Reading the paper or spending time on social media in recent months, it would be hard to miss the fact that many black women are angry. Of course black women, in particular, and people of color in general, have many reasons to be angry. What I want to talk about here is the anger directed at white women such as me. Where have you been?, they ask. Why did/do you march for women’s rights and not for the rights of people of color?
I do not write here to defend myself. I write to try to figure out how women of color and women of European ancestry can join together in moving forward to further the rights of people of color, and in so doing, to recognize each other’s humanity.
I will start by trying to answer the question, Where were you when we needed you? I will begin by telling you my story – as briefly as possible, because I know this is ultimately about you, not me, and in the hope that you will tell me yours.
I was raised by Scottish-immigrant parents in a very-white New Jersey town. There were plenty of Italians and Jews (many first or second generation) in my part of Jersey, but the African Americans (or “Negroes” as they were called during my childhood) were largely confined to places such as Newark and Camden. (I did begin elementary school at an inner-city school, where I played with African American children, but my family moved to the suburbs when I was only 7, so my memories of this time are shadowy at best.)
By the time I was finished with elementary school (1960-ish), I knew that slavery had been awful and that Lincoln had freed the slaves. That was about it for Black History. I did not know about Jim Crow or the KKK or lynchings or separate water fountains. I did not know about these things because no one had ever told me about them. (Remember, this was long before the internet.)
I did know that some people did not like people of color and said ugly things about them. I decided at a very young age that it was wrong to treat people differently based on their color, a conclusion based almost entirely on the following lyrics from a song that we sang in Sunday School: Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world. If Jesus loved everyone regardless of their color, so would I. This approach would remain largely theoretical while I went through my growing-up years in my white town.
In the early 1960s, I became aware of the Civil Rights Movement, although I was too young to do anything about it. I learned about lynchings and lunch counters. I watched my television in horror as police turned dogs and fire hoses on those seeking equal treatment under the law. I was too young for the March on Washington, but I knew that it was a big deal.
Following the legal gains of the Civil Rights movement, hope was in the air--black pride was on display, and I moved through my teen years believing our country was on the path to racial equality.
All was not well, of course. I was devastated by the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was 18. A very-young 18. (It was possible to be young/naive in those pre-digital days in a way I do not think is possible now.) I was clueless about what I could do in the face of what I believed to be pockets of hatred left behind after the undoing of Jim Crow. I wrung my hands and turned back to my life.
I went to college. I marched against the Vietnam war. I became a passionate feminist. I moved to Portland, Oregon, where I passed African Americans on the street, but did not know any personally. I moved to SW Washington state, where there are fewer African Americans than in Portland.
I continued not to know any people of color.
During these years, I knew that black kids often went to crappy schools. I knew that, despite the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, black people still faced many challenges. I gave money to charities and to groups working for social justice. I had my kids set aside money to do the same. I talked a good talk, but did not do anything active to work for racial justice.
Meanwhile, I worked and raised my daughters, then worked and cared for my aging mother. I went back to school. I was busy.
And then things began to change. I began to change.
Some black women have said that white women did not care about threats to black lives until our own security was threatened by our current president. My awakening regarding the threats to people of color in this country predated the current administration -- not by a lot, but by several years.
Here’s what happened. My mother died. I retired. I had time to look up and around from my own life. And there was the internet and the smart phone. People were being shot in front of my eyes. In cold blood. From behind. Suddenly the problems of people of color were staring me in the face. I could not look away.
I joined the NAACP. I went to events for white allies. I read and read and read. I am sorry that I did not wake up sooner. I cannot change the past, but I am here now. I have time and I have passion.
I know that many women of color are too angry and too busy trying to keep their families safe to talk to white women or to tell us about their lives and needs. I am trying to hold space for this anger without flinching.
I have also recently met several women of color who have been willing to speak to me, who feel it is important to have white allies or accomplices, so that systemic racism may finally be dismantled.
I thank them.
I spoke with one such woman about the dilemma of hearing black women say they have been let down by, left out by, white women, and hearing these same women say, You’re on your own. We’re not going to tell you what to do. We’re done with you. This woman looked at me and said, “A conversation between black and white women is long overdue. Maybe you are the one to start it.”
Me? I’m too scared. I wouldn’t know where to begin. Not me. No way.
But the idea that women need to talk with women won’t go away.
So, here I am a few months later walking through my fear because, really, what is my fear of putting myself forward, of saying the wrong thing, of upsetting people, compared with the fear of women of color every time a son walks out the front door? What is my fear compared with the fear of every man of color when he is pulled over for a broken tail light?
I believe that women of all colors have much in common. We have all felt the sting of sexism. Of course, women of color feel this sting coupled with the sting of racism. I do not pretend to know what this would feel like, but I do know what it feels like to be treated as lesser, to not be taken seriously, because I am female. I did, after all grow up in the 1950s and ‘60s. Maybe this is a start to understanding what it would feel like to be treated as other, as less-than, because of skin color.
Women of color, I would love to talk with you if you are willing. I would love to hear your stories. I would like to stand in solidarity with you. And there is an army of like-minded older white women with time and energy to take up your cause.
Despite whatever ways we may have failed you in the past, may we be of service going forward?