Last week, my friend Sonia, of U2 loving fame, invited me to be on a Zoom call, “When Black Woman and White Woman Gather for Conversation.” I readily agreed, honored and grateful she had asked me. And then I got nervous. I’ve been reading a lot and trying to learn more about the Black experience in the US, but what I don’t know could fill an old time TV series that runs for 10 seasons, 24 episodes a year. What if it’s a small group and I get called on and say something offensive? Or worse, what if embarrass Sonia and she gets the side-eye for being my friend, “You brought that white chick to our call?”
Because, you know racism is all about me and my white feelings.
Luckily, the main thing I have learned is to shut up and listen, and I will admit I was relieved/amazed when I got on the call and there were more that 200 woman on it. It would be easy for me to avoid putting my foot in my mouth. I’m still processing all the things the call covered and everything people said, including a couple of exercises asking us to comment on several provocative images of Black and white women. I will write about that in a future post.
What stood out for me was watching white women do many of the things we get accused of in these types of conversations. This was easy for me to pick up on since I was camped behind my screen and not raising my hand for anything. I will give the white women credit for speaking up, and a few made it clear they were still figuring things out and knew they had more work to do. So far, so good.
A fair number, however, spoke for a long time and were less organized about their thoughts so it felt more like a ramble. This group of Black women meet regularly on Zoom, and we white women had been invited into their space. I think being brief or quiet would have shown more respect. The Black women’s comments were more pointed and organized, and it was clear to me which group has had to think about this in more depth and for much longer.
Then a white woman who first talked about being a part of the women’s movement in the 70’s spoke about a group of black teenagers who had been recently shot near where she lives. She broke down in tears, and said she just didn’t know what to do anymore. This is known as white women’s tears, and has done of a lot damage to the cause of trying to address racism — it upholds systemic racism and prevents white women from being better allies for Black women. I know I sound like a hard ass, but hear me out.
In smaller groups discussing race, once a white woman starts crying, the focus of the group shifts to her and her comfort. My reading has revealed that Black people hate this shit, and who can blame them. One of the rules of the call was that respect is guaranteed, comfort is not. Before this call, I hadn’t seen white women behaviors in action. Many white woman don’t even realized they are doing it. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s no longer a good enough excuse to say “I didn’t know,” and stop there. Every Black woman on that call has had more experience with violence against their people, and I’m sure they cry too, but I did not hear one Black woman throw up her hands and say, “I just don’t know what to do.” 400 years of slavery and its repercussions navigating a society that dodges you every step of the way, and even kills you will make you a strategic thinking ninja.
Luckily, when there are 200 people on a call, one person’s tears do not derail the conversation. Even so, I was struck by how generous the Black women were in their empathy, even when they are angry and upset by everything that is going on. I was definitely not that forgiving, which you know is coming back to me.
But that was just the warm up band. The award for “textbook white woman response” goes to a woman who was answering a question posed by the group, can Black and white women be sisters, friends, or allies. She started off OK, talking about how hard it can be to bridge the gap between our experiences to find common ground. She acknowledged Black women have lots of reasons not to trust white women. But then she whined about how she tries to be friendly to Black women, but they don’t reciprocate. Like a one-line compliment should open a person up like magic. She gave the example of how when she sees a Black woman with fabulous natural hair, she gives the woman a compliment about it.
In my mind, the needle scratched stop on the vinyl record.
White women, if you take away nothing else from me today, and you never do one more thing to fight racism or learn about it, please download this in your brain:
You should never, ever, compliment a Black woman (or black man for that matter) you don’t know about her hair. And if you do know her, you better know her pretty damn well.
In the last few years I learned that white people touching Black people’s hair is actually a thing. White strangers admire Black hair and then actually reach out to touch it. There are so many things wrong with that, but understand that is a perfect example of systemic racism. If I as a white person touch a Black woman’s hair, I am saying her personal boundaries don’t apply to me, and that I am entitled to touch her hair. She doesn’t deserve the same respect I give to all the people whose hair I don’t touch. She exists mostly to satisfy my curiosity. So if you compliment a Black woman’s hair, she is not going to be in the mood to chat. Most likely she has gone into defense mode to prevent you from touching it.
Wouldn’t you feel the same way? If someone, unasked, tried to touch your hair or any body part for that matter?
In retrospect, I wish I had called her out on it, or at least put it in the chat. But I was not organized enough to get my thoughts together in time and soon we were on to another topic.
When I was talking to Sonia after the call, she reminded me of another aspect of Back hair — how highly political it is now and has been throughout history. White people used the texture of Black hair to justify slavery. In a racist society, there is tremendous societal pressure for Black women to adopt Eurocentric standards of beauty, to the point where at work, white managers will call a Black woman’s hair unprofessional.
Like the Crying White Woman, the Compliment Her Hair woman also ended her contribution with a shrug as if to say, “Well, I tried, but Black women don’t respond, so no, I don’t think we can be friends.” Throughout the call, I could hear how tired Black women are from dealing with racism their whole lives. The white women have been thinking about it for a few months. Maybe even a year or 2, and some are ready to throw in the towel.
We have to do better, white women. If we can teach most men not to compliment a women on her physical appearance, we can figure out ways to compliment Black women without commenting on her hair. Or how “articulate” she is. That’s bad too. On second thought, maybe just start with the weather. Screw it, I’m going to sit down, shut up, and read some more.