The National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education 2013 conference began Monday in New Orleans and as expected, it started with a bang. As in bang bang – the comfortable notion you thought you had of your own identity is now – bang, bang, dead. And now your only option is to pick up the pieces and reconstruct yourself, Frankenstein-like, to mirror the person you actually are, the person you want to be, and fit that in with the perception others have of you. Confronting your own identity, acquainting yourself with privilege, and seeing through a racial lens is not for sissies. But then again, NCORE is not your typical higher ed conference. It’s tough love and work.
But since we ask our sisters of color to do this work every single day of their lives, it’s about time we got dirty in the sandbox and sifted through the good, the bad and the ugly right along with them.
The roster for NCORE is thick with workshops and discussions and it was tough to choose where to focus my time, but today, because I am what I am, I chose Women of Color and White Women in Conversation, Part II. The conversation opened with a few truths thrown onto the table – “Many women of color speak of white women as the enemy,” “Everyday, by not acknowledging the struggle of women of color and not including them in the conversation, we create a build up of micro aggressions,” “Getting white women to stay in the conversation is the challenge.”
The original panelists that were present for Part I of the conversation wrote about their experience in Unlikely Allies in the Academy, and one of them said she had hoped to name the book, “Why I Fucking Hate You.” She perhaps best summed up the feeling from most of the women of color in attendance whose hurt, anger, disgust, sadness, disappointment, weariness and leeriness were palpable, while those of us white women sat there holding the hot potato not sure who to pass it to.
I say this, not cavalierly, but I had left the room momentarily and came back to find everyone being grouped together around affinity ties, and I sat down at the table I had been sitting at only to realize it was the biracial affinity – check, I’m biracial I quickly thought, but everyone was looking at me, so I said, well maybe I should go to the white affinity, and when I sat there, I learned the next table over was actually the LGBT affinity, and I had a real dilemma – who the FUCK am I? Having identified my whole life as a Sephardic, I really resent being asked to claim white as my identity and yet, I have to lump it because I am the white mother of my African American son and I know only too well that he doesn’t get to choose. Ever. So I have to deal with this hot mess of an identity.
So I got up from the white affinity table and went to the LGBT affinity table because the truth is I feel more comfortable speaking in Queer spaces – it more readily mirrors at least some of my internalized confusion over who I am versus who everyone else seems to be and who everyone seems to misread me as being. The group acknowledged that perhaps we are ground zero for this conversation, because in a Queer context we already have the vocabulary to talk about marginalization, about passing from one group to the next because you can mask sexual preference. Our table bonded over having the same visceral reaction when one of the panelists spoke about the notion of white femininity. Ewww.
During our lunch break, I followed the crowds to the Grand Ballroom for lunch and sat down with a group of people who were definitely in the over 50 age range and listened to them speak about a town in Virginia where when segregation was being enforced all of the white parents took their children out of public school and put them in private schools and it effectively shut down the public school system there. So that when one of the women went to work there, she was teaching 10th graders that were almost 20 years old because these African American students had no school for the first seven years of their lives.
I ate bites of gumbo and bites of crow because I knew I had to go back into my session and once again confront my identity as a white woman, and therefore be associated with people who could do things like that to other people. To kids, no less. I started making lists in my mind as I went back to the other room because I was determined to shake this identity. I’m Jewish, not Christian I said to myself. I’m Sephardic, with 5% Black blood in me from my ancestors, and considered to belong to the tribe of Black Jews by all other Jews. I’m Spanish, not white. I’m LGBT, fluid, not simply heterosexual. I now belong in a family of color because I am parenting my Black son. Why the hell do I have to be white in this conversation? Please don’t fence me in.
Back in the room, I began to realize that white is something most of the women in the room who are white skinned wrestle with – as the women of color became more vocal about not hearing from the white women, I thought of the irony. One of the panelist had discussed tears as a way of shutting down the conversation. A white woman cries when faced with hard truths around racism and it shuts down the conversation. As if on cue, two white women in our group cried. Here I’ve always been the talker in the room, the one who never shuts her mouth, and yet because it has been pointed out to me that speaking, a lot, is a tell tale sign of white privilege, I was being silent to not drown out anyone else and secretly to not be pegged – a racist. Don’t even get me started on the fact that I’m a cryer. Good grief.
We moved deftly into discussions about being an ally and who is one and what is one. An ally is a white woman who moves from being a bystander to making a difference, to intervening, not speaking for women of color, but standing with them and not just for them, but for your own personal growth and development. One woman of color in the audience bristled at the need for her to have a white ally, because she is tired of performing, tired of tempering her passion, tired of protecting white people from her hopes and dreams. She wondered who else has to struggle like her to not be authentic.
By the end of the day, we acknowledged that we are all change agents and change creates pain. “Remember that when you are doing this work you are making people feel bad because they feel that they are already there, they don’t need this work, and when you tell them they do, it creates conflict. Your response to their unease should be ‘isn’t that interesting.'” The work of being an ally requires white women to acknowledge white privilege and then check it at the door, to not be afraid of the unknown, to work for social justice not just for people of color but all people, to not speak for someone but to speak your own truth, to speak even when its uncomfortable, to not need to be praised or thanked for your efforts, to earn trust every day, to be aware and open about your limitations, to mentor women of color into the role you occupy, to be willing to pronounce names that are unfamiliar and most of all to remember that ally is an action word. Even when that means being an ally to yourself, your white self.