How White People Can Begin to Question Ourselves
January 24, 2017 ~ Demetra Szatkowski
***This has a very strong potential to be extremely triggering for anyone who is not a white and straight and cisgendered person, as it lists all of the oppressive beliefs that I hold. This is meant to be helpful for other white straight cisgendered people so that we can look more deeply and critically at ourselves. You may not want to read it if you do not fall into that category.***
I recently wrote a Facebook post about the women’s march, calling for white women to be more open to criticism from women and people of color. And in the post, I wrote these questions:
How can we be better?? Where do we still hold those oppressive ideas somewhere inside of us? How do we unconsciously promote them? How can we become conscious of that, so we can stop doing it, to the best of our ability?
Someone commented on the post. They said, “I don’t just want to ask that question but to answer it as well… I’m curious what you think the answers are to the questions you posed.”
It stopped me for a moment. Because to me it is natural to ask myself big questions like these, in every area of my life. My answers to everything are constantly in motion. But being asked to respond... That's also a challenge, right? Can I answer my own questions? What would it look like to write down all of my answers for everyone to see? What if some people really don’t know what the answers to these questions might look like?
All of our answers will be different. But I’d also be willing to bet that we’d find more similarities than we might think. And maybe a starting point of discussion comes from sharing our answers with each other in the first place, instead of keeping them hidden in embarrassment, wrapped in shame.
So here are my current answers to my own questions— keeping in mind that the answers are fluid, always changing and evolving, and are not limited to just the words on this page.
This work involves looking at our shadows, the darkest parts of ourselves. It involves recognizing that they are there, and that their existence is okay. That’s how we begin to work with them.
Where do I still hold these oppressive ideas somewhere inside of me?
I hold them when I see a black man when I am alone on the street and I become afraid. I hold them when I try to justify that feeling by thinking of criminal statistics. I hold them when I see a black girl’s hair and want to touch it. I hold them when I align myself with things that are foreign and exotic and feel that they are more exciting. I hold them when I think I am not attracted to Asian men. I hold them when I relish in the fact that men are socialized to find me more attractive than women of color. I hold them when I am extremely uncomfortable with being the only white person in the room. I hold them when I wonder if certain stereotypes are true. I hold them when I want to roll my eyes at Native Americans for their beliefs and their protesting. I hold them when I find men attractive just because they’re black. I hold them when I don’t understand why I can’t partake in parts of other cultures just because I’m white. I hold them when I wonder if being queer is only caused by biology, or if it’s sometimes upbringing or choice. I hold them when I don’t know if trans women count as women. I hold them when I wonder if it’s really such a big deal where people go to the bathroom. I hold them when I become annoyed at other people's sadness. I hold them when I tell an Asian person that Asian babies are the cutest. I hold them when I get irritated at people speaking in another language, or in English that I can’t understand. I hold them when I think I’m cool because I know about oppression. I hold them when I get tired of seeing pictures of refugees all over my newsfeed daily. I hold them when I want to uplift minority women but not to the point where they pass me. I hold them when I feel disgust toward the suffering of others, to the poverty of others, to the visible weakness or oppression of others.
I am not better than you. I think these things. I have grown up in this society, too.
How do I unconsciously promote them?
I will tell you a story.
A couple months ago, before the election, I commented on a friend’s post about voting third party. I held the view that a third party vote was essentially the same as a vote for Trump. I got into an argument with a woman of color, who told me that I could not have an opinion on her vote because I was white. I felt attacked, and in my head, I judged her. How could a woman of color, especially, not see how bad Trump is? I ended up just leaving the conversation because I didn’t know how to respond in a way that wouldn’t be offensive.
I am a part of a Facebook group that includes white people working to dismantle white supremacy. I posted about my experience in there, hoping for some understanding, for someone to jump to my defense, to make me feel better. And instead what I got was a bunch of people telling me to stop. Telling me to look at myself— no, again, harder. Asking me why I felt that I had any right to say, or the ability to even correctly know, how a person of color should vote.
And I was extremely triggered and upset. Because to me, it was obvious that everybody should know that they should just suck it up and vote for Hillary.
But could I really make that statement?
And this is when it finally hit me: There are times when my opinion is not valid. There are times when my opinion does not matter. There are times when it is impossible for me to understand the perspective of another person, no matter how much I want to. And, on top of all of that, me being a white woman and saying anything like that to a person of color was promoting her oppression.
My existence literally promotes oppression, because my society sees me as more important than others.
Did I know I was doing this?? No, of course not. I thought I was actively working against it.
Is it my fault that me existing is hurtful? No. But I can take responsibility for it anyway.
We promote oppression any time we think we can see the other side clearly. We promote oppression when we take criticism personally. We promote oppression when we speak for people of color. We promote oppression when we try to help minority groups by rescuing them, by feeling that they're this “other” that needs to be saved. We promote oppression when we say we don’t see color. We promote oppression when we do not recognize or validate the feelings of people who tell us that people like us are hurting them. We promote oppression when we pretend we have no part in any of it. We promote oppression when we think all people within a minority group feel the same way. We promote oppression when we pretend we don’t have thoughts like the ones I wrote above.
How do we become conscious of this, so we can stop doing it, to the best of our ability?
To me this is the same as, how can we do better?
The first step in doing better isn’t immediate action, which might sound surprising...
... Because the first step in doing better isn’t something you can physically see or track.
Do you know why America still hasn’t healed from racism? Because we refuse to acknowledge that it’s a problem.
We cannot underestimate the importance of recognizing the problem.
Nothing in our lives gets fixed unless we first become aware that it’s a problem.
So while we can write to our senators, while we can donate money, while we can march all we want (and we should do all of these things!), none of them are as integral as spending the time becoming aware of our own biases.
Doing this work is not something to be skimmed over. It is a process that never ends. And you know what? It sucks.
It sucks because it involves noticing every single biased thought that we have. And the more we start to notice them, the more it seems they appear.
It involves realizing that we have these deep, awful biases we cannot change just by a flip of a switch.
It involves feeling extremely shitty that our very existence hurts the existence of others. It involves feeling like a bad person, even though you know you aren’t. It involves being upset about the state of the world.
It involves research. It means being open and willing to search out and hear the perspectives of oppressed people and then trusting that those opinions are more valid and helpful than your own.
You won’t be able to effectively recognize the oppressive behaviors of other people until you have spent a lot of time becoming familiar with the oppressive behaviors in yourself.
You won’t be able to effectively change the oppressive behaviors of other people until you have spent a lot of time questioning and changing the oppressive behaviors in yourself.
And then once we have spent the time doing this, once we have spent the time dismantling the beliefs we have been socialized to hold within ourselves… Then we begin to look for solutions. And by then we will know that the most effective solutions, the ones we will want to help implement and support and uphold, will come from groups of people who are not the majority. They will come from people who are not straight. They will come from people who are not cisgendered.
They will come from people who are not white.