I heard about this challenge a few days into it from my friend, Sharyn Holmes. It took me a few minutes to find the original post explaining the challenge, but once I found it, I knew I needed to participate. It’s so important in today’s world to do this work. I can’t ignore it. I think I need to work through this and I imagine my colleagues do as well.
Pre-Challenge: Watch the Intro videos on her IGTV Tab: Once I found IGTV (you have to have the app), this was easy enough. I have to say that I’m both appalled and annoyed that Layla has to tell her viewers that she isn’t going to do any of the emotional labor for them. What kind of person expects a complete stranger and famous writer to do emotional labor for them? White women who love being victims—obviously. I know this not only from being the teacher, friend, relative, and colleague of frail white women, but also from being a recovering frail white woman myself.
Layla ends her video with the invitation to do the work and “Become a good ancestor.” What an excellent way of putting it. I hope someday my kids/grandkids/great grandkids can be proud that I have done and am doing the work of dismantling my own internalized racism. Or, maybe not proud. Just not ashamed? I mean, it’s not really a “good” thing to not be racist—it’s the right, the human, the ethical thing. We shouldn’t get awards for simply doing the bare minimum of what all humans are supposed to do. It’s like getting a reward for eating, sleeping, drinking water. Umm—that’s called living. It’s that or the alternative—which, in this case, is being a racist, so yeah, let’s avoid that.
Day 1: What have you learnt about you and white privilege?
Oh man. I’m still learning so much about my own white privilege and I’ve been trying to look at this for a long time (I don’t want to imply that I’ve been successful—I think that would be a lie for anyone because there’s always so much work to be done).
I guess first I should say that I still struggle when answering this question to not make it about my own victimhood. You know the whole, “I might have white privilege, but I’m fat, was raised in a poor rural family, and was abused as a kid.” Yeah, sure, that’s true—but I’m still white. I still have the ability to feel mostly (!) safe if I’m pulled over, to assume that my potential future sons will not be shot by random people while walking home from the grocery story, and I’m 100% certain that I wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to accrue so much debt (damn credit cards and my complete lack of budgeting skills as a young adult) if my last name was Gonzales or my first name had an apostrophe in it. Even though I’m a fat woman, I still see women on television that look a lot like me. Plus, I’m a natural blonde with long blonde hair. Not only has my hair never been censored by school rules or societal expectations, but I’ve been invited to be a hair model for stylists numerous times. I also managed to rid myself of any real accent by the time I was in high school, so I can travel anywhere in the world and sound like the typical American or even Canadian if I’m avoiding admitting my nationality at the time (which, let’s be real…). I may not have been raised speaking SAE (Standard American English), but I learned it quickly and at a young age—both because the people around me outside of my family spoke it and because I read books by the dozens as a kid. I even used to be a grammar snob before I realized how racist that is. That’s a lot of privilege right there.
There are a lot of privileges that I have that aren’t necessarily “white” but are more common in white communities and families simply because institutionalized racism make it harder for POCs to gain access to them. My dad was a stay at home dad, but before he was injured and forced to retire, he was making a lot of money (like, a lot of money, which unfortunately got funneled into medical bills rather than our lives). My mom has never been able to make as much money because she didn’t finish college (but she got her Associate’s a couple years ago and I am SOOOOO proud of her!), but she chose not to finish. Her dad was paying for her school and she made that choice. Admittedly, there were some circumstances involved, but it wasn’t forced on her and certainly had nothing to do with race. Sure there are a lot of POCs whose parents went to college, but there are many who never had that opportunity because they didn’t have access to education. Which reminds me…
I was able to get a really good education all the way through college and all the teachers looked pretty much like me. In fact, looking back, I’m not sure I ever saw a teacher in elementary through undergrad that wasn’t white or passing unless they were teaching Spanish (even then, I think I only had one Spanish teacher before college that looked Latinx—the rest were 100% passing). The only exception was when I went to summer school at Georgetown U after my Sophomore year of high school and there was a teacher who was a black man.
In terms of classmates, there were a few POCs with me in high school, but not really before then. There was a Korean student and a very white passing Latinx, but there wasn’t really a POC presence there other than my own cousin (who is half black), and because he is like a part of me, I didn’t really experience his blackness in the same way I would have someone else’s. In college, all the professors outside of the Spanish department were as white as could be and after my freshman year, all the Spanish teachers were from Spain. The University administration, known among alumni as a space where racism is considered quietly acceptable in spite of the recent addition of a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, managed to fire/scare off all of the Latinx instructors. The majority of the students I saw in my undergraduate university that weren’t white were all Latinx and can tell you more stories of racism and racial profiling than you would think possible at a University with only 1,200 students. I think there were a few Asian kids and I had a few friends who were Indian, Pakistani, and Filipino, but it was an overall very white place in terms of people and culture. Our idea of diversity was the Sophomore semester in Rome—birthplace of the white Western heritage.
I could continue with my grad experiences, but you get the idea. I now work in higher ed and have been in college and/or working at a college for eleven years now. During that time, I have rarely experienced a person of color in a position superior to me or equal to me. When you consider that until my PhD, most of the people I encountered were upper-middle class white people, even I have often found the experience oppressively white and alien to my own life experiences. We read books by and about rich white people. We learned music, theories, and art of rich white people. Even outside of UD, everything I studied was specific to the Western Literary and academic canon. Everything I studied was written by, for, and about people who looked like me. The society I live in, the people in power, the law enforcement, EVERYTHING in my life experience has focused around people who look like me. When I walk into a store, rarely am I followed by employees who assume I’m there to steal. If I want to fit in just about anywhere, I can simply put on real clothes (as opposed to my #athleisurewearlife that I have embraced since finding out I’m only teaching online now) and I will fit in and be treated with respect. Chances of being treated with respect only shoot higher if I’m carrying my Coach purse. Heck, if I’m walking with one of my tall, white, male colleagues or friends, I could be the fucking queen of England for how I’m treated. I wonder what it’s like to be not only white and educated, but thin? Or male? What wonders must those people experience?
White Privilege is real, ya’ll. I know I have it. I’m still working through how I can use that to make the world a better place beyond the way I mentor and advocate for my students. I’m not the rally and protest type—I’m too much of an introvert and my fear of crowds would probably make me more of a liability than a help if I tried to force myself into it. But I will tell you one thing: when I saw the news about Therese Patricia Okoumou I was pissed. I was upset not because there was a woman climbing up on the statue of liberty, but because it was a black woman alone. I have recently been reminded by the hosts of Bitter Brown Femmes that it’s the job of white allies to use our privilege to protect our POC brothers and sisters during protests. Where were her allies? Why was she alone? Would she have been safer—or even allowed to continue her protest longer—if someone was using their white privilege to shield her?
It’s something to think about.