I know. I’m a thirty-something white-privileged woman who grew up in the rural Midwest culture of hunting and fishing, drinking, and football. The most common threats I face are wild animals, snowstorms, and drunk drivers.
I’m not here to tell you I get it – the complex layers of race issues in America, the history and the causes and all of the intense hurt surrounding injustice.
But please don’t think, because of my status, that I’m unaffected. Few people are unaffected these days by such sad times in our country.
Yes, racism exists. I knew it long before the formation of Black Lives Matter. I knew it before it was on the news every single day — before we knew the names Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
I knew it when I was twenty and I exited the interstate in downtown Chicago rush hour traffic in desperation for a public bathroom. I found a fast food restaurant and walked in, quickly noticing that I was the only white person there…
5 thoughts on “What Could a Rural White Woman Possibly Say About Racism in America?”
Okay, so here’s the thing: I think the intentions behind this essay are extraordinarily important. I, too, have recently tried to write about my own experiences with racism, when I witnessed what happened with my students as a teacher. I have tried to write about what I want to teach my daughter. And I, too, am a white woman, so I know the line here is tenuous; that we want to use our voices for good, not to silence other voices that matter. We do have privilege, though, and that means we can’t know what it’s like, firsthand, to LIVE the issues we’re theorizing about. We can’t be black. We can only imagine what it is to must be black. And we have to be sensitive even in our imaginings.
Here’s my concern: The execution of your piece paints you in two lights, first as a victim, next as a hero. First, you’re the woman who feels as if she can relate to racism because she experiences eyes on her in a restaurant; next, you’re the woman who saves a black child while the child’s family meets you coldly. I don’t think you do enough to examine why those scenarios went the way they did, or the alternate possible reasons for why you were made to feel as you did.
In the first case, in Chicago, you say that you were eyed with suspicion, but in a country where blacks are treated as second-class citizens, is it any wonder? So few spaces and realms–still, STILL!–are allowable for African Americans. Might the restaurant-goers you came upon have felt violated in some way? Could you examine that, or unpack it a little more? Could you have been projecting your own concerns onto the eyes of others, even? Will you allow for the possibility of the memory being reinterpreted more? That’s all I’m asking. Also, it’s worth considering that you’ve only scratched the surface in your attempt to empathize: For African Americans,it’s not just daily interactions that take on tones of discrimination; it’s institutional policies–still! STILL! Is your experience truly comparable?
In the second case, in the pool, I think your metaphor, especially when it returns at the end, is beautiful, and the message tremendous: That we all have a human obligation to one another. But in pointing out how the African American family made YOU feel, your emphasis is on YOU. How might the situation have made them feel? Were they feeling guilty that their child could have been hurt? Were they suspicious that you weren’t being truthful or that you were being judgmental of their parenting? Were they worried about what you might do next?
I think we have a larger obligation to meet in the middle, not look at each other across a dividing line. That starts, in my opinion, when we try to truly and compassionately reinterpret our own experiences with more understanding, more compassion, and more empathy than we might have initially. I don’t say all this to shame your truly laudable intentions of creating unity; I saw it because you have to imagine, really imagine, how a black reader might feel approaching your text. Will they feel honored and included by your words? Or will they feel isolated and judged?
If that is how my message came across, I fear I have done the opposite of what I set out to do.
I need to let these suggestions/ criticisms simmer a bit as I am feeling quite sad/disappointed that in trying to encourage unity and humanity, I have possibly contributed to further division.
Thank you for taking the time to point out my weaknesses. Your argument is not lost on me.
All of us–and our language–has weaknesses and failings. I am but one reader, who brings to the table my own biases and beliefs; your words will impact other readers differently.
Don’t feel sad/disappointed, or even discouraged. Your aims are as important as your execution, and those aims are admirable, loving and kind.
We become better writers when we revise, not our hearts, but our words. We become better people when we revise, not our souls, but our ideas. As a former editor, I may have approached you too harshly, too critically. I value what you have to say and life gives endless opportunities for revisions and redrafting. Stacy, thank you for writing what you did, because it causes me to rethink some of my own assumptions.
Where you go next, with both this post and with your life (even if you should decide I am entirely wrong)
is in your hands.
I think it’s important to read and listen as much as possible to what is coming out of the black community. Written by them, about their experiences. Seeing it through their eyes. It’s one thing to intellectually recognize what racism and hatred does (which is already miles above and beyond what we hear on a lot of mainstream media). It’s another thing to slowly gain a (very partial) understanding of what their reality is. How incredibly complex and multi-layered it is.
(Not to plug my blog), but here is my experience as a white girl from Canada going to my first Black Lives Matter protest. It was uncomfortable to say the least, but also a revelation.
Keep doing as your doing. Keep the dialogue open, or start a dialogue. It is only in listening and learning that we can hope to be part of the change that needs to happen, in my opinion.