Safety: My privilege, my trap, and my right

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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 him.”

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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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This is my white privilege (but the story is not about me)

Rosanna and I as bandits

This is my friend Rosanna. She is fierce and funny and a little bit crazy. She is also really, really smart, and has amazing skills as a poet and radio broadcaster. She has a national radio program and I get giddy every time I hear her voice on the radio, because she’s so good and because it makes my petty little ego feel puffed up to be friends with such a smart person.

This was us on Friday night at King’s Head Pub. We were being a little bit silly and a little bit fierce and our friend Angela snapped the picture mid-gangsta-hands-motion.

Rosanna and I are both moms raising fierce daughters. And we’re both writers and career women. And we’re both fiercely committed to social justice. And we both live in the same city and were both raised in rural parts of the same province. And we both like to get a little silly on a Friday night over wine.

But there’s one big difference between Rosanna and me. She is Indigenous and I am White. Her ancestors were the original inhabitants of this country and mine were the settlers. Hers were the colonized and mine were the colonizers.

Rosanna and I met last year when her face on the cover of a national magazine made her the unwilling poster child for racism in our city. Our city had been called the most racist city in Canada and both of us felt the need to do something about that.

When I read the article, I felt heartsick about it and determined to make a contribution to change in our the city, but didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to use my skills as a facilitator to gather people for conversations, but I didn’t want to do that alone. I didn’t want to be one of those “great white hope” leaders who takes the spotlight away from the people who deserve it. I wanted to do it in partnership with an Indigenous person, and so I waited for the right person.

Rosanna turned out to be the right person. When Rosanna posted on Facebook that she wanted to gather people around the dinner table for conversations, a mutual friend connected us, a few other people stepped in, and suddenly we had an event planned. We hosted over 90 people for a good meal and even better conversation. And then we did it again.

In the process, I learned a lot about what it means to be an ally. I made some mistakes, and tripped on my own privilege a few times, but I stuck with it, believing it was the right thing to do. All the way through it, Rosanna was gracious and forgiving (and funny to boot) and never made me or any of the other fumbling white people feel shame over any misguided words or wrong-headed actions.

The little troupe of women who pulled the conversations together came to call ourselves the Justice Ladies League. We even had badges and we wore them at the bar while we plotted our next attack on injustice. We talked about serious stuff, but damn we had fun together.

Life got busy and suddenly months had passed since we’d held our last event or been silly over drinks together. When the one year anniversary of the magazine article rolled around, we remembered how much we liked each other, so we planned a spontaneous reunion of the Justice Ladies League at the King’s Head Pub.

That reunion was this past Friday night. I was late leaving the house, so I drove instead of taking the bus. That limited me to only one glass of wine, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t up for some fun.

At the end of the evening of catching up, laughing, and pretending we were bandits ready to wreak havoc on the city, four of us left the bar while Rosanna went to join a few other friends at another table.

I drove home, safe and sound and thought not much more of it, until this morning when I checked Facebook and discovered… this is what happened to Rosanna on the way home from the bar…

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Suddenly I felt that same sickening feeling I’d felt when I read the Maclean’s article. This is what happens when you’re an Indigenous woman in our city. This is the risk you take just trying to take a cab home on a Friday night.

There are over 1500 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. Even though she is smart and funny and a published poet and a national broadcaster, my friend Rosanna lives with the daily awareness that any day, she could become one of them.

That sickening feeling in my stomach was partly because I knew that this would not have happened to me. If I had taken a cab home and done the same thing Rosanna did, the cab driver would almost certainly have kept silent and driven me home. There’s no way I would have ended up at the Main Street Project and there’s no way police officers would have considered taking a cab driver’s side over mine or sending me home without protecting me from an abusive cab driver. Because I am white. Because I am privileged. Because I live in the predominantly white suburbs. Because he wouldn’t have assumed that the colour of my skin meant I was a drunken trouble-maker.

I need to go further with this story, because it’s important. After I saw Rosanna’s post, I felt guilty about not giving her a ride home. If only I’d stayed a little longer. Or if only I’d been in the cab with her.

