It’s barely been 7 full days.
Some say the world was made in 7 days.
The new US president—aided, abetted, and manipulated by the unholy choir of white supremacists and power-drunk opportunists that surrounds him—seems bent on tying, if not beating, that world-creating record as he sets about the process of destroying it.
Holy crap. I mean…
How to even begin to resist?
With the Word, I ‘spose. If I’m sticking with tradition, I begin with the word. And in this situation, that word is me. My resistance must begin with me.
* * *
Let me be clear: I want to save myself.
First, last, every day in between. Myself.
So do you. It’s human nature; it’s survival instinct; it’s why we don’t yet breed in cannisters but cling to the fleshy stickiness of bodies and lusts, new life emerging blood-covered and squalling.
I want to save myself most, and so do you.
Now. If I misunderstand this basic fact, I can’t serve justice. It is my own judgment that I confront in the mirror at the end of each day, after all.
* * *
There is a quote on allyship, attributed to the Aboriginal activist Lilla Watson, that often gets circulated and memed among social justice-minded folks. Perhaps you’ve seen it?
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
“But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
It’s a great message that tears down any illusions of a would-be Great White Savior and points directly to the interdependence of both all injustices and all liberations. We are all in this together. Freedom and self-sovereignty are not gifts bestowed from on high but must be wrested forcibly back from the people and systems of power that seek to hoard humanity’s privileges for a limited few. I want to be a part of a vision like this.
But there’s a little problem: Watson herself says she didn’t say it, attributing the words instead to communal work by an Aboriginal rights group she had been active with in Queensland during the 1970s.
Also, one of the likely sources for the quote shows a shift has occurred in the proliferated version: “While attending the 1985 UN Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi, her first international experience, [Kenyan national Njoki Njoroge Njehû] heard Australian aboriginal artist Lilla Watson say: ‘If you have come to help me, I don’t need your help. But if you have come because your liberation is tied to mine, come let us work together.'”
“I DON’T NEED YOUR HELP.”
What could just as easily have been glossed as, “Don’t waste MY time,” spreads instead as “Don’t waste YOUR time.” That one word shifts focus, energy, and concern back to the would-be ally. The would-be antiracist white person. Back to me and the importance of my time.
I don’t think that’s coincidental.
Re-reading this popular quote as, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting my time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together,” gives me a different chill altogether. It provokes for me a different challenge. I do not want to be the one to waste Lilla Watson’s time.
Nor Maxine Waters’ time neither.
* * *
As a white woman, I find intersectional feminism a challenging practice to maintain consistently.
Which makes sense.
Intersectional feminism grows out of the lived experiences of women who do not have my access to whiteness. When legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw first coined the term “intersectionality,” she specifically used it to capture the ways that black women and other women of color experienced violence at the intersections of sexism and racism—and how the discourses and practices of both feminism and anti-racism, each centered on only one of those oppressive systems, fail to address the realities of these women’s lives.
Here’s another oft-memed quotation, from Flavia Dzodan: “My feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.” Though, to be accurate, the quote is really: “MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT.” As Dzodan explained, “I am screaming this because I want to convince you, I want to get it through you that this is not a choice or an abstract concept or an intellectual exercise… No. My feminism NEEDS to be intersectional because as a South American, as a Latina, as someone who knows certain parts of the Global South intimately by virtue of being a Southerner, as an immigrant living in Europe, as a woman, I am in the middle of what I like to call the ‘shit puff pastry’.” [Last year, Dzodan wrote a sequel piece, “My feminism will be capitalist, appropriative and bullshit merchandise,” after noting how many items one could purchase online featuring her words yet sold by other people for their own profit.]
My own version of a Flavia Dzodan-inspired Etsy tote should probably read: “MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE WHITE SUPREMACIST.”
Getting the racism out of this white woman is not a once-and-done proposition, y’see, but an engaged practice I must attend to constantly. This is just how white supremacy works. Without vigilance, it seeps into everything: like an overlooked red sock that stains the whole laundry load pink. That one red sock that makes my whites look as if, pre-wash, I had soaked ’em all in blood.
