Conversations that start out innocently enough are, in hindsight, the ones for which to look out. I can’t even remember the innocuous beginnings of the one that took place today—the new student in my lab, working for the summer, eventually asked if I wanted children. Considering that I just got married a few weeks ago, it isn’t an irrelevant question.
“I don’t know,” I told her. I was getting a Sharpie out of one of the drawers, needing it to label the tubes I was using to collect plasma. “We said we’d revisit the issue in five years. I’ve always wanted kids, but I’m not sure I want biological kids. Maybe we’ll adopt then.”
“Lots of kids need good homes.”
“Yeah, the foster system and adoption agencies are full of them.” I paused for at least a minute, focusing on my work and thinking about my next sentence, whether I should say it at all. “I don’t need to spread my genes into the world any more than they already are.”
And the real reason, I told her a minute later, was that I can’t do what my mom did. “I can’t have a child with autism and a brother with it, too,” I said. I don’t know her very well, and with only a few weeks left of this job, I’d not get a chance to know her. But I wanted her to feel welcome in the place I was leaving, wanted her to feel comfortable like I had in my first undergraduate lab.
But this isn’t the innocuous beginning of the real conversation, the one that has left me reeling all day. No. At some point, she said something like, “Fight the man, Naseem! Fight the man,” and I said, “Ah, the patriarchy.”
“But listen,” I added, “I don’t need to tell you about the systems of oppression in place. You’re a woman of color. You know better than anyone.”
She looked at me for a moment, as though she’d never heard anyone say those words before. “I—thank you,” she said, her voice more serious than I had heard it in our limited interactions. “You just got so many cool points right now.”
I shrugged, though smiled. “You shouldn’t need to thank me for being a decent person. Telling you about oppression—I should be listening to you.”
She continued to stare at me, still hadn’t moved from her spot. “I hope all of your hopes and dreams come true,” she said, seriously.
This is where my heartbreak began. “I hope all of your hopes and dreams come true, too,” I said. Even though it’s harder for you, I didn’t think to add. Even though our society is out to stop you. “I mean, I’m a person of color too, but I’m white-passing. My experiences are totally different from yours.”
“So many people think white passing doesn’t exist,” she said.
I laughed. I wish I could think it didn’t—I wish my identities weren’t erased with every passing moment. My privilege is what lets me say this: I wish I could be identified as a person of color, as queer, as non-binary, as mood disorder-ed, as spiritual.
“It exists,” I said. “It’s my job to listen.”
“But I’m young,” she said, the voice I usually hear her speak in back. It's the will you take me seriously? voice, a cute overtone. “What do I know of the world? You can share.”
No, I didn’t say, but I should have. “You know your experiences. You know your life as a woman of color. It’s not my place to say what’s best for you.”
And she looked at me again, and said, “Thank you,” and I could see on her face that she meant it.
“On behalf of—everyone—I’m sorry,” I told her. “I’m so sorry. I know that this happens intellectually, but to hear it—aww, shit, I’m tearing up.”
And I was tearing up, because it struck me then in a way it never has before. I know a lot of social justice advocates, people of color who write about their experiences and about the systematic injustices we have so deeply buried in our society that we often don’t notice it. A friend tells me about the microaggressions of her in-laws; another talks about the pain of racial trivialization. But standing in front of her—this student, no older than 20 or 21, who was interested in research, a black woman, not child—it hit me as to how real it all is. How fortunate I really am that my identities are hidden. How much people of color—especially women and non-binary individuals—are inactively discriminated against. We live in a country where twenty years ago, she would never had the opportunities to which she’s barely getting access. We live in a country that is surprised that she can succeed, because we’ve been taught to think she wouldn’t.
Knowing that racism is a thing, seeing that it is a thing, and then feeling that it is a thing are totally different.
There is so much implicit, buried racism—and other –isms, but that’s for another post—in what we watch, teach, see, think, feel. As an ally, it’s my job to check my own biases and assumptions—and to call people out of theirs. Even though my privilege is based on appearances, and often disappears once that game is up, I still have it. It’s my job—our job, as those of us who have this and other privileges—to give the microphone to marginalized peoples and share their messages when we can’t. We don't know better, even when we think we understand. How can we possibly understand the systematic oppression of other peoples until we, ourselves, are oppressed? In today's society, overt racism is rarer than everyday racism. Most people are horrified at blatant racist behavior, but we, as white or passing-white individuals, have deeply buried assumptions that we need to actively fight.
Which, ultimately, comes back to the beginning: innocuous beginnings are rarely so. I need to listen. We all do. And then we need to act, because we can't claim to be advocates and allies unless we do.
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