If it looks like the trajectory of your community projects are in favor of breaking sister solidarity for white solidarity; it’s time to take a critical look at the community you have been communing with.
I had to do that recently, and let me tell you, it’s not easy to break sisterhood solidarity when it comes down to recognizing racism. In fact, it is entirely alienating and insufferable.
Comfort in Christ
While I could get caught up in my feels and disregard the brevity of what I am participating in; I choose not to. I chose discomfort not so that I can write a blog about it, or post something on one of my social media accounts; but because I know it is a necessary charge to pursue based on the teachings of Christ.
The Passion of Christ, for me, demonstrated how suffering could transform. What it means, then, is that through discomfort, we can provide comfort for others. Isn’t that what Christ provided for us? From his gross discomfort, we gleaned that eternal comfort was at hand.
History reveals that sisterhood has not strengthened post-suffrage. In fact, it was the first wave of feminism that had the greatest potential to really define humanity and shift the trajectory of race-relations in our country. Unfortunately, securing the right to vote was only important enough to include voices of color so long as it didn’t impact the reputations and advancements of white women. In Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Angela Davis reflects on such struggles:
In fact, during the latter twentieth century, there were numerous debates about how to define the category “woman”. There were numerous struggles over who got included and who was excluded from that category. And these struggles, I think, are key to understanding why there was some measure of resistance from women of color, and also poor and working-class white women, to identify with the emergent feminist movement. Many of us considered that movement at that time to be too white and especially too middle class, too bourgeois.
Davis further notes that “in some senses, the struggle for women’s rights was ideologically defined as a struggle for white middle-class women’s rights”.
We forget that it was the “people who believe themselves to be white”, as Ta Nehisi Coates calls them; that created “whiteness” in the first place. We are the responsible race– creating one of the most detrimental and disconnecting; not to mention- the most oppressive of; divides of the history of this country.
Whether we choose to recognize it or not; we do have a legacy of accountability to at least grapple with. No one is asking you to remain perpetually guilty. No sense in any of us playing the victim when our skin color has granted us the luxury of a liberation not seen to many others. Especially, white women- sisters who already know what it means to be relegated to a secondary human- women have been labeled “the second sex”.
I get it, we love our labels and we love how we can set ourselves a part from others. But we also love labels we can slap over our Gap cardigans so that we appear to be- more than what we are willing to strive to be- an “ally” to women of color.
That’s the sin that we constantly struggle to repent from. The formal definition, the biblical translation for “repent” is metanoia, which means “to change the mind”; yet we continue to install recycled versions of divisions generation after generation. We have not turned away from our sinful act of separation. We have not changed our minds, really.
White Women Situation
Imagine if you will, a scenario such as this: A white woman sees a black woman driving through a neighborhood on a late, Saturday morning. The previous evening; snow fell, winds blew, and the road conditions soon become undesirable. The white woman phones the local police- local for the town she is currently in, but does not reside in. She makes a report alleging concern for other drivers on the road (which were few, and unaccounted for), and claims that a woman is driving erratically-drunk, and should be consulted. The black woman was on her way to a near-by friend’s home, for an unexpected, but informed visit. This woman was distraught and was seeking counsel and support of a friend. Upon her arrival, she sees police officers approach her vehicle. She enters the home of her friend, and asks for refuge.
Her friend is a white woman- we will call her Jen. Police approach the door, ask to speak with the black woman- we will call her Odessa; relay the message to the Jen that there has been a suspicious report concerning Odessa’s driving and they would like to speak with her.
Odessa is instantly paralyzed with fear. She begs Jen not to invite the police in; asks her to please tell the police that Jen will be supporting her, and their involvement is not necessary. Her vehicle had slid a little, due to the icy conditions, she wasn’t driving erratically. Jen, failing to recall any of the events that have befallen people of color, insists that police are friendly and that Odessa need not be concerned. (Sandra Bland, anyone…anyone in the back?)
Tensions rise, Odessa “appears” emotional to the police, and they insist she take a breathalyzer to prove she is not intoxicated. She insists she has not drank since the previous evening, and she was with Jen while consuming alcohol- they all did, and she wasn’t drinking during the day. (Did you know that hung-over DUIs are common?)
So the police now insist she is resisting a breathalyzer, (despite the proceeding report indicating two separate readings that Odessa willingly submitted to) and place her under arrest. She then spends the next three days behind bars.
