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For White Women Learning Calculus in a School Building On Fire

Photo by Hannah Troupe

Amidst the many perils of this political moment, it’s the racial divide between women of color and white women keeping me up at night. A math analogy is what comes to me as I worry about this.

Let’s imagine women of color are experts in calculus. They do calculus every single day. They’re brilliant at it because they’ve been mastering it since forever and they’ve always made sure to bring up the next generation learning calculus too. It’s not that women of color love calculus itself. They’ve learned it — and taught it — because they love themselves and their communities, and their lives literally depend on knowing calculus inside out.

White women, in this analogy, have yet to master basic addition.

How on earth are we going to do math together?

In the wake of Kavanaugh, the consequences of the 2016 election are settling in at a whole new level for white women. As a result, there’s been some serious re-visiting of that post-election statistic that showed 53-percent of white women voted for the candidate who spewed racial vitriol and actively emboldened violence against people of color, tolerating his vile misogyny in the process.

We know Trump’s election only exposed more brazenly what’s always been true. White women have sided with white supremacy since always and before.

Now we’re reckoning with another devastating truth, and this one pertains to all white women — including that other 47-percent of us. If we had ever collectively and en masse worked to create sustained solidarity with women of color instead of consistently allying with white men, we wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with. Why? Deep, robust multi-racial women coalitions would be an unstoppable force in our political life.

Another report knocked the wind out of some us last week too. Though swarms of white women rose up publicly enraged, it was only among women of color that a clear and strong majority believed Dr. Ford. A Quinnipiac poll showed that white women only broke 46% for Ford and 43% Kavanaugh on that matter (a statistically insignificant difference). On the question of whether Kavanaugh should be confirmed anyway 45% of white women said “yes.” Wow.

So here we sit, with ever more evidence that massive racial failure on the part of white women is at the center of this political crisis. At the center sits our collective choice to this point to not learn, prioritize or consistently live public antiracist solidarity with communities of color, and especially with women of color.

In short, we’ve never bothered to learn calculus.

(Given the peril of these days, I’m going to pause here for clarity’s sake. Please don’t misquote me. I’m purposely not talking about white men; yes, the ultimate perpetrators here. I am not blaming white women for white male violence. I am also not disparaging the incredible courage of all survivors, including Dr. Ford of whom I am in complete awe. I am talking about what white women collectively do and do not do, have and have not done, when it comes to race, racism and antiracism.)

So this is where (one) peril sets in. The very same and longstanding failure to choose calculus that allowed this crisis, simultaneously leaves us wholly unprepared in a political moment where nothing less than brilliant mathematical abilities are required.

For women of color, that cuts deeply.

As we reel, more white women seem to be starting t go, “Oh shit! I really do need to learn calculus.” But women of color don’t have the time, energy, or patience to teach us. They certainly can’t trust us. And while different women of color, of course, have distinct individual perspectives on and responses to white women in this current moment, it’s safe to say that collectively they’re beyond outraged and all but done with us. Why? Because they’ve been demanding that, insisting on, pleading that, and demonstrating the life-or-death urgency of white women learning calculus for decades now. They did so yet again, no less powerfully, after the election of Trump. Then they did it again during the whole pink (not all of them are pink!) pussy hat Women’s March moment in January 2017.

And yet here we are.

Ongoing apathy towards making the work of antiracism a central priority of our lives as white women has allowed the school building to be set ablaze.

My fellow white women, there is nothing not bad about this moment.

— Calculus is hard to learn in a regular and relatively calm school situation. Now we need to learn calculus in a school building that’s on fire.

— Even for the most willing and earnest student, there’s no way around it: it takes a long time to learn calculus. Now we need to learn it in a building that’s on fire.

— And, yes, so many of us are ourselves deeply hurting, furious, raw, triggered, and afraid (me too). And, yet, the building’s still on fire.

— Finally, students have to actually work out and screw up math problems to actually learn calculus. Screw ups are part of any actual learning process. But now the building’s on fire. And every white woman mistake pours more gasoline on a blaze that’s consuming us all very quickly.

