expected them to, or if they dared to make a mistake. I had harsher criticism for them because I had different expectations of perfection from them based on their race. Even saying it out loud is uncomfortable for me, but I know it to be true. And I am sorry.
In an online discussion group focused on social activism and racial inequality, one of the black female moderators specifically said she doesn’t like the term “woke” because it is too easy for white liberals to say and feel like they are now “enlightened” and absolved of responsibility. They can put a BLACK LIVES MATTER poster in their window, perform their penance, and move on with their white lives.
DiAngelo writes that, “To the degree that white progressives think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived.” Yes, we are white, but we’re the “cool” white people. In this phase of identity development, it is tempting for white people, myself included, to retreat to the safety of our own whiteness to avoid grappling with the hard work needed for real change to take place.
For me, this manifested early in the way I prioritized my activism. Faced with the enormity of racism and my white guilt, there was a period of time that I couldn’t think about racial oppression because “that’s not my fight.” I was much more comfortable focusing on gun violence prevention, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights without trying to dissect these issues along the lines of race. It was too complicated to be intersectional, and I’m only one person! I was stuck thinking there was nothing that I personally could do because I am not black.
When I burst onto the scene as an activist, I was very focused on my own vision of transforming Chicago for my organization, and poured all of my energy into building a volunteer army from the ground up. But after months and months, I still found myself in almost exclusively white spaces talking to white faces about gun violence.
I did not have any organizing experience beforehand, and the more I continued the work, the more I began to doubt myself. Was I just taking charge and telling people what to do because of my white privilege? Was I the wrong voice? I began to lose confidence as I started to realize there was much more that needed to be done to challenge the status quo of one of the most segregated cities in the country.
I found that I was able to comfortably say to a large crowd that the NRA is a white supremacist organization. That the NRA benefits from the gun violence in Chicago because it serves their narrative that white people need to buy more guns because of scary black gang members. I could say this to the progressive white crowd and get a cheer because I could show how we are collectively fighting the evil gun lobby—Us versus Them.
But after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS shooting, I changed the focus of my speech to go beyond just rejecting the NRA, and to call upon the mostly white crowd to examine the enemy within. I was so furious that after another mass shooting, we, as the people with the most power, still couldn’t challenge the fundamental flaws of white males.
“White people! Come get your boys! Take ownership of this issue and come get your scared, angry, white men who take it upon themselves to turn the emptiness inside of them into empty seats at the dinner table for too many families across the nation.”
I received some criticism both top-down and bottom-up for this speech. I got the message that it was better to stay on topic, to just focus on gun violence prevention, and not bring whiteness into it. I also heard from white mothers who insisted that they raised their boys right, and they felt personally attacked by me saying white people weren’t doing enough. The dissonance and discomfort of taking responsibility is painful. And yet, my black friends nodded and thanked me for saying that piece. They told me to #KeepGoing.
This was the hardest phase where I actively rejected white culture, and deeply wallowed in the hatred of my own white skin. I was paralyzed as my previous sense of self was shattered into a million pieces. What if everything I’ve achieved is because of white privilege? What if I say the wrong thing and offend others? What if I get called out as being racist? What if I’m seen as not doing enough? What if I’m NOT doing enough? I didn’t even want to get out of bed.
I became an empty shell and withdrew from a lot of activist spaces. I felt very negative about myself — What do I have to offer to this conversation? Why would anyone want to hear what I have to say? I didn’t want the shame of representing “white women” as a group, I wanted to be an individual! I’m not a stereotype! I was immediately defensive in wanting to distance myself from the assumptions people had about the color of my own skin.
I didn’t realize how deep my need was to separate myself from being white and to deny being part of the dominant culture. I discovered that this desire for individualism is a well-documented pattern of beliefs that makes it difficult for white people to understand racism as a system, according to DiAngelo’s article, What does it meant to be white?
Whites are taught to see themselves as individuals, rather than as part of a racial group. It follows that we are racially objective and thus can represent the universal human experience, while people of color can only represent their race. Seeing ourselves as unracialized individuals, we take umbrage when generalizations are made about us as a group.
After I went on a recent misguided online tirade, Bob Bland wrote a comment to me — “Upset is a necessary part of transformation.” She emphasized that there is trauma and injuries that come with stamping out white fragility. After every misstep, I realized that my internal dialogue had become “you suck, you are a failure” instead of “how can I learn from this and be better?” That was the last nudge I needed to realize that what I say matters, and that words have consequences. If I wasn’t going to get out of this rut, then my inaction was complacency.
