Dear Bristol: #SayHerName Cuz’ We are “Guilty, Always” Before The Law

Another week brings another video illuminating a moment of police use of force against a black body. This moment sheds light on a senior deputy in South Carolina violently removing a young black girl from her desk within a classroom at Spring Valley High School.

These videos add to our growing archive of truths that many U.S. communities of color have built through experience and collective memory. Many communities and individuals have learned to draw upon this archive when teaching ourselves (adults and kids) on the dynamics of police and authoritative power and the consequences (many devastating) when authority “feels” threatened and/or disrespected.

Unfortunately, I am not shocked that many have come to weigh in and defend the actions of police officers. After all, our culture demands obedience and compliance to authority figures ranging from parents, teachers, church officials, and police officers.

We must ask ourselves what is at stake when culture demands “compliance” without question, especially when culture demands obedience to powerful institutions that have historically engaged in the enforcement of inequality within our country. Police forces were designed to serve and protect, but in that decree, law enforcement served a particular body of people and protected them from certain “others” deemed undesirable and dangerous.  The logic plays out quite nicely in our historic, cultural tropes of “good guys” versus “bad guys”; Cowboys and Indians; Whites and Blacks; etc.

So, to those, such as Bristol Palin, a “redeemed” woman who quickly married to avoid bearing her child out-of-wedlock, that argue that parents are “failing” to teach kids obedience to the law, I write you this short, poetic meditation on race, history, and law for reflection. I title it: “Guilty, Always.”

Guilty Always

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Nigger-rigging and Niggers in a Polite Culture

We verged prior to entering,

and we do more so

now

than we first encountered

each other.

We entered halls of a pristine nature

swept by dark hands, etched and cracked

by labor.

By legs that ached or arched higher

than the other.

We entered inequitably–

and we exited maybe more or less so.

Maybe luck or physical exertion may win

a struggle or two against History

and present Debts. But–

Chances are

unspeakable,

unthinkable

to Choice.

Despite Our

history

of encounter

and our exits.

~”Untitled”

Beginning Rumination on “Nigger Stories”

This past weekend, I attended a close college friend’s wedding. This marks my third straight-identified college friend’s marriage ceremony that I have attended, and I believe out of this group of friends, this was the fifth marriage overall.

It was a grand occasion, and I was happy I could attend with my partner. I do not deny the beauty and detail in flower arrangements, the feastings, and the social reunions that occur. Such weddings so far, however, are a complex mix of emotions for me.

My friends’ weddings display a reality of political and social difference for me. In a space that is emotionally coded as happy, loving, and celebratory, I cannot help but experience kept feelings quietly brewing under smiles and hugs—ones that I have politely siphoned off somewhere near the left of my cortex and at the base of my throat.

For me, weddings often display the products of accumulated wealth, earned and unearned. From the details of silverware choice, napkin arrangement, hors d’oeuvre, to the V-neck lines and wines, I sense a kind of pleasure in my momentary experience of the grand consumption; a kind of longing and desire for both a personal and collective access to the material culture of it all; and also a kind of anger at the silence around the inequities, either known or unknown to those present.

My straight-identified friends’ weddings also represent a ceremonial moment where traditions of past meets its reproduction into the future. Not saying that my friends have gone into the marriage institution lightly, but when my friends, who are now doctors and lawyers, enter into traditional partnerships with men of a certain status (white, heterosexual, and middle-class at least), I cannot help but think of the exclusive political structures and identifications that will most likely remain intact.

Admittedly, I write this piece with hesitation. It has taken me quite some time to sit down and write. But it is because of a social incident that occurred at the wedding, one that I have come to categorize as a personal “nigger story,” that I finally pen this piece.

“Nigger Stories” of Past

“Nigger stories” are a collection of pain for my family, and for a particular group of persons in our country. The stories not only encompass pain but also a kind of archive of social interactions, statements, moments in which a person or persons are effectively stripped of the category human although arguably, they began outside the category when named “black” centuries ago. Something internally happens to the one referred to as “nigger.” Some recognize a kind of misnaming—a kind of awareness of another’s perception of self. No matter what, a reduction occurs and it was/is dangerous.

For me “nigger stories” are part of a larger repertoire of stories my mother and father would share about the history of black folk in America. I feel that the general function of all the stories were either to instill a sense of pride of survival and perseverance through obstacles, but also to instill a sense of appreciation of what our family did have. Both my parents grew up in large families. My mother, the oldest of six, became a teacher. My father, the second oldest of eight, grew up to work a string of jobs. For the longest of time though he was in print work. I never exactly knew what printing meant as a profession, but I know that he worked as a printer for a number of years, often coming home with splotches of blue and black ink on his hands and clothes.

