I am livid. Not only are people of color, especially African Americans more likely to die from COVID-19 because of institutional racism like housing segregation (forcing people of color into dangerous living situations). But in the midst of this national crisis, we are also forced to witness the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Two of these innocent human beings were murdered by cops and the last by a former cop and his son.
Sometimes it can seem like all we can do is give in to despair. And I am a white person who feels that way. I can’t imagine how people of color feel. I don’t know how to fix the racism inherent in the police force. But I can do my best to continue educating myself on how this problem came to be. Be the Bridge has an excellent resource of books, podcasts, and movies to help us educate ourselves.
We can also donate to causes that directly help black and brown people in our neighborhoods. One such cause that has become close to my heart is Abide Women’s Health, operating in Dallas where the maternal mortality rate of black women is much higher than white women. Their goal is “to improve birth outcomes in communities with the lowest quality of care by offering healthcare and complimentary services that are easily accessible, holistic, evidence based and free from judgement.” I have donated to this organization before but decided that it was high time I contributed again.
Nothing can bring back Floyd, Breonna, or Maud. But we can help black and brown babies and their families to thrive in our city.
After watching a movie or TV series, I’m the kind of person who looks through IMBD.com to read the trivia, reviews, and to see what else the actors have done that I might be familiar with. I don’t know why I do this. Maybe its because I don’t want to leave whatever immersive world I had inhabited while watching, and this is a weird way of being in that world a little longer. But why I do it doesn’t really matter.
So after I finished the limited TV series Little Fires Everywhere, I scrolled through IMBD as usual. I hadn’t read the book before watching the series, so I learned that one of the main characters, Mia, had an unspecified race in the novel. In the show she was played by a black woman, Kerry Washington. Ms. Washington is probably best known for her lead role in Scandal, but I recognized her as Chenille from Save the Last Dance, a movie released the year I graduated from high school (2001). So I have obviously not followed Kerry Washington’s career very carefully, but I thought she was great in the role of Mia.
However, as I started to read reviews for the show, I was struck by how many were about Kerry Washington’s lack of acting skills (apparently she only has three expressions?). Even stranger, most of the reviews barely commented on the show itself, preferring to disparage Ms. Washington instead. As a person who reads IMDB reviews regularly, I couldn’t remember the last time so many people panned one specific actor in a show or movie. I hate reposting these reviews here, but I think I need to in order to make my point.
As I scrolled, I struggled to find one that didn’t comment on how bad her acting was. I started to think, “Am I bad judge of acting ability?” Maybe she does have her go-to facial expressions as seen in other shows (but so do I lot of actors). I just don’t think her acting warranted this many bad reviews.
And then I got to this review:
I think it was the comment that she was “angry and racial” that made me stop and realize that there was more going on here than people not liking a certain actress. I think most people are conflating Ms. Washington with her character. And let’s talk about that character (Spoilers below): Mia is a black artist, single mom to teenager Pearl, and newcomer to Shaker Heights, OH. She does not have a warm and bubbly personality. She can be disconcertingly quiet and cagy. I think part of that caginess is a result of running from a secret in her past that she is afraid will catch up with her, but some of it also surely comes from being a black woman traveling on her own in predominantly white spaces. Mia is also incredibly perceptive and loving (and not just to her own child but to the black sheep child of the woman she despises). She is also unapologetically Black. So I would say she is “racial” as the reviewer above noted because her blackness is always with her. She does not make the other white characters comfortable when they step into awkward racial faux pas. She does not apologize for who she is or how she chooses to live. Whiteness makes us think that race is only a factor when people of color enter the scene. Reese Witherspoon’s whiteness is just as much of a factor in her scenes as well.
Another common denominator of all these comments is about how angry Mia is as a character. I thought her character was fascinating precisely because she did not cover over her anger, especially because many people would see her as the “angry, black woman” trope. She expressed her anger freely (when she felt safe to do so), unlike Reese Witherspoon’s character Elena who would cover over her anger with a false smile and passive aggressive comments (until the end when her anger about how her life has turned out becomes too much for putting on the veneer of geniality).
