The other day, as I was contributing a few choice witticisms to the hashtag #whitefeministsbelike, I heard the dreaded wailing in the background.
Someone had sounded the NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE KLAXON.
For the next twenty-odd minutes, my mentions were inundated with the thoughts, feelings and opinions of a self-proclaimed “white feminist” who desperately needed me to know how badly I’d hurt her feelings by implying that she was racist. I had not mentioned her name. I didn’t even know who she was. My tweets did not read “#allwhitefeministsbelike” or “#everysinglewhitepersoneverbelike”. The hashtag was clearly about whiteness-as-power-structure, not whiteness-as-her-personal-life-experience-that-she-needed-to-share-like-RIGHT-NOW.
But here I was, being tearfully reprimanded by a complete stranger, because my critique of a power structure that oppresses me had hurt her feelings.
I am not, despite my frequent jesting, anti-white. I do not hate white people or white culture. Actually, I quite enjoy Shakespeare and Mad Men and the odd visit to McDonald’s for a cheeseburger with that cheese that I’m fairly sure has never had even a passing relationship with the stuff that comes out of cows. But whiteness-as-power-structure? Whiteness-as-supremacist-ideology? Whiteness-as-oppressive-ideal? Those things, I do not like so much. Those things are responsible for taunts and bullying and my mother being yelled at by strangers on the street and my sisters being harassed and, on a memorable occasion that I’m sure will haunt me until the day I die, my father once threatening to beat the shit out of a couple of boys at a Hungry Jack’s who were making fun of my niqab. (He had removed his belt and was preparing to tan their hides with the buckled end before management intervened and made the young men in question leave, but I’m sure those seats still smell like adolescent male fear-sweat to this day. My father is a very imposing man.)
Whiteness, in short, is something I am very much committed to critiquing, de-centring, and even tearing apart a little. Whiteness is the reason there are very few role models for black and brown children in mainstream entertainment media. Whiteness is the reason that when I see a Muslim character on television, they’re more likely to be a terrorist than a love interest. Whiteness is incredibly problematic and we can and should question it and the ways in which it affects and harms people of colour. Because that’s what it’s about, see – not making white people feel bad, not white guilt or white-shaming or reverse racism. It’s about tearing off the shackles that bind us.
It is, in other words, Not About You.
To the white girl who felt the need to tell me I’d hurt her feelings, I have to ask – what were you trying to achieve? Did you really need the reassurance of a random brown stranger that you aren’t a bad person because of the colour of your skin? Did you need to be preened and petted so much that you had to interrupt a brown person’s narrative – the narrative of a person who is interrupted, silenced and shoved aside by white people constantly - so that everyone in the metaphorical room could attend to your needs and desires for a little while? What did you stand to gain by pointing out huffily that you, individually, were not racist? Did you want a medal for basic human decency, perhaps? A ticker-tape parade with a float staffed by non-white people showering you in confetti and holding up a big sign saying “This White Person is Not Like the Others”? A lovingly-baked cookie containing the blood, sweat, tears and gratitude of a brown person, delivered to you in a little box with a card reading, “thanks for achieving the minimum standard required for being a tolerable human being”?
Because that’s the message you send when you derail conversations about whiteness-as-power-structure to point out that you, an individual white person, are not racist. You are saying: my feelings as a white person who is complicit in and bolstered by white privilege are more important than your right to talk about the power structures that oppress you. You are saying: I cannot abide a conversation that does not centre me, my feelings and my worldview. You are saying: me. Me me me me me me me me me me me. Also, me.
And let me tell you, that gets kind of intolerable after a while.
Yes, individual white people, I get it. You’re better than the others because you have black and brown friends, because you donate to charities that benefit non-white people in need, because you told a black woman her hair was neat and resisted the urge to touch it. And now, having achieved the standard of good behaviour we might expect of a house-trained puppy, you feel the need to tell every. single. non-white. person. ever. You are so desperate to differentiate and distinguish yourself from Those White People, the nasty racist ones who oppress blacks and aren’t as enlightened and caring and compassionate as you, that you need to make every conversation not about our continuing plights, but about how You Are Better Than Them and we need to acknowledge all the hard work you’ve put in.
How many times do you need to be told this? Being an ally or standing in solidarity with a group of oppressed people is not about you: it’s about the people you are trying to help. And that means that when those oppressed people are talking about the ways in which power structures marginalised and silence them, contributing to that silencing by talking loudly over us and ignoring our objections makes you part of the problem, not the solution. A white person who really does make an effort not to be complicit in white supremacy does not need to trumpet that fact. In fact, they don’t have time to do so, because they’re busy rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty with the rest of us. Ask yourself, well-meaning but self-absorbed white woman whose name I don’t even remember any more because this happens to me literally every single time I write about whiteness, why most of the people criticising you and asking you to pipe down were also white. Was it because they had something to prove? Was it because they wanted brownie points and a pat on the back?
Or maybe, just maybe, was it because they were seeing something you weren’t?
If you really are Not Like the Others, prove it to me not with your words but with your actions. Be an amplifier and supporter of non-white people. Give us space to speak. Listen to and internalise our stories when we share them (because believe it or not, hearing those stories is a privilege, not a right, and should be treated accordingly). Share our stories with your white friends. Stop your fellow white people from perpetrating the dozens of microaggressions that perpetuate and reinforce white supremacy every single day. Lobby for fairer representation of non-white people on television, in politics, in the corporate world, in academia. Fight anti-blackness. Ask before partaking of our culture so that you can be sure you’re not taking something that’s not yours to take. For the love of whatever you deem holy, DO NOT touch our hair or our niqabs without our permission. See us as people, not as curiosities. And stop equating your hurt feelings at being forced to confront the reality of white supremacy with the real hurts non-white people experience because of the insidious influence of white supremacy in their everyday lives.
Solidarity and intersectionality are not labels. They are things you practice. They are ways of living and being. If you truly want them to apply to you, stop making everything All About You and start listening a bit to all of us.