Letter to Young Sisters of Color: On Waking Up, Fighting The System, and Choosing Allies

These words are meant to encourage and empower a certain type of young sister of color who is waking up and noticing all the bullshit they teach you and all the essential things they don’t teach you in K-12 school (and sometimes not even in college) about being a woman of color in America. This is not meant for young women who don’t identify as people of color or for people who identify as men. This is also not meant for young women who identify as women of color but say things like “I don’t see color” or “I think we should all stop focusing on racial issues since race is a social construct and there’s only one race: human.” If you fall into these latter categories or use words like social justice warrior or feminazi in a disparaging way, just read and observe and don’t comment. These words aren’t for you.

Race is a social construct but racism is not.

Sisters, I want to congratulate you on beginning to awaken, and I want to welcome you to the real world. I want to share some things I’ve learned in my many years in the struggle. Take my words with a grain of salt. If they work for you, great. Use them. If they don’t, keep it moving. First of all, I want to acknowledge that you’re probably in a rage right now, and you don’t know what to do. You realize that shit is fucked up, and you want to do something about it. Good. Keep that anger, and learn how to use it as energy to fuel yourself in the struggle. Don’t listen to critics who try to silence you with racist tropes about Angry Black Women or Fiery Latinas or other nonsense. Anger can be useful when you use it right. You’re going to have to learn how to harness your energy and learn when to sit your ass down and take time out for self-care because baby, this shit is exhausting.

You’re probably distancing yourself from family members and friends who aren’t “woke” and you’re probably looking at some of your white friends like this:

Maybe you’ve learned about white privilege and you’re wondering why it’s so hard — sometimes even for white people who call themselves friends and allies — for white people to accept their white privilege.

This is what I want you to understand.

All Americans are born and raised in or become citizens of a white supremacist, heterocispatriarchal system. (Let’s just call it The System for short.) This system praises and rewards white Americans by virtue of their whiteness, their heterosexuality, and their being cisgender. (The System sometimes praises and rewards people of color who perpetuate the system’s white supremacist values.) The System is male-dominated and it prefers white men to white women.

The System is a set of interlocking institutions that create propaganda, oppress people of non-dominant groups, and cause inequity.

But don’t get it twisted. That doesn’t mean all white women are automatically your allies in the struggle. We’ll get to that in a minute. The System is a set of interlocking institutions (education, media/entertainment, judicial, economic, etc.). These interlocking institutions work together to create propaganda that basically goes like this: white people are morally, intellectually, and aesthetically superior to all other races and ethnicities and the United States of America is superior to all other nations on earth. This notion of the superiority of the American nation and the national culture of the United States is also known as American exceptionalism. You’re going to hear and learn a lot about American exceptionalism in the coming years.

Even though The System teaches white people about their supposed superiority (this is also known as white supremacy or alt-right), the fact is white people are like every other racial and ethnic group on earth. Some are exceptional, some are average, some are mediocre, and some are subpar. Regardless of their abilities, all people encounter failure. But The System is designed such that when white people encounter their shortcomings or failures or the injustice of The System, they suffer a terrible moment of cognitive dissonance and stuff it down. They don’t think about how unfair the world is for you as a woman of color because they don’t have to. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of white privilege.

For a lucky few, these continued terrible moments of cognitive dissonance occur enough times in a lifetime to cause them to deal with it and investigate what’s going on. They begin to awaken and suffer what anti-racist activists call white guilt and shame. They go through an awful period of questioning and low self-esteem. They annoy activists of color with their cookie-begging, centering themselves or derailing conversations and liberation movements, and appropriating our cultures. There are a great number of white people stuck in this stage of the awakening process, and for the sake of your mental health and well being, you would do well to avoid them.

A fewer number of white people continue on their journey to being awake by continuously educating themselves instead of asking people of color to do their intellectual labor. I want to segue here and talk about what it looks like when a white person or when a man asks you to do their intellectual labor. You may have read some things to help you on your journey to being awake and fighting to dismantle The System. In gaining that new wisdom, you may spout some facts about your particular race, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation. The person who is not of the same identity may challenge what you’ve said and ask you to either teach them, recommend books, recommend articles, recommend websites, or to provide sources to prove what you’ve just stated as fact — which you know to be fact because you have either lived it (this is called lived experience) or you have solid, reputable sources for your facts.

