I probably don’t need to describe the video because you are likely one of the 41 million people who have watched it already. But if you haven’t, let me explain: In a video posted to Twitter, a white woman calls the cops on a black birdwatcher after he asks her to leash her unleashed dog in Central Park, which mandates it. As she yanks her dog’s collar, the woman tells him that she is going to call the police and tell them “an African American man is threatening my life.”
She is not in danger. He is not threatening her life. And yet she knows how to do the one thing that will threaten his life: Call the police on a black man in America.
She was publicly shamed. She was fired from her job. And yet she maintains “I’m not a racist.” (I’m purposefully not saying her name as to not give her any additional attention and individualize a problem that is collective.)
When I posted about this incident and the death of Floyd George, a man who was kneed in the neck by Minneapolis police until he died, I saw a lot of similar defensive responses in the comments. The sentiment I saw over and over again was that many white women were alarmed that I had called on them to fight for the issue of racial equality as hard as they fight for gender equality. They seemed to wonder why it was their responsibility to fix the racist system they didn’t create and failed to realize that their gender does not preclude them from the abounding privileges of whiteness.
Let’s be clear: By virtue of being white in America, regardless of your gender, you have benefited from a legal, social, and political system soaked in anti-blackness. To be a white woman in American society is to benefit from the white supremacy that is enmeshed in every part of a country that was created off the backs of enslaved black people. To believe that your gender protects you from being complicit in the oppression of people of color is to erase history.
Not understanding your white privilege is the same kind of mind frame that was used by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the suffragettes who fought for only white women’s right to vote, and the white mothers who played an outsized role in fighting against school desegregation. It also ignores the way that the protection of white womanhood has been used to justify the slaughtering of black men.
“The most violence that I’ve endured is at the hands of a white woman,” racial justice activist Rachel Ricketts told me when I interviewed her last year about progressive allyship. “I think it’s so challenging because y’all are oppressed. You face oppression every day by virtue of being a woman so its wild that you can’t take the oppression that you experience and harness that empathy of that experience and understand how I’m doubly oppressed.”
So my message to white women is simple: The way to alleviate your guilt is not to pretend it doesn’t exist. As Ibram X. Kendi puts in his book, How to Be an Anti-Racist, “the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it—and then dismantle it.” If you can’t acknowledge the wound, you certainly won’t be able to help it heal.
Grieving your innocence might be strenuous, but staying stuck in the first stage of denial won’t help either. Lean into that discomfort. See what it is here to teach you.
If you’re a white person who has gotten to the end of this article and you’re livid with me, sit with that. Because if your takeaway from a story about racism is that it’s unfair to you, you might want to think about why you’re more upset about being held responsible for racism, than by you know... actual racism.
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