And here is the thing about Mia’s anger. It is nearly all warranted. Not only is she daily encountering microaggressions from well-meaning and some not-so-well-meaning white people, but she is witnessing the hurt that white privilege inflicts on her child. One vivid example of that privilege is when Lexie, Elena’s daughter, writes Pearl’s name instead of her own at the abortion clinic, afraid of smearing her own reputation, but doesn’t give a thought to Pearl’s. Lexie then has the audacity to still expect Pearl to take care of her after the abortion, which she does. Mia has the right to be angry for her child, but she doesn’t yell at Lexie. Instead she envelopes her in a hug of understanding, the anger burning deep inside her until she can safely express it through her art.
I actually think Mia is the more likable character, even though she is apparently perceived as the “stormy,” “angry,” one. Elena is meant to be the “bad guy” in this show. She inflicts major emotional harm on her children and on nearly every other character with more than two minutes of screen time. One major fault of the show compared to the book (or so I’ve heard) is lack of nuance. The novel does not have a clear hero or villain in either woman, but nuance doesn’t read well for prime time television.
Even though Elena is the clear villain, I found myself identifying with many parts of her personality and actions. I have been guilty of wanting to be seen as a “good white person,” mentioning the time I marched with Dr. King. Ok — so that was Elena — but I have other moments written on my “good white card,” like the time I dated a Muslim or had a Latina roommate. I haven’t called the cops for a black person being in my neighborhood, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t internally more cautious around him. I think Elena, with her facade of perfection and goodness, hits closer to home than many of us would like to think.
This thought brings us to my favorite scene: Izzy has been sent home from school for creating a misguided art installation where she put black and yellow face on Cabbage Patch dolls to make a point that in our society, babies are “worth” different values depending on their race. Instead of staying home, she runs to fellow artist Mia’s house. Izzy is venting about her unwarranted suspension, but Mia sharply stops her and says that what she did was wrong, even if her heart was in the right place. Mia says, “You can’t challenge people and not expect to be challenged back.” At this moment Izzy looks so small and fragile and white, as if she might cry. But she is young enough and humble enough to accept this critique. She simply nods her head and stays silent. I loved this exchange because Izzy was being confronted with her racism and instead of being defensive, she soaks in the realization of what she’s done. Elena may be the embodiment of how not to be an anti-racist, but Izzy shows us the way.
I thought the series was a powerful meditation on motherhood, race and class, even if parts of the story were a bit melodramatic and unbelievable. But it is also the only TV show in recent memory that confronts white privilege and the subtle racism of liberal whites. It is definitely worth the watch, even if Kerry Washington’s limited emotional range bothers you. I still think she’s great. But I would suggest that it is not Ms. Washington’s acting abilities that most people found unwatchable — but the confrontation of racism in our own hearts.
When we bought a house in our neighborhood seven years ago, it was a relatively diverse place, but it is rapidly gentrifying. In reading “The Dallas Morning News” several weeks ago (yes, I read the actual physical newspaper), I saw an article about an apartment complex not far from me that had been sold to a developer, likely to be transformed into an expensive condo. The current tenants had 60 days to vacate. The tenants responded by having a protest, highlighting the plight of low-income renters.
At the end of last year I read Evictedby Matthew Desmond. It is an important, illuminating and heartbreaking book about how hard (and expensive) it is to be poor in America, never being able to put down roots anywhere, always being required to search for the lowest rent or go homeless. I don’t know the people who have been basically evicted in my neighborhood, but because of this book, I am now familiar with the sad path that this might take them.
We recently had to vacate our house for about a week because of a mold problem. We moved in with my parents who live on the other side of town. It just about drove me bonkers (not because of my parents) but because it just wasn’t home and our schools, our jobs, our activities were now 30 minutes away. But I had a safe space to go for a limited period of time. I can’t imagine having to pick up and move so often because of not being able to make rent or getting evicted.
Most low-income earners spend 60% or more of their paycheck on rent. That is just absurd. One, we don’t pay people enough and two, the cost of paying for a place to live has become astronomical, not even just for renters. Because the housing market has been booming, even my husband and I could not afford to buy in our current neighborhood now. Basically, we need more affordable housing in all our neighborhoods.
