When my husband and I separated and he moved out of the house, my youngest daughter was 13, and she was, understandably, angry about a situation in which she had no agency to control the outcome. I tried to be present for her in as kind and compassionate a way as I knew how, while still wrestling with the healing work I also needed to do for myself. It was hard – for both of us. I made mistakes.
Finally, after weeks of very little communication between us, I said to her “I know you’re angry. You have every right to be. AND I want you to know that I am prepared to hold your anger. Go ahead – scream at me if you must. Do what you need to do, and know that I WILL NOT LEAVE. And I will not throw the anger back at you. I will just hold it for you.”
In that situation, I had to recognize that, as the person with more agency and power, who had contributed to a situation that impacted her, I had to be prepared to receive what would come my way, even if I didn’t entirely deserve it. Even if it hurt. Even if it scared me.
I had to be prepared to hold it and NOT WALK AWAY.
This, too, is what it means to hold space – to create a container that is strong enough to hold rage, grief, fear, pain, etc. We receive what’s ours, heal it, make reparations, and let the rest go. And we don’t walk away. (We take care of ourselves, but we don’t walk away.)
Let’s extrapolate that situation to other situations where there is an imbalance of power and agency. Take, for example, some of the conversations I’ve seen and been part of, both online and off, where there is understandable anger on the part of disenfranchised/marginalized people whose lives are being irrevocably altered by people with more power and agency. Online, I’ve seen it in response to a spiritual teacher who failed to listen when people challenged her to see her blindspots. Offline, I’ve heard it in response to the Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine murder trials.
For those of us with more power and agency (whether given to us as a “birthright” because of our skin colour, gender, etc., or because we’ve found ourselves in a hierarchically elevated position) can we hold this outrage and pain without walking away? Can we be strong enough to stay in the conversations even if it hurts, even if it scares us, even if we don’t entirely deserve it? Can we receive what’s ours, heal it, and let the rest go?
This, to me, is what reconciliation looks like. Holding space, owning what’s ours, listening deeply, making reparations, and not walking away.
(The good news is that my daughter and I weathered that storm and have a deeper relationship now because of it.)
1. Safety – my privilege
The atmosphere was rather festive as my daughters and I made banners for the women’s march. They’re not new to political activism, having been raised in a home where political dialogue is as common as mashed potatoes, but this was the first time all four of us were going to a march together and the first time we were all making our own banners. One chose a Star Wars reference and another chose Hamilton – their pop culture of choice. They dressed up and I teased them with “this is the resistance – not a fashion parade.” They retorted with “Feminism has evolved, Mom. Our generation believes we can look cute AND resist at the same time.”
On the way downtown, we picked up Saleha, a Muslim friend who’s lived in Canada for 10 years. She was excited and passionate about the march – her first political action of this kind.
The meeting place quickly filled with thousands of marchers – predominantly white women, some wearing pink pussy hats, some holding signs. As people gathered, one of the organizers announced that an Indigenous elder would be smudging whoever was interested. Saleha was eager for the opportunity, so we got in line. I stood by and watched a beautiful moment unfold – Saleha opening her hijab like a tent to let the smoke touch her face and her ears, while the elder offered gentle guidance. When Saleha turned away, the emotion on her face told me how moving it had been.
Leaning on a rail on the second floor of the meeting space, we watched the speakers and drumming group on stage. A mix of intersectional voices – Indigenous, immigrants, transgender, and women of colour – inspired us to consider ALL human rights, not just those that have been too often centred in marches like these (able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual white women).
Slowly, the crowd made its way onto the street. As soon as we stepped onto the street, I sensed something had changed in Saleha’s demeanour. I turned toward her. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Suddenly I don’t feel safe anymore.”
“Would you like me to hold your hand?” I asked.
“Yes, I think I need you to,” she responded.
Holding hands, we followed the crowd. Looking around, I tried to find at least one other woman on the street in a hijab, but I could see none. Nor were there many women of colour or Indigenous women. It was mostly women who looked like me – a crowd of white feminists, probably mostly unaware of who was missing. Did all of those other, more marginalized women, avoid the march because they sensed the same feeling of insecurity that was coming up for Saleha?
More than once I turned to her and said “If it feels unsafe to be here, we can step out and leave the crowd.”
“No,” she said. “I want to do this. I’ll stay in it as long as I can.” We kept walking and the stories began to spill. “It’s illegal to protest like this where I come from,” she said. “I once witnessed a friend yanked off the street by the authorities. We didn’t see him again after that.”
