Writing About Race As A White Woman

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I think about teaching and writing a lot. I also think about racial constructions of identity a lot. Along these lines, I came across a passage the other day that challenged me. According to bell hooks,

White women who have yet to get a critical handle on the meaning of “whiteness” in their lives, the representation of whiteness in their literature, or the white supremacy that shapes their social status are now explicating blackness without critically questioning whether their work emerges from an aware antiracist standpoint. Drawing on the work of black women, work that they once dismissed as irrelevant, they now reproduce the servant-served paradigms in their scholarship. Armed with their new knowledge of race, their willingness to say that their work is coming from a white perspective (usually without explaining what that means), they forget that the very focus on race and racism emerged from the concrete political effort to forge meaningful ties between women of different race and class groups. This struggle is often completely ignored. Content with the appearance of greater receptivity (the production of texts where white women discuss race is given as evidence that there has been a radical shift in direction), white women ignore the relative absence of black women’s voices, either in the construction of new feminist theory or at feminist gatherings. -bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, p. 104

I was reading through this passage tonight, and as a white woman writing and publishing about race, I felt compelled to be reflexive about how I would (and/or should) respond to this observation.

I mean, I’m pretty white.

Granted, I always attempt to be attentive to my subject position as a white woman as I write, but I undoubtedly neglect important works by black women (and black men, and black non-gender-binary writers). While I’m willing to be clear and vulnerable about the experiences that led me to write about race, (perhaps in another post) and to critique the invisibility, privilege, and centered power of whiteness, I know that I have much to learn about the deep and varied histories of race and racism. I accept that while I have an obligation to keep on learning, I will never, and can never know the varieties and depths of discrimination – as these are different from person to person, experience to experience. That by no means indicates that learning is idle, rather, that it is infinite.

hooks notes in the passage above a willingness to address subject position, without clarifying what that really means: I hope that in my writing I am able to respond to the disconnect in my work with critical interrogations of whiteness, white privilege, and power.

I felt this really strongly as I prepared to publish my first essay recently, in which I talk about both whiteness and blackness. In order to mediate this, I chose to talk about whiteness before I talk about blackness. It is still an anxious thing to write about race, but it remains profoundly important.

I know when I write I risk getting it wrong. That’s okay. Cultivating an attitude of learning and of listening before one of ‘having the right answer’ is a good start. My professional role is one of instructor, and while I cannot disregard the power dynamics of the classroom, I am a much better teacher for my students, and a much better writer in my own productive work, when I cultivate a space to learn, to improve, to be better, and to do better by those around me.


Speaking specifically to white people here: it is so important to take up learning for yourself (okay, ourselves, ’cause clearly I’m not done either). bell hooks insightfully continues a few pages later:

When I asked individual white women who have friendships and positive work relations with black women in feminist settings what were the conditions enabling reciprocity, they responded by emphasizing that they had not relied on black women to force them to confront their racism. Somehow, assuming responsibility for examining their own responses to race was a precondition for relations on an equal footing. These women felt they approach women of color with knowledge about racism, not with guilt, shame, or fear. One white woman said that she starts from the standpoint of accepting and acknowledging that “white people always have racist assumptions that we have to deal with.” Readiness to deal with these assumptions certainly makes forming ties with nonwhite women easier. She suggests that the degree to which a white woman can accept the truth of racist oppression-of white female complicity, of the privileges white women receive in a racist structure -determines the extent to which they can be empathic with women of color. -bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, p. 106

I wholeheartedly agree with hooks’ assessment.

Last week I had my students take Implicit Association Tests, and we talked through what it meant to get a result that showed an implicit preference for lighter skin. Many students expressed an anxiety that perhaps this made them racist: this was filtered in class through self-depricating and sarcastic jokes. An implicit preference, however, does not determine behavior, though it potentially influences it. In agreement with hooks, one of the suggested responses to the IAT is to recognize underlying individual and cultural assumptions, and to use an awareness of them to make more conscious decisions and judgments.

Racial reflexivity requires consistent re-evaluation and readjustment – just like any effective form of reflexivity. Once and done is not gonna do it.

Not only that, but it is deeply unfair to lay the burden of racial education on people of color. While connection, community, and communication are important, outsourcing the emotionally taxing work of understanding racism to people on the receiving end of it, or the work of understanding race to people we assume as raced (as if whiteness, which is often assumed to be ‘neutral,’ is not a discursive racial identity) is taking an easy road that perpetuates the concept that blackness exists at the service of whiteness, and must ‘prove itself’ in some arbitrary way. It continues to place undue demands on the black (and otherly raced) bodies, drawing out a history that I don’t want to continue or participate in.

As one example out of many, a colleague of mine posted this on twitter:

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This is an important call to white scholars, and to all people committed to anti-racist causes. It is a call t0 me, perpetually and continually. Learning is never done. And learning is not something that should be taken up at the expense of other people’s self care. There are so many resources that already exist to learn about race.

I don’t claim to speak for all of any group of people, but I can speak for myself in my own response to the compelling rationale to continue learning, listening, revising, and responding to intersecting issues of race, gender, sexuality, and class, among others.