Waking Up to the White Lens

On becoming an aspiring ally for social justice.

Waking Up to the White Lens

The question is not whether white people are racist, but rather how do we — intentionally or not — perpetuate racism in our lives?

When I discovered Real Friends Talk About Race: Bridging the Gaps Through Uncomfortable Conversations by Yseult P. Mukantabana and Hannah Summerhill — the creators and hosts of the “Kinswomen” podcast series — I was excited to read more about what I, as a white woman, can do to support members of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) community.

Mukantabana and Summerhill wrote the book in a format that alternates between the comments and perspectives of each author. Mukantabana is a Black, Rwandan, queer Jewish woman; Summerhill is a white American Jewish woman. Their goal is “to transform the ways that people of color and white people relate to and understand each other, because there is no justice or equity without conversation, first.”

The intent of the book is to “help us bridge the gap between having knowledge of inequity and taking action to abolish it.” And according to Summerhill, “our platform and podcast, Kinswomen, is aimed at building trust between women of color and white women, and for white women specifically, accepting the discomfort and pain that comes with growth.”

The book explains what white supremacy means and how it manifests:

  • White supremacy means that the further away one is from whiteness, the less privileges they have.”
  • The white lens is “the filter that distorts our beliefs, words, and actions through the idea that whiteness is rightness, and it centers whiteness as the ultimate authority.”
  • White fragility is the defensiveness that many white people exhibit when faced with the concept of systemic racism.
  • Blackfishing is “when non-Black people (usually women) appropriate features, makeup, and hairstyles that are intrinsic to Black culture.” To appropriate means to take without permission, such as by emulating Black culture without experiencing the suffering that goes along with being Black in America.

Like Summerhill, I’ve spent my life living in the systemic default of white privilege and didn’t realize it. I’ve always known about blatant racism and have fought against it. But until recently, I never knew about the insidious way racism has skewed our society, with whiteness upheld as the ultimate state of being. That is systemic racism: a default existence that has white people at the top of the food chain, with everyone else underneath.

Because it was omitted from our history books in school, I never learned about some of the terrible ways discrimination has played out in the United States, including the Japanese internment camps during World War II, the burning of the “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa in 1921, and the longtime redlining (devaluing) of Black neighborhoods in real-estate appraisals and sales.

I was shocked to discover that these and other indignities took place in a country I’d always thought was based on equality. When I realized how much of American history has been whitewashed, it felt like I’d fallen into an alternate universe I didn’t recognize.

Mukantabana and Summerhill emphasize that just because white people weren’t taught about these injustices before, it’s no excuse for us not to educate ourselves now. Systemic racism is fundamental to the American experience; it’s our obligation as white people to learn about it.

The book stresses that becoming an ally for social justice is an ongoing process requiring “continuous education and action.” Among other things, aspiring allies must ask themselves:

  • What’s my “why” for being an ally?
  • What are the ways I want to contribute to anti-racist work?
  • What have I been blind to?
  • Whom have I hurt with my ignorance?

Admittedly, although well-intentioned, I fear messing up (even more than I already have) when talking about discrimination. I want to participate in hard discussions about the mess the white majority has made through the centuries, but it’s going to be uncomfortable. Part of the task will be to own up to my personal failures without making myself the focus of the conversation. But I'm going to keep trying.

Normally, nonfiction is not my jam. But Real Friends Talk About Race is such a compelling book, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. Hopefully, other readers will also devour it and plan their own strategy for recognizing systemic racism and, more importantly, fighting against it.

K.L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: Teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing safely in the middle. She is passionate about women’s issues and loves noisy clocks and fuzzy blankets but HATES the word normal. She is also a book reviewer with bylines in the Big Thrill, the Independent, BookTrib, and Shondaland. Her reviews and articles appear at www.romosreadingroom.com, and you can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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