You might be thinking that Section 8 vouchers could cover this. Well, most people are on a wait list for years and even then, many properties do not have to take these vouchers. We had a friend who (after waiting three years) got the coveted Section 8 voucher, but it took him another year to find a complex that would accept it…in Ennis. Dallas needs to require new developers to make affordable housing right along with these fancy, expensive condos. Dallas needs to require that more landlords take Section 8 housing. And we all need to see that housing is a basic right.
So 6 months ago, I set myself up with a series that I was going to write, and then I promptly stopped writing. Chronic illness, major diet changes, and a heavier teaching load than I was expecting all contributed to my lack of writing.
But life has relaxed (slightly), so I’m back. Before life intervened, I was discussing how my worldview has changed for the better these past five years, starting to understand racism and white privilege in a way I never had before. However, my literal view, the people I tend to surround myself with has only gotten whiter.
Five years ago (really six), I worked at a community college where most of my colleagues, friends, and students were people of color. Now that I’m a stay-at-home mom, working only online, I have found that my friend groups have gotten whiter and whiter. To me, this unveils my white privilege even more starkly because I can easily surround myself with whiteness, only occasionally and tangentially interacting with a person of color.
But I want to make a more conscious choice of who I surround myself with. I need to go out of my comfort zone. I need to put myself in colorful, non-white spaces. One of those spaces is being more active in my local elementary school where most of the students are Latinx. I’ve gotten involved in the PTA, partly to do my part, but a lot so that I can get to know a lot of the other parents in the school. I have met some people, but I haven’t been able to spend enough time with anyone to actually become friends.
So, I think I’m going to have to find other spaces where I am the minority, but honestly, I have found this hard to do. I have good intentions, but like so many people, I lack follow-through. I also lack the time. If I really want to find a group of people different from me, I am going to have to give up something else. Do I give up the women’s group I meet with biweekly, made up of mostly white women, but that I also find life-giving? Do I just make my introvert self talk to more moms on the playground? I’m seriously asking for suggestions here. I don’t know the answer. I have whitewashed my life, and I don’t like it. I want to live in color, but I don’t know how.
So what have I been doing the past five years? Well, among other things, I’ve been getting “woke.” If you aren’t familiar with this term, it basically means seeing and working against systemic racism, although I suppose you can wake up to just about anything.
Five years ago, I would have told you that I don’t see color (people are just people). This was even after I took several graduate level courses in African-American Literature. I learned a lot in those classes, but through no fault of my teachers, I never understood that colorblindness actually perpetuates racism because it literally refuses to see differences in people and especially how they are treated.
Then Trump got elected. I know, I know. This was a “woke” moment for a lot of white people, and I’m no different (though I am aware that my black and brown friends were giving me the side eye and thinking, “What took you so long?” For a humorous representation of this phenomenon, watch this SNL skit.)
I’m sorry that it took seeing that most of our country will excuse racism and misogyny in our leaders to see that racism and misogyny are real, and ever-present.
Now I don’t want to alienate my Republican friends who may have voted for Trump. You have values that are important to you that he claims to represent. I just also want you to see that words matter. They pave the way for how we think and act. And his rhetoric (calling Mexicans rapists and criminals, calling African nations “sh**-hole countries) paves a way that America has walked since its inception, and that path leads to inequality, harm and death for people of color. I don’t want to walk that path anymore.
So I started reading more books, reading blog posts by people of color, following activists on Facebook. In order to get “woke,” education is a good place to start (look at the end for my book, podcast, and blog post recommendations). One of the places to start learning is actually understanding who we are.
And we are white people.
I am a white person.
What the heck does that even mean? In order to investigate this question, a few of the women in my church and I created a group for us white Southern ladies to learn and discuss what whiteness is and means. We did this by creating a curriculum where we discussed a 14-episode podcast series called Seeing Whitealong with material called “Whiteness 101” from Be the Bridge, a non-profit group focused on racial reconciliation.
I’m glad we had this safe space to learn and discuss. Because there have been tears. And frustration. And anger. We white people can be defensive. No one wants to be called a racist. But I’ve come to see that all white Americans are racist because we live in a racist society, one that privileges white skin and cultur Continue reading “A White Girl Gets “Woke:” A series”→