On Talking, Walking, and Vulnerability

19 02 2009

I started to write this as a comment at Black Amazon’s. Then felt like I was veering into dangerous territory. Co-opting a blog post about how white women co-opt and take advantage of and walk all over women of color, to talk about white women’s issues. So I stopped there, and moved it here. So that BA’s space is still her space, not muddied up by my own navel gazing.

I’ve been thinking about why the same things happen over and over again. Thinking about why we white women keep trying to talk the talk and utterly f*ing up when it comes to walking the walk. And then I was thinking about Jess’ post about her walk, and about perfectionism. About how the pressure to always get it “right,” to be perfect, might in and of itself, be one of the things that is crippling us in trying to do right.

So often, the dynamics between women of color and white women are unbalanced by degrees or levels of vulnerability. Those of us in positions of privilege are, by nature of those positions, able to engage with the same issues from a less invested, less personal, less vulnerable state. What would it mean if more white women, in trying to do good work and check our own shit, actually allowed ourselves to be vulnerable?

Took to heart the reality that being called racist is not as bad as racism, and were willing to be *real.* This, of course, shouldn’t be confused for excusing inexcusable behavior because “we’re all learning,” or to advance the idea that just being vulnerable is enough. But what if more of us actually took personal risks? Not just to level the playing field, and not just because it’s the *right* thing to do, or because it’s this week’s badge of anti-racist credibility, but because our personal and collective salvation, liberation, and resistance are tied up together and we are actually doing this work because it matters on a fundamentally personal level, and not just on behalf of those “other” women somewhere else. What does that look like?

And how do we draw the lines between allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and over-identification? Because letting myself be called racist, or exposing my character flaws, my areas of growth, is not, nor will it ever be, on the same level of being vulnerable as just living, when you and those like you have a 1 in 8 chance of being victims of violence. When the likelihood that you will experience personal bodily harm because you are trans, because you are a woman, and because you are of color – is higher than your odds of being in a car accident, struck by lightning, or attacked by a shark.

It’s a fine line to walk, and I’m not always sure what I’m doing or if I’m doing more harm than good in the process, but I’m pretty sure that being willing to honestly engage with those who want to engage with you – being responsible and thoughtful, but letting yourself potentially be wrong – is a step in the right direction.

Edit: This question of vulnerability is also about accountability. It is much easier to walk away when you haven’t put yourself on the line. When it is not *really* your heart, soul, work, mind, and energies that have been invested, it is easier to just turn your back on the work, and on the mistakes, avoiding the criticism and those holding you accountable. Vulnerability and personal investment also means greater accountability.

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6 responses

21 02 2009
Jennifer

Here from BlackAmazon’s. Just wanted to say I appreciated this post. Thanks.

21 02 2009
terese

I think your points about unequal levels of vulnerability is a good one, and the fact that white women can more easily walk away and forget about what has happened because it’s not their survival or identity or emotional well-being on the line (apart from being embarrassed or temporarily ashamed for having been racist or whatever) is very true.

I have been thinking similar things through myself and , like you, am wondering what this would look like. Ie how could I as a white woman make myself more vulnerable, without it being some fake thing. Because to an extent it is impossible to ‘shed’ the privilege we inhabit. But I think this is partly a straw man to stop us from even trying. Because there is a lot of things we could in fact be doing but that most of us aren’t.

One thing I have been thinking about lately is the different levels where we set our boundaries and the difference in how white people vs POC experience in having those boundaries respected. Just something as simple (and as difficult) as being straight-forward and open about our lives, our histories & how we think they have and continue to shape us. Ie not hiding behind our privileges by pretending that we don’t have them. (I have been thinking about this in terms of class a lot, ie middle class people are often more guarded about what information they share about themselves, and have the privilege to have that level of privacy respected and not invaded)

Hmm… thoughts still in progress.

21 02 2009
Jo

@Jennifer – Thanks for your comment, too.

@terese – I think that your bring up a good point, about the risk of that “vulnerability” being fake or put on. Because it’s SO common for people trying to work through their privilege to cling on to “the one way to be a good _______” (insert anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc.). I know I’ve done it, I’ve seen a lot of other people do it, and I understand why it happens; why we get caught up in the idea of there being “rules” for how to do anti-racism – but that, once again, should just serve to show us how privileged our asses are. That we expect a neat and tidy set of rules and expectations for engaging in activist work – as if the problems we supposedly want to address are neat or tidy, or as if the violence enacted by oppression is ever neat or tidy or orderly.

I also think that you’re right about the impossibility of shedding our privilege, and the way that that knowledge can serve as a straw man argument. It always makes me think of that song from Avenue Q, “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist.” There’s a lot to unpack in that song, but what’s more relevant to me is how often I hear liberal white friends bring up that idea as an excuse for not challenging their own internalized racism or white privilege. “Well, if everyone’s a little bit racist, what’s the big deal? It’s just the way the world works.” To me, thinking about how we’re all racist, and can’t “shed” our privilege is more about recognizing that our whiteness and the privileges afforded are unearned, and thus not our *fault* per se – a way of trying to avoid the crippling guilt phase of dealing with white privilege, but not a way to avoid responsibility.

I’m not sure what else to add to your thoughts about boundaries and respect, except that I absolutely think that privilege plays a role in not just how our boundaries are respected, but the degree to which we allow ourselves to have boundaries.

21 02 2009
White privilege, work in progress « Missing Words

[…] Avowed Virago has some good thoughts on possible ways forward: So often, the dynamics between women of color and white women are unbalanced by degrees or levels of vulnerability. Those of us in positions of privilege are, by nature of those positions, able to engage with the same issues from a less invested, less personal, less vulnerable state. What would it mean if more white women, in trying to do good work and check our own shit, actually allowed ourselves to be vulnerable? […]

23 02 2009
terese

To me, thinking about how we’re all racist, and can’t “shed” our privilege is more about recognizing that our whiteness and the privileges afforded are unearned, and thus not our *fault* per se – a way of trying to avoid the crippling guilt phase of dealing with white privilege, but not a way to avoid responsibility.

Yep that’s a good distinction actually.

25 02 2009
On Vulnerability, Integrity, Blogo-splosions, and Bloviating « Avowed Virago

[…] were really hurt – sent me an email a couple days ago. She asked me for permission to link to my post in their apology. I said yes, and we had a bit of a back and forth about the recent goings-on in […]

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