I don’t perceive myself as racist. Quite the opposite. I try really hard not to be. But sometimes, my privileged white foot steps in some shit. And there I am, doing my best to scrape it off.
I stepped in it on Facebook recently, while singing the praises of U.S. Representative Val Demings, who I’m hoping against hope will be Joe Biden’s running mate. In the midst of the burst of pain, anger, and outrage in this country over the murder of George Floyd, Demings wrote a brave and passionate op-ed in the Washington Post, in which she boldly confronted her fellow police officers about yet another abhorrent killing of a black man by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25. Yes, “fellow” officers. You see, not only is Demings a Congresswoman, she was a police officer for 27 years, part of which she spent as police chief.
Oh, yeah, she is all that and the bag of proverbial chips.
I discovered her during the impeachment trials. She blew me away. I listened to her speak and thought, “Who is THIS, and why isn’t she a contender for Biden’s runningmate? Well, now, apparently she is on his short list, and all my fingers and toes are crossed that Uncle Joe will recognize that Demings’ foot is the one that will fit his Cinderella slipper. Her perfect foot is in both camps: the black community and law enforcement! She is so uniquely qualified for this moment in time, and I will be over the moon to support BidenDemings2020.
Demings is one of those people who, when she speaks, your ears perk up. Your brain pays attention. Her voice rings like a bell. She has that je-ne-sais-quoi that makes her stand out in a sea of blah blah blah. In my Facebook post, I summarized her as: Smart. Experienced. Articulate.
There it is.
Did you know that describing a black person as “articulate” is an insult? I certainly didn’t.
Heyyyyy…. what’s this stinky stuff on my shoe???
First, I was excoriated by an indignant white guy, which only pissed me off because there seems to be an overabundance of white people speaking on behalf of black people without their consent. “Whitesplaining.” So arrogant.
We went a few rounds after he proceeded to pelt me with belittling “Jane, you ignorant slut” insults. I insisted that not in my wildest imagination was I insulting Demings in any way, and pointed out to him that he didn’t have a problem with me describing her as “smart” or “experienced.” Following his logic, would these not also be backhanded slaps that insinuate blacks aren’t smart or experienced?
But he then produced a piercing story by Lynette Clemetson, a black woman, explaining that the history of this word is a back-handed slap to insinuate that blacks speak sloppily, and one who speaks eloquently is a bit of a unicorn. Which, of course, is just nuts. People still believe that sort of crap in this day and age? Why can’t I call an articulate black woman articulate, just like I would an articulate white woman? It doesn’t make any sense to me!
I wrestled with my immediate instinct to fight this issue to the death, because dammit, insulting Demings was the furthest thing from my mind, and let’s face it: She really is articulate, and I meant that from my heart. I want her to be our next vice-president, and first female president after that! I love this woman!
But there it was. From someone with personal experience. Someone who knows firsthand.
Me being me, I was ready to keep on slugging and prove my self-righteous point, and verbally take this guy down (he knows not with whom he deals!), but then I reread the story. Clemetson was/is spot on. And, despite my intense urge to prove I was right, which fuels most of my tooth-and-claw debates on and off Facebook… I pumped the brakes.
Although another privileged white person chastising me for being another privileged white person just grates me the wrong way — the milk calling the sugar white — I realized that wasn’t the point. Clemetson’s story, and the history she revealed, were the point. I let it sink in. Turns out (brace yourself), I was wrong. Rather than argue, I decided to concede. I apologized, said I had no idea I was using an unkind word, and replaced the word in the post on the spot.
And then, another comment popped up in the thread, from a lady named Sylvia:
I am a 71 year old Black woman so I speak from years of experience. Whenever we’ve been told we are articulate, it means we don’t talk “black”, whatever that means. It’s like being asked if we’re educators just because we know how to properly use nouns and verbs. Long story short, it is most definitely not a compliment. I hope this explanation helps.
I was so touched by her gentleness and patience with my white privilege ineptitude, despite the fact that white folks, even well-meaning ones, don’t deserve any gentleness or patience from a black person, and yet… she extended that to me anyway. That really touched me. And impressed me deeply. This was my response to her:
Thank you for explaining this. I had NO IDEA.
The post has been updated.
This tiny exchange gave me a huge epiphany. Besides writing, I’m a massage therapist. I’ve had my own practice for 20 years. In the course of that practice, I’ve had a couple clients with fibromyalgia. They made no sense to me! So extremely sensitive! One of them yelped, “too deep!” when I first placed my hands on her back. I was only spreading the oil! I consulted with her physician, who explained that the nerves of a fibromyalgia patient interpret touch as pain. It doesn’t matter that I think my touch is light — all that matters is their experience of pain. It’s not my place to judge, it’s my place to accept their experience and adjust my approach accordingly.
Believe their pain. It’s so simple!
This prompted me think about the pain black people experience every single day — the pain that white people don’t know about because they never experience it. This utter cluelessness is the definition of “white privilege.” And thinking about fibromyalgia pain really snapped things into focus.
We need to believe people about their pain. When black people say “that hurts,” we privileged white folks need to believe them. Even if it doesn’t hurt us, even if we didn’t intend for it to hurt, even if we don’t understand why it hurts — we need to shut our mouths, nod our heads, listen, and acknowledge it. Particularly if we caused it. Our own understanding of that pain is irrelevant.
I don’t have fibromyalgia.
I’m not black.
I don’t understand either pain.
But I accept it.
And should a black person inform me about my pain, I’ll shut my mouth and simply listen. And if I caused that pain, I’ll take responsibility, apologize, and make a correction.