I write a lot about race, racism, and whiteness. And without fail, I’ll hear from a white person responding to my work with:
I get what you’re saying, but [lengthy whitesplaining].
Well, actually, [lengthy quibble about the accuracy or inaccuracy of one statement I made among many].
It’s funny because it’s like these folks are demonstrating my point for me. I write about the often subtle nature of white supremacy and then a bunch of white people fill my comments and Twitter notifications with real-life examples. They don’t even realize they’re doing it. And so the cycle continues.
These responses, no matter how well-intentioned, are a form of defensiveness and derailing–a means of shying away from dealing with the true nature of what has been written. Rather than accept my experiences as a black woman for what they are and processing their feelings accordingly, these folks retreat to petty debates about word choice or experiential accuracy. (This last even more so in the age of “alternative facts.” This false dichotomy of facts versus non-facts represents a very colonized way of knowing. That’s not to advocate for “alternative facts” or lies at all, but to say that there are other traditional ways of knowing and embodied experience that go beyond what is and is not a fact. Alas, that’s a post for another day.)
These comments get framed as friendly debate and discussion but are actually active examples of white supremacy refusing to be in any way affected by the racialized reality of one of the oppressed.
It’s a natural reaction. And it goes beyond discussions of race. I myself have read things by queer folks, native folks, trans folks, disabled folks, working class folks, and reacted in this very same way. I have to fight the urge to reach out to them with my response because I realize it doesn’t matter. I, in my position of privilege, get to see and hear my perspectives and realities all the time, everywhere. They, in their marginalized identity, have to fight for the right to express their truth and speak their reality without reprisal. My defensive maneuvers are not necessary and are certainly not welcome.
Despite my hurt privileged feelings, it is not silencing for them to tell me to shut up and go away. The fact that I feel the need to ‘splain my privilege all over them is the true silencing of oppression.
Next time you read something by someone “at the margins” and feel the need to respond with a question, comment, or correction, ask yourself these three simple questions first:
- What is it I want to say about what I’ve read?
- Why do I feel this way about what I’ve read?
- Why is it important for this marginalized person to hear my reaction?
Be honest in your answers. And even then, sit with your reaction for a while. Give it space and time to breathe. Re-reflect and allow yourself to form a new response. You just may learn something.