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For White Women Learning Calculus in a School Building on Fire

It’s not going to be easy, but we don’t have a choice

Jennifer Harvey
Oct 10, 2018 · 11 min read
Photo: Luis Diaz Devesa/Moment Open/Getty Images

midst the many perils of this political moment, it’s the racial divide between women of color and white women that keeps me up at night. A math analogy comes to mind.

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 forever. They’ve always made sure to teach calculus to the next generation, 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’s confirmation, the consequences of the 2016 election are settling in at a whole new level for white women. As a result, many are revisiting the 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.

White women have always sided with white supremacy.

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

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 worked to create sustained solidarity with women of color, instead of consistently aligning with white men, we wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with. Why? Deep, robust multiracial women coalitions would be an unstoppable force.

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

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 root of it all is our collective choice to not learn, prioritize, or consistently live in public antiracist solidarity with communities of color, and especially with women of color.

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

(For clarity’s sake, please know 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 Blasey Ford. I am simply focusing on what white women collectively do and do not do, have and have not done, when it comes to race, racism, and antiracism.)

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

For women of color, that cuts deeply.

Ongoing apathy toward making the work of antiracism a central priority of our lives as white women has allowed the school building to burn.

As we reel, more white women seem to say, “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 women of color have distinctly 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 demonstrating the life-or-death urgency of white women learning calculus for decades now.

And yet here we are.

Ongoing apathy toward making the work of antiracism a central priority of our lives as white women has allowed the school building to burn.

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. And, yes, so many of us are deeply hurting, furious, raw, triggered, and afraid. But the building’s still on fire.

Students, sometimes have to actually screw up math problems to actually learn calculus. Screw ups are part of any learning process. But, again, the building’s on fire. And every white woman’s 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 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 lightning speed.

From one white woman to another, here are 10 concrete steps to take right now if we hope to ever do math with women of color—which is not optional if there is any hope of calling into existence the deep, robust, multiracial coalitions all our lives depend on.

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 are adequate. All are critical.

1. Stop saying ‘women’ anything.

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 women 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. Committing to this practice will make you more likely to notice gaps in your awareness. You’ll be more likely to notice the racial assumptions embedded in your own claims. This will help you gain clarity about where you need to focus as you do your homework. It will also necessarily rein 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 it 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 invitation, too. (Remember. People of color don’t speak in one voice on anything.) If more white women had slowed down and listened to what women of color had to say publicly about all the problems with that “black out,” well — I don’t need say more about its problems. 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 share 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 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: 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 people co-opting a Black people-led movement is a problem, along the lines of what happened to Tarana Burke. Gasoline.

4. Transfer the vast majority of the time you spend reading and engaging in media to reading and engaging with feminists of color.

Literally and almost exclusively read feminists of color (feminist men and other genders of color too) every single day as you try to figure out 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’ll need if you want to move beyond basic addition. Do an audit of who is in your feed; choose to follow 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). When you don’t understand what they’re saying or why they’re saying it—keep reading. Know that it’s going to take a while 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 rebuttal…

…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 them how it made you feel (more gasoline). Sit with those feelings and then keep reading, thinking, and engaging. 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 an organization led by people of color who are working for 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 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 toward the disproportionate heavy-lifting people of color are already doing for justice. The added benefit is that you’ll start to learn calculus in a 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 Latinx 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. 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 you know. 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 your co-workers will talk about it with you over lunch.

8. Make a concrete commitment to reallocate resources to women of color organizations. 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, and then not go all in for them. We owe women of color something, 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. 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 different from being a person of color and learning calculus. There are unique challenges. Your learning will speed up if you engage some of the white people who have been on this learning journey for a while.

Be careful who you listen to. Vet those white people to be sure their calculus-learning is legitimate and on the right track. See who they’re 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 who are obviously in relationships of accountability with people of color—these people do exist. Get with them.

10. Take an inventory: Where do you shop? Who cuts your hair? Where do you take your kids to the dentist? Where do you eat out?

Find ways to move your personal participation in the economy over to Black, Latinx, and other businesses owned and operated by people of color. This includes medical offices, stores—as many establishments as you can. Urge others 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.

Here we are.

When you’re in a burning building, every step you take must be purposeful. 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) right now who want to take purposeful steps. As much as we don’t quite know what to do, don’t totally get it, are ourselves hurting, fear making mistakes that pour gasoline—there are many of us ready to roll up our sleeves and learn the math. 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.

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