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Being an angry white woman

February 12, 2010

When I co-preach on race with my minister colleague, who is black,  I have deep emotion; racism makes me angry. However, as I often note to a predominantly white congregation, “It is unlikely that after our sermon, you will say about me, ‘Oh, she’s just another angry white woman’.”   Whereas my colleague, and other black women I have known, have multiple stories of being categorized as “an angry black woman” when they speak their truth.  Today, I write as an angry white woman. I had an encounter a few days ago that left me somewhat stunned and the anger continues to grow.

I unexpectedly ran into a white man who I know a bit but hadn’t seen for awhile. He knew I recently finished a doctoral program. I mentioned my dissertation work was on whiteness.  “Whiteness; what’s that?” he said.  I offered a brief explanation about dominant groups and systemic impact. Since he spends a good deal of his time working for social justice causes, I expected he would understand.  His response, which I experienced as edged with challenge, was,  “Oh, is that like black in Haiti?”  When I replied that I wasn’t able to respond to what being black in Haiti was like (although I could have offered a comment about the French white people and their historical role in Haiti), he came back with “So, like brown in Africa” with sarcasm in his voice.  Another colleague standing nearby, who is a person of color, said, “Doesn’t that have to do with white privilege?” to which I responded “yes”. “Well, I don’t like the term,” the white colleague said.  I suggested we have a discussion about this at another time (I was on my way to an appointment).  He didn’t seem a bit interested.

So, tell me, white man.  What kind of fear lives in you and how has it eaten up a spirit of curiosity and inquiry and left arrogance in its wake? I didn’t ask for agreement.  I asked for dialogue.  Don’t talk to me any more about your passion for social justice when you are only willing to entertain that which fits comfortably into your own framework and disturbs nothing of the picture you have of your life.

I recognize that my perception of his response may be skewed; there’s always more information about something than what is immediately available.  I’m still angry.  I wonder how the person of color, who observed all of this, experienced the encounter. I wonder if I will have the courage to approach this white man again and tell him how I feel. I wonder why it often seems that anger and sadness seem to be flip sides of the same coin. Tonight, I am also a sad white woman.

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3 comments

  1. A hard experience, especially since you would expect so much more given his focus on social issues. And, I would be surprised if more than one in ten people (male or female) of the white race would – if honest – answer any differently.

    Being exposed to the reality of white privilege and learning of the experience of that by people of color can, in many of us, raise our own racial bias. Many of us (white people) live out of a ‘zero sun game’ mentality: more for you (people of color) less for me (white race.)

    Life is abundant and our fears take that abundance away for so many.,


  2. “What kind of fear lives in you and how has it eaten up a spirit of curiosity and inquiry and left arrogance in its wake?”

    What a smart way to look at this fear! You capture exactly what I think when I witness overt acts of racial arrogance. However. to try and open my heart, I always try to empathize. Who was white man? Is he feeling powerless over the atrocity that is Haiti (his first comment) right now? Doesn’t want to repeat the “White Man” stance of standing by feeling feeble? What would it be for HIM to change that?

    I act against fear like you do. But sometimes I wonder whether by sitting in the fear (or with the person fearing) I might be better served? Thoughts? In reaction to your final paragraph, my sister often tells me that Anger is the afterthought of fear and sadness. I think that nicely sums up your progression of emotions so far. Of course, she never tells me where we go from there! (Or maybe I’m too angry! ;p)

    Peace-
    TLU


  3. I appreciate your reflections, TLU. They are a reminder of the complex myriad of emotions that can swirl around discussions of whiteness. I think my initial reaction was connected to some fear; fear that I had not done a good job of explaining whiteness or that I would be characterized by my comments in a way that doesn’t represent all of who I am.

    A trainer once said to not “freeze” each other in time because of one comment or action. There is always more learning to do; for me, the “white man,” and others.

    The hard spot is how learning is restricted if we are unable/unwilling to dialogue with each other.

    I did contact “white man” last week and asked if we could meet for a follow-up conversation. He said he was too busy right now but maybe in the spring. I suggested we set a date on our calendars; he said why don’t we wait until spring comes.

    At this point, I’m letting go of the outcome. I trust that something in our encounter will end up being useful to both of us in a way that may not yet be apparent.



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