Firstly, a little background for context: before coming to the US, I never had white friends. While there is a sizeable population of white folks in Dubai, economic stratification ensures their residence in exclusive suburbs, while I grew up in the teeming, claustrophobic city heart. My graduating class in high school boasted no less than 80 different nationalities. Bilingualism was the norm, rather than the exception, and most people were closer to tri- lingual. Simply put, diversity was a fact of life. I had friends from Sudan, Iran, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Tanzania and many many more. My close group of friends is all women of color, and while our experiences in Dubai were mediated through colorism, lookism and other currents of discrimination, there was no steep difference in privilege as often manifests between white women and WOC.
When I moved to the US almost 4 years ago, I was lost. I had no friends or family here, and it took many many hard months before I was myself again. When I discovered Women’s Studies and feminism, I discovered a source of immense comfort and empowerment, as well as a sense of community with feminists and progressives et al.
I grew close to a number of white feminists, and for a while I was happily assured that their professed allyhood and my own racial identity development meant that our friendships were foolproof. And so when cracks developed in those friendships, and I found myself feeling betrayed on several fronts, I was at last compelled to take a long hard look at the emotional realities I had avoided.
For some reason, in my friendships with white women, I had implicitly decided not to think about race between us. I could talk about critical race theory, I could talk about my experience of racism in other places and at the hands of other people, but to personalize that in the immediate moment, and to acknowledge the insidiousness of race, invisible and ubiquitous as air, that permeated the interaction between me and the person in front of me – I just couldn’t do it.
And that was a grave error.
The result was that oftentimes, I became the receptacle of their white guilt, or would prioritize affirming their Good White Person qualities over honestly engaging my own positionality. So there I was, a fiercely empowered brown woman, trampling and ignoring my feelings so that I could ensure the white women felt good.
Now, I’m aware that my personality traits also factor into the dynamic: I am, by nature, averse to conflict, diplomatic to a fault and much too eager to bestow unadulterated trust. But I can’t ignore how my race impacts these qualities, particularly in the US, or how seemingly innocuous traits can end up feeding into racial narratives. Isn’t that part of how racism operates? Our actions and motivations aren’t insular; rather they are constantly being woven into a vicious social narrative bent on uplifting the powerful. This doesn’t mean we don’t have agency, but it does mean that we must constantly gauge the narratives into which our actions are falling. If we find our actions continuously shaping a particular harmful narrative, it’s time to pause and reflect.
It took me a long time to realize the racial dynamic I had fed into: I had become the Safe Brown Person, someone that white women could process their guilt and privilege with because I was too nice to call them out on it. I was so desperate to bond over our shared ideals of social justice, to have the same effortlessly close friendships I share with my Dubai friends, that I was living the ‘I-don’t-see-race’ theory even as I was loudly decrying its facetiousness in the context of social policy.
‘People need to WAKE UP and see that race is everywhere!’ I would declare, while simultaneously ignoring race in one of the places it mattered most.
For the white women I was friends with, my cheerful acquiescence meant, oftentimes, that their allyhood to me as a WOC only needed to exist theoretically:
“I consider myself in solidarity with you” (but really I see you as helpless and dependent.)
“I’m so glad we’re friends” (but I don’t attribute the same agency and strength to your decisions as I do to mine.)
“We’re strong women and we’re here for each other” (except I can only really relate to you when you’re a dependent victim, and once you start coming into your own and being strong and happy, suddenly it’s too difficult to relate)
“I would never want you to feel burdened by my white guilt” (btw, one of my friends needs to process their white privilege and none of her friends are having it, but I told her you would help).
These and others were many instances wherein my actions helped solidify a debilitating racial narrative: one in which the complex negotiation between allyhood and friendship, between camaraderie and privilege, was sidestepped for an easy assurance that, ultimately, kept me locked in a cycle of self-deprecation, self-doubt and subordination.
So my learning experience concludes thusly: never again will I allow my conflict-aversive nature ascendancy over articulating my reality. No more will I centralize the hurt feelings of white feminists. And finally, I’m through with the mistaken belief that race is a burden that’s best ignored or downplayed for a relationship to thrive.
For white feminists who want to befriend WOC: come to me when you’re confident that you’re white guilt is under control; when you feel it acting up, please check the urge to tearfully burden me with it, and instead get thee to a white caucus post haste. If you’re ‘projecting’ past hurts and issues onto my reality, and that interferes with us connecting: stop doing it, simple as that. I don’t let racism stand in the way of attempting to be your friend, so just, please, suck it up. If you can’t decenter your feelings and experiences in a friendship, then you need to do some self-reflection. Just because I don’t call you on shit sometimes, doesn’t mean I’m not hurt/ alienated by what you just said or did.
Also, living a transnational existence is damn hard, harder than anything I will ever do in my lifetime, and to endure it with hope and love takes more strength than you can imagine. For this, I deserve to not be seen as your poor exotic Third World sister who needs sheltering. For this I deserve your respect, your recognition of our ‘equal humanity’, if nothing else.
Racism and kyriarchy fucks us all up. I know I stumble over my own privileges: my able-bodied privilege, my thin privilege, my class privilege, my heterosexual privilege, my cis privilege. But it’s time we did away with superficial notions of kumbaya sisterhood, and started holding each other accountable. I’m ready for real, gritty, sometimes-we-yell-at-each-other, blood n’sweat solidarity.
There’s no other kind worth having.