To really start to grapple with my own white identity in a meaningful way, I am at the beginning stages of immersing myself in the deep question of what it means for me to be white. What the necessary actions are for me to commit to in solidarity and not just to perform ally theater. That is what has led me to the resources and strategies in this writing, as well as a burning desire for self-discovery that I did not have before.
I am learning to accept and internalize the positives and negatives that come with having white skin; to push through that white fragility and keep my white tears to myself. To acknowledge what it means to be a representative of “white women.” How to sit with that, absorb that, deal with that, and then figure out how to go forward. I hope that I can transform into an active mediator and facilitator, and leave those days of feeling sorry for myself behind. I’ve got work to do.
It is important for me to be able to say “I, Racist,” and not stop there. I also need to emerge from my cozy shell and reach out to other white people who may be stuck or simply refuse to budge. I have found that you can’t force someone to go through identity stages if they are not ready. And some will never want to leave the comfort that white supremacy brings them. But being anti-racist requires multiple strategies, and sometimes you just need to come collect your racist aunt Linda.
To know what it is to be white, you must also expose yourself to what it means to be not white. Take time to immerse yourself in the culture of others (but not like this). Support and amplify the voices of black and brown people across the entire media spectrum, and acknowledge that there will be plenty of things that were just not made for you and your consumption. Black Twitter is the best, y’all. Respect and honor that people of color and biracial people have their own identity development journeys that they are going through, and have no obligation to meet you where you are. And do not ever push yourself into a safe space for racial healing when you represent the agent of violence in this society.
Look to other white allies for inspiration from the civil rights movement to viral incidents happening now, and refuse to be a bystander. I have gone from feeling powerless to realizing that I may sometimes be the most powerful person in a situation to stand up and say NO. Chyann McQueen, youth organizer with HerStory Chicago, said that young black women have to be unapologetic and use their voices to authentically speak out. She has inspired me to share my own story as a catalyst for change, and to be open to all the criticism that comes with it.
For this next chapter in my life, I really do want to be in the room where it happens. I feel like I can start to approach those daring discussions about race in a new way — I accept the blame, the shame, the guilt, and the preconceived notions about middle-aged white women. That’s a given. Now instead of dreading rejection, I can come with renewed confidence that I have the openness to build legitimate allyship, and I am able to do that with a seat at the table. And maybe someday I’ll get an invite to the barbecue.
I don’t really know how autonomy will look or feel, but it seems to be one of those things to always be striving for, like self-actualization, that can never fully be realized by any one person. Right now I am impatient, I am eager, and I’m trying to learn from my stumbles and not fall back into being comfortable again. At the highest level of Janet Helms’s white identity development model, autonomy represents:
The internalization of a positive white racial identity, and is evidenced by a lived commitment to anti-racist activity, ongoing self-examination, and increased interpersonal effectiveness in multiracial settings.
This is an internal struggle that every white person must face on their own, and people of color should not be expected to expend their emotional labor on educating us all about racism. But you do need to go and seek out friendships with people that do not look like you. Real, committed relationships, where you support and lift each other up, and not one-sided where you expect to find a black friend to be your personal life coach.
It really meant a lot to me when my melanin-blessed friend called me a “GOAT” at a recent block party for #BlackGirlMagic (Although I admit I had to look up what that meant!). Having her recognize that I am on this quest has definitely inspired me to keep putting one foot in front of the other. But I know not everyone will be as lucky to have a friend like her.
One of the most important essays I have read about this journey is John Metta’s When You Walk Into the Valley. This is required reading for all white allies, and eloquently describes how there is no end, there is no shining moment where racism will be erased and racial unity will be achieved —
You have to walk into the valley of the shadow of death, you have to walk into it alone and you have to know that there is no other side that you will ever reach. You will die in this place. You will die here because “the other side” of this valley doesn’t exist. It is a myth you have been told to make you feel better. There’s no “this is what you do to fix it.” The valley of the shadow of death is all there is and all there ever will be.
The struggle is real. But the struggle is also necessary. And as white people, we are obligated to walk through the desert that we have created as the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth. Take my hand, white sister, and come along with me to find out how we can move from allies to accomplices and bend this arc just a little more towards justice.