From my mother, I heard more stories about slavery and freed peoples post-Civil War. Maybe as a teacher, she wanted her black children, blood born and those she schooled, to know their history and the structural politics and disadvantages within black life. My mother was particularly keen on teaching the inventions of black people. For the longest of time, my child-mind believed George Washington Carver made the computer, the microwave, cement, and paper out of peanuts. I would sometimes wonder through the day how a peanut, something so tiny and edible, could become made into a machine. The wonderment was a joy, and I definitely wanted to do something creative with my energy and be a part of the wonder of the world.

From my father, I heard more personal stories of how race in America operated within his own life. I have known my father to have a series of personal narratives that he has readily available to tell, like a little story book in the back of his pocket. The stories he shared about race sometimes ignited a sense of indignation like my mother’s, but sometimes they also invoked a sense of disbelief because they sounded too cruel to be true. My father, a mixed-race man of black and Japanese descent, growing up in 1950s and 1960s America, often told his kids of how he had to endure the racial epithets of “jap” in black neighborhoods and “nigger” in white ones. I would often imagine my father as a little boy struggling to find a physical place where we would not be named at all when I was younger. I do not think my father ever did.

One of his stories stands out most to me now because of its linkage between my dad’s experience as a person of color and myself. When my dad worked at a printing company one of the machines at the time had stopped working. My dad in an exasperated tone recounted that a white woman, a co-worker, casually mentioned to my dad and others around at the time that “we should nigger-rig it.” My dad angered during this telling. My dad said that he went to their supervisor about the comment only to have the white woman later come back angry at him stating, “If you have a problem with what I say, you should just say it to my face.” I do not remember what my father did after that moment. He may have stayed silent. I do know that he left that company probably not too long after the incident.

Stories like this one—“nigger stories”—are ones told of white aggression, white hatred, and white violence (physical, verbal, and emotional). These stories I did not want to believe in. I wanted to believe in the fairy tales my dad would recount to me before bedtime as a little girl—ones of bears with porridge and pigs in brick houses—or imaginings of a peanut turning into a computer. I wanted to think of possibilities, not pain.

“Nigger stories” were the ones I wanted to reject because it painted the world as unfair and hostile. I did not want to believe my parents’ personal stories of racism unless it was told in the context of the past—meaning  any time prior the “successful completion” of the Civil Rights Movement. Thus, any story prior to say 1970, my young mind could make room for as truth since that was how schools taught racism—as a past truth—a truth that no longer existed because our people—black folk—struggled and our country finally granted freedom and equality for all.

Maybe to my child-mind, the white people near signs of “Whites only” in text books or on TV either died because they were old or somehow just turned nice. I did not understand the process of how feelings and spaces of exclusion suddenly turned open to all. Maybe that is how American myth-making works? That explanatory gap was never quite fleshed out to me. I had to make up my own vision of how “progress” and “change” occurred in the political and social fabrics of our society. As a little girl, I envisioned polite white people which I would later in high school call my color-blind approach to “all human beings.” Through this approach, I painted the world as an okay place, a fair place to enter and enjoy.

A “Nigger Story” of Present

I rarely hear the word nigger in its white utterance. Unlike my father and my mother, I did not have to hear the word that often. My mother disliked hearing the word so much, she did not want her kids even saying the re-appropriated and reimagined form—the familial and black use of the word “nigga.” Nigga was a different dirty word. Unlike the cuss words “fuck” and “shit” which my parents said around us more than they probably imagined, “nigga” was usually expressed in moments of anger. For instance, I would not hear my mother say “nigga” unless she was fed up with someone or something—like her saying the phrase “Nigga please” or “Nigga, get it together.” My brothers, however, would say “nigga” to friends in the amiable way when my mother was not around. I chose not to say any iteration because I found the root word imbued with a sense of power and pain I was too scared to touch.

