Recently, a man I love and deeply respect posted a video calling people to action. The caption of the video was, “My non-black friends need to see this. . . I am not joking.” In the video he addresses police brutality within the Black community and says things like, “Another unarmed person of color killed by the police on camera and nothing really being done yet. No one is addressing how frequently this is happening.” He then says he believes we are too “distant” and he explains that the non-black people talking about this don’t feel the reality - continuing with how real it is to him as a Black man. He closes with two extremely powerful and true statements. The first addresses the reality of the system - he says, “Somethings systematically wrong where people devalue the life of black men and there is no recourse. People can knowingly murder a Black man and no on will bat an eye and part of that is because no one seems to care.” The second addresses the reality of the group/individual - here he says, “The same people who protect you all are willing to kill me in a blink of an eye like my life doesn’t matter.”
As I listen to his call to action I see two things clearly. One, a man I love is speaking from his heart about a tragic and disturbing life and death reality that he deals with every day. Two, I am a privileged White woman. It doesn’t matter that I have worked within the Black community for the past thirteen years, it doesn’t matter that I’m way more scared of White men than I am of Black men. It doesn’t matter that I will listen to a black feminist over a white feminist or read a black author over a white author any day. It doesn’t matter that at Thanksgiving a few years ago I professed to a room of twenty something White people that I tend to dislike the majority of white people I meet and pointed out a few in the room I thought to be racist causing me to more than dislike them but to hate them. It doesn’t matter that I am a woman and I struggle in the face of ongoing sexual violence and lack of repercussions for it everyday. None of that gives me any kind of clout - none of it. I am still a privileged White woman. I say this because what I have finally found a way to put into words in the three days following my interaction with this video, during which I’ve found myself in dialogues with ignorant White people on the internet who still don’t understand what institutionalized, systematic racism is and who therefore refuse to admit or believe their own privilege, is the idea that is is not our job to save the Black community it is our job to educate and disarm our own. Just like it is not a mans job to save females it is his job to educate and disarm men. What I am getting at is summed up best in a page of writing by Stokely Carmichael on White liberals. This page was from his book and posted by an inspiring Latino writer I follow named Raquel Penzo. The scenario/quote that stuck with me goes like this, “If I were walking down a street and a man had a gun on another man and I was going to help I’d help the man who didn’t have the gun. . . the only way I could help is either to get a gun and shoot the man with the gun or take the gun away from him - join the fellow who doesn’t have the gun and both of us gang up on the man with the gun.” This is completely logical thinking - I agree wholeheartedly with Stockily Carmichael. So, this brings me back to something that has been bothering me since 2001 when I was teaching in Liberty City, Miami and living on South Beach. For those of you unfamiliar with Liberty City it is a neighborhood in Miami that as of the 2000 census had the largest population of African Americans in the state of Florida. It was also a place located less than three miles from the beach - I could bike there from South Beach itself and out of my 40 students there was only one who’d seen the ocean before. It was my first year teaching and it was the hardest most confusing time in my life to date. But the reason I bring it up is not to share stories of the phenomenal youth I worked with there or to tell you how they helped me to navigate the layers of my privilege it is to explain how white people in South Beach reacted when they found out I taught in Overtown, Liberty City. First - they looked at me as though I had just saved a puppy and I was holding it out, literally in my hands, all scared and puppy like and they said things like, that’s so amazing that you have dedicated your career to saving those poor inner city kids, or, it must be so rewarding working with such challenging impoverished children, or, you deserve a badge of honor going into a war zone like thateveryday. Statements like this weren’t only made in Miami - over the past thirteen years I’ve heard the same types of things at dinner tables and over drinks with White people in San Francisco, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. Each time I heard something like this my skin started crawling and I felt uncomfortable and unable to speak. AS I started understanding myself and the world more I started responding with aggressive comments like Really? i think anyone who works with schools filled with rich White kids deserves a badge of honor - they are horrible little creatures. Or, I’m not saving them they are saving me from the mentality of the ignorant white people I was forced to be around when I was young. I can honestly say I offended a lot of people. They tried to argue with me - they tried to tell me I was a hypocrite because if I had children I definitely wouldn't send them to the types of schools I taught in. I let them know if I had children I actually wouldn’t send them to school at all but if I was forced to I would only send them to a school where they were the minority and I when I say minority I mean the closest I can get to the only White person in a majority Black and Latino school. Now, in 2016 I don’t run into this problem anymore and I don’t run into it anymore because my work community is almost all Black and Latino, the community of people I communicate with on a daily basis is filled with people of color and White artists who think similarly to me when it comes to race and politics.
What does this mean?
Who am I in the scenario Carmichael outlined? Am I a woman with a gun hidden beneath some secret floor board ashamed of my ability to take it out whenever I need to? Am I a passerby who waits for the person being held up to be out of eminent danger and then talks to them about how fucked up it was? Or, am I in some way disarming the man with the gun by telling him how much I hate him and his ignorance? Unlikely. I really don’t know what my actions are doing and I urgently need to know. What I do know is that I am not “saving” anyone the young people of color I’ve been working with for so many years are saving me from the hate I see in my own culture - and yes there is a “white culture” white people just never discuss it because it is a culture of hate and privilege and murder and we don't want to admit that because it makes us feel bad inside and we don’t want to feel bad. We need to feel bad, we need to feel disgusted by our people, we need to feel sick to the point of tears and maybe even vomit and then we need to figure out how to disarm ourselves and our people. In case you are questioning this sentiment I’ll share with you the end of the Stockily Carmichael passage I described above. He closes this particular conversation about the flaws of White liberalism by stating this:
“When the man has the gun, they (white liberals) say ‘let me help you,’ and what theymean is ‘help you adjust to the situation with the man who has the gun on you. If indeed white liberals are going to help, their only job is to get the gun from the man and talk to him, because he is a sick man. The Black man is not the sick man, it is the white man who is sick, he’s the one who picked up the gun first.”
Now, you might be thinking - I’m a human being so I am afraid of the person with the gun too - how am I going to disarm something I’m afraid of. The answer is you need to become unafraid. I need to be unafraid and maybe I need to admit that my anger and my disgust - the “hate” for white people I spoke of at Thanksgiving. The nasty comments I threw at the ignorant white people who tried to tell me I was noble for saving the poor black children I work with - maybe all that hate is merely a mask for my own fear. The fear that I could have been like them - that they might think they are like me. So, I will say it again - I am a privileged white woman and all the other privileged white women are me and if I want to feel proud of myself I have to feel proud of them too and if I am ever going to feel proud of them I have to. . . I still don’t know . . .but this is what I promise to work on now and everyday until I figure out how to create some kind of change.
It’s not the responsibility of the oppressed to educate the oppressor and I don’t spend a lot of time with the oppressor by choice but it is my responsibility to figure out how to spend more time with them so I can help them to navigate the layers of their privilege and their ignorance until we have dug so deep the only thing left to see is the possibility of equality.
So this is my call to action - to all you white women out there who think you are exempt from your whiteness and your privilege because you are a woman who deals with and fears sexual violence and who the justice system or even your own communities ignore more than often. You are not exempt - you are still white, you are still privileged and you are still responsible.
~ Melissa Hunter Gurney author of Photographs of a Mind in Heat and Founder of GAMBAZine