In my predominantly white high school, there was a Black Women’s Club led by one of the only black faculty members in our community, and nearly all of the black students on campus participated in it. One morning, I overheard someone say: “I just don’t get it. We don’t have a White Women’s Club.” I recognized the wrongness immediately–though I was fumbling through my own failings using racially charged language–as I looked around my school, which was, in essence, almost exactly, a white women’s club.
But I did not say anything.
The moment left me deeply uneasy for many reasons, not the least of which was my silence. And the issue of otherness that the comment and the club itself brought to the fore left me in a state of cognitive dissonance. I felt that much of my grade school education had taught me that “calling out” someone’s race was wrong. In fact, I think the primary message I had absorbed around the topic of race as a child was that I should strive to be colorblind, as all people deserved to be treated equally. “It don’t matter if you’re black or white,” sang Michael Jackson, among myriad other pop culture voices in the 90s, and I nodded along. I would elliptically dance around race when describing a person: “she had brown eyes and was wearing a red shirt?” I would offer tentatively, dropping the descriptor of “black” from the sentence altogether. I thought I was doing the right thing, “following the rules,” sparing offense. Now I don’t know what I was doing, but there was erasure involved. And so, as a teen, I struggled to reconcile the desire to be “colorblind” with the existence of the Black Women’s Club on my campus and other highly visible phemonena recognizing black otherness, like the shaded boxes in my history books: “Blacks During World War I,” “Black Artists in the 1930s,” etc. I found myself wondering about them. Were those an afterthought shoe-horned into the book by P.C. publishers? Or were they a deliberate statement — i.e., “For too long we have not told these stories in our history books, and now we must make physical space to celebrate them in a dedicated way?” Would it be better or worse to fold their stories into what I understood to be — and what the publishers reified by virtue of the textbook’s design — “the main narrative”?
The Black Women’s Club at my high school added a new dimension to my inchoate understanding of otherness because it involved girls I knew, whose lockers were next to mine, who sat with me in the airless second-floor classroom of St. Jo’s Hall, dissecting frogs in sophomore biology. If one of my black classmates had asked me “Do you have a problem with me being a part of the Black Women’s Club?”, I would have reflexively answered, “Of course not.” Of course not because I would have realized, in that instant, that I was transforming their lived experience into a private intellectual debate over whether recognizing otherness was “the best way forward.” Of course not because I would have been speaking directly to a classmate who cheered with me at Gold/White festivities (a spirit tradition at our school) and rolled eyes with me when our dean of students came by measuring our skirts with a ruler. Of course not because I would no longer have been floating in the land of hypothetical fairness. Of course not because I would have intuited in her question that she needed that space for herself for reasons I am fortunate to have never had to reckon with. Of course not because it would have begged the question that I should have been asking myself all along: what must it be like for her?
But I did not have that conversation then. And I should state very clearly that it was nobody’s job to have that conversation with me, least of all a young black classmate, in order to incite such awareness.
I have been thinking a lot about this in the last few days. About the wrongness of staying silent, about the retroactive imperative that I should have asked and listened to what one of my black classmates had to say about the club rather than drifting around in solipsistic la-la land, about what I could or should have said at that moment in high school and many moments since and what I can or should say now.
The crux, though, is this: my reckonings — both in private thought and public journal here — must foreground the real and lived experience of black people.
I wish I could go back and ask one of my black classmates about the Black Women’s Club. Maybe I still should, at a moment less freighted than the one we are in now, when I will not be adding to the emotional labor they are enduring. Or maybe I have lost the privilege of that conversation and can only do better by asking, listening, and speaking in analogous moments in the future.
I am jarred to act. Right now, that means educating myself and reading deeply. Candidly, I feel uneasy projecting any know-how in the curation of experts on the topic of race in America, but these are urgent times and I would love to have some of you join me. Below, a few of the voices I am listening to:
THE CONSCIOUS KID — PARENTING AND CHILDHOOD EDUCATION FROM A CRITICAL RACE LENS
WELL-READ BLACK GIRL — SHOWCASING BLACK GIRL WRITERS
ROXANE GAY — NO DESCRIPTION NEEDED
LAYLA F. SAAD — AUTHOR AND EXPERT ON RACE, IDENTITY, AND SOCIAL CHANGE
RACHEL CARGLE — ACTIVIST AND AUTHOR FOCUSED ON INTERSECTIONALITY
AURORA JAMES — FOUNDER OF FASHION LABEL BROTHER VELLIES AND BLACK RIGHTS ACTIVIST
A couple of the books in my tsundoku stack:
THE WARMTH OF OTHER SONS BY ISABEL WILKERSON (CURRENTLY READING)
THE YELLOW HOUSE BY SARAH BROOM
RABBIT BY PATRICIA WILLIAMS
BEHOLD THE DREAMERS BY IMBOLO MBUE
I will be writing about other topics starting tomorrow. I will also be determinedly featuring more BIPOC-owned businesses, reading and discussing books by a more diverse canon of authors, and showcasing more inclusive imagery. And I will continue to engage with this moment and with my own education and reflections on race in America in ways that are meaningful and authentic.