Jen acted quickly to inform many committee and community members about the event; making it all about her reputation. She was so worried for what her neighbors would think about police showing up on her property and also deeply concerned for the dreaded impact that a visit from the police would have on her young son.
Fast track several months past this traumatic event for Odessa, and suddenly, the suspicion that she was unfairly arrested based on the notion that she was driving while black, is of no consequence. You see, because too many white women are concerned for their reputations and attachments to such a dramatic and criminal act, her tribe of sisterhood of support has dwindled.
Sisterhood Support Group Commence
There was initial support and concern for Odessa from a circle of women that had worked together and co-sponsored and co-wrote grants together. The initial support looked like visiting her in jail- but when she asked others to simply sign a slip to bail her out (she had the funds, she just couldn’t sign for it); the support ceased.
There was a secondary effort by what Odessa thought was genuine support- three white women appeared with her at her first hearing- a simple way to use white privilege for good- representation, behind the defendant. It sure put the judge on notice.
Two of these women had never experienced such a scenario; courtrooms and proceedings and criminal charges. That’s foreign to a lot of rule-followers in rural America- but DUIs are quite common in rural America as well. To say that these women were nervous and uncomfortable would be accurate.
Support then evolved (devolved) to exchanging emails within a group of women; women who had interacted with Odessa, or with the curator of the email, Annie. It was a support group of sisterhood for associates and women a part of a network geared at artistic revitalization and cultural and economic diversity. I shall refer to them as grant-chasers. What Odessa provided for these grant-chasers was a black body.
A black representative that could be presented for proof that our community is all about “diversity” and “inclusiveness”. For much of history, white women have used the bodies of black and brown women for symbolic gesture and status recognition and nothing more. It’s so we can say “see, I have a black friend” or “I know black people, therefore, I cannot have racist behaviors”. It’s a cover.
Unless you are truly integrating with your community, unless you are really interacting with these sisters of color in real-life scenarios (and not just within the confines and comforts of associative community events and meetings); it’s all a cover that benefits white supremacy.
It’s a cover that generates higher funds. It’s a disguise used to look inclusive without actually changing any of your habits or patterns. It’s a ploy that justifies sitting on the sidelines and watching as an observer. You have the luxury- the privilege- to not engage and interact. It’s all a facade. In fact, it’s what Robin Diangelo calls “aversive racism”.
Aversive racism is a manifestation of racism that well-intentioned people who see themselves as educated and progressive are more likely to exhibit…Aversive racism is a subtle but insidious form, as aversive racists enact racism in ways that allow them to maintain a positive self-image…Denying that we have few cross-racial relationships by proclaiming how diverse our community or workplace is.
We remind others of how important our white solidarity is, either consciously or subconsciously. We can’t help it- it’s ingrained into our environment. We. Live. In. Whiteness. We just don’t always see that water we are swimming in.
The Least of These
The support further changed for Odessa, because the journey demonstrated that it was going to be extremely uncomfortable for whiteness, and because so many are ignorant to understanding or empathizing with the black woman’s experience. For many of us, we would much rather take comfort in our whiteness and pull our support of a sister rather than, compromise our funding, reputations, and energy.
The continuation of the email exchanges allowed for the truth to come to the surface and for Odessa to realize what the “support group” was really all about. These women merely want to categorize Odessa as something else so they can deflect from the real issue- racism.
Racism isn’t pretty. Nor is it comfortable, cozy, sweetened, or sugar-coated. It’s literal oppression. An oppression Christ called us to stand against, interrupt, and altogether stop. Society’s systemic construction of racism has labeled our black and brown sisters as “the least of these”.
They really aren’t the least of anything. They are our sisters, whom we are called to love. Period. But since Jesus knew that we would have a love-affair with our labels; since we allow (perhaps, invite?) the patriarchal patents that encourage a feminine divide on the basis of race and class; he called out “the least of these” specifically. Specifically, so that we would know that, those which society tries to set apart from the rest; those which society claims are not as worthy of dignity; would be exactly the ones we were to stand up and speak up for.
It doesn’t mean we speak over them or stand on them to get ahead. It doesn’t mean that while our sister is in jail, that we create negative stories about our friend so that we can have her grant money redirected to us.
Haven’t white women done enough to steal and appropriate the artistry of black women?
Erasure and Deflection
In a final email exchange, a new voice interjected and aimed to redirect the entire premise- we will call her Bonnie. Before Bonnie interjected her own deflection, Jen had previously offered screen shots of Odessa’s entire back ground history. Ten years prior to the events that left her charged with a “refusal DUI”; Odessa’s record indicated a previous DUI.
