I’ve tried, in the last month, to amplify different voices, to promote, to the extent I can, the views and positions of people who are too often drowned out. But as a white woman—someone who’s wandered through her life with most of the privileges our society offers, if not all of them—I have to consider it’s possible I have a perspective that other white women might listen to. None of us can change the whole world, but each of us has the chance to alter our little corner of it.
Buckle up, ladies.
When I was young—nine or ten, I think—I overheard a snippet of conversation between my paternal grandparents. I don’t remember precisely what was said, but I remember looking at the back of my grandfather’s head, and being upset. I vented later to my parents: my grandparents were wrong to suggest Black people were in any way lesser. My parents agreed with me, and reinforced my feelings; my father, as he often did, seethed with anger and embarrassment at his parents’ views.
None of us challenged my grandparents.
I grew up in a mostly-white suburb of Boston: a handful of Black families, a few Hispanic; a few Jewish and Mormon families among a population otherwise split pretty evenly between the Unitarians and the Catholics. In the 60s and 70s, racism was frequently in conversation on television, on everything from sitcoms to game shows; but in polite company, it was something you didn’t really discuss—not in any contentious way, at least. Of course you weren’t racist; nice people weren’t. And things were getting better. All those odious racist folks would eventually see the error of their ways, or die out, and we’d be left with the nice, egalitarian society we all knew in our hearts was Right and Proper.
In polite white society, racists remained unchallenged.
One of my privileges was to be raised in a family that believed girls should be educated, that we should read, that we should be encouraged in all pursuits of knowledge, without limits. It was always assumed I’d go to college—whether I wanted to or not. The result of this, along with everything else, was me reaching adulthood believing equality was an absolute right of all people, that it was just around the corner, and that I was one of the good guys.
I was so very, very naive.
In college, I met people with backgrounds very different than those from my mostly-white, mostly-liberal suburb. I began to get first-hand accounts from friends of what are now termed microagressions: one friend, who was Black, entered a big downtown department store only to be told, dismissively, “the sale rack is in the back.” We were all shocked—she was so very well dressed, you see, and I’m desperately embarrassed at that recollection, because we shockingly, whitely, missed the entire point of what had happened to her. I watched people I liked get stiff and stiltedly polite when encountering people who were Black. I made friends from other countries, and realized racism manifested all over the world in ways that were both different and the same.
A friend of ours told us about being maced as he passed a woman on a public sidewalk in the middle of the day. We gasped. “But you’re so nice!” we told him. Once again missing the entire point.
That was the same friend who told us racism was easier for him to deal with in the South. In the South, he said, people would be racist to his face. In the Northeast, they’d act like racism wasn’t a thing, while they paid him less and didn’t promote him and crossed to the other side of the street when he was heading to his car. While people rallied against integrating schools, and while some neighborhoods in Boston were unsafe for anyone who wasn’t white.
All this in the 1980s, which sounds like ancient history to a lot of people, but which is when I spent half my Good Liberal White Girl 20s.
I went into software, which was a good deal more diverse than the town I grew up in—except in one way. Software was, and still is, uniquely low on Black people. I didn’t think much about it; when I went into software, it was enough of a battle just being a woman in the business, although oddly easier then than now. I noticed the diversity, and I was pleased with it; but I didn’t notice the constraints on that diversity, not at first.
It’s easy to be a Good Liberal White Girl when you’re insulated from it all.
I don’t remember when it was—late 90s or early 00s—but I remember a Black man hired to work on a particular piece of the software project I was on. That part of the project was notoriously arcane and fragile; the people who’d worked on it for years were arrogant and standoffish, and able to unravel some really weird bugs. They always resisted new people on the project; their time was important, you see, and they couldn’t take the time to train someone new on a piece of software that could take years to understand.
But it felt different, the way they treated him, the way they talked about him. Like they would try, of course, as they tried with any new person, but they didn’t really expect to succeed with him. It’s possible they were like that with everyone, and I was just being hypersensitive because by then I was starting to wake up.
I don’t think I was being hypersensitive. But still I said nothing.
A few years ago, it dawned on me that I look like a racist. I’m a white lady with gray-streaked hair who lives in the suburbs and drives a minivan. Never mind what my actual life is like; I look the part. And for a while that upset me a lot. What right did people have to see me that way?
I like to think it took me only a few hours to get past that. I suspect in reality it was a few days. But eventually I realized something: there was no way anybody could know I wasn’t a racist. People doing racist things dressed like me, looked like me, were my age, had my background.
It isn’t on anyone else to give me the benefit of the doubt. It’s on me to understand in a public place, a stranger can’t trust I won’t be a racist horror show to them, because it isn’t physically safe for them to trust me. It’s on me to change the world so people who look like me aren’t racist horror shows.
I think a lot about my friend’s experience in the South, and my own upbringing, and I have to consider the possibility that Good Liberal White Girls are at least as much of the problem as people who are openly racist. We’ve been privileged to be raised with the idea of equality, but we don’t live in that world. Because we’re women, we know there’s still fighting left to be done; because we’re white, we can be blind to entire fronts of that war. We can turn and walk away from it when we get tired.
We are not fighting hard enough.
Damn, that’s hard. Because I am tired, and old, and my daily worries concern my kid, and my bad foot, and my work, and my own bloody-minded mental health. I am privileged to be able to look after all those things.
But this isn’t the world I want. It wasn’t when I was nine, and it isn’t now, and I want better for my children, your children. I want better for us. All of us. Not just the Good Liberal White Girls, but everyone.
Not fighting hard enough has brought us a right-leaning Democratic party. It’s brought us progressives who are called socialists by people who have no idea what the word means. It’s brought us fascism in the form of what’s left of the GOP. It’s brought us violent, racist, militarized police forces. It’s brought us that unconscionable yahoo in the White House.
Yeah, our generation had to cope with Reagan and the Moral Majority and Phyllis Schlafly and Bill Clinton’s infuriating, outrageous political fuck-up. Just like our parents had to deal with McCarthy and Nixon and Vietnam. There’s always a reason we haven’t fixed it yet, and no matter how good a reason it is, it’s never good enough.
There’s never a good reason to carve out one set of rights—always the same set; have you noticed?—and tell people not this time.
Anything I could say about racism isn’t enough. No matter how hard I try, there’s so much I don’t see. I do know that no one should walk down the street afraid of being murdered because they’re Black. I know that no one should be insulated from punishment after they’ve murdered someone for being Black. I know that no one should be trained to believe killing is part and parcel of their job, to be forgiven even if they get it wrong.
I know enough history to see the pattern of this country letting down Black people over and over and over again, telling them they need to wait, that it’s too soon or too much or too disruptive. Like someday, eventually, they’ll be truly equal under the law. It’s just never today.
I’m an Old White Lady, and that makes me want to scream. You’re damn right I side with the protesters. I think they’re being quite polite, as it happens.
I guess, White Women Of A Certain Age, what I’m getting at is this: no more putting things off. No more compromise, no more telling folks who don’t look like us that change is gradual. No more making excuses, for ourselves or anyone else. No more parsing of smarmy political speeches or half-assed promises. We fight the right fight this time, and we don’t get sidetracked. We listen to those who are not White Women Of A Certain Age; we don’t ask them to them teach or justify, we just listen. And we take our cue from them on where the next front of the war needs to be.
(And we don’t ask for ally cookies. Seriously. Do not be that person. Ugh.)
It’s always been naive of me to be personally outraged by racism. I’ve largely been on the beneficiary end of that problem, in ways I’m still just learning to recognize. But outrage? It’s energizing. It’s power. It’s the opposite of helplessness.
Be outraged. Make change. Now is the best time there is.