Another Start.

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.

24 Comments

  1. Jen, thank you for sharing your story, which is remarkably similar to my own. As a white woman, and a mother, I know I have a lot of soul-searching and learning to do. Thanks for encouraging this. I am grateful to be part of the conversation! X

  2. Hi Jen,

    Slowly catching up with my blog reading from this week- sending you some genuine appreciation for your wise words, sharing your learning process, and growing. I recognize this must be a really difficult time for people/businesses with platforms (how do we reconcile sudden action with no outward display of action before? how can my sentiments come across as genuine? how can I come up with a continued plan of action, NOW, before people accuse me of not caring?) Definitely all things that SHOULD happen, and it feels awkward to commend this when we as consumers should also take individual steps… but anyway. Thank you. I’m sure myself and your other readers will hold you accountable, and based on your words, I’m know you’ll be holding yourself and your readers accountable too!

    I know there’s an overwhelming amount of resources, but wanted to share one a little different that you probably have some additional personal interest in! The Sporkful had a 45 min podcast this week on “Can a Restaurant be for Everyone?” that examines food/food spaces in DC, gentrification, and the politics of food. As someone who grew up just outside DC but spent a lot of time “in the city”, this was a really interesting reflection for me about what neighborhoods I was most exposed to, which restaurants my parents took me to, etc. I’ve loved reading your reflections on dining over the years and think you’d really chew on this one for a bit.

    1. Hi SK — Thank you for this note, for the encouragement, and for your participation in this conversation. You are spot-on — the questions you listed accurately reflect many of the things I have been grappling with internally while striving to focus my attention on the issue at hand. Thank you also for the article! Will definitely read!

      xx

  3. Hi! You have a lot of great suggestions here. I’ve never commented before, but I like to stop by for your literary content and wanted to recommend a few other books. Raising White Kids by Jennifer Harvey is excellent for white parents—I wish I’d had this book when my kids were your age. They’re 9 and 11 and it already feels late to be talking about race with them. For fiction, Training School for Negro Girls is a short story collection by Camille Acker where the stories are all set in DC. It’s a little uneven, as most collections are, but her story “Cicada” still haunts me. And in a few years, your kids will be ready for Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, which is my daughter’s favorite book (and also well worth a read by adults). Looking forward to your future book posts!

    1. Hi Alisha – Thank you for this note and for the recommendations. Have added these to my book list. Please continue to share, and thank you for chiming in here — elcome to the Magpie comments section! Really happy to have you here.

      xx

  4. Thanks for all of this. A friend of mine and I were talking about this wider impulse of many white women to lean into this conversation and work for social justice when we’ve been conspicuously absent previously. Why now? What does it mean? Will it last? She recalled a proverb that says the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now. Many of have spent more than just our high school years in a “solipsistic la la land” (love that description) but we are compelled to show up now, and our individual reasons don’t matter as much as our willingness to show up and do the work. Thank you for modeling how to do this, especially for those of us who don’t really like to do things until we’re sure we are good at them. We will undoubtedly keep stumbling, but hopefully we are all moving forward.

    1. Hi Brooke – Thanks for writing in. I agree that it is deeply problematic that it took such a horrific incident (after a long, long string of horrific incidents) to jar me into change, and while I am experiencing the same feelings of guilt, sadness, confusion, and varying states of cognitive dissonance, I am also thinking a lot about optical allyship, “too little too late,” white saviorism, tokenism as I write and move forward. These are petty discomforts against the broader tableau, but there is a lot to work through here.

      Onward!

  5. Hi Jen! As a fellow white woman struggling with my own feelings of guilt and privilege and (might as well just say it) racism, I appreciate this post.

    Wanted to let you know that the “On Being” podcast has an amazing Isabel Wilkerson interview. Might be a nice compliment to the book.

    And Brene Brown just interviewed Ibram X. Kendi on her podcast and I found the episode very enlightening.

    1. Wow – thanks for both of these! Going to listen to both and will be interesting especially to hear from Wilkerson while I’m reading her book. xx

  6. Loved this post, Jen!

    The Yellow House was one of my favorite reads of 2019. It’s beautifully written and a meaningful perspective on New Orleans history and the impact of Katrina.

