I’ll start by saying I read your article when it first went up, after reading Mink Choi and Ella Ceron’s compilation article, #WhitePeopleEquivalents Is The Hashtag That You Need To See Right Now. Was I surprised you wrote that article? No, of course not. No woman of color or person of color, who has ever remotely communicated their racial experience or made commentary on racism has ever done so, without it being countered by Whitesplaining. In case you don’t know what Whitesplaining is, the ever-accurate urban dictionary defines it as, “The paternalistic lecture given by Whites toward a person of color defining what should and shouldn’t be considered racist, while obliviously exhibiting their own racism.”
I can’t think of a more apt definition, although my fancy graduate student voice that studies multiculturalism would add, “It is basically a form of racism apologetics.” Because let me tell you, that’s what your article comes off as – an apologist piece for racism. Now before I get to the crux of my argument, I would like to point out that dude, I don’t know you, I don’t know your life, and I’m pretty sure after I’ve cooled off from writing this piece, I’d probably still invite you out for a beer.
Anyway, moving along. For what it’s worth – I am a racist, technically speaking. And you know why I am a racist? Because I see race. Yes, I do. But I am also a racist when I quietly feel humiliated that, “There just HAS to be a loud Black person on this train,” when I take the L. I am a racist when I feel uncomfortable that a Brown man is walking way too close to me. I am a racist when I think, “Of course” when someone I meet is Asian, and they work in particular STEM fields. All of these instances are the direct result of a pervasive structural global process where it has been communicated to me since birth that “other” and “non-White” is not as normal and sometimes not as good.
This is despite growing up as a Nigerian, with very educated parents, in less racialized nations and communities and schools – I still was conditioned by racist ideology through communicative devices. I live in a Black, African, female body that is victimized by racism, and yet I am still racist. You know why? Because I was raised on this planet. How much more for those who were raised in a country where race is always and already everywhere to be found in its history and in the lasting effects of that history on its present? How much more for those whose birthright it is to live in a world where they do not earn but are given their privileges based on this dark history? How much more for those who can afford to claim that they do not see the very things that are the reasons why others are marginalized? So yes, you are a racist. Just like everyone else. But now the questions shift to: Are you active or passively racist? Are you “letting it be” or trying to unlearn what you’ve been taught?
But I have digressed more than intended – for the sake of the necessity of the argument – but digressed nonetheless. The #WhitePeopleEquivalents gave voice to the experience of racism and funny enough, also critiqued the Whitesplaining of issues that PoCs experience daily. So while it was both unsurprising and furious to read your Whitesplaining piece, it was also a third thing – ironic. That a White dude lacked so much self-awareness both in his position in the world and in his critique of this particular incident where Whitesplaining was being resisted, and even wrote an article that not only Whitesplained the hashtag itself, but essentially amounted to, “Please stop talking about these things because they hurt my feelings,” would be damn hilarious if the effects of racism were just as funny. But they are not.
You know the worst thing that can happen to the average White person (if I’m controlling for socio-economics and gender)? Their feelings can be hurt by an Internet hashtag. Maybe someone will call them a “cracker.” Maybe they will feel slighted because they didn’t get into the Ivy League school of their choice (while a PoC “stole their spot”). For PoCs in this country, the worst is death because a person was “standing their ground” and they “looked suspicious.” For PoCs, it’s unequal treatment in education, in employment, in life. For PoCs, it’s having to endure comments every damn day of your life about how you look and how you talk and what your hair is like. And then at at the end of all of that, having to further endure a bunch of White people having the audacity to tell you, “…but I don’t see color.” Or worst of all, downplaying all your experiences with racism in this day and age just because you’re no longer entering the “Colored Bathrooms.”
To live with racism in a racist society, trying to unlearn your own racism is hard enough without someone patronizing you all the more with blatant falsehoods. Because my God, I am Black and when I walk into a room you should freaking recognize that. I would never want you not to. What I am asking is that you see that difference and resist the urge to form all the potential stereotypes in your head that you have been trained to see. And how do I know that you’ve been trained to see them? Because we’ve ALL been trained to see them, and pretending we haven’t is getting us nowhere.
Yesterday, I taught my first real lecture of my quarter in which I start with Charles Lemert’s works on Social Theory: It’s Uses And Pleasures. And every time I re-read the piece, a line that always strikes me very personally is, “The world is unevenly cruel.” And it is. White people today didn’t ask for their privilege and for that, I cannot hold anything against them. But I didn’t ask to grow up in a world where I would not only be a potential injured party of the system, but would have to deal with my own racism and indeed sometimes my racial prejudices. (Please note the difference – one is systematic and the other is an individual instance.) I, like everyone else who has an interest in being a decent person, have to unlearn racism daily, as well as other systematic ideas that marginalize groups of people. The reality of race and racism, my friend, is you benefit from your privilege at the expense of my marginalization every day.
I think the best thing any of us can do but especially those who find themselves in dominant positions in any identity – is to just shut the hell up and listen when someone is telling you of an experience and an existence that marginalizes their being. Don’t make their experience about you – because it’s not. It’s about them and what they go through at the hands of the civilization we all find ourselves in. In your article, you made something about you that was intended to be about other people resisting powers often beyond their control; and reclaiming a voice that has oftentimes been silenced. But no, you made it about you and your feelings.
I am not going to sit here and tell you that just because I am Black and a woman and an African, it automatically means I have “suffered” more than any White, American man. No, it doesn’t. (Why are we all trying to “out-suffer” each other by the way?) But to have this notion that our paths are equal and how we will be viewed in this society and in the world will be equal, is to live in a fantasy. Yes, even in this day and age. And as much as I would love to live in fantasy, my survival and successes in this lifetime in my identities, is dependent on dealing with the realities of my situation. And as Lemert went on to say so exquisitely in his piece, “…survival is the prerequisite of pleasure.”
So before you go off next time thinking that every act of resistance or every voice that reclaims, or every person who is working towards removing the shackles of dehumanization that still tries to make them believe they are less than, ask yourself: Which perspective is a function of the real experiences that people face in society? Is it my version of their lives or their version of their own?
And maybe, just maybe, you will have enough prudence to look yourself in the mirror and also ask: Am I part of the problem? Do I ignore my privileges at the expense of ignoring the realities of those who are marginalized by them? Because the world is unevenly cruel. And I have no doubt in my mind that though we all suffer and experience pain, how and why we experience it, is not similar or equal. And for that reason, I cannot in good conscience let your response slide without giving you a little bit more to think about.