FOR WHITES (LIKE ME): white paradox

One of the most brilliant poems ever:

For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend

The first thing you do is to forget that I’m Black.

Second, you must never forget that I’m Black.

You should be able to dig Aretha,

but don’t play her every time I come over.

And if you decide to play Beethoven—don’t tell me

his life story. They make us take music appreciation, too.

 

Eat soul food if you like it, but don’t expect me

to locate your restaurants

or cook it for you.

 

And if some Black person insults you,

mugs you, rapes your sister, rapes you,

rips your house or is just being an ass—

please, do not apologize to me

for wanting to do them bodily harm.

It makes me wonder if you’re foolish.

And even if you really believe Blacks are better lovers than

Whites—don’t tell me. I start thinking of charging stud fees.

 

In other words—if you really want to be my friend—don’t

make a labor of it. I’m lazy. Remember. (-Pat Parker, 1978)

Its brilliance comes in its laying open a paradox so clearly we can see it. Name it. Feel it. Get it. In all of it’s contradictory truths.

Want to be a good white friend? Forget that I’m Black. Never forget that I’m Black.

I’m convinced that naming and living the edges of paradox is the only way for those of us who are white to move into justice work with authenticity, competency and ground-under-our-feet. On the flip side, I’m convinced that failure to see, understand and wrestle (hard) with paradox is why many of us who are white and well-intentioned, justice-loving, and longing to be counted against racism stay stuck.

Stuck. As in sit and wait for a better day, instead of figuring out how to help create that day.

But naming paradox can create an “aha!” we’ve been waiting for. Can open up huge vistas we’d never noticed before but, turns out, were right before our eyes all along. Can create freedom to move because we suddenly see the contours within which we move. Or might move. Like Pat Parker’s poem.

Here’s some of my journey through paradox. Maybe parts will feel familiar to you.

Seeming Paradox #1:

I ask my students: “who thinks we’re supposed to be colorblind?” Lots of white students (few, if any, students of color) raise their hands.

Then I ask: “okay, who thinks we should value diversity?” The same white students raise their hands (most or all students of color do).

“Can you really do both of these at the same time?” I ask. “My generation has handed you quite a legacy.”

Aha. A tiny recognition that all is seriously not as it should be.

This paradox turns out not to be one at all. A paradox is a set of contradictory but simultaneous truths. This isn’t that. “Colorblindness” is not only impossible, it’s undesirable. An untruth. Even if we could deny “color,” I wouldn’t want to. Give up the rich multi-racial heritage of this justice-flawed but deeply multi-racial society? Can you imagine what we lose?

Here, it’s safe to side with diversity. Colorblindness/diversity is not paradox. It’s just, flat out cognitive dissonance we need to undo.

But, where exactly does that leave white folks?

Actual Paradox #1:

“What would you think” I ask my students “if you saw a group of Latino/a students walking through our commons carrying signs that said ‘¡La Fuerza Latina!’”?

Their heads begin to bob, nodding. “We would support them!” This sight would be welcome.

“And,” I ask “a group of African American students walking through with signs that said ‘Black is beautiful!’”?

“Yes,” they nod. This is a statement of pride, a resistant protest, a celebration of Black history month perhaps. It too, welcome.

“A group of white students,” I ask finally “with signs that said ‘White is beautiful!’”?

The nods abruptly cease. The silence is palpable. Some of them hold their breath. I see it in their eyes: “Did she just say that out loud?”.

It’s true. Diversity is a value. It’s true. We can’t say “white is beautiful.” Paradox.

Here is a deeply confusing, sometimes painful, utterly disorienting paradox that can, literally, leave us with no ground under our (white) feet.

Paradox #2:

A second paradox reveals a path through this first one. Here it is.

For whites (like me): we must be white, while constantly refusing to be white.

Yes, that’s what I meant.

We must be white, while refusing to be white.

Individually neither part of this paradox is hard. What’s hard is trying to do them at the same time. And that’s exactly what we have to do for them to remain true.

Many of us who are white know we can’t pretend we’re not white—even if saying we’re…ahem…(whisper) “white” makes us really uncomfortable. We know we need to admit we have privileges denied to others. We want to learn about and claim the value of “difference.” We know we need to “be white.”

But here’s where we get stuck. While most of my students know to be supportive of “¡La Fuerza Latina!” and “Black is beautiful!” a vortex opens up (ground gives way) in this embrace of diversity and “White is beautiful” makes us choke.

We choke for good reason.

Black is beautiful because people of African descent have made it so. Through decades of struggle and resistance, endless political and cultural productions, people of African descent have actively rejected white supremacy’s naming (“negro,” “colored,” “n—”). When white supremacy said “you are black,” people of African descent refused saying instead: “We are Black.” That identity has emerged, among other kinds of creativity, out of active resistance to white supremacy.

And it is indeed beautiful.

We whites have no parallel to this! (Yet?) White  isn’t beautiful because we haven’t done similarly. (This is not the same thing as saying individual people who happen to be white totally suck or aren’t beautiful as people. No, I’m not into self-hatred. I’m talking about the collective identities we construct!) Our decades have mostly been made of compliance with what white supremacy has said and done, acceptance of what it has made “white” to be and mean. When white supremacy has said “be white,” people of European descent overwhelmingly said and say “um, okay.”

There’s a reason my students get quiet. There’s also a reason we stay stuck: having no ground under our feet doesn’t exactly lead to spirited anti-racist resistance.

