Friday, December 5, 2008

Tell It Sisterhood: When White Women Speak Out

This week Jill at Feministe re-posted a blog entry I wrote entitled Pearl Clutchers and StrawWomen.   As the argument in the comment section became heated, the usual straw women appeared, to desperately latch on to their pearls and employ any rouse to derail the thread.  Pearl Clutching is a hard habit to break, and if in the process you can turn the conversation to what about meee, it is all the more tempting.

The other group of women that were quite vocal spoke out in support of the point I was trying to make.  When a space becomes hostile, I cannot help but be thankful for those voices that are willing to wade into the muck, and question the privilege denial  of others.

I am getting to the part where it all gets a little sticky. Octagalore and I finally agreed on something (huge yeah for that one).  Before I get into this, let me just say that this is an issue that I find very difficult to discuss.  Let's start with Octagalore's comment:

Not to suggest that even those who stepped up here have totally owned their privilege, just that over-dramatic and over-inclusive nets of blame miss the entire problem here, and whitewash (pun intended) the fact that there are different behaviors of white women being exhibited.

Falling too dramatically on ones sword is another way of derailing attention that should be focused elsewhere. While it seems like we’re being humble and self-effacing, and certainly a little of that is merited, it avoids the responsibility of taking a finer look at the actual OP and analyzing its nuances, in favor of a showy display.

While I am totally thankful for the support of those that own their privilege and  demand that women of colour be given a space to speak, there is also a line that is sometimes crossed that makes the conversation uncomfortable.

Octagalore referred to it as "falling on ones sword", and I believe that to be the most apt description of what I am trying to address.  At some point self depreciation becomes disingenuous and smacks of condescension. 

This is an issue I have often thought about, but have never had the courage to address; because I do not want to discourage someone when they are trying to negotiate their privilege.  The process of decolonizing your mind is a difficult one, and to have to worry about your tone, when you have finally worked up the courage to engage, must feel like just another barrier blocking a true conversation.  As a WOC I can also relate to how frustrating it is to have someone police your personal expression.  I do not want to impose the same limitations that have been placed upon me

That said, I would be dishonest if I did not publicly address my own discomfort.  It makes me feel as though I am playing the role of mystical Negro.  When you first start to critically engage in race it must seem so intimidating.  This is something I personally can relate to because I am actively seeking to learn about different forms of oppression; however adoration without critical engagement helps no one.  The compliments are wonderful and great for the self-esteem; however the awe factor sours quickly because no momentum is gained.

In the end this means that we are not really talking to each other.  I know that I have continually said STFU and listen, but there is also a second stage.  I realize now that I am a guilty of stunting conversation.  While I do not feel that my tone should be disciplined, I realize that perhaps my approach does not encourage engagement. 

A conversation involves more than listening, and perhaps what we need to do is not only listen to each other, but learn to converse with each other.  For this to work though, we all need to engage in good faith.  This is a difficult task due to a history of mistrust and betrayal, but it is not an insurmountable challenge.

So hence forth, I will try to be more approachable.  I still don't want to play mystical Negro; however in an effort to move the conversation forward, I will try to be more open to the words and ideas of others.  Your history may not be the same as mine, but that does not invalidate it.  As long as we approach each other with respect, I am confident that we can build a bridge.  We have too much invested in feminism as women, to allow a construction (read:race) to come between us and unity. 

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