I have only had one or two points in my life where I have heard the word referred to me personally. Once, my first girlfriend’s best friend referred to me as a “NIGGER” in all caps in a live journal post since her friend began to like me and not just her. My girlfriend at the time told me that I should not take the incident seriously since her friend was just spewing her family’s bigotry out of anger. At the time I did not care because I was too focused on being chosen and desired by a girl that I liked. The other moment occurred when I was walking from a public transit station to an internship. A homeless white man walked behind me uttering all kinds of obscenities. The word nigger left his lips a few times. I quickly sped up my pace because I did not know what the man was up to. I chalked up the experience to not a matter of race, but one of mental health access. Maybe I was being too polite with this reading of the event.

My most recent “nigger story” I am most hesitant to scribe about because it occurred in such an intimate and personal way—a kind of cutting pain way that shoots deep within your body. So deeply that the memory makes you question if bridges between friends are perhaps not as structurally intact as you would like. The experience I find shaking and I find myself feeling not just anger but also fear at the potential loss that can occur because of my social and political experience.

This “nigger” utterance was not hushed, quiet. It was not abbreviated to the “n-word” or stated in the transformed way of “nigga.” It was an old way of saying it where you hear the stress most at the end, in the “rrrrr” of the word’s sound. The sound somehow strikes at the political memorials my mother and father built within about black folk and struggle.

The word left multiple times from the lips of a white man–a smart, white man in the oil business in the south of the country–a straight white man who is a husband in our friend group. Maybe that is why I find it so intimate and personal because the man is now a part of the network and relationships we built within our college days.

The exchange happened at my close college friend’s wedding reception. After a dance, I returned to the dinner table with my partner, and I noticed the husbands minus the new groom talking about the republican presidential candidates. I found the moment a kind of social study for me, like an opportunity to peer into the window of conservative political thinking of white heterosexual middle-class men.

In the candlelight glow of the evening and by bouquet centerpieces, I felt their heated discussion of how to best handle the national debt. I wanted to interject not on how to best handle the national debt but attempt to center the discussion on marginalized communities and the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt my desire to interject would break a polite barrier between all parties present because I want people to think about inequality and privilege within our own lives.

Before I interjected, my friends returned and discouraged the husbands from talking about politics. One of my friends said it was not fun and they expressed concern if they were being nice to each other. I think my friends were afraid of the husbands not getting along with one another. For me, I saw it as an opportunity to engage political difference and a moment to offer another alternative to the political scheme of ordering the world—one that seeks equal outcomes and opportunities for all people.

Since my friends, the “wives,” returned, the men left. I headed outside the reception towards the restroom and noticed that the husbands banded together again to continue their political discussion uninhibited. I laughed to myself because I saw this as a way to get away from their wives and continue on discreetly. I became excited because I wanted to join them and talk with them as well. It is only so often that I get to hang out with straight white men with a kind of economic power I sometimes desire. I quickly joined them near the open bar and jokingly told them to go check-in with their wives since they were worried about them not knowing how to play nice together. They laughed and I told them that I differ from them because I think people should talk about politics, and that people can have heated debates and still be friends. Part of my engagement stems from my problematizing of “politeness” as a cultural mechanism to enforce silence around issues of power. Politeness as civility means certain topics do not get voiced. Certain mannerisms and tonalities such as increased voice or hand gestures gets termed “threatening” or “too angry.” And those that engage in this “impoliteness” do not get listened to; their messages gets lost in the fray of an “uncivil” style of discourse and engagement.

I entered the conversation amidst talks of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Syria. I told them I enjoyed the recent 60 Minutes interview with Putin because I heard a perspective on American culture from an outsider’s point of view and because he mentioned that Ferguson was representative of America’s imperfect democracy. My opinion led one husband to ask me if I were communist (implied here to mean terrible) and asked if I wanted Putin to run the world. Of course, I do not want one man running the world. One husband re-interpreted my comment to the perplexed one, rephrasing it for him to mean “she just liked hearing about America from a foreigner’s perspective” but then later added that “I mean don’t get me wrong. I think America is the best. I believe in American exceptionalism.”

For me American exceptionalism is not separated from histories of genocide, enslavement, and labor made cheap. It is a history that we would rather not teach to our children in the country if we are to instill patriotism to future generations. To disrupt the logic of “America the Great” I shared with each of them that I wanted to talk about politics because I think all of us have a unique view of the world and that politics cannot always be captured by the common split of democrats/republicans. I shared with them that I am sometimes off the traditional political scheme and advocate a more radical politics. One husband asked me how, and I said that I often think democrats and republicans both have very neoliberal and racist policies towards marginal communities. Before I could warrant my statement, the perplexed husband quickly interrupted and said “What if I said racism is bullshit?” I quietly thought, “Sure, ok.” He then recounted, “I heard the other day Obama said I couldn’t say the word “nigger.”