Sis, that is what it looks like to do someone else’s intellectual labor. You are not obligated to teach or prove or recommend anything to anyone if you don’t want to, and especially not for free. The global economy operates on an economic system called capitalism where products and services cost money. Don’t work for free. Collect your coins.

I’ve gotten off-topic a bit. Let’s recenter on whiteness and white people who are on the journey to being awake. White people are woke when they:

  • accept that they have a race too–not just people of color–and their race is white
  • research the historical construction of whiteness, particular how some European ethnic groups such as the Irish, Jews, and Italians were not originally considered white but became white over time
  • research the historical construction of race, especially in America
  • accept that they will always have to struggle against internalized racist thoughts and deeds
  • but make a commitment to fight the good fight
  • don’t appropriate other cultures
  • don’t segregate but build deep, genuine relationships with several people of color rather than having one superficial relationship with a token acquaintance that they call friend so they don’t appear to be racist
  • accept accountability when they are wrong
  • don’t center themselves or whiteness or any of their other identities when working with people of the non-dominant* group (another example of derailing)
  • don’t try to silence, shame, guilt or demand to be coddled and comforted by people of the non-dominant group by using white tears
  • don’t display white fragilty when people of the non-dominant group point out that the person of the dominant group is being a shitty ally
  • don’t designate themselves as an ally but allow the non-dominant group/individual they’re working with to decide if they’re an ally
  • accept that they have white privilege and use that privilege to assist people of non-dominant groups
  • don’t try to lead all the time but learn to follow and listen to people of non-dominant groups and support their movements, in other words learn how to be a good ally by not taking up too much space
  • ensure that any group, organization, committee or project they are working on is inclusive especially that it includes the groups they’re trying to serve
  • commit to teaching other white people instead of expecting people of the non-dominant group to bear that burden

The unfortunate thing is becoming awake only happens for a very few white people. Most white Americans are so comfortable with their privileged place in The System, they’d rather fight you for making them uncomfortable than wake up and deal with their unmerited favor or non-ally like behavior or do the hard and unrelenting work of dismantling the inequitable system. Everyone wants to think of themselves as a good and just person. But you only need to look at a 2016 map of the electoral college results to know that the majority of white people in the United States are not dealing with the cognitive dissonance of their goodness and their internalized white supremacist thinking in a meaningful way.

That is why I let white people do the work of educating white people, and that is also why I am very careful about limiting my exposure and proximity to whiteness. This is not to say that I hate white people or whiteness. (I don’t. I abhor white supremacy.) My reason for limiting my exposure and proximity to whiteness has to do with the preservation of my mental health and well-being. I learned this tactic after reading Alice Walker’s seminal book on womanism, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. Walker said a womanist is “not a separatist, except periodically, for health.” (Non-Black women, please don’t run with that tiny quote and go around calling yourself a womanist. I’ll explain why that is problematic in a later article.) That is also why I am very careful about who I call an ally and who I would allow in my circle.

THIS is the kind of white woman I would allow in my circle.

Well sis, I hope this gave you some food for thought and tools that you can use in your struggle for liberation. Just remember that The System is global, ancient, and deeply entrenched in the psyches of white people and also in people of color. Remember that along with racial, ethnic, gender-identity, sexual orientation or religious discrimination you also have to deal with sexism and misogyny or transmisogny. And that is why our struggle is different than white women’s struggle. Most of all, understand that The System is not going to fall overnight. It may not even fall in your lifetime. People have been fighting The System for thousands of years. Educate yourself. Build a community of likeminded people who support you, teach you, make you better, and hold you accountable when you mess up. And when you get tired of fighting: rest. Remember a luta continua!

* I use the term non-dominant rather than marginalized because marginalized is a social science term that has come to mean people of color or non-white people exclusively. But the term marginalization doesn’t recognize that even people of color can have privileges like being male, heterosexual, cisgender, having a college or graduate degree, or having obtained an upper economic class.

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