The task here is as essential as it is herculean. We need to literally stop pouring more gasoline on this fire at the same time that we get belatedly serious about the long, slow, mistake-laden work of learning calculus — and we have to do it at lightening speed.

So from one white woman to another, ten concrete steps to take right now if we hope to ever do math with women of color; the very math the doing of which is not optional if there is to be any hope of calling into existence the deep, robust multi-racial coalitions on which all of our lives depend.

No particular order here. Some of these steps fall in the category of “for the love of god, stop pouring gasoline!” Some fall in the category of our long, slow work. None is adequate. All are critical.

1. Stop saying “women” anything. Literally when the phrase “women must . . .,” or “women are . . .” is about to come out of your mouth, stop. Commit to the discipline of being racially specific in your speech. “White woman must . . .,” “white women are . . .” Or, “Women of color and white women seem to be . . .” at which moment you may notice “Oh, wait. I really can’t say anything about women of color, because I don’t know.” You may not understand why this discipline is important. Do it anyway. It’s important because there is no non-racialized woman. Commiting to this practice makes it more likely you’ll start to notice the gaps in your awareness. You’re more likely to notice the racial assumptions embedded in your own claims. This will help you get more clear about where you need to focus as you do your homework. It will also necessarily reign in your claims about “generic” women, which is one small but critical way to stop pouring gasoline on this fire.

2. Do not participate in any public action called by white women with a reflexive “yes.” Stop, seek out and then listen seriously to what women of color say about said action first. That “women’s blackout” action? Serious douse of gasoline. Yes, a very small number of women of color in my life sent me the invite too. (Remember. People of color don’t speak in one voice on anything.) But, mostly not. If more white women had slowed down and listened to what women of color began quickly to say in public about all the problems with that “black out,” well, I don’t need say more about what the problems with it were. Right now, go read what feminists of color themselves said about it. They were clear.

3. If you didn’t take a knee during the anthem in support of Black lives for the last two years, don’t pass on the meme suggesting all women and girls should now take a knee. (See item number 2.) Even better, invite other white women sharing this meme into public conversation with you about why this is a problem. Don’t yell at them. Ask them to talk it through. (But make sure some version of what’s wrong with this does get explained. Here’s the cliff notes: if we haven’t been taking a knee for Black people already then kneeling now exposes whose humanity we actually care about. Not to mention white co-optation of a Black-led movement; the protest version of what Elvis Presley did; along the lines of what happened to Tarana Burke. GASOLINE.)

4. Transfer the vast majority of the time you spend reading and engaging social and other forms of media to listening to and reading feminists of color. Literally and almost exclusively read feminists of color (feminist men of color too) every single day as you try to figure what the hell is going on in our country right now. Don’t worry, you’ll still get the news. But, you’ll get it through the analysis you must have to hope to move beyond basic addition. Do an audit of who is in your feed and choose to follow, instead, the many, diverse and brilliant people of color who are public thinkers, writers and activists. Engage their knowledge and wisdom (and their disagreements with each other) until you literally start to not see or think in the same way. When you don’t understand what they’re saying or why they’re saying it — keep reading. Know that it’s going to take awhile before the basic vocabulary of calculus makes sense to you. But it will come, if you stick with it.

5. When women of color write about white women, do not privately message them with questions or rebuttals — unless they explicitly tell you they are cool with that. If they invite public response and you decide to say or ask something, cool. But be ready then to just sit and listen deeply to the response, whatever it is. If the response makes you uncomfortable or isn’t in the tone you were hoping for, don’t proceed to tell women of color how it made you feel (more gasoline). Sit with those feelings and then keep reading, thinking and engaging some more. If you need to talk about those feelings, cool. Find another white person who’s also trying to learn calculus — maybe someone who’s been at it for longer than you have — and talk it through with them. Then keep reading and listening and sitting with your feelings some more.