(::insert record screech:: Did he really just say that? Yes, yes he did.)

My heart beat quickened at the blatant statement. I experienced a sense of confusion, shock, and restrained anger. The other two husbands definitely took a noticeable step back. He noticed their discomfort and soon called them out saying, “Oh no, don’t run away. It’s okay. I just said the word ‘nigger’. There is nothing wrong with it.” He smiled and looked at me and brushed my arm and said “We ran them away.”

I told him that he could he say the word in certain contexts that could be justifiable–like maybe talking about historic events or maybe reading an old document. He quickly “corrected” me and said that he could say “nigger” because that is what “they call themselves.” He asked, “You mean to tell me, they can use that word, and not me?” I told him that he is white and that word has a historic and present day offense to it coming from him. He didn’t even say it in the familial, black way. I can’t think of any moment in my experience in which a black person has referred to another as “nigger” where the -er is emphasized and not dropped for the -a.

My partner, a white woman, entered the conversation and tried to explain to him. She shared that the word was said while black people were lynched. The perplexed one said that the word is only offensive because someone takes it to mean it that way. He added that he had plenty of black friends and that he knew black people well because he drove “them” to the city where “their mommas” have sat him down and cooked him “fried chicken.” He even tried to justify the use by noting that today we have progressed in the country. My partner rebutted that just because our country has a half-black/half-white president does not mean racism does not exist. Unfortunately, the perplexed husband may have listened to one too many conservative talk-radio shows and/or Fox News segments. He could only say to that point that Obama was “more Muslim than Christian.”

I knew that there was very little hope of trying to get him to understand. I even relayed to him that I think the word hurts personally. At that point, his wife returned and tried to take him away, but he rebuffed her attempts and wanted to keep talking. She encouraged him to listen to me about how the word is hurtful, but he could only retort that he did not call me one and that “black people all feel the same way about us–that we are all crackers.” I looked at him confusedly on purpose and pointed to myself and my partner and said that couldn’t be true since we have a close, intimate relationship with one another.

It did not click with him, and I told him that we are just going to have to agree to disagree. He did not want to accept my bowing out. I think he wanted to convince me of his feelings even though he demanded several times to explain to him why it was hurtful and that he was listening. I told him that he could say it, but in certain contexts it may get him in trouble. He then shared that he would shoot someone if they tried to hurt him for saying it.

I do not know why, but after telling him that we just disagreed, I gave him a light hug. Maybe to signify the finality of our exchange but maybe as a last effort to communicate to him that I meant well. By that time, he definitely had his share of alcohol and his wife was very embarrassed at trying to get him to leave with the others at the reception. After asking if I wanted to continue at the hotel, I told him that we had to return to go say goodbye to the bride and groom. I told him that he could read plenty of blogs and scholarly texts on why words get appropriated to mean something entirely different for a marginalized community. I mentioned queer to him as example. I doubt he soaked it in. My partner and I returned to the reception and I immediately had to breakdown and cry to her because I had withheld my pain that whole time. Maybe out of politeness. Maybe because the exchange was not worth showing my emotion for. Maybe I was just trying to maintain a cool logic through it all. Whatever the reason, withholding the pain definitely wrecked me.

Being an Ally By Overcoming Politeness

As I mentioned before, this piece has been hard to write. Fear of expression is real. In some ways I feel anger at my friends for not calling him out then and there, like I was left to defend myself. I have the memory of one of the husbands repeatedly saying the word nigger while the others silently watched, and I have the memory of my friends walking away from it all.

These situations are never easy to navigate, but I do wish my friends, especially my white ones, could call out a racist statement when it is uttered. Of course, it was a wedding reception and that space is already coded as a polite one–no ill remarks or scenes should be made. Yet remaining silent in the name of “politeness” seems to be a privilege in this instance. To be “polite” and silent meant letting racism, even blatant expressions of it, go unquestioned.

I wanted my friends to be my allies in that moment and in future instances. It means I want them to be able to call out a wrong, but in order to be able to, they must see it. I have always been of a radical politic within this group of friends ever since we forged our friendships in college. I know my friends and I are on different social and political trajectories in life, and we may never use the same language and knowledge base to talk about the world we live within.

