solidarity really is for white women and i want to be part of changing that

August 30, 2013 | 39 Comments

Shannon Fisher looking right at you

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d never considered my privilege as a white person until about two years ago. Sure, I was aware of racism, but I didn’t stop to connect it to me and the colour of my skin. I didn’t take stock of all the ways I was benefiting from being white:

“As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege which puts me at an advantage.” —Peggy McIntosh

On August 12th, women of colour started a conversation on Twitter about the imbalances in feminism with the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag. I watched that thread in an effort to learn more about my unearned privilege as a white female. I had some follow up chats, one in regards to this essay on interracial friendship:

We couldn’t giggle about the same kinds of boys since our tastes fell along racial lines, couldn’t trade makeup or hair products, or move through each other’s social circles with ease any longer, because increasingly these things were defined by race. So I decided that I needed black girls for friends, girls who liked the boys I liked, who went to churches sort of like mine, where we didn’t have “youth group” but youth either joined the choir or the usher board, girls whose cultural experiences were and would be closer to my own.

I shared the article on my Truthfully Facebook page. Although I grew up in Alberta where my exposure to different races was fairly limited, I wasn’t surprised that many of the Vancouver-born women who responded were part of interracial friendships growing up.

What I was surprised to hear was that, unlike the essay’s author, they felt their circumstances were ideal and race was a non-issue. This felt off to me and I questioned them:

For [those] of you saying you had interracial friendships and it wasn’t an issue, I’d be interested to know if it was the same for the POC you were friends with. There was an imbalance that didn’t demand your attention as the privileged. In retrospect, do you see any of that?

The denial continued. “I never cared about the colour of their skin,” someone said. I understand that the essence of this comment was, “We’re all just people man—that’s what I see!” And I’ve said some version of this same thing until learning that Having A Color Blind Approach To Racism Is Actually Racist:

Color blindness thrives on the notion that racism isn’t really a problem anymore, and that everyone and everything is judged purely on merit. The problem is that that’s a bunch of crap and isn’t true whatsoever. Studies have shown that color blindness actually makes people more racist. Color blindness is really just an easy way for people who don’t experience racism (i.e. generally white people) to feel a little less squirmy about the possibility that racism is still a problem. The best way to feel less squirmy is to ignore it, because we all know that the more you ignore something, the faster it’ll go away, right?

A black friend of mine was among the women participating in the Facebook conversation about interracial friendships. I was giddy to have her there because I felt like she was giving us the gift of her perspective, time and insight. Unfortunately, feeling excluded and ignored by others’ defensiveness, she eventually unfollowed our conversation. Opportunity. Lost.

In Derald Wing Sue’s YouTube video on Overcoming Microaggressions in Everyday Life, he defines microaggressions as “unconscious manifestations of a world view of inclusion/exclusion, superiority/inferiority,” and says “our major task is to make the invisible, visible.”

He suggests five things we can do to overcome microaggressions:

  1. Learn from constant vigilance of your own biases and fears.
  2. Experiential reality is important in interacting with people who differ from you in terms of race, culture or ethnicity.
  3. Don’t be defensive.
  4. Be open to discussing your own attitudes and biases and how they might have hurt others or in some sense reveal bias on your part.
  5. Be an ally. Stand personally against all forms of bias and discrimination.

In preparing to write this essay, I read back in the Facebook thread and noticed that I had ignorantly used the term “non-white.”

As embarrassed as I was to find that, it was helpful. It exposed one of my biases. The thing is—that wasn’t the last misstep I’m going to make. And, you know what? I need to work on being okay with that because unlearning shitty thinking is messy and uncomfortable.

Let’s bring ourselves along lovingly. Together. You in?

I love it when Christopher Bowers, in his 10 Ways to be an Ally essay says,

“We will mess up. Sometimes people will be kind in their response to our follies and sometimes they won’t. However, we can be kind to ourselves by getting support from other people and by attending kindly to whatever emotions arise. We can be kind to others by not letting these mess ups lead to give ups. Anyone who has been involved in anti-oppression work probably has one or many stories of being called out on some unskillful behaviour. It is part of the process and something we can ultimately be grateful for, even if it is painful as hell in the moment.”

The reason I have agency to talk about racism is not that I have being an ally figured out. I’m not better than my white peers who grapple with the idea of being privileged. I have agency to talk about racism because I want to do better, be better and surround myself with people heading in that same direction.

When you suggest that I’m judgemental and attempting to shame you by pointing out that we are blinded by privilege—because hey! you work with minorities— I’m going to hug you and say, “Dude, I know this is uncomfortable and tricky, but it’s not about my feelings or yours.”

White people walk through the world differently. We carry a privilege we have not earned and cannot unhave. I really hope one day that’s not true. But, in the meantime, it’s our job to use our privilege to educate and make right. This all starts with admitting that privilege is an actual thing and that it’s problematic.

It’s super fantastic that you are aware of racism, work with groups affected by it, fight to change it, have a black parent/sister/brother/friend/daughter, and live in neighbourhoods predominantly populated by people of colour. Those things don’t wipe out our biases—they make us responsible to be more vigilant.

As white people, we won’t ever fully get it because we have not lived it. And this is what makes it so important for us to listen—even when it’s uncomfortable and maybe especially when it’s uncomfortable—and look for opportunities to expose the ways we contribute to racism (i.e. denying the existence of privilege within our circles/self).

