White People, Listen!
This morning I am reminded of the classic piece of black feminist theory, Hazel Carby’s essay White Woman Listen!, where she wrote;
Much contemporary debate has posed the question of the relation between race and gender, in terms that attempt to parallel race and gender divisions. It can be argued that as processes, racism and sexism are similar. Ideologically for example, they both con- struct common sense through reference to “natural” and “biological” differences. It has also been argued that the categories of race and gender are both socially constructed and that, therefore, they have little internal coherence as concepts. Furthermore, it is possible to parallel racialized and gendered divisions in the sense that the possibilities of amelioration through legislation appear to be equally ineffectual in both cases. Michele Barrett, however, has pointed out that it is not possible to argue for parallels because as soon as historical analysis is made, it becomes obvious that the institutions which have to be analyzed are different, as are the forms of analysis needed. We would agree that the construction of such parallels is fruitless and often proves little more than a mere academic exercise; but there are other reasons for our dismissal of these kinds of debate. The experience of black women does not enter the parameters of parallelism. The fact that black women are subject to the simultaneous oppression of patriarchy, class, and “race” is the prime reason for not employing parallels that render their position and experience not only marginal but also invisible.
I’ve been thinking about the intersections of race, gender and privilege since last night, when I read the exchange in the photo above. Wintana Melekin is a friend, an organizer with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change in Minneapolis, and someone I consider one of the key young voices of Minnesota today who will be a state leader of tomorrow. Expressing emotional exhaustion after the Charleston Massacre, Wintana suggested in this Facebook post that white people engage with each other on the issue of racism. It seems an uncontroversial request.
Enter David Koch, owner of the Minneapolis restaurant Seven, who took the opportunity not to talk to fellow white people about racism but rather to lecture Wintana about her ignorance. Mansplaining doesn’t quite do Koch’s words justice. Whitemansplaining doesn’t even quite do it. This is a colossally, epically perfect example of how not to talk about race to a person of color if you are white, especially after a tragedy like South Carolina. I am stunned and all i can think to say is, White People Listen!:
- If you feel compelled to tell a black person that you know more about race and racism than they do, Just don’t. Stop yourself. Don’t.
- If the country is in the middle of a crisis, with African-Americans being verifiably, explicitly, repeatedly, under attack, and you think you are the one who is being singled out, generalized about and you feel you just have to share that feeling with the world, Just don’t. Stop yourself. Don’t.
- If your reaction to a white nationalist who wore the flag of Rhodesia on his jacket and killed nine black people in church is a burning desire to lecture a young black woman about the real problem — black on black crime, Just Don’t. Stop yourself. Don’t.
- If you’re a man feeling compelled to open a conversation with a young black woman with the words, “young lady”, Just Don’t. Stop yourself. Don’t.
- If you cannot read a cry of pain and react with empathy and real engagement Just Don’t. Stop yourself. Don’t.