Make Yourself Uncomfortable
I’m trying to lean into my discomfort. As a cis-gender, white, college woman, who quarantines at her parents house, there are very few moments of discomfort for me.
But the past months of racist police violence and protests have exposed the prevalence of vicious anti-Blackness, centuries-old discriminatory systems, Black womxn’s erasure, public health disparities, deadly transphobia, and many other realities that my own blindspots as a white woman have prohibited me from seeing. My discomfort is a small price to pay for systemic change.
This essay was a debate for me. As I said above, I’m seeing that my inaction and unwillingness to have hard conversations that will expose the racist ideas and histories I undoubtedly carry as a white woman are no longer acceptable. We shout in the streets and write on signs “White silence is violence,” and I see my implications in that statement now more than ever. To be an ally and to help create a better world, my discomfort is crucial in speaking up.
Yet on the other hand, I’m not the person anyone should listen to right now. The reality is, an essay like this takes up space. Space - something I have always been granted as white person. I’m not saying it takes the spot of another essay on this blog that could’ve been posted; I mean space in a larger, often less visible sense. The best thing I can compare it to is the Blackout Tuesday trend on Instagram.
A short-lived fad that asked non-Black social media users to mute themselves for the day by posting a black square on their feed, it was intended to symbolize a willingness to listen instead of speak and not fill Instagram with their content. The idea was that if this happened, the only new content being shared that day would be by Black users and creators, but instead everything, including the #BLM hashtag - used for sharing important protest safety information - was flooded with black squares.
This trend stank of performative allyship and virtue signaling. In vowing to not take up space by posting a black square, white people on Instagram took up more space than usual. It was almost like playing the Silent Game, but instead of not speaking, you see who can yell the word “SILENCE” the loudest. And I posted a black square, too.
That’s what I think this essay is in some ways: me taking up even more space on top of the plentiful amount that’s already granted to me. I can’t defend my silence anymore, but I also don’t want to take up more space.
So this essay is written very carefully and is for white people like me, who are examining entire systems and histories like we’ve just arrived on Earth from an alien planet. But if you have already read this far and decided it’s enough, I understand. There’s a list at the bottom of this essay with work from Black writers and creators that will probably serve you better, and I encourage you to fill your space with them.
Recently, I’ve begun aligning myself with a new identity. In addition to cis-gender, queer, able-bodied, college-aged white woman, I have to put the word “racist” in the mix. I am racist. I’ve used every trick in the book to avoid confronting that reality - “I have Black friends...” or “I’m a democrat...” or “I’m a liberal....” or “I’m not from the South…” or “I love the Obamas…” or “I’m gay, I can’t be racist.” In fact, I thought I was the furthest thing from racist until this spring. I had evolved past the “I can’t see color” phase and the “white is the default” phase, so I must not be racist. That’s false.
Yes, I refuse to sing the n-word in Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” and am quick to jump on any non-Black person who does sing it, but that doesn’t erase my culpability in American racism. The reality is, I am the beneficiary of institutions that have long oppressed Black people in this country. It’s good and all - or actually just commonsensical - that I don’t call the police on my Black neighbors for no reason, but I still have a role in the over-policing of predominantly Black neighborhoods. I’m racist because almost every aspect of my life exists as the flipside to violence and oppression against Black Americans.
lIjeoma Oluo says it best in her book So You Want to Talk About Race: “You [white people] are racist because you were born and bred in a racist, white supremacist society… There is no way you can inherit white privilege from birth, learn racist white supremacist history in schools, consume racist and white supremacist movies and films, work in a racist and white supremacist workforce, and vote for racist and white supremacist governments and not be racist.”
For example, I had the immense privilege to go to a private boarding school for high school. That fact alone highlights many aspects of my privilege. My parents had money to send me to boarding school because they worked hard and because they were white people in a white workforce. I was accepted to my high school likely because I had spent my entire life in private schools. My subpar grades in middle school were probably looked past instead of being viewed as an indication of my laziness or stupidity. I didn’t have to be deemed “talented” or “gifted” to go to school where I did - I not only had the resources to go, but I also didn’t have racialized hoops I had to jump through.
Next, I loved high school. Despite the fact that I wasn’t particularly notable or that I was closeted the entire time, I really loved high school. I couldn’t understand when some of my classmates didn’t feel the same. My boarding school was, and still is, my happy place. But it was built for me and people like me. The student body was predominantly white, the staff was overwhelmingly white, and the Board of Trustees that made the large-scale decision was, you may have guessed it, majority white.
The saddest part is, I probably didn’t even stop to think about how white every facet of my high school experience was until the past few weeks thanks to an Instagram account devoted to sharing the experiences of Black students at my school. They asked a simple question: “How many Black teachers did you have as a student?” Almost all of the answers ranged from 0-2. I looked back at my high school transcripts and realized I had only had one.
Pretty much everything that made my high school experience so wonderful - teachers I could relate to, Deans and other faculty members who would unquestionably trust me, academic resources that catered to my needs - are the exact components that overlooked the Black students at my school. We essentially went to different schools, where our needs as children were left filled or unfilled depending on our race.
I used to chalk up my high school experience among other things to privilege. I recognized my privilege as a white person for a while before this year. It was a journey in itself, as before high school I probably would have said “white privilege” was a divisive myth. Yet, to just chalk up these inequalities to privilege is sugarcoating reality. In my opinion, privilege, while it acknowledges the disparities in wealth, opportunity, and basic rights between people, clears a lot of white people from seeing their role in oppressive institutions. My advantages aren’t simply unavailable to a young Black woman who is otherwise like me - my advantages come from and continue to feed a system that actively hurts her.
That’s not to say that one of us always has to get hurt for the other to succeed. If that’s what you think progress requires - the oppression of one group by another - and that’s why it scares you or that’s why you say you support racial equality, but don’t believe systems are racist, you’re wrong. Power is not a limited source, but the institutions of this country make it appear to be. Voter suppression, redlining, the prison industrial complex, the racial wealth gap, racial public health disparities, and, yes, policing, make us see power as this limited resource - someone needs to lose for there to be winners. But that’s not true.
Power, opportunity, rights, and success should not require winners and losers. I believe that the systems I’ve benefited from all my life created that myth. And I’m done with those institutions.
Yes, I’m racist. The society I’ve grown up in, the content I’ve consumed are racist, therefore making me racist. That scares me and makes me feel ashamed, but the greatest emotion I experience is anger. And it’s anger that I will fuel into not only being a better ally on an interpersonal level, but into being an instrument of systemic change.
Work that says it better:
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
“Of Course There Are Protests. The State is Failing Black People.” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
“The End of White Supremacy: An American Romance” by Saidiya Hartman
“Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police” by Mariame Kaba
“America’s Racial Contract is Killing Us” by Adam Serwer
“White Privilege Unpacking the Invisible” by Knapsack Peggy McIntosh
Rachel is a rising senior at George Washington University, studying English. As the founder and editor of Feminist Essay Project, she is passionate about providing creators with more inclusive spaces to share stories and ideas. In her free time, she enjoys running, reading, writing, and cooking.