I just taught a workshop for a local group on diversity and inclusivity, heavily focused on race and ethnicity. There was some ambivalence on my part, but also, it was totally the right thing to do. Here’s why.
So, I’m pretty fair-skinned, the combination of Scandinavian and Jewish (from the Baltic, ish?) heritage. This means, among other things, that I benefit from the unwritten rules of a white supremacist society, even if I personally try to comb through my beliefs and make sure I’m not consciously or unconsciously holding onto any racist social conditioning. Like it or not, I have privilege due to the color of my skin, so I intend to use that privilege to do some good in the world.
One way I can use my white privilege to benefit others is to teach about race and racism in settings where my privilege (and those fancy letters behind my name) give me credibility. That, and having over a decade worth of experience in the classroom has given me a good skill set to reach people (though, let’s be fair, academia has its own white supremacy issues, such as in this checklist at Conditionally Accepted). Because, unfortunately, having to talk openly about an identity or experience that negatively impacts you on a regular basis can be a huge expenditure of emotional energy, if not outright re-traumatizing.
At the same time, it would be wrong of me to take someone else’s spot as a speaker if they are a member of a marginalized group that is directly impacted by the topic at hand, and if they want that speaking spot. So I try to be cognizant of that as well. Perhaps a panel represented multiple perspectives, or having alternating events with different speakers, is another way to address this.
But then there’s the issue that people impacted by oppression are often simply exhausted by the cost of survival. Microaggressions add up, and outright prejudice and violence also take a toll. So it’s also an unfair proposition to tell people from marginalized groups that they always have to take front and center to advocate for themselves, educate everybody else, and so on. My thinking here is that if I’ve got the energy to do the emotional labor of educating people, and it removes the burden from someone who’s already over-burdened, then I should step up, but not if those people would like the spot instead.
Further, I believe that because race is such a contentious topic in America, a lot of white people simply haven’t learned how to talk about it. As a teacher, it’s my job to help people learn to get their heads around various concepts; as such, believing people can change is in the job description. So if I can stand up there and model one way to talk about race using academic and social justice concepts such as privilege, intersectionality, and microaggressions, then hopefully I am showing fellow white people how to have these kinds of conversations (without succumbing to paralyzing white guilt and clamming up as a result, for example).
Obviously I still have room to improve and develop my own thinking, speaking, and writing on this and other topics; I’m not saying I’ve arrived and am now a perfect ally (in fact, I don’t think the people trying are the ones who get to decide if they’re being good allies or not). I know I made at least one mistake in the workshop I just taught, and people were kind enough to tell me and my collaborator about it so we can do better in the future.
Also, I have to live up to my claim to be an intersectional feminist. I believe that gender is one of the most important structuring concepts of many people’s lives (though I wish it weren’t so), and yet any analysis of gender, or activism thereon, falls short when it fails to consider how other identity factors play a role.
Modeling how to talk about race, and how to be a lifelong learner, are important goals of mine here. In that vein, here are some resources for you. I highly recommend the first two books in order to fully understand the systemic nature of white supremacy in America, while the second in particular gives good tips on becoming a better ally. The third book is of special interest for people involved in polyamory, kink, and other non-mainstream groups, but also for those doing community-organizing.
Here are three books that have informed my thinking about race and racism in America:
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
- So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
- Love’s Not Color Blind by Kevin Patterson
And here are some of my blog posts about race and racism if you want to read further: