FOR WHITES (LIKE ME): white paradox
One of the most brilliant poems ever:
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.
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.