White People, Can We Talk?

In response to Charlottesville…

I’ve spent the last week reading and watching and listening to all things regarding the horrific events that took place last weekend. I’ve also spent a lot of time contemplating how exactly I wanted to talk about Charlottesville on this specific platform.

My contemplative state did not stem from being afraid of ruffling feathers or from not knowing what to say. My stance is actually pretty clear. I am against white supremacy, racism, bigotry, and any other form of hate targeted at marginalized groups.

I’ve spent every waking hour wondering how I could create the most helpful message to a particular group of people – white people.

But first, to my friends of color that might be reading, I understand that I can never identify with your daily struggles, fears, and oppression. I want you to know I care about you, that I will fight for you, and that I am here FOR YOU.  As a white woman who holds the power of white privilege, I will continue to work daily to disarm my weapons of whiteness and acknowledge that my white privilege allows me greater opportunity than you in this “land of the free”.  And just like you, I am watching to see who is showing up, and I am also watching to see who stays silent. I will keep talking. I will shout it from the rooftops. YOUR. LIVES. MATTER.

This piece is not for you.

This specific message is for white people, specifically silent white people. I am going to use storytelling from a personal experience to hopefully provide you some perspective. I understand that my personal story has NOTHING TO DO with this current racial divide, but I hope that my own situation demonstrates how our friends of color (including co-workers, students, church members) are waiting for us to speak up.

I came out of the closet at 16 years old in a small conservative Oklahoma town. But I didn’t let that stop me from placing a long thin rainbow sticker on the back of my ’90 Pontiac Grand Am, nor did it stop me from wearing that (hideously big) hemp necklace with the rainbow beads the size of jaw breakers. ROYGBIV, baby.

“HELLO CAN YOU SEE ME?”

That’s the message that was probably passed off to anyone that knew me back then. It looked like I was begging to be noticed in my more masculine attire, but not for the reason that you might suspect. I wasn’t looking to be noticed from anyone and everyone. I was just in search of discovering someone else like me. We are strength in numbers, right?  (← Remember that.)

Fast forward through college, significant weight loss, new relationships, and a more feminine presence. I was using my voice to advocate for LGBT, but as a blonde, white, (and now) more feminine-presenting woman, I was afforded the privilege to hide my sexual orientation if I needed to.

New job? I hid my sexual orientation from co-workers until I had a grasp as to who the people were that I would be spending my 8 to 5 with. Trust needed to be established first.

Holding the hand of the woman I love? Not when the guy with the confederate flag bumper sticker showed up. When racism is present, often homophobia thrives, too.  

Over time I became more and more unapologetic about being a lesbian, especially as same sex marriage rights were evolving and I was planning my own wedding. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t met with resistance to accept me for who I am: I remember a teacher friend of mine asking lots of questions and acting genuinely happy for me in my upcoming wedding. Around the same time that our conversations were transpiring, she posted an article to Facebook about the institution of marriage being between a man and a woman.  Wait, what? I was confused, but I also felt like a fool. All of our conversations from our past felt inauthentic the very moment that I saw her outward lack of support. It exposed to me that our personal—and sometimes vulnerable, for me—conversations were simply just obligatory small talk, to her.

I was embarrassed and ashamed, and in that moment I became frightened to think that many of my other friends felt the same way that she did.

From then on I started paying close attention to people around me. I yearned for my friends to outwardly support gay marriage. The ones that fell silent in the fight for equality were the very ones that I questioned. I had no idea where they really stood on the issue. But the outspoken ones, they were my JAM. They made me feel loved and supported.

Let me be very clear right now. The struggle with marriage equality acceptance is not the same as the struggle that people of color endure every single day because my sexuality is, at first (and sometimes second, third, and fourth) glance is invisible. We can never empathize with their daily struggles.  We can never know what it’s like to show up to an interview as a person of color. We can never know what it’s like to have to pass up the truck stop because of the guy with the confederate bumper sticker.

I told you the story with my coworker to give you context for why this issue is so important to me personally, but actually, the larger point isn’t really about me at all. But it is about lessons I’ve learned recently, and passing them on to you.

This is embarrassing to admit, but I was naïve about racial tension among women until I attended the Women’s March in D.C. back in January. “Yes, women! We are in this together!” Actually no, women of color don’t feel this way. They feel as if they’re on their own because historically white women have not shown up for women of color. Read more about that here. Although women are certainly a marginalized group, white women are afforded more opportunity due to white privilege. I get it now. I see it. I benefit from it.

White people, we can NEVER KNOW. We simply cannot exist in our white skin and try to understand anything about being a person of color.

These are some of the excuses for silence that I have been given, but none of them are worth the incitement of fear, mistrust, and oppression that our friends of color experience:

“I have black friends, my support should be obvious.”

“I don’t need to speak up because I am raising a black child. I’m on their side.”

“I travel abroad and post pictures with children of color while building schools with my church. My stance on racism is clear.”

“I just don’t know what to say.”

These statements are problematic to people of color. This article might explain why: “White people and Black people are not having a discussion about race. Black people, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system. White people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about “I, racist” and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness. In doing so, they reject the existence of racism.”

They’re still waiting for us to speak up. They’re paying attention. But they are so tired. And they live in fear, rightfully so. They navigate through an oppressive system that is set up to see them fail. They show up in white spaces looking for trust in white faces.

White people, let’s get it right starting now. We can’t undo the past, but we can redirect the future.

And I hear you loud and clear. I, too, worry that I don’t have the right words. I screw up often, but I choose to proceed anyway because to do anything less is indecent. This time calls for urgency over hesitancy. If you want to talk about this more, I am here to help you or direct you to some of the resources that I follow. I am currently reading this book by Phoebe Robinson and I'm listening to this dose of reality from Erin Brown. 

Listen. Speak up. We ARE strength in numbers.

xo 

Coach Fowler

*black and white mural painted by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Oklahoma City