By Jessica Leaf-Ihejirika
Hi white friends!
I have had a couple good and not so good conversations this week and thought I’d be open and honest with you about my own experiences as a white woman in America, to give you an example of one way of facing our history, because there seems to be no small amount of confusion, anger and frustration circling about out there.
First up, this is not a public apology. In fact, I’d say that this is the number one thing you really should be careful of right now as a white person, because saying sorry at this moment in time kind of is like saying “I’m sorry for you loss” at a funeral...and you were somehow involved in the death. It’s just ugh. Keep apologies to a minimum, unless you feel like the situation really, really calls for it, and you have a close relationship with that person...and accept any uncomfortable responses you get back like an adult.
Often, we say sorry as much to ease our own unease than to actually say sorry (I’m definitely guilty of this) so please, please...avoid any of those “It’s terrible, I am so sorry” phrases. People of color are not there to help us feel better about ourselves. And we have been apologizing for too long and they are really tired of it. The best apology is a process: how are you changing? What are you doing now about it? How is the way you speak, think, and act changing?
Second, be okay with being uncomfortable. Sit with it. Wiggle with it. Face it. Talk to a therapist about it. It’s like getting a bikini wax or going to the dentist for a cavity. Yeah it hurts. But I’m pretty sure you rather have this pain and discomfort than having a vicious man choke you to death with his knee. That last sentence made you uncomfortable? That is a healthy thing.
Let me give you an example from my own life. Just a quick note: I’m married to a Nigerian American. But having a black spouse, friend, child, uncle or anyone else doesn’t give you a "get out of jail free card"—it doesn’t make you the perfect ally, and it doesn't mean you don't benefit from a racist system. And saying that you have black friends or family members and implying you are definitely not racist is NOT okay. The people in our lives are not postcards to be shown to people to prove we went somewhere. We as white people benefit from a system that values whiteness and devalues color, and until we see it in all its forms, we can’t fix it. Ignore those people that say don’t see color, and that all lives matter. The are blind if they don’t see color and blind if they think we live in a world that values all lives. If that upsets you, that’s good. It should be upsetting.
Back to the story: when my husband and I recently went to NYC, I joked with him when he lost his suitcase that he can use my pink one. He said no so forcefully I was taken aback. "Are you so sensitive? Chill out!". He looked me in the eye and said "Jessica if I have your pink suitcase they will think I have stolen it at the airport. I am a big black man." I was really ashamed. Like, why did I tease him? Why did I only see things from my perspective? We are married and often talk about race and even then I didn’t think of it. This may not seem that big to you, but white privilege is not just about big things, it’s the small things every day, the things that buttress a social system that puts one race above others. Which is why dismantling it takes facing the small and big things, asking yourself what assumptions led you to say what you said and how you can start shifting your mindset.
Of course, there are many more incidents I can think of, and more I probably am not aware of, but I’m working on being more aware, which brings me to my third point, educate yourself. As they say, shut up before you show up. Listen. Learn. There are so many great books out there. White Fragility. How to be Anti-Racist. The list is endless. Take notes. Read deep. Think about it. Don’t like reading? Listen to the audiobook or to a podcast like NPR's Code Switch. Watch documentaries like the 13th on Netflix or real life stories like Just Mercy. Think about it. I’m currently reading The Color of Compromise about racism in the American church and also The Protest Psychosis, about racism in the mental health system and mental diagnosis as a means of control and slavery. Message me @jesslizannleaf on Instagram or firstname.lastname@example.org if you want any more recommendations.
Lastly, take action. I’m not going to tell you how bad it is to complain about something and not do anything about it. You know how bad that is. Protest, petition, call your officials, donate, volunteer, speak up, talk to your friends, buy black-owned, vote, do all the things. Don’t use this time to “take a social media break.” Use social media and follow people like @ckyourprivilege and so many more to come together with others and be a better human being.
White people, racism is our problem. This is the elephant in the room we have not wanted to face fully, and it has come at a great cost. Our ancestors made the system what it is, and we have benefited from it. And if we don't face this and deconstruct it, then innocent people will keep suffering and keep dying. Now is not the time to be offended. And it is not enough to be sad. We have to change.