I felt the sting of shame over my own white privilege. Why do I have the right to drive home safely or even take a cab without worrying that I might not make it home? Why has it never occurred to me to warn my daughters about cab drivers when they come home from the bar?

I shared Rosanna’s story on Facebook, and people responded with appropriate outrage, but then something else happened. Some of the people who responded were doing so because they felt badly for ME – because I’d worked hard to challenge racism and had to face something like this. “Keep up the good work, even though it’s discouraging.”

But the work wasn’t about ME. And the story wasn’t about ME. And if it was, then my ego was getting in the way.

I had a sudden memory of the article my friend Ericka shared awhile ago about white women’s tears. The article talks about how white women’s tears in response to stories of racism turns the spotlight onto themselves and makes people feel compassion for THEIR emotions rather than pointing their compassion in the direction it should go. By showing too much of their own emotions, well meaning white women co-opt the story. 

I found the article challenging at the time, because I’ve always encouraged authentic emotions and wouldn’t want to tell a white woman to stop if she was feeling genuinely heartbroken over the story of someone’s black son being murdered. I knew, for example, that I had shed tears at the vigil for Tina Fontaine (a young Indigenous woman whose body was found in the river), and that didn’t feel wrong.

But now, as I found myself wanting to share my emotions over the bullying Rosanna had received at the hands of the cab driver and police officers, and my own guilt for not driving her home, I was doing the very thing the article warned against. I was co-opting Rosanna’s story and inviting people to feel empathy for me instead.

No, I didn’t mean to do that. I only meant to support my friend. But sometimes it’s the well-meaning things we do that cause the most damage. 

Ugh. This ally stuff is challenging!

What if I just deleted my post and didn’t share anything? I could pretend I hadn’t seen Rosanna’s post and go on with my nice easy life. Who would be the wiser? That way I wouldn’t risk any blunders and I wouldn’t need to expose my white privilege.

But Rosanna is my friend! How could I ignore what happened to her on an evening when I’d been with her? I couldn’t and it really wasn’t a temptation at all.

The only thing I could do was to put my discomfort on the line, risk making a few blunders (and admit them), and honour this friendship that matters to me. Because the risks I take in speaking out and challenging people are insignificant in the light of the risks my Indigenous friends face every day. 

So I said this on Facebook… “I appreciate all of your words AND I want to say that I didn’t share this because ‘poor me – I work so hard and nothing changes’. If I make the story about me, that brings it all back to my own white privilege. This is about the reality of what Indigenous women have to live with every day. I bow gracefully out and make the story theirs.”

The truth is, I may lose followers out of this, and I may get some backlash, because it happens every time I write about racism, privilege, feminism, etc. – especially when I admit my own blunders. But again, the fact that I can even consider staying silent is a mark of my privilege.

(As you can imagine, I’m also struggling with the irony of saying I don’t want to make the story about me and then writing a whole blog post about it.)

But I have a platform and I have a voice, and silence doesn’t feel like an option. Silence doesn’t feel like true friendship. And Rosanna is worth a whole lot more than that.

So please, if you learn anything from this story, don’t make it about me. Don’t pat me on the back for telling the story, because I did nothing courageous. I don’t need the ego strokes or the reinforcement of my privilege. Instead, use Rosanna’s story to galvanize you to look into your own heart, challenge the racism you see around you and in you, and find a way to be an ally for the marginalized members of your own community.

And, if you want to know truly courageous truth-telling, read the poetry book Rosanna wrote with her mom, about her mom’s residential school experience. And read other stories that challenge you. And talk to the people who are facing this kind of struggle every damn day. And ask them how you can be an ally and stand with them against injustice.

Do it for Rosanna and do it for her daughters and do it for Tina Fontaine. And do it for my daughters and your daughters and our city and everyone who feels unsafe because they are not part of the dominant culture.

Because if we don’t challenge the racism, wrestle with our own privilege, and listen to the stories of the marginalized, then nothing will ever change. 

 

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