    I just finished Red to the Bone by Jaqueline Woodson and can’t recommend it enough. It reads like poetry and could not be more gorgeous. It’s a short read, which I like as a breather between longer, heavier books. I read it two delicious gulps.

    xx

    1. Thank you for this addition — just added it to my reading list! Sounds amazing.

      xx

  7. Thank you so much for this post and for your own willingness and humility to reconsider your past and present. I love reading your blog and will do so even more eagerly knowing you are willing to grow and change and feature more diverse images, sources, and reflections in the future.

    The one caveat I feel compelled to add is this – as many white women become aware of their privilege and of the myriad injustices towards people of color in America, may we consider our black brothers and sisters as well as brothers and sisters of other colors. Our Asian, Latinx, indigenous, Muslim, etc. friends may also be suffering in silence and waiting for us to ask questions and listen to their experiences of trauma and racism in our country.

    1. Hi Jaime — Thank you for the generous words and for your continued readership. xx

  8. Thank you for this list of Black voices to follow — active listening is an excellent way to start supporting this cause. The reading list is great, too — I’m going to join you reading The Warmth of Other Suns after I finish The New Jim Crow. I also have The Yellow House in my tsundoku … bumping it up the list! Rabbit sounds amazingly compelling, too. Adding to my list.

    Thinking about other fictional reads in this space — I just ordered a copy of Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and am SO looking forward to reading it when it arrives. I enjoyed her debut novel, The Mothers, but this book seems to have garnered even more praise and I’m really excited about it.

    Also, just a comment on your book links — have you heard of Bookshop.org? They are an amazing alternative to Amazon that launched back in January. The idea is that they partner with independent bookstores, handling all of the billing and fulfillment for orders placed on their site, and then give the bookstores a cut of the sales. (They’ve raised $2.6M for indie bookstores around the country in under 5 months!) I believe they have an affiliate program as well. The Lit Bar is the only independent bookstore in the Bronx and they have a storefront on Bookshop.org in case anyone wants to support them by placing orders through their site: https://bookshop.org/shop/thelitbar

    (Hope it’s OK to mention this!)

    P.S. — I wavered on mentioning this, but: I read Behold the Dreamers a few years ago and I personally did not love it. It was a compelling story, to be sure, but the way it was written reminded me of the film Crash, in that it was told in facile manner. If you’re looking for an incredibly well-crafted story in a similar vein, I would highly recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. (But maybe you’ve already read it?)

    1. Thanks, MK! Keep me posted on what you think of all the books you are reading, too. I’m bummed to hear that about Behold the Dreamers. What do you mean by facile? I also read and liked elements of Americanah, but I recall struggling with the pace of the narrative. May be worth a revisit…

      Thanks for the intro to Bookshop, too!

      xx

    2. Hi! Maybe I used the wrong word. Basically, my feeling was that the book was rendered in a slightly clumsy, ham-fisted, hit-you-over-the-head-with-meaning type of way — similar to how Crash was received by certain critics (Ta-Nehisi Coates, for one). Does that make a bit more sense? I honestly don’t mean to disparage the book at all, and I fully realize that other readers might not have the same type of reaction that I did.

      xx

    3. Hi MK! Got it. Facile does make sense there. I have felt similarly about a few books I’ve read recently — the “forcedness” of a plot or over-bolding of a theme can leave me irritated as a reader because I feel like I’m not being given the benefit of the doubt as a reader. xx

  9. In addition to this great list of books, I highly recommend White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. She addresses a lot of what you addressed here- why white people have such a hard time acknowledging and talking about race, and also about a lot of the posturing that well-meaning white liberals can adopt that can often backfire.

    1. Hi Anna — Thank you for adding that to the list. I also have “How to Be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram Kendi on my list and am currently reading “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla Saad. Please share others as they occur to you or you read them — thank you!

      xx

    2. Second what Anna said! White Fragility really changed my perspective and helped me understand that if it is impossible for us to talk about a problem, then it would be impossible to fix a problem.

    3. Thanks, Katie — will definitely read this. And welcome to the magpie comments section! Happy to have your voice here. xx

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