6. Don’t just sit there with your feelings. Take your actual physical self to a people of color-led organization that is working on justice and show up in person (assuming that organization welcomes white participation, of course; most do). Don’t say you’re too busy. If you volunteer at your kids’ school, do stuff for your church, are part of a book club, spend time on Facebook, whatever else — this is the moment to literally transfer hours in your given week from white people (even time spent at your own kids’ school; your kids are going to be fine) to people of color. The obvious reason for this is to put more labor towards the disproportionate heavy-lifting people of color are already doing for justice. The added benefit is that you’ll start to learn calculus in way that reading alone doesn’t make possible. Show up. Do what is asked of you. Listen carefully. Don’t overspeak. If you’re uncomfortable being one of the few white people in that space, good. Do it anyway. Don’t flake out. (Join the NAACP — they’re doing voter mobilization all over right now. Put in volunteer hours to people of color groups working to decrease the presence of police in schools. Get active in a sanctuary network for which Latino/as activists are calling the shots; white people with citizenship are needed desperately for all kinds of work. Show up. Wherever people of color live they are organized and acting. Figure out where and go.)

7. Go get and read So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. Seriously do this right now. If you have the means, buy a copy for another white woman in your life; for all the white women. Read it alone. Read it together. Talk about it. This book is a crash course in calculus. It’s brilliant, truthful, funny, loving, difficult, nuanced and more. Read it with your teenager. Ask your teenager what they think about it (start inviting them to learn calculus too). See if co-workers will talk about it with you over lunch.

8. Make a concrete commitment to reallocate resources to women of color-led organizing. Donate to women of color running for elected office. Now I am talking about money. This part isn’t so much about you and calculus. It’s just the right thing to do. It also may be the best hope we have to save this “democracy.” I don’t mean that in a “women of color are going to save us” kind of way. But, seriously, we don’t get to just run around giving Facebook shoutouts to Black women voters in Alabama for saving us from predators like Roy Moore, for example, but then not go all in for Black women and other women of color. We owe women of color something; many things. And this includes being all in in terms of having their backs as they step up and out into leadership (taking huge risks as they do so). We owe actual time, energy and resources. We need to pour these out on behalf of women of color in leadership; that’s what it means to have their backs. Get your white women friends (and the men) to give money too. Do it.

9. Some white women, white queer folks and a handful of white feminist men have been working for a long time to learn calculus. Find and follow them too. They are imperfect and make mistakes. But, being white and trying to learn calculus is actually different than being a person of color and learning calculus. There are unique challenges. Your learning will be speeded along if you engage some of the white people who are tackling that specific learning journey and have been at it for awhile. Don’t read them as much as you read feminists of color! And be careful who you listen to. Vet those white people to be sure their calculus-learning is legitimately on the right track. How do you do that? See who are they in dialogue with. Notice what feminists of color say to and about them. (Hint: if mostly only other white people like their work, don’t learn to do math the way they’re doing it.) Find the white folks of whom it is obvious they are in relationships of accountability with people of color — these people do exist. Get with them.

10. Where do you shop? Who cuts your hair? Where do you take your kids to the dentist? Where do you eat out? Do an inventory. Find ways to move your personal participation in the economy over to Black, Latino/o and other people of color owned/operated businesses, medical offices, stores, as many of the things as you can. Urge other people in your life to do so too. This not only actively reallocates resources you are already expending to communities of color and their economies, it also brings you into more frequent contact with people who our deep and wide white-segregated enclaves typically prevent us from being in contact with. That’s no quick math formula. But it is critical pre-context for calculus-learning.

So here we are.

When you’re in a burning building you know every step you take must be purposeful. We’re going to have to understand we’re not going to be collectively calculus-fluent anytime soon. We’re also going to have to live with the consequences of our collective behavior. Namely, we’re going to be divided from women of color for a very, very, very long time. And there are no guarantees here. When I said there is nothing not bad about this moment, I meant it.

But I also know this. Standing still in a burning school building isn’t an option. And I know there are lots of white women and white queer folks (and a few white feminist men) out here right now wanting to take purposeful steps. As much as we don’t know quite what to do, don’t totally get it, are ourselves hurting, fear making mistakes that pour gasoline — there are many of us here, ready to roll up our sleeves and learn the math. So, let’s get purposeful. Together. If this is you (and I commit to you, it is also me) know you are not alone. I offer this essay in a spirit of love, anger, urgency and partnership. Let’s pull out our pencil and paper now — and a shitload of erasers. And let’s get to work.