I do, however, want my friends to step up and question each other and those that are most intimate with us. That may mean becoming uncomfortable and taking risks in reshaping how we see the world and the politics that shape our physical and social arrangements within our lives. It might mean that my friends push themselves and those closest to them to begin building an understanding of economic and social inequity historically and currently within our country. It may mean that that all of us must begin talking about and taking issues of difference and power seriously. It will definitely mean we forgo politeness to talk about hierarchy and power amongst one another despite our fear, despite the possibility of loss.

Why Meryl Streep Ain’t Gettin’ My Money for Suffragette

I admire Meryl Streep.  She has made my Best Actresses of All Time list quite often in my life. She made it when I saw Sophie’s ChoiceDeath Becomes Her (added this one later); The Devil Wears Prada; and for The Iron Lady, too.

Streep’s latest, Suffragette, however, will not be getting my monetary support nor verbal admiration.  Maybe it will be one of those films that I come to consume later through Netflix, or perhaps when I visit home to watch a decent bootleg rendition. (On the real though, my family will most likely go with a bootleg of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit since it dabbles in horror.)

“But, you’re a feminist and it’s a women’s rights movie!”

I can hear the push back now for my admittance to not wanting to see the film. Many may think I would and should go out to support a film that tells the struggle of voting rights by women in Britain. After all, I do name myself a feminist, and the film has been marketed so far as a championing narrative of human rights and gender equality. Streep and others have even contextualized the importance of the historic biopic to talk about current day inequities that women face in the film industry.

Admittedly, I was intrigued by the film when I saw an online poster and realized that Meryl Streep starred in the cast. Streep has a kind of Midas touch for me in a film. But, I was still only about twenty percent likely to go out and spend my money on it when I saw the advertisement.

Then, this happened:

suffragette.jpg.CROP.rtstoryvar-large

The above image comes from an ad campaign for the film featured in London’s Time Out magazine. The image represents all the reasons why I did not want to see Suffragette in the first place.  And damn, did this image really sink my twenty percent in a matter of seconds.

Feminist “Origin” Stories as (White) Women’s Voting Rights Movements

Suffragette is not alone in perpetuating a linear narrative of feminist movement history. The main reason why I was only twenty percent likely to go see the film was in part due to how I have been taught feminist history inside and outside academic spaces. More often than not, feminist movements’ “beginning” agitators start with the political campaigns led by white (often-middle class) women in the western hemisphere in the twentieth century.

I have always had a fraught relationship to this kind of origin narrative of “women’s rights” and feminism because there remains an absence of the political activities of women of color. Why do we often start with voting rights as the political birth moment of feminism and women’s movements? Why not start with the political agitation of slave women or women like Ida B. Wells who led a transnational campaign to end U.S. lynching?

These questions began during my undergraduate course Histories of Feminist Thought which structured feminist history in a chronological order. The beginning point of our curriculum commenced with The Book of the City of Ladies by Italian French author, Christine de Pizan, published in 1405. I recall our class discussing Pizan’s arguments for women’s education, their gifts of virtue, and their capacity for governance. I remember feeling a bit thrilled to find such an old text that argued for “feminism” when it had not been named yet, but something about the lineage of feminism beginning in Europe dismayed me. “Where were black women or any other woman for that matter?,” I quietly thought.

That course continued this trend of producing a limited “feminist canon.” We read Wollstonecraft, Mills, Stanton, Anthony, Grimke, Goldman, Sanger, Woolf, Beauvoir, etc. There were a few glimpses of color, and when we did show up, I always felt that black women were a kind of oddity that stood outside the canon of feminism and “women’s history.” The feeling persists even though scholars have documented the contributions by black women to voting rights campaigns despite their exclusion from the majority of these political spaces (i.e. Seneca Falls) because of their considered detriment to the cause (read: white men were less likely to extend the vote to white women with “others” in the mix. See Angela Davis’ Women, Race, and Class for a historical coverage of the U.S. suffrage and abolition movements and the fissures between each.)

This sense of difference became public one class period when we read selections from Ida B. Wells’ Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and The Red Record.  I recall a kind of silence in class when asked if any of us considered Well’s work a “feminist” one. I had my response formulated from the night before. My response to that question required a lot of personal mental gymnastics since up to that point, “feminism” seemed to only consider the plights of (white) “wives” and (white) “mothers.” Unlike my good friend, a white gay male, who shared in class that it was the most decidedly feminist works we had read that semester, I had not come so easily to that conclusion about Well’s political writings and activities.

