The Privilege Of The White Writer
I’ve been bumping into people all week. Not literally, but emotionally, culturally, socially. I’ve been stumbling over old biases and beliefs I didn’t want to admit I had. I’ve been running into judgments I wish I didn’t inherit. I’ve been bashing into a new reality: That if we show up, authentically as we can, with our own experience, we will fall.
I feel stupid even writing this because I’ve been reading it from social activists like Brené Brown, friends and mentors like Shauna Ahern, and practicing it in group therapy for over six years now. But therein lies the problem. I’ve merely been an onlooker — in controlled, safe, female, whitewashed environments. I haven’t been participating in that theoretical “arena.”
I say that I hate protests, and I justify that aversion with my own introversion and bouts of ill health. Yes, I donate to organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, but automatically recycle mailers from the Southern Poverty Law Center. I’ll read inclusive fantasy, but shy away from true stories and representations like Between The World And Me. I listen to Lemonade, I watch documentaries, I match with non-white dudes on Tinder…I must be woke, right?
Maybe, to a certain extent…but I never show up in these communities. I don’t go to their churches or pay to see their art. I don’t volunteer for the organizations that are making a difference at the local policy level. I’ve never called a senator, or made a public outcry that wasn’t firmly within the safety of general support. I’ve shied away from reading the books and witnessing the stories written by the people depicted in them. I’ve never made it my responsibility to teach myself through experience. I have fooled myself into thinking I was making a difference in the only way I knew how.
This is where I went wrong.
The Need To Stay Safe
I am a cis-het-white woman with a lot of other white cis-het-white friends. No wonder I’m comfortable. I, of course, have the option of remaining complacent and complicit and silent and safe, unlike so many others in this country. I have that choice. It is a privilege that should not be taken lightly. That choice also means that I have a responsibility to lift up others who have been silenced.
Last night, I wrote a (since edited) Facebook post about my feelings on the abortion ban currently infecting the American South:
“This week I’m remembering the night that Trump was elected. I was sobbing and hyperventilating on the floor, because I knew that everything was about to change. I called my boyfriend. He just kept telling me that nothing would change. That we lived in the liberal bubble that was Seattle. That this presidency wouldn’t touch us.
First, it affected the Muslims, then the Latin-Americans, then the Jewish, and now, finally, it’s affecting the women. Painfully. Tangibly.
He was wrong. It’s touching all of us.”
Looking back on this now, I wonder how I could have missed that I was marginalizing the very people I was attempting to empathize with? In trying to illustrate that I feel the weight of this, I made my privilege blatantly clear. I haven’t been affected until now. The persecution directed towards others has not been directed towards me.
I live in a state where I still have the right to choose. I have health insurance through my employer. I can have easy access to birth control. I have family and friends and policies that would support my rights, should I need to exercise them. I still have the power that has already been taken away from so many others around the world — that is being taken away from vulnerable people in 16 states nationwide.
Naturally, writing this felt safer than owning that I was finally feeling the weight of what others have fought for, and won, and lost again, countless times throughout history. It was easier for me to isolate how white women are finally being affected, rather than honor that all female-identifying people have always been affected by this same pernicious sexism — some more than others.
Thankfully, one friend decided to call me on my bullshit. Yes, I felt defensive, initially. Yes, I experienced guilt, and fear, and crushing shame that I failed — I screwed up — I misrepresented an experience — I hurt someone. Then, I slept on it, got humble, asked for help, and rewrote it. I learned something new, and I became a better writer because of it.
On Responsible Representation
Last week, I was listening to the Write Minded podcast, one of my favorite resources for writing advice. Their guest of the week was Daniel José Older, author of the essential BuzzFeed essay, 12 Fundamentals Of Writing “The Other” (And The Self). In it, he discusses how to be a responsible creator when writing about other people, and ourselves.
Among other golden nuggets such as “You will jack it up,” his notes on being a man writing about sexism especially resonated with me:
“One of the reasons I stayed silent was that I knew at some point, I was going to mess up, and whatever it was I did wrong would be compounded by the fact that I was one of those men that speak up about sexism.”
I wholeheartedly relate to this fear. I am TERRIFIED that I’m going to be that whitewashed feminist who tries to write about privilege and racism and fails spectacularly — offending an entire population and creating a permanently stained reputation along the way. I already am!
To quote author Kaitlyn Greenridge, “It’s the wish not so much to be able to write a character of another race, but to do so without criticism. And at the heart of that rather ludicrous request is a question of power.”
Like Older said, I am predestined to suck at this. My need to avoid criticism is in itself a luxury that many writers of color have never had. It takes for granted the fact that I have had the power not to be criticized for my portrayal of others. It sneers at the shift we’re experiencing where those in power get called to task for their impact — finally. That fear of royally sucking not only prevents me from showing up, it also doesn’t keep me from hurting anyone. My avoidance and my silence hurt all on their own.
“The Call To Courage”
We can’t learn without failure. We learn by trying, and losing, and stepping on other toes and disregarding other experiences. We learn that something hurts only when we engage with other people, other realities, other histories, and choose to listen.
I am not the first to own that this fear can be paralyzing. It has certainly paralyzed me for the past 27 years. This doesn’t mean I’m hopeless. It doesn’t mean that I’m not capable of changing. It does mean that I have some catching up to do.
At the most basic level, I have to try. I have to show up for those people and those stories that I’ve been avoiding. I have to keep writing, knowing that I’m not good at this — yet. I have to right-size my own experience and understand that it is not singular, bad, or wrong. I also need to accept that I’m not special. I must risk hurting someone else in order to better understand my own impact. Because in the end, intentions don’t matter, impact does.
It’s OK that this is scary. It’s supposed to be. Opening up my worldview and widening my own perspective can be a terrifying prospect. But I know it will be worth it, no matter what. I trust that the learning I will receive — the changes I undergo — the humility I must embrace, will make me a better human, and a better creative.
So, the choice presents itself once again: Stay silent and afraid, or join the conversation. Stumble, get bloody and dusty and exhausted by how much you’re trying to show up. Then pick yourself back up, and do it all over again.
That’s better than trying. That’s doing.