“The day after the Paris attacks, I was waiting for a train in Amsterdam when a man shoved his face just inches from mine and started verbally attacking me. Nobody stepped in to stop me.”
On and on it went – the many times she had felt unsafe, just because she was a woman on the street wearing a hijab. The airport security checks when customs officers discovered her last name was the same as one of the 9-11 terrorists, the times she’s dropped her children off at school and teachers or other moms ignored her until they realized she spoke English like them, the drunk man on the street who told her to go back home in front of her children.
“I don’t know why these are all coming up right now,” she said. “Each time something happened, I stuffed it away and told myself I was okay. It was the only way I could carry on – to convince myself I was safe. But I’m not safe. Since coming to Canada, I’ve done everything I can to blend in and to convince people that I’m not a threat. I worked so hard to learn English. And now I will probably cancel my post-grad studies in the U.S. because I’ll be even less safe there.”
More than once, as we walked, she apologized for saying things that might make me, a white woman, feel badly for what people like me had done or said to her. “I don’t want to be somebody who blames white people.”
“Stop,” I said. “You don’t need to apologize. If I am your friend, I need to be able to hear the ways that you feel unsafe around people like me. Even if it makes me uncomfortable, I need to listen. You are not responsible for looking after me in this situation.”
“But I’m not used to this kind of conversation,” she said. “I am much more used to doing whatever it takes to make white women like you feel safe.”
As we walked, I glanced ahead to where my daughters walked, and was suddenly hit with these two realizations:
- I and my daughters never once considered that we might be unsafe on the street. My safety to march is just one of the many privileges I take for granted. So is my safety to go grocery shopping, to drop my kids off at school, and to ride the bus without being verbally attacked. Although there are some places I wouldn’t feel safe, especially at night, I have access to enough privilege (ie. my own vehicle, a house in a relatively safe part of town, etc.) that I rarely have to place myself in situations where I am at risk.
- Although I consider myself to be as non-threatening as a person could be, my white skin and my place within the dominant culture make me unsafe for some people. In order to stay safe themselves, others often need to contort themselves in order to make me feel safe. White women like me might present a particular risk because we’re the ones that the police would probably respond to most quickly if we were feeling threatened.
2. Safety – my cage
My friend Desiree is fierce and bold. She says things on her Facebook stream that I don’t have the courage to say and she doesn’t apologize if people take offence to them. Rather than coddling people, she expects them to take responsibility for their own emotional response.
We are quite different in our communication styles and I’ve often wondered about the many factors that contribute to that difference. I chalk up my more conciliatory, sometimes timid communication style to my pacifist, Mennonite, Canadian roots, but lately I’ve considered that it may be more than that. We may have been intentionally conditioned differently by the patriarchy.
For nearly seven years now, Desiree and I have been having periodic conversations about the ways in which we’ve learned to respond to the world differently. As a Black woman living in the southern U.S., her lived experience is quite different from mine. We’re passionate about many of the same things, but we came to these issues from different directions.
After the women’s march, Desiree and I talked about what the march represented, what happened during the march, whose voices were heard, etc. One of our most profound conversations was about the images on social media that portrayed police officers wearing pink pussy hats at the marches.
“When white women show up to protest,” Desiree said, “police wear pink pussy hats. But when people of colour show up to protest, they wear riot gear.”
We went back and forth about what that meant. Did the police just assume that, because the Women’s March was predominantly white women, there would be no danger involved? Was it a purely race-related difference?
And then, something new emerged in our conversation – the possibility that the police were serving as agents of the patriarchy, keeping white women in line by appeasing them and convincing them they were there to protect THEM from outside forces rather than protecting OTHERS from them. When they show up with riot gear, they’re protecting the community from the protestors. When they put on pussy hats, they’re signalling that they’re protecting the protestors.
And that, we theorized, is one of the reasons that there is fragility among white women (and why someone like me might adopt a more timid, conciliatory communication style) – because we have been conditioned by the hierarchy to believe that our fragility keeps us safe. As long as we are fragile, the patriarchy protects us. When we are no longer fragile, the patriarchy withdraws its protection and we are at risk.
The patriarchy benefits from the fragility of white women.
Women of colour, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of being fragile. They are taught to survive at whatever cost, usually by their own means and without the help of those in authority. They don’t grow up assuming that the police will protect them if they are fragile. They grow up with images of the police protecting the community from them, not the other way around.
