There are some things I want to say about being white in America
An unedited re-post of a Twitter thread from January 11, 2020
There are some things I want to say about being white in America, and the space and moment we are in. I hope that my fellow white folks will read this, as I am sharing this in the hopes that you do. Fair warning to all - giant thread ahead! There’s no tl;dr either, sorry.
When I was in my late teens I had a once-in-a-lifetime therapist who fundamentally altered my life. She also kicked my butt constantly and never let me get away with anything. I'll never forget the time, for example, when she said to me, "Tracy, you have an exquisitely beautiful mind." Which, upon seeing my prideful smile she immediately followed with, "Don't take that as a compliment."
I've been thinking constantly about something else she instilled in me. She asked me one day, "Let's say you want to move from where you are sitting to that chair across the room. What is the first thing you need to do?" After getting the answer wrong approximately 8,372 times ("I have to stand up." No. "I have to want to move." No. "I have to tell my brain to tell my muscles to move" No. And on and on and on...), I finally gave up.
"You have to recognize you are sitting down," she said.
It was a facepalm moment for sure, and it seems so obvious and simple, but as it turns out it is extraordinarily easy to ignore. But, I've also learned that ignoring this fundamental truth is the very thing that will limit me, limit us and limit the world the most from being what we most aspire to be.
This is the moment we are in. In order for real change to happen in America, my fellow white people have to recognize where we are. Change is dependent on that.
Where we are, and who we are, is a country that was built on systematic oppression by design.
We created a world where white is the norm, and everything else is the other (the fact that adhesive bandages were - for decades - made to match only my skin tone, without question as to whether that was normal, is a perfect example of this). This inequitable structure is infused into every aspect of the world we’ve created, oftentimes unintentional and unnoticed by those in a position to change those decisions - almost exclusively white people - because we are the norm around which our systems are created. It is only logical then, that this world works disproportionately well for the norm of whiteness while it causes disproportionate and ongoing harm to People of Color in our country.
But here’s the thing. It isn’t enough to recognize where we are as a whole, at that large scale. The only way to correct these compounding, generational harms is to recognize this at every level - individual, organizational, and societal - and then be willing to confront the painful truth of white complicity in this system which allows it to keep operating.
It is this complicity that created a belief by those who mounted an insurrection against our Democracy that what they were doing was right and just, and that even if they were stopped no real harm would come to them. As was painfully obvious, they were right. Just the fact that they did not believe their lives were in danger at the hands of law enforcement for even attempting to occupy the United States Capital is systemic norms of white privilege on display.
I'll speak for myself now, in the hopes that my fellow white folks recognize the truth in what I am saying.
I am complicit in this system whether I mean to be or not because I do not find it uncomfortable.
I - as a white, privileged woman - don't encounter gates and blocks and devaluation of my rights to exist in our country, so unless I actively do the work to *recognize where we are* then it would be very easy for me to think that on balance the system is working fine because it works fine for me.
In order for me to have any effect on the system, my job is to not just recognize where I am but also recognize - all the time - that I don’t know *anything* about what it is like to be Black in this country. And I have to be willing to look for the truth, work hard to recognize every aspect of my complicity in the system for myself, and hear it when anyone takes the time (which is not their job) to show me when I have been complicit.
I'll be honest, the truth hurts. I'm not saying that so that anyone feels badly for me because I also firmly believe that it is appropriate for me to feel badly when I have allowed harm to happen and continue. I'm telling you the truth hurts so that you - fellow white folks - can be ready for it and do everything you can not to get defensive about it.
Part of what makes systematic oppression so pervasive is that much of the time I - because we've already established that the system generally works well for me - don't realize that I am complicit and have caused harm. But that doesn't excuse me from having caused that harm, and if I get defensive and hide behind "I didn't intend that" then I'm causing more harm by invalidating someone else's pain and allowing the system to march on. It is understandable that it is not intentional but it is not OK for me to deny it, especially if I proclaim to recognize it outside of myself.
And this brings me to something I want to say in order for me to “stand up and move to that chair across the room.” I also want to be abundantly clear that I am speaking just for me here, and not in any way as a representative or on behalf of my employer.
I recognize that my silence about Timnit has caused harm and I am sorry. I am sorry to those my silence has directly hurt and disappointed. I am sorry for the role that silence has played in adding to a system where silence is oppressive.
I firmly believe that we need to change so that situations like this do not happen again. Building a more diverse workplace is incredibly important, and that work has to be in deep partnership with the more difficult work of creating inclusion. I recognize that not saying more at this time about how I personally feel about what happened or what I would like to happen from here has the potential to create more harm. I have made this decision for reasons I believe in, but that choice does not remove the harm caused by my choices.
As a society, we are in a moment in time in America where the system is undeniably exposed and laid bare at our feet.
We - and again I mean white people here because of the wildly disproportionate decision making power of white America - could delude ourselves that this is just this moment and that we can put it behind us and move forward in the ways we always have.
Or, we could take the opportunity for what it is: the chance to confront the painful reality of where we have always been, where we are today, and the true differences between that and what we’ve claimed to be, and then cast off our defensive sleeves and get to work. This is the opportunity I know we have in Responsible AI, for example, and I believe it is the only opportunity that matters for true value creation in this country.
As we head deeper into 2021, we *will* enter a period of global recovery and we have a choice to make. How do we want to recover? We can recover by "getting back to normal" which will further exacerbate the harms a norm of whiteness has created, or we can recover with equity and bring to life the best vision of ourselves, our systems and our country.
I choose the latter.