I recall questioning, as I read Wells’ work, “This text is about the wrongful treatment and murders of black men. How is this feminist?” I feel a bit embarrassed now to admit this, but at the time it was a heavy question for myself to consider. Who was the subject of feminist thought and concern? All the texts we had read prior did not point to concerns beyond white women’s oppression under the institutions of marriage and motherhood. I remember feeling frustrated, angry, and alone that I had to mentally fight to include the lynchings of African American men as a feminist issue. It felt like I lacked access to a language that could assist me in making the connection between lynching and feminist analysis.

After hours of writing and serious critical thinking, I came to conceptualize Wells’ work as an indictment of the controlling sexual myths of African Americans and how notions of white womanhood and white male paternalism interacted to produce white male violence against black male bodies. Analyses of power, gender, race, and sexuality were screaming directly in my face in Wells’ work, and somehow I was very close to missing it in a feminist history course.

This particular shaping of “feminist issues” and “women’s history” in curricula, activist organizations, and popular culture is powerful to say the least. If “women’s history” and “feminism” continue to foreground narratives of white women’s struggle against the legal and cultural boundaries of domesticity, our collective visions and definitions of women and feminism will remain narrow and exclusionary.

Why White Women Were Not Slaves and Why Black Slaves Were Not Women

The structural way we think about “women’s history” brings me back to Suffragette‘s ad campaign. As I look upon these white women wearing bright promo T-shirts donning the phrase “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” I cringe with anger.

The phrase comes from a speech by women’s rights activist Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep) in 1913. Many say that the T-shirt promo takes the phrase out of its historic context, and that’s why it is wrong, but I disagree.

The phrase was wrong then, and it is still wrong now.

This is not an argument over who can refer to slavery or use the word slave. This is just a matter of historic fact. White women suffragists were not slaves by law, and black female slaves were not considered women. To be a woman meant to be human, and black slaves were not human. We were considered chattel—non-human property.

Pankhurst was not unique in equating white women suffragists’ status and oppression to that of slaves. Many white women suffragists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, invoked the imagery of slavery to compare to the institution of marriage. Doing so was quite shocking and inflaming then. White suffragists and suffragettes definitely used the slogan to rally their cause for enfranchisement.

Despite its political utility, this historic conflation should not have been made. The institutions of marriage and slavery were not the same, and each encompassed disparate experiences. The comparison egregiously erases slavery’s process of diminishing blacks’ humanity and the brutal violence that slave persons had to endure and experience under their status as property. It also downplays the social privileges tied to marriage—a conferral of humanity and respectability to name a few.

I sometimes wonder if Pankhurst had other options for a rallying slogan. Maybe the phrase “I’d rather be a rebel than a woman” was a viable consideration since woman connoted docility and gentility. To me, it seems like many white suffragists were rebelling against the constraints and expectations of white womanhood, but many wanted to keep their status. Of course, I cannot go back and change history, but I wish media campaigners of Suffragette could have thought otherwise.

So Where Can We Go From Here?

It can be quite infuriating to witness this phrase play out again in 2015. So much so, that many of us will get into debates about whose conditions were actually worse off than the other.

I am sure I will hear that white married women were functionally property under law as well. That under the institution of marriage, marital rape was not yet recognized, and that white women did not have legal access to their children if separated from their husbands. To counter, I might hear that white women had privileges accrued to them by notions of humanity and virtue; that they did not experience the physical and emotional hardships of being considered slave labor; and that they were still considered at risk of rape unlike black slave women who were considered lascivious animals.

This is a dangerous place to be for women (feminists and non-feminists alike). Debating who had it worse then or now and whose oppression should come first can do us more harm than good if we wish to build a broad feminist movement or any large coalitional movement for social justice.

No matter what, we need to stop making conflations between our conditions and recognize connections between various systems of privilege and oppression. For example, we have to ask how notions of “good” women interplay with ideas of “bad” women, and how each are a function of powerful systems of thought. How do various divisions (race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.) work together keep certain men and women from experiencing opportunities that may remain open to a privileged few?

Next, we have to expand our understanding and definitions of “women’s history” and “women’s empowerment.” I envision a culture in which the story of Harriet Tubman’s Combahee River Raid gets mass marketed as a “women’s empowerment” and “women’s history” flick as well as an incredible moment in black history. At the heart of this desire is a vision of multiple representations of feminist struggle and history. Such a vision seeks to break down the very dominant subject of feminist thought and history—the white woman—perhaps even woman itself.