This is how the patriarchy keeps us both in line – by keeping us separate and at odds. It’s the same way that apartheid worked in South Africa. The white establishment created fractions between the local tribes, giving some more access to education, jobs, etc. When they were fighting amongst themselves, they did not present a threat to those in power. If you look around at the places where women are gathering to develop political actions such as the Women’s March, you’ll see the same kind of dissension. Groups with differing access to privilege, power, and protection have a hard time hearing each other’s concerns.
(I would add that those police officers in pussy hats and riot gear are also being controlled and wounded by the patriarchy, though they probably don’t recognize it. It’s a flawed system that is doing damage to us all.)
Two more realizations:
- Fragility in white women is real AND it’s tool of the patriarchy in order to keep us silent and weak. If I don’t challenge it in myself, I stay trapped and nothing changes.
- If I place too high a value on my own safety, I won’t risk stepping into conversations that make me uncomfortable and I won’t be able to build better relationships with women of colour and other groups that have been oppressed by the patriarchy.
3. Safety – my right
A few days ago, I was part of a text conversation of another kind. My friend Jo shared that she had been verbally abused in a conversation on social media. She’d been invited into a conversation about whether or not patriarchy is real, and though she intuitively felt unsafe as the only women surrounded by opinionated men, trying to explain something that they had all benefited from, she took the risk because she cared about the person who invited her. She stated her discomfort, but that discomfort was used as a weapon against her to make her feel shame for wanting a “safe space”.
Jo’s story reminded me of the times when I too have felt unsafe, trying to explain sexism or discrimination to those who had more power than me. Several years ago, I wrote a letter addressing some sexist behaviour on the board of an organization I was part of and I sent it to the three men I thought needed to be aware of it. My letter was ignored by one, dismissed by another, and responded to only with a back-handed comment by the third. I was left feeling small and ashamed for “over-reacting” and unsafe to raise any such concerns again in the future.
I know, from listening to my friends who are Indigenous and people of colour, that they feel similarly when white people ask them to explain racism, or when they need to challenge racism in their workplace. It is unfair to expect the people who’ve been oppressed to explain to those who’ve benefited from the oppression. It puts them in a dangerous position where they are often targeted with more abuse for “over-reacting”, “being too sensitive”, etc. Some people even lose their jobs for daring to challenge the system.
Though I have to recognize safety as my privilege and my trap, I also believe that it is a human right. Those who dismiss my safety as irrelevant or who tell me I’m over-reacting and need to calm down are attempting to gaslight me – making me think that I’m crazy or weak for needing safety. That’s how oppressors win.
As I mentioned in my last post, trauma further complicates this issue. Unhealed trauma convinces us that we are unsafe even when we aren’t. And much of that trauma is hard to pinpoint because we may have inherited it or it may have been caused before we were old enough to know what was going on. The fear that comes up when a trauma memory is triggered is as real as the fear we felt when the trauma happened.
Two more realizations:
- Next to air, water, and food, safety is our most basic need. We will do almost anything to find safety, including contorting ourselves in the presence of those who make us feel unsafe. Those who’ve been oppressed are usually masterful at contortion, and if they’re not, they are at greater risk.
- When we have experienced trauma, our need for safety is easily triggered and our bodies respond with fight, flight, or freeze. Often we don’t recognize that we are being triggered and then it’s easy to feel shame for over-reacting. Those with more power usually don’t recognize (or choose to ignore) that they are triggering our fear and our shame because their lived experience is very different.
Note: All three of the friends mentioned in this post gave permission for their stories to be shared.
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A few weeks ago, when I was visiting my friend Desiree Adaway in Asheville, a recurring theme kept coming up in our conversations – women, race, and privilege.
Community building is high on the list of values that both Desiree and I hold, and within that value is an interest in more effective community building across the gaps that divide us – like race and access to privilege. To get to a deeper place in those relationships that help us build community, we have to be prepared to engage in some of the harder conversations. That means asking questions that might embarrass us, admitting that we might feel some shame around some of the issues involved (eg. the privilege that we did nothing to earn), listening to each others’s stories with open hearts, and being prepared to step out of our comfort zones.
I invite you to listen in on our conversation and add your own thoughts in the comments below.
Note: the video stopped working part way through, but the audio works fine, so we decided to share it as is.
Women, Race, and Privilege from Heather Plett on Vimeo.