Dena R. Samuels • • • • • Colorado Springs, CO • On White Privilege
As a white female social justice activist and educator of many years, I still struggle with the pain that is caused by racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. That pain rears its ugly head periodically and reminds me why I must remain committed to the work.
I was at a social justice conference not too long ago where a participant and I were the only white people in the room. I was very aware that the other white participant seemed to be “showing her whiteness” in terms of trying to direct the conversation a certain way, focusing on the outcome rather than the process, and in general, being what I perceived as overbearing. Her nervous energy was palpable.
As I witnessed this, I grew more and more uncomfortable. I was wracking my brain trying to figure out how to politely and gently challenge the whiteness in the room, but I couldn’t come up with a compassionate way to do so. So, rather than challenging it head on, I chose to try to distance myself from her. I tried to engage the group in a gentler way, wanting to connect instead with the positive energy in the room.
Apparently, I was not successful. What I received was a noticeable distancing of the people of color in the room from me; they were not engaging with me. These were folks I knew fairly well and I was taken aback by this reaction. I became so uncomfortable both from the whiteness and the reaction to it that I chose to quietly get up and leave the room so that I could process what was happening. I didn’t want to create more drama, but I knew I couldn’t remain in that space any longer.
While outside, I searched my own feelings and realized that deep down, I was incredibly hurt that I was being lumped together with the whiteness in the room. I felt dishonored and unappreciated. And at the same time, I felt the shame of what whiteness has come to mean. And in that moment I realized that this is, in fact, the byproduct of white supremacy. This system of inequality affects us all, obviously to different degrees, but the pain I felt was real. It became clear to me that I needed to practice what I teach. I needed to accept that white privilege causes chasms between people, and that my job as a white ally is to acknowledge and to try to understand the tension that my white skin can cause, regardless of my own words or actions.
I also remembered that I often advise others that this social justice journey is a marathon, not a sprint. That white supremacy has permeated our culture so deeply, I must be patient when trying to dismantle it. That my skin color means something; it represents something, whether I want it to or not.
I then remembered that I have the privilege of being able to leave the room when necessary. And that’s when it occurred to me that I must go back. I remembered that my job is to show up for the relationship, and to keep showing up. Building relationships includes building trust and showing that you are someone other people can count on not to shy away from the work. I also did not want to let the inevitable mistakes that come from building relationships across difference hold me back.
It is my job as an anti-racist activist to confront the whiteness in the room when I see it. When I think back on it, I can see that leaving the scenario was one way of disrupting the status quo. It demonstrated resistance to what was happening. Could I have done things differently, and better? Absolutely! I could have been more transparent with my protest.
But either way, what I received when I returned to the room showed me that these ways of creating change can make a difference. The energy in the room had changed; the other white participant was no longer taking over; and I was blessed with an incredibly supportive welcome from my friends of color in the room.
I know there are many ways to disrupt white supremacy. Both verbal and non-verbal challenges are called for. This experience made it clear to me that this is powerful work. It showed me that white supremacy can be dismantled, slowly, relationship by relationship. It is a lifelong commitment and a practice that takes patience and faith, and I know I am not alone when I say it is well worth the effort.