“America would not be the wealthy country it is without slave labor. We would not have our power or wealth if we had not, for a very long time, depended on the unpaid labor of millions of human beings. I feel like I shouldn’t have to spell this out, but maybe I do. America was built by the labor of enslaved men, women, and children.” -Camille Dungy
I have been thinking about writing this post for weeks now, and the reason it’s taken me so long to just do it, I’m realizing, is that I’m afraid of putting my foot in my mouth. Of saying the wrong thing. Of doing it imperfectly. Talking about race as a privileged white person is a tricky thing – I know I have biases that will come out as I try to find the right words, and I’m a little uneasy about what I might discover. I’m no expert. I don’t feel qualified. I don’t know what it’s like to not have white privilege. However, I am 100% confident that the feelings of discomfort or guilt or anxiety that I may experience by talking about race is going to hurt a lot less than the pain experienced by those who live faced with daily discrimination and hate because of something that is physically impossible to change.
Layla Saad writes, “doing this work isn’t about your words or your intentions. It’s about your actions and your impact.” So. Onward.
After weeks of reading and listening to black women on social media, podcasts, and via books/articles, it’s obvious that there’s a lot that I have never fully unpacked when it comes to thinking about racial issues. I have never lived in a black body in a world that caters to whiteness. I can only imagine what it is like, and that’s not even close to the same thing. I live (and grew up) in a very homogeneous community. Sure, I have traveled and lived for short times in more diverse areas. But my everyday experiences make it apparent that I can choose to think about race, or not. People of color don’t get that choice.
I just finished reading Austin Channing Brown’s book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, and at one point in the book she describes an experience she had growing up in school, during a class trip to the south learn about some historical landmarks. She describes how often the realities of slavery were downplayed or romanticized by the tour guides. She describes how hard it was to dig deeper into the history of slavery. And she describes listening to her fellow students – both white and black – as they processed what they had seen and heard, the tension growing more palpable by the minute. “Then, as we pulled into a parking lot to break for lunch, another white student stood to speak. But instead of a different variation on “Please don’t make me responsible for this,” she took a deep breath and gave in to the emotion of it all. “I don’t know what to do with what I’ve learned,” she said. “I can’t fix your pain, and I can’t take it away, but I can see it. And I can work for the rest of my life to make sure your children don’t have to experience the pain of racism.” And then she said nine words that I’ve never forgotten: “Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.”
I guess you could say that it feels like I’m at that place – that place of not knowing exactly what to do with what I’ve learned and that place where doing nothing is no longer an option. That place of doing my best to see the pain that has been the reality of the collective African American story (as well as so many other groups of folks) for generations. The place of not letting white guilt and fragility get in the way of somehow working toward the changes that are so needed in the way the world operates. Because that’s a thing, you know — I’m learning that often times we white folks (even those of us who might not ever say “not all white people” or “all lives matter”) often let feelings of guilt [over something WE were born into] stop us from doing more than just feeling guilty about what we didn’t personally create. I’m learning that it takes [vastly] more than sending “light and love” to marginalized groups – because sending light and love to people who have been hurting for generations just isn’t good enough. I’m learning that we can’t say “I don’t see color” because when we do that we are also saying that we don’t see what’s going on. Case in point, from Camille Dungy: “If you say to me, “I don’t see race when I see you,” that means you’ve just erased a large piece of my experience and identity. That’s a type of violence. That statement also suggests that the only way you can connect with me is by erasing a part of my person.” I’m learning we can’t let racial jokes go, even if saying something feels too risky. What’s risky is not saying anything and letting the patterns continue.
I could go on, but since I’m NOT a black woman, I’m going to leave you with some reading homework. The following black women have been teaching me a lot, and I encourage you to listen to them. As Krista Tippett wrote, “I can disagree with your opinion, it turns out, but I can’t disagree with your experience.” So, here are some words describing what it’s like to be a black woman in America (and many other parts of the world) today. Listen. Send light and love if you want, but that’s optional. Action is required.
Austin Channing Brown: I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness
Camille T. Dungy : Poetic Justice: On Racism, Writing, and Radical Empathy
Layla Saad: I Need To Talk to Spiritual White Women about White Supremacy (part one) and Part Two (includes resources for further reading)
Rachel Cargle: Unpacking White Feminism (among other topics..)
Toni Morrison: The Origin of Others
This is a very small list. If you have more resources, please feel free to leave them in the comments. And an important note: the people aren’t the resources — they are human beings. The writing and educational materials they create are the resources.
Photo by Clarke Sanders
Photographer’s statement: I had the pleasure of shooting these beautiful women in Uptown Minneapolis. The focus of the shoot was for a friend to use for promotional purposes for an organization she works with but also for black women to feel beautiful and empowered in a world that tells them they are worthless.
14 thoughts on “Listen to Black Women”
Hi! Here are some great additional titles I’ve enjoyed over the past year or so:
Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, Joy DeGruy Leary (her YouTube videos are great too!)
White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, Tim Wise
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race, Beverly Daniel Tatum
Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, Christina Cleveland
Thanks Emily. I just started reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, too, as it is often referenced…
Inspiring post, Heidi. You described clearly some of what keeps me from speaking up and speaking out. I still hesitate far too often for fear of, as you write, “sticking my foot in my mouth.” One small step was to repost your blog on mine: https://irisgraville.com/2018/09/13/listen-to-black-women-repost-from-heidi-barr/ (thank you for agreeing to this).
And here’s another reference to add to your fantastic list: So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo.
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A very helpful reminder of what OUR work is. Thank you. I also want to remind us that what MEN of color have to say is just as important for us to listen and respond to. They too have a particular burden preventing being seen as they really are instead of the biased white projections that are shrowding them. “I can’t breathe” is an authentic plaint in so many various situations.
Absolutely – thanks for bringing this into the conversation.
As a young black woman, I appreciated you blog post. Thank you!
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You’re welcome! Thanks for reading 🙂
I think listening to black people as well as reading our work etc is the biggest step white people can take towards healing the divide because it creates compassion. You may never know the experience, but listening and believing that these experiences are valid will naturally move many white people to action (dismantling structural racism) as well as reckoning with internalized racism that might be uncomfortable to acknowledge. Great post!
Thanks for your response, Rowana – as you say, compassion can have such power in creating needed change. Great point.
For years I’ve tried to teach my students that there is power in their voices. They have been indirectly told to keep quiet, but articles like yours remind them why it’s important to never silence their cries. Thank you for listening.
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Compelling post, I wish more people could educate themselves on racial politics like this. I really enjoyed reading this. I feel like another thing you could do would be to make what you’ve learned available to others. Attempt to educate family and friends, spread the word by hosting groups/evenings/talks etc. even if it’s just a one off, the seeds of your enlightenment will spread.
Thanks for your comment! I agree, sharing w/friend and family and keeping the conversation going is essential. Groups/hosting talks are a great idea.