It was 2:10, November 17th, 2016 and I was feeling invincible. Even with the election results still gnawing at me, I felt a sudden rush of optimism for the future after participating in my high school feminism class’s assembly focusing on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It was a “mic-drop” assembly addressing violence against women through an intersectional lens. We read poetry by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, provided an analysis of the sexism and racism of the election cycle, shared personal anecdotes about sexual harassment, and explored sexual harassment policy issues in our school.
Throughout the assembly, our peers snapped along and asked thoughtful questions. Even after two white male school leaders tried to formulate a response to our revealing the fact that our school lacks a sexual harassment policy, I remained unfazed.
After the assembly, I bounced down the hall, not necessarily at peace with the status of my country and school, but still rather motivated, knowing, as Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes, that my “work is not done.” In my zeal, I bumped into a white friend of mine. I expected a compliment about our assembly, as I had already received many from fellow classmates, but she said nothing as she put on her coat. I then brought up the assembly, which resulted in her cringing. She didn’t even fake a response; she was publicly cringing right in front of me.
“I didn’t like it. It made me uncomfortable,” she said.
She didn’t have to say anything else. I knew what she meant and a few words immediately came to mind: “white guilt” and “white fragility.” Since our approach to talking about violence against women was intersectional, a large segment of the assembly covered #SayHerName–a hashtag created to bring awareness to the many women and girls of color who have died at the hands of police brutality–as well as other issues concerning the intersection of gender with race and class.
My fellow feminism class presenters noted how these issues are not just present outside our “social justice school,” but the truth of the matter is that we “white progressives” who make up a large portion of the student body at our school are responsible for perpetuating some of the very same systems we so actively say we’re against.
I believe that being called out on white privilege created a sense of guilt and even fragility for my friend. Her discomfort may have come from the critique of white progressives made during the assembly. She may have defensively thought to herself: “Are they talking about me?” Her discomfort then led to the dislike of the assembly as a whole.
“White guilt” is a feeling that many white people feel as they confront their privilege. As we come to realize that an aspect of our identity oppresses others, we go into a state of denial as to how we might be involved in it, even unintentionally, and we then want to separate ourselves from our problematic community by saying we are “not racist.” This is problematic.
The complaints and groans about white people from white people seems ignorant. As Alexis Pauline Gumbs so eloquently stated when she came to visit our class via Skype, “the active verb for ignorance is ‘ignore.’” We are ignoring our own faults and stay ignorant because we feel guilt or fragile or perhaps nothing at all. It is better to bring attention to privilege and see where we are ignorant than to skim the surface of our oppressive privilege. When we believe that hating the KKK and liking #BlackLivesMatter Instagram posts make us perfect social activists, we make the problem worse, not better. People of privilege must venture into our discomfort and respond accordingly by examining our own accountability in the problem of institutional racism.
Black feminist Audre Lorde suggests in her essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House“ that we must feel some discomfort to make circumstances better:
“I urge each of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there.”
This is where I believe my friend and I split: my discomfort as a white privileged young woman has led to reflection about my whiteness while her discomfort led her to shut down. By saying she “didn’t like” the assembly, what she really meant was that she didn’t like inspecting her own privilege.
My friend is not alone in her white fragility at my school. Since our school is a progressive institution, the expectation is that the students who attend it are a collective group of open-minded radical thinkers. We like to believe this.
But after the assembly, I began to not only reflect on my imperfections, but the imperfection of those who are closest to me. While we presented our assembly, I noticed some of my peers scrolling through their Facebook feeds and joking to their friends as girls in their own grade took the stage. I wondered to myself, do they consider themselves “white progressives” as they tune out and mock the work which they so “obviously” support? I mean, we attend LREI, we are obviously so aware and considerate. Even my most respectful, intelligent white peers could hardly bear the idea that they could be racist.
In The Feminist Wire article, “White Liberals Ain’t Loyal: White Silence, Black Absence,” Rashelle R. Peck argues that being “racist indicates an inability to logic, which severely betrays notions of White rationality. In short, to be racist is to be stupid.” At LREI, the mere thought of racism being present is ridiculous considering we associate racism to be an oppressive system that only exists in places like the Rust Belt not in downtown Manhattan. We are young elites with education, how can we be stupid?
We must acknowledge our privilege to take steps to use our position to work towards justice. This does not mean we must bombard people of color with questions on how to better ourselves, but rather we should look within ourselves and observe the system around us and ask, “How are my actions possibly perpetuating systems of oppression?” When white people engage in conversations about race with people of color, we should “listen” as much as we “talk” as Gloria Steinem said when visiting our class. Whether the discussion is about systemic oppression or a fantastic new TV show, white people should not dominate the conversation.
Since we are the majority at our school, we should not dominate anything our voices and views, including our annual feminism assembly. During most conversations, we play it safe, wary of offending our classmates. My expectation is that one day, when white students are called out on their ignorance they will not feel so “uncomfortable,” as it was for my friend and for us white progressives, in general. In fact, this sort of criticism should become more commonplace, and I want it to be commonplace that white people should not feel offended or feel the need to defend when called out.
My hope is that these conversations will be less needed as we overcome our white guilt and actually do something productive with our privilege. Then maybe we will be able to consider ourselves to be actual anti-racist white progressives at our social justice school.