I’ve never had a stranger just starting touching my hair on the subway. Or my skin.
No one’s ever asked me why my art is about my whiteness. Or to justify why I’m concerned with my family history.
A fellow student has never said she can’t look at me while I’m talking because of my white face.
I don’t get called thuggish or intimidating for sitting in the corner of the cafeteria with with friends.
When I travel, I don’t get chosen by security. My country isn’t banned, but bans others.
People don’t stare at me when I walk into a faculty room, or an office, or a classroom because I’m the only one with white skin.
My parents have never denied the legitimacy of my sexual orientation. Or called it a phase. Or attention seeking. Or refused to call me by the pronouns I identify with, instead of by those I was born into.
In ten, twenty, thirty years—I’ll be called auntie, mother, grandma. And it won’t cause any discomfort. Any awkwardness. Any dialogue, really.
These are everyday, lived realities, that have been described to me since I started working at Shades of Noir. In interviews or more casual conversations. And with story, I was shocked. That these things still happen—and happen every day. And that, fundamentally, reveals my privilege.
Privilege is a fluid thing, I think. Our relationship with our own privileges, our understanding, is one that I imagine will continue to shift. Growing up, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the randomness of privilege. Why should I have benefited from such a good education, a home, a loving family, a system of support, because of my birth? Something I had no control over.
But the privileges I’ve experienced due to my white race, and even my American nationality, I’ve only fully started to understand since working for Shades of Noir. And this is not because people made me feel my white western privileges. Because I’ve been somehow excluded or a minority for the first time. No.
I’ve long felt complicit to systematic forms of oppression—oppression that I’m just starting to understand the scale of. But this year, the lived experience of these oppressions has come into sharper focus. And within myself, I’ve been trying to find the ways in which I can be an ally.
One of the things I find trickiest is when to be vocal, and when to be silent. When standing aside, and listening is the most important thing for a person in my position as a white woman. Yes I am more than my race, gender, and class. But the realities are that white American women have a complicated relationship with intersectional feminism—something I think Shades of Noir represents at its core.
How do we make amends and reparations? How do we hear criticism without closing up? Without counter attacking? Without falling back on our own forms of oppression? Our defence mechanisms?
I don’t have the answers. But I think being better listeners is a start. Criticism of ‘white feminism’, for example, is not a critique of all white feminists. It’s an attempt to unpack the ways in which feminism that does not explicitly consider the impacts of race, or sexuality, is failing to represent a huge proportion of women.
From my own perspective, I think prejudice is often rooted in ignorance. But unlearning assumptions, confronting bias, hearing criticisms of how your own progressive stance is limited or even hurtful—can be a difficult process. But this makes sense. Inequality is so pervasive. It has been so divisive. It has (and still does) enabled some human beings to strip others of their humanity. Remedying this reality was never going to be a simple process united under a banner of solidarity for women. It was never going to ‘work’ by ignoring different experiences. These divides existed at the very inception of the Women’s Movement over 200 years ago. The damage that has been caused is too complex, and too deep rooted, for the ‘solutions’ to be simple and painless. But what I think women who are threatened by intersectionality fail to see is that this form of feminism is not ultimately trying to break the movement apart through internal criticism. Intersectional feminism aims to include. And in order for this process of inclusion to occur, criticism must be viewed as an aspect of progress–not as an obstacle.
My time with Shades of Noir has taught me that it is better to be trying to change, learn, grow, speak out, or listen as an ally—than it is to stay silent. Afraid of causing offense. Of saying something ignorant, hurtful or damaging. Do I still worry about doing this? Yes. This is my third attempt at this reflection because I don’t want to proselytize, claim to have the answers, come across the wrong way, say the wrong thing. But it’s a work in progress.
And despite the complexities and nuances of our intersecting identities—some things are very simple. The words that come to mind are focused on womanhood, but it is relevant irrespective of gender:
“I am not free
while any other woman
even when her shackles
are very different
from my own” – Audre Lorde
The last 8 months have shown me that these shackles, in their various forms, are often ignored. Undermined. Dismissed. Or, once called attention to, quickly denounced as paranoia, weakness, or sensitivity.
As a white woman, I may have not only ignored these chains, but benefitted from their grip. Shades of Noir has given me a clearer lens through which I can see both the oppression of others, my own complicity and privileges, and the channels through which I can make reparations as an ally or activist.