It’s Black History Month and there’s so much to talk about. This is the first February that I’ve been on TikTok, which has been an excellent place to be to be educated, informed, entertained, impressed and delighted by a whole range of Black creators (who themselves are working within the confines of a racist app).
One TikTok in particular from this month that has stayed with me is by @blkgrltragic, Sierra Thompson. It’s best if you go watch it yourself, but I’ll briefly summarize here. Thompson discusses one of the ways in which white women are dangerous for Black people; specifically, white women’s apparent difficulty with being clear and direct, and relying on men to be their “enforcers.” White women produce danger for Black people by avoiding having open conversations, and instead calling the cops, our fathers /brothers/ uncles, our male managers and male neighbours to do our dirty work for us. In doing so, our own demure sensibility gets to stay intact, as does men’s position as the “protector” of white women, and the dynamics of white supremacy go unchallenged.
As Thompson says, we don’t talk about this enough, and the reality for me, as a white woman, is that I have had the privilege of never talking about this at all. Moreover, I’ve never had to examine this in terms of my own complicity and responsibility in this historical dynamic. We need to talk about this more, Thompson says, so I wanted to talk about it here.
Now, sure, let’s cover the “not all white women,” here. I cannot personally think of a time when I threw a Black woman under the bus in the workplace, nor can I think of specific incidents like this occurring anywhere I have worked. However, I am certain the Black women I have worked with would have stories to the contrary. But assuming I have never done it unconsciously or implicitly played a role in it happening would be ridiculous and is also not really the point.
The point is that the pattern of avoidance we white women have been socialized into needs to be actively unlearned.
I am shook by the idea that talking about people behind their backs and calling on third parties with greater power, instead of handling conflict directly, can be understood as a tool of white supremacy. And yet, on some level, I already knew that avoidant behaviour, especially that practiced by white women in leadership positions, serves the status quo. I already knew it was practiced most by those who identify most closely with power. I already knew that the death of Emmett Till is but one extreme example of this. But I had the luxury of knowing it without thinking about it.
While I have observed power dynamics in the workplace for quite some time, what is new to me is putting a racial lens on white women’s avoidant behaviour. Which makes sense: white women’s inculcation into white supremacy confers benefits that help ensure we don’t even see it. Maybe that’s why, for all of Brené Brown’s work on being vulnerable and courageous and daring to lead effectively in the workplace—including moving past avoidance—this is a dynamic I have not come across in her work. [Ed note: Upon reading this, my partner bought me You Are Your Best Thing, a collection edited by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown, so I am curious to read it and see if this gets addressed.]
Unlearning our indoctrination into white supremacy takes and will take a lot of courage. It requires an active willingness to divest from the power we have inherited from the systems established by white men. In other words, you are going to have to feel it to know if it’s working—and so do the Black women around you.