For now I will be continuing to finish Madame Bovary on Netflix this evening. Bovary’s oppression is real and I wish it could have turned out better for all parties involved. As for Suffragette, I can only take so many historic pieces focused on white women’s struggle no matter how well it pulls at my heart strings—no matter if Meryl Streep stars in it.

Getting White Girled: A Sociopolitical Perspective

White Girl \hwahyt gurl\ verb.  -ed, – ing. –tr. 1. To fail to recognize racial privilege: Abigail complained to Brittany that the school should celebrate a white history month since there is a black history month; Abigail just white girled Brittany2. To deflect responsibility for problematic behavior: Mindy white girls me every time I try to talk to her about race in America; she says I am just too sensitive. 3. To emotionally manipulate for influence and sympathy either purposefully or unconsciously: Maddie began white girling the whole group by crying about black women not listening to her.

Today I would like to describe the sociopolitical phenomenon called “Getting White Girled.” Urban Dictionary has already beat me to the punch with an entry on “white girled.” I thought I was a creative genius when I finally found the linguistic terminology to name the experience of certain social interactions with white women in both public and intimate spaces. Come to find out, “getting white girled” happens on a much wider sociological scale. I am not surprised.

Urban Dictionary touches upon some important aspects of the phenomenon. Emotional gestures for sympathy and the deflection of responsibility can be critical tactics in the practice of white girling. I think the top definition entry deserves more elaboration, and I should contextualize my usage of the phrase.

I situate “white girling” or “getting white girled” in the sociopolitical context of race and gender relations in our country. Specifically, I am referring to a dynamic that can occur between white women and women of color, especially during discussions of race. “Getting white girled” has its own personal contours for me. Let us begin with its origin of use and go from there.

“Girl, I just got white girled”

I recall the first time I used the phrase. It was an instinctual quip formulated in response to an exchange with a white woman co-worker. We worked on the same team in a high pressure environment. At the end of one work day, she requested that I process a form for her. I set it aside for the next business day to complete in the morning. It was not time-sensitive and it was a favor. Before my first sip of coffee the next day, my co-worker came rushing into my cubicle frantically asking if I had completed the form because “I needed that done, like, yesterday,” she stated. ::record screeches::

“First boo-boo, I am not your secretary. Second, we are co-workers. You ain’t my boss. You don’t sign my papers or my checks, so don’t come at me like that, and third–who the fuck you think you are!”

I wish I could have said that, but I didn’t. It was a brief fantasy of black girl resistance to white micro-aggressions. The moment called for another kind of social and emotional intelligence on my part– one that did not involve me getting labeled an “angry black woman.”

So, it really went like this: “[insert nice white girl name], are you okay? Is something wrong today?” While giving a caring look, my co-worker sat down and went on to vent about how stressed she was by work as if explaining her stress was an excuse for treating me like her personal assistant.

I swallowed my anger and lent my ear. I was a great team player that moment. I soon called a friend afterwards and said, “Girl, I just got white girled.” That same friend, a black woman, understood. “Girl, she’s done it to me, too.”

“Getting White Girled”

That exchange was not the first time a white woman has justified their maltreatment of me, and sadly, it probably will not be the last.

There are a plethora of accounts by women of color that detail the failures of white women to recognize their racial privilege in their exchanges with women of color. These experiences have accumulated enough to warrant a termed social phenomenon: “Getting White Girled”

I recently tried to explain the phenomenon to a few of my white co-workers after recounting a story of a white friend who said I was “attacking” her in a conversation. Keep in mind that I was sitting down while my friend and I were having a heated group discussion while she was standing up. No ill words were shared. No objects were thrown. Yet, as soon as my hands gestured in the air and my voice elevated, the words “Now, you are just attacking me” left her mouth. Without hesitancy, a mechanism in my brain switched and sparked the following retort, “[insert nice white girl name]! Don’t white girl me!”

It felt right. It felt just. Of course, that only escalated the argument. We are still trying to move forward from that moment now. As a friend, I apologized for hurting her feelings and explained to her the reasons why that interaction triggered me.

That trigger has a particular history in my experience and other women of color’s social exchanges with white women. Consider the following historic instances:

  • In a feminist theory classroom, the day finally arrives for the multicultural portion of the curriculum. The class reads a text written by a black feminist writer. A white female student shares that as she read the essay, it felt like the writer was “yelling” at her personally.
  • At a discussion on race and education, a white woman shares that she thinks that programs gauged for minority students on college campuses are “reverse racism.” I told her I disagreed and asked for her definition of racism. She later accused me of “attacking” her to our director because I leaned forward and asked her a question in an impolite tone.
  • A white woman once told me that I “always bring up race and beat the same drum” although we both worked at a non-profit focused on mentoring girls from predominantly poor and black neighborhoods.