Bonnie needed to readdress the “criminal record” to point out that the actual problem is that Odessa clearly has a drinking problem. Bonnie knew of great resources and felt that it would be best for Odessa to admit to her disease and seek treatment for her addiction to alcohol.
This was a mistake on Bonnie’s part. First, it failed to consider how Odessa might have felt about Bonnie labeling Odessa as an alcoholic while including 11 other women in on the assertion.
Secondly, Bonnie is a part owner of a brewery and is also a bartender. As a former bartender, I would like to say for the record that it’s not very kind to bite the hand that feeds you. What kind of audacity are you sitting with that you can say on the one hand that, “alcoholism is a disease that should not be faced alone without support”, while, on the other hand, promoting alcoholic consumption on your social media account?
Third, a DUI does not mean “alcoholic”. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, and all that jazz. It’s elementary, my dear sister.
Forth, Bonnie made the classic mistake of relegating Odessa’s experience to a stereotypical notion solely so she could relinquish responsibility to actually stand for what she claims to represent. Bonnie was uncomfortable with having to focus on race and instead of trying to understand what Odessa was going through- as a black woman- she wanted to create a new drama that would deflect and essentially erase Odessa’s identity involvement with this case.
Change Which I Cannot Accept
I understand tendency to pull back. But just because I understand it- meaning I can create a back-story that humanizes the person, grants them full dignity, and understands that they have fears- but that doesn’t mean that I have to accept it. And even though there once was a time that the words of Reinhold Niebuhr reverberated within; it was Angela Davis‘ words that made me reconsider such an approach to this understanding without accepting:
I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.
If we want to see the change, we have to be the change. That starts with not accepting the status quo of white solidarity over sister solidarity.
Conditioned for Competition
We have been conditioned to think that we must be in competition with one another. We have been told that we must compete with one another in order to really demonstrate why we are worthy to have a seat at the table.
As I mentioned here, thanks to de Beauvoir’s insight, we can see that this competition- this divide among women-has been perpetuated by the patriarchy. If we are to do anything to ensure the freedoms of our womanhood; we must stand for all women, at all times. Even when it is uncomfortable and unlike anything we have ever been through before.
Of course it upsets our normalcy of whiteness and goodness and positive reputations of appearing to be the model citizen.
But was not Jesus innocent and crucified nonetheless?
Bridging the Gap
We must reject this notion that we are to be at war with one another. We are not to be at war with anyone! We are called to love, and women- we share a special lineage all of our own, as well as a complete half that is necessary for wholeness.
So, how do we bridge this gap between women- between races? For one, we would do well to remember, as author of The Body is Not an Apology, Sonya Renee Taylor reminds; “difference does not equal danger or undesirability.”
We cannot live with this “color-blind” mentality that we don’t see a black or brown woman before us. Yes, we do! Our brains are wired to recognize difference and recall the distinction for survival. But there is no danger in recognizing beautiful varieties of skin tone. Appreciate that difference and realize that it is just another reflection of the wholeness of our Creator.
Recognizing our intersections of our identities isn’t a bad thing. In fact, if we are truly curious and compassionate creatures, we should want to bear witness to the experiences of others- this is the only way we can truly ever understand how we can use our gifts for good! It’s also the only way we learn. It’s through learning that we can change our mind, or repent.
Whiteness Does Not Equal Rightness
It’s troubling that this ideology of whiteness = rightness is plaguing small communities. It creates a pattern that only seeks to continue the divide and maintain the negative biases that we find justification for. If we can divert the attention away from race, if we don’t have to actually address blind-spots; we can save face and claim that we aren’t racist.
It seems less troubling to consider the women concerned about “erratic” driving didn’t exhibit racist behavior, the police were color-blind, because justice is colorblind; the court system was just and fair in sentencing the maximum precautionary supervisions, pursuant with MN legislation, blah blah blah. But, is that actually doing what is right? Or doing what is white?
It’s easy to dismiss oppression when it isn’t impacting us directly. But no one is asking you to hold a picket sign or face an entire police department outside a protest. A friend was asking to lean on you for emotional support, and instead, you wanted to create an email chain for local gossip to entertain yourselves so that you could applaud yourself for being such an upstanding citizen-savior of concern.
It’s white-savior syndrome. We rural, Christian folk like to make sure we create a persona and a reputation that highlights how inclusive and diverse we are. Rural America needs their suburban tourism injections to keep our spirits high, after all. And everybody loves a savior.