But we don’t have to stay in that place. We can always, also refuse to be (just) white.

Don’t mishear me! We can’t only do the “refuse to be white” side of the equation. This true only remains true if is lives within the paradox that keeps it true. (Just like, “Forget that I’m Black. Never forget that I’m Black.” Do only one of these two contradictory truths and you have lost the true.)

But even as we remain clear we are white, we can refuse to be white. Here’s an example of what I’m trying to get at:

In a class where we were wrestling with that vortex and that gross stuck white place, one of my white students shared that over our break she had gone to a show. The band was from Mexico and most of the patrons were Mexican or Mexican American. White bouncers were frisking everyone. But as my student entered, the bouncers just waved her on through. So she refused. She stopped, put her arms in the air and said at the top of her lungs, “if you’re frisking everyone else, you better frisk me too!”

Her response created quite a ruckus. While the guards scrambled, the other patrons started yelling, “¡solidaridad! “¡solidaridad!”

These patrons didn’t yell because they mistakenly thought she was Mexican. They yelled because they knew she was white. And she knew it too. (Wasn’t pretending she was colorblind. Wasn’t thinking she was just human. Here being white actually added to the meaning of her action.)

And, in that very same, beautiful, contradictory, truth-moment she also refused to be white.

There’s a space that begins to edge open as we see and step into paradox. We can’t just disavow our whiteness with our words (we must “be white”), but being white need not determine our behavior (we can “refuse to be white”).

The paradox is the key.

If we only “be white” we live the numbing despair of white guilt that does nothing for liberation or justice. But if we only “refuse to be white” we just add to the thick haze of “colorblindness.”

But, when we find ways to do these at the same time????

Well,….I’ve been witness to this in moments. And it looks something like solidarity.

It looks like the place where we never remember people are Black and never forget they’re Black.

It feels like the place where we never forget we’re white and never accept that we have to be white.

And the thing about places—good places, anyway—is that the more often you look for them, the more often you find them. The more often you go there the more familiar they become. The more you dwell there, the more place turns into home.

Can we be white while refusing to be white? For whites (like me), who long for justice, that’s the only place we can call home (and there’s ground under our feet there). Aha.

Let’s build it.

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Comments
11 Responses to “FOR WHITES (LIKE ME): white paradox”
  1. Tim Wright says:

    Speaking as a white heterosexual male (triple whammy of privilege) I just want to say thank you for starting to point out ways people like me can convert a desire and intention to dismantle racism into action. Even a small start is a start and you are right: small steps lead to bigger steps and then to leaps.

  2. writefullyso says:

    Please don’t stop this series. ¡Solidaridad! indeed.

  3. thudonkey says:

    I like what you’re doing here, and I’m finding it very thought provoking. One suggestion for reflection (to readers) and something that you may be planning to make explicit in later episodes: you say that whites haven’t collectively said “white is beautiful.” It might be really valuable to juxtapose and deconstruct the fact that whites have repeatedly said “white is better” as a collective. The difference between the intentions of these two ways of thinking may be a useful locus of discussion. Also, I find myself (as I reflect) changing “white is beautiful” to “white is beautiful TOO.” In my head that shifts the impact a bit.

  4. ATT says:

    Thanks for doing this. I will be following along. This is one of the most encouraging blogs I have read. I hope this will open so many more lines of communication between people of all races who read this and gain understanding of the struggles we all face in society due to our racial constructs. Having married a multiracial man and raising my children in a family where people of all races are literally their flesh and blood, I am presented with some complexities that are new to me as well. Little by little as we can see and value each person, inclusive of their background but still looking at them as a unique individual, we will arrive.

  5. Danielle Mooney says:

    I had worked my way through paradox one but then found myself stuck. You may have unstuck me with paradox 2, particularly with the example. Thank you.

    I found your blog today (after reading your Huff Post letter to parents of white children) and now I’m all caught up on “For Whites (like me)”. Can’t wait for more posts. Will check back often!

  6. ht says:

    Thank you so much for writing this series. I’ve been reading a lot on race/privilege recently, and I’m glad to have found someone of my own race who is adding to the conversation, and bringing more white people into it. I really appreciate how clear and concrete your points are, in addition to being true. Keep up the good work.

  7. Tina says:

    I am not beautiful because of my whiteness… I am beautiful because of my actions. Just as any one of any color should be.

    • Rhonda says:

      Tina, the point of the article, as I understood it, is to acknowledge that race has been a charged presence in our society and continues to be so. For White people (and, infuriatingly, some people of color)
      to proceed with the “we’re all the same” and the “our character is the only thing that matters” isn’t really acknowledging what has been real and continues to be real for those of us for whom good character and right action has never been enough. Yes, good character & right action SHOULD be enough for all of us. But that hasn’t been the reality for ALL of us and a way that White people can be an ally is to acknowledge rather than run away from that truth.

  8. rft says:

    I’m late to the party, but this is good stuff. “Whites (like me) is beautiful!”

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  1. […] different way of “being white.” To refuse to go along (like the action of my courageous student I wrote about before). To catch the […]

  2. […] If you feel that it is intimidating, as a white person, to talk about these issues, you’re not alone. I certainly don’t want to step on toes and say the wrong things, and I am sure I have done both. But I also don’t want to sit back and say nothing. Being an ally takes some courage but it truly helps other women and families if you find it. Here’s one piece of writing that opened my eyes recently. I hope you’ll take the time to read it. For Whites (Like Me): The White Paradox. […]



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