(Doncha love it when a metaphor ends up going to an even more telling place than you realize when you start it?)
* * *
Part of that practice is being suspicious of any private emotion that I start to grant overmuch political weight. Pride, shame, hurt, anger, admiration, embarrassment, fidelity, younameit: each can cozy up in intimate proximity to white fragility and the white rage it too easily fuels.
The learning task before me each day remains: how to decenter my whiteness, my whitewomanness—(and yours and hers and theirs too)—without decentering myself?
I want to be liked. I want to be a good person who does the right thing. I want to not hurt others.
In contrast, my whiteness demands that I be liked—and insists that whatever I have done, I had good reason. If you are hurt by either my action or my inaction, you either misunderstood or (in all likelihood) you brought it on yourself. And anyway, the hurt I feel at your claims of hurt is what’s truly painful.
My whiteness is an asshole.
My whitewomanness is an asshole who frequently cries.
As much as I repudiate the malignant narcissist squatting in the White House and every jackbooted thug now using him as cover for their own genocidal desires, I recognize the pull of affiliation they invoke. The riptide threat posing as seduction in “Make [Whiteness] Great Again!” Not for no reason did 53% of white women vote for this abhorrence.
I repudiate these women as well.
I repudiate that within them which I know is within me, as well.
Even more than I want my friends to like me, I want to deserve their affection. And also my own.
* * *
“You are wasting my time.”
“You are wasting your time.”
Through the microaggression of a single pronoun swap can whiteness (even liberal and progressive whiteness) pull focus back to its own centerstage tap dance. Through such tiny, seemingly insignificant shifts does power recenter itself.
Over and over, again and again. Each iteration, power comforting itself within a more-palatable version.
Well, one form of power.
The other form of power chooses Holocaust Remembrance Day to enact its “Muslim ban” denying entrance and safe harbor to refugees fleeing war and near-certain death (as well as to a not-insignificant number of US residents).
Because fuck all y’all, that’s why.
(This post, in case it’s not yet clear, is about getting my personal power house in order on the former so I can put all my energy into opposing the perpetrators of such fucking horrors as the latter.)
* * *
In the immediate aftermath of the election, some USians took to wearing a safety pin as a symbol of their opposition and to signal solidarity with members of racial, religious, and sexual minorities. As with all symbols, the freighted significance of the safety pin varied from local community to local community. Several friends considered getting a safety pin tattoo as a reminder to themselves of where their deepest values lay. Ijeoma Oluo wrote a pushback to the idea of safety pins, and then had to write a second pushback to the angry and defensive backlash she received from the first. White supremacists trotted out the idea of trolling pin wearers by wearing safety pins of their own.
Similar debates are now going on within feminist communities in the wake of the massive Women’s Marches around the country, weighing out the function and service of collective protest against problematic racial and gender essentializing, both captured in the symbol of marchers’ ubiquitous pink “pussy hats.” [See The Crunk Feminist Collective and Black Girl Dangerous for two thought-provoking takes.]
I am still weighing out these questions myself: what roles, symbolic and literal, will I place my (white) / (whitewoman) body in service to? What does my embodiment mean for my resistance? What does an accomplice in racial justice work look like, when she looks back out from my mirror?
Regardless of what answers I eventually come to, another important reminder surfaces in these discussions: There is no language or symbol that cannot be subverted and/or undermined. There is no subverted language or symbol that cannot be subverted and/or undermined again.
Put another way: the only unbreakable code is gibberish.
Put another way still: no safety exists that is not also a lie, fucking up is inevitable, and someone somewhere will always hate me, both with and without cause.
Dunno ’bout you? But I find these facts liberating.
With perfection off the table of available options, I can get down to work on the simply improvable.
* * *
Each day, I use the tools available to me and do my imperfect best to resist the destruction of my nation’s best principles, to hold the most vulnerable at the core of my concerns, to (lovingly, compassionately) get out of my own damn way. I forgive myself for doing these things imperfectly. I vow to do my imperfect best again tomorrow, hopefully a little better.
Who’s with me?