Across time and various locations, these interactions aggregate and share common themes. When women of color call out white women on their racism, we soon are labelled “angry,” “aggressive,” and/or “impolite.” We become instigators and the perpetrators of social conflict and the emotional pain of white women. White women become victims to “discomfort,” “loudness,” and “anger.” In their distress, tears may shed [white girl cry] and the refuge of others may then be sought or not for validation and consolation [white girl sympathy].

The exchange between former co-host of THE VIEW, Rosie Perez, and Kelly Osbourne showcases this pattern. Perez calls Osbourne out on her assumption that only Latino people clean toilets in Los Angeles. Osbourne gets flustered and then cries during commercial break. People began to rush to help and assure her that she is not a racist. TV producers failed to console Perez and only cornered her to apologize on air and later twitter.

I find it interesting that the flock to protect and comfort Osbourne was seemingly unsolicited. Osbourne even told Perez that she was right to correct her for her statement. Yet, TV producers and executives came to Osbourne’s rescue with the quickness. Perez apologized for being “overly sensitive” and Osbourne assured everyone that she is not racist. Rosie Perez quit and Kelly Osbourne remains comfortably on THE VIEW.  The whole exchange deserves its own hashtag: #rosieperezgotwhitegirled.

Situations described above are examples of getting white girled to the fullest. The phenomenon can be perpetrated by the individual white woman or it can become a multi-party affair, especially if a rescuer comes to the scene. No matter what, the phenomenon usually involves a person of color who may have politely or impolitely called out a white woman’s racist remark or behavior and a subsequent unproductive response by the white woman either in the form of accusations of attack, crying, or denial. The product of the phenomenon is usually increased social distancing between white women and women of color and the increased silence and rage within women of color.

“To White Girl or Not to White Girl”/ “To Stay Angry or Get Angry”

So where do white women and women of color go from here? For one, white women please know that it is okay to be called out even if it was not stated in a way that felt comfortable for you. Remember, behind the words of women of color who do share are often times more than just anger. These words also encompass our sadness and disappointment over this historic pattern inside and outside our intimate relationships with you. Give us space to express our pain.

Additionally, ask yourself why should you require a polite tone to listen to words about an injustice.  I imagine that this is culturally scripted for many of us across racial and cultural lines. Anger may have never been expressed safely within our families. Or we may have been taught that anger/aggression and femininity should not coexist within the same being.  Nevertheless, politeness has a cultural premium and we need to begin to unpack our emotional and political attachments to its practice. In the meantime, requiring people of color to be “nice” while they endure racial injustice only serves to assuage white anxiety and discomfort.

For women of color, we face another kind of choice, and often times, our choices will impact our livelihood, our image, and/or our intimate relationship in some ways. Next time a white woman “white girls” you, you will be tasked with the following option: to get angry or stay angry. Or put it another way: To Nicki Minaj or not to Nicki Minaj that Miley Cyrus woman.

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive choices, but I parsed them out to suggest an outward expression of our anger and an inward silence that rages within. We often have to navigate and exercise both choices based on our circumstances at the moment. At work, I could not Nicki Minaj my co-worker in my black girl fantasy of resistance. I would have risked reputation, a reprimand, or worse, termination.

You may choose to express your hurt openly. You may save your rage for protests or a Facebook rant. You may do it in a diplomatic manner. Maybe it is one of those teaching and healing moments between women of color and white women, like in an anti-racism ally workshop.

Getting angry in the interpersonal sphere presents a risk. You will need to hope that the relationship has enough strength in communication and trust to experience general anger and political anger at one another. That’s a gamble, and some friendships with white friends may not be able to take the tension. If it can, that relationship has some roots, and you may want to consider nourishing its growth.

These suggestions are non-exhaustive, but I share them in the spirit of encouraging understanding across differences. As our country navigates through national dialogues around racism and police brutality we need to recognize the power dynamics that can take place within these conversations between women, feminists and non-feminists alike. This cultural and political climate provides many tactics for derailing critical discussions on race and racism.  Let’s make sure that getting white girled becomes less of a phenomenon in these conversations.