January 13, 2017
by Kathleen G.
I don’t know about you, but as a white woman in America, l am SCARED. I am scared of where this country is going; of the giant scab that was ripped off in the last few months; of the level of anger that people in this country have, and that they aim their anger at “others”. I am scared not only that my Black and brown brothers and sisters don’t feel safe, but that in many cases they truly are not safe; that interactions with the police can ultimately leave them dead, even if those interactions are as innocuous as simply being pulled over for having a taillight out! I am scared of being associated with people who are unwilling to take on this journey, unwilling to look at their own part in where we are as a society.
I was part of a group of white women living with HIV at the PWN SPEAK UP! Summit this past September who formed an affinity group to address racism. We are organizing a series of webinars, which launches with an introductory webinar Tuesday, Jan. 17 at 5:30 PM EST/2:30 PM PST. We, as white women, know that we have a long way to go as an American people. We also know that change always starts with personal growth, with challenging our own ideas; that is how we can become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. We as PWN members have come together to contribute meaningfully to the movement for racial justice, to really take ownership of our own part in this journey towards enlightenment, and to really learning how to support our Black and brown sisters and brothers in a way that truly allows us to simultaneously grow as human beings while standing in solidarity with people who are far too often marginalized by a society that professes to celebrate equality and freedom but falls woefully short of that lofty goal.
I was the first in my family to be born outside of the South…Arkansas specifically. My mother grew up right on the Mississippi river, 30 miles from Memphis. My father grew up in a tiny town in Arkansas, close to Mississippi. The N word was never used in my immediate family home, but when we returned to the homes of my grandparents or my great aunt and uncles in Arkansas, it was a regular part of the vocabulary. I remember very distinctly having a sense that it was a bad word. I hated it actually, and still do. At the age of 5, sitting in the back seat of a car with my grandparents and great aunt and uncle, I remember announcing that I would eventually marry a black man. I don’t remember the response, but I remember the tension. I’m not sure why I thought that was what I needed to say but I knew it would get a response. I guess at 5 years old, I was already making waves.
A few years ago, I was back in Memphis at the Civil Rights Museum, which is housed in the hotel where Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed. The museum was close to closing, and there were very few people left in the building, including my family who were waiting outside for me. There is a video installation that covers an entire wall showing police blasting people–predominately Black people—with firehoses. I could not look away from that video; I stood frozen in front of it, horrified. I didn’t notice that I was crying. You know that feeling when it feels like the world is closing in around you? Like you are the only person in the world, and you no longer know if anyone is around? This beautiful African American man walked up to me, and said something like, “Aren’t you glad we aren’t there anymore?” And he hugged me. I was so surprised, I said something eloquent like, “No s*#t!”–immediately thinking of more appropriate responses as he moved out of the room and ultimately the building. I stood, stunned, for what seemed like forever. I was, and still am, awestruck by his grace. We were the only two people in the room; he could have easily walked right by. But he sensed that I needed him to reach out to me! Every time I get lazy, or tired of the fight, or scared, I need to remember my past, and that man.
These events have shaped my perception along the way. I have always had a sense of what should happen in our society, and far too often our society does not live up to its promise for a great many Americans. I’m on PWN’s Board of Directors, and we have been leading discussions on many topics. We have been talking about race from the very beginning. Often it has been very clumsy, I’ll admit. At our recent Summit, we took it a step further. Our affinity group for white women committed to dismantling racism met not once but twice, and this new curriculum was born out of that group and the response we got. I need to continue to learn and grow so that I, as a white woman, can be a better and more effective ally to my sisters. These webinars, the discussion groups, the book list, ALL are an important part of the journey that I need to continue to forge. It is time to get more informed, more educated. And our affinity group recognizes that we cannot keep asking and expecting our Black and brown sisters and brothers to provide that education for us.
I know how uncomfortable this can be to talk about. It often feels like we are paying penance for the misdeeds of past generations, for a system that we had no part in setting up. I remember very distinctly learning about privilege. It made no sense; I did not have a fantastic childhood to say the least. It can be difficult to recognize the ways in which we can at once benefit from certain types of privilege and suffer from other types of oppression. But now it does make sense to me, and it can to you too. It is far easier to recognize when we are experiencing oppression than when we are experiencing privilege. Part of the challenge is taking ourselves, our own egos, out of the equation—moving past “I don’t hate anyone; I don’t discriminate against anyone” to “our society still does not treat everyone equally, and that has economic, political and even life-and-death consequences for people of color.” When we can move to that second statement, our role—and responsibility—in fighting racism as white people becomes much clearer, and feels less like an attack and more like an opportunity.
We hope that you will come with an open mind and listen, and that you will be moved to participate when you are ready. Our voices are needed in this fight now more than ever. I am 100% committed to fighting for racial justice and to fostering an environment that is conducive to having scary, uncomfortable, frustrating conversations in a way that honors all of our experiences and helps us to explore ways to move forward. My 5-year-old self has been waiting for this powerful moment, and I WILL NOT back down. I truly consider this one of the most important journeys of my life, and I hope that you will take that step and join me. Register for the January 17 introductory webinar here!