This is difficult work and it requires a lot of humility and vulnerability. It is important to realize that we are asking ourselves to challenge things we’ve believed since we were children. We were brought up with a frame of reference that has inevitable blind spots. We are trying to change behaviors that are well ingrained. -Bowers

I wish that Facebook conversation could have gone something like this:

“Hey, interesting article. I grew up part of and surrounded by interracial friendships, and I couldn’t relate to this author’s experience at all. But I’d be interested to know if that’s because I was the white, privileged party in said friendships. Maybe there were racist nuances I missed because I wasn’t the target. I’d love to have a conversation with some of those childhood friends of colour and see what the experience was like from their point of view.”

Important reading on white privilege:

  1. One Easy Thing All White People Could Do That Would Make The World A Better Place – Upworthy video
  3. Why saying “I don’t see race/gender/etc.” is offensive – Faruk Ateş
  4. On Silencing Anger to Silence Minority Voices – Jen McCreight
  5. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack – Peggy McIntosh (linked above and worth reading a million times)
  6. On Women’s Equality Day, Which Women Do We Mean? – Shelby Knox

If you have other pieces to share in the comments, I’d love to read them. Please follow my Truthfully Facebook page.

Other loveable posts:

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Join the conversation

  • A. Mary Murphy

    Shannon, a couple of years ago, I taught an intro to feminism course and a contemporary feminist theory course, and both texts addressed this problem you’re grappling with. You might find the texts useful. For the intro course, I used Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives, by Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey (2010) and each chapter includes a selection of essays by a broad variety of thinkers. The other text is Contemporary Feminist Theory and Activism: Six Global Issues, by Wendy Lynne Lee (2010). When we talk about these things, we have to consider not only race but region and a whole slew of other stuff. I have always said that Alberta is more classist than racist. That doesn’t mean it isn’t racist. And I think in Canada that First Nations people bear the brunt of the racist energy. My opinion is that we have to own our history, know it and acknowledge it. Canada has not always been a shiny example of tolerance. And the best thing to do after the history lesson is to listen, instead of telling people what their experience has been. That’s what I think.

    • Shannon

      Thanks, Mary. It’s for sure a complicated, multi-layered issue. I appreciate you sharing those titles with me. I agree about Alberta and First Nations. I grew up hearing “Indian” jokes. I remember at a certain age beginning to feel an unease when it would happen.

      Yes. Listening. I’m working hard to listen.

  • Cher

    That really made me think. I’ve never truly thought about the privilege of being white, although I know it’s sadly true. I wish there was another term for the “in-between” which I think most Canadians would fall into. We would be horrified at the thought of being racist but that doesn’t mean there aren’t basic cultural differences that we can’t understand or relate to and this puts us at a disadvantage to being totally accepting towards some cultures/races. How many cultural stereotypes have we heard being “joked” about from friends/family or even ourselves, or a statement made followed by “I’m not racist or anything but”. These barriers between cultures is still a huge issue in Canada and I love that you’ve started a conversation here. It would be incredibly helpful to hear how inter-racial friends deal with issues or stereotypes that come up and what we can do about it.

    • Shannon

      When you say “in-between” what you do mean? If you follow that first link I shared under “Important Reads,” there’s a great video addressing the question of how to handle privilege in interracial friendships.

      I think listening is key. Checking in with our friends of colour to see how their experiences line up with ours. And all of the steps to combatting microaggressions. I found those really helpful, too.

      Thanks for being here, Cher.

  • Raj

    Wow – once again Shannon you write with the kind of honesty that people rarely have the courage to exhibit on the internet or in real life.

    I grew up in Surrey in the 80’s when they white children out numbered the coloured ones (sorry I don’t know the right term). I had some friends but even they called me a “paki” and said I smelled like curry but then said – it’s just a joke.As I got older I was drawn towards other Indian girls – those that understood what it was like to grow up crushed between two cultures, and didn’t look at me with sympathy like I felt so many of the white girls did.

    I have always maintained that friendships with my Indian friends are easier, there is a level of cultural understanding there that I will never have with someone of another race. Even today when I have many friends that aren’t Indian, I feel any discussions we have around my unique cultural issues it’s more like I’m a research project or textbook to learn from, whereas talking to an Indian girlfriend they just get it.

    The part of your post that really got me was the final paragraph. So many times in my life (especially in elementary school) I was the target because of my race, but none of my white friends ever saw it that way. Yes kids are mean, but it’s also very easy to turn a blind eye when you aren’t the target of racism.

    • Shannon

      What a thoughtful respons, Raj.

      “…crushed between two cultures…” And that’s something your white friends didn’t have to think about, because it wasn’t their reality. I never gave it any thought either as a child or as an adult. I wonder what kind of friend I could have been had I taken on the role of ally back then.

      I’m sorry this was your experience. Thanks for sharing it here. I don’t imagine feeling like a research project is the funnest. I’ll be sure to me more mindful of this.

      I’m thankful for you.

  • Carolyn

    I think I’d have to admit that I’d be one of those people who never really gave it thought. I grew up in a school where half of my class were from various places, but mostly Korea. Because we all hung out together and the biggest race centered conversation we had was based on what we all had for lunch, I never wondered if even that could have made some uncomfortable by being different.
    Thanks for sharing :)

  • Salma

    My experience with racism was similar to Raj’s. I grew up in Coquitlam and there was only myself and one other ‘brown girl’ in our school. There seemed to be quite a few ‘mean girls’ I had a really hard time and I do believe it affected me and my self confidence growing up.
    After reading your post, I began to wonder if I now have blinders to colors as well to forget about the things that happened growing up and live what I like to think is a racial prejudice free life. It has given me a lot to think about.

  • Sharilyn

    I have never even thought about being privilaged because I am white and female- my sister and I were raised in a small town that surprisingly had very diverse ethnic back grounds. Reading this was eye opening- I never even thought about some of the points raised- thank you for sharing!

  • Heather

    Love your analysis, awesome article!

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