“If it isn’t intentional, then it isn’t racism.”
Those are the words of a woman who would most likely describe herself as ‘color blind’, if not an ally to people marginalized, stigmatized and often downright oppressed in majority white societies. Those words incited shock, disbelief and resignation in circles of people of color all over the world.
Shock; because how could one be so callous as to suggest that pain/harm inflicted is somehow delegitimized due to the inflictor’s intent.
Disbelief; because you really had to take willful leave of your senses to subscribe to such and idea, let alone voice it.
Resignation; because, well…these are liberal, well-intentioned white women we’re talking about. The same ones who go home and eat Thanksgiving turkey with their relatives who effusively champion bigotry without so much as a peep in opposition. The same ones who will un-friend/un-follow you on social media because your constant posts concerning systematic oppression are just to “negative”. It’s more comfortable to un-look the despicable treatment Black and brown people face than to interrogate how their silence makes them complicit. The same ones who join sororities in universities in Alabama and gleefully scream how much they hate niggers, only to demonstrate a modicum of remorse because they’ve been thrown out of their precious Greek organization. “I wasn’t raised that way,” they profess mournfully.
Of course you were. This is how your cousin-brothers talk at Thanksgiving dinner, again, unchecked.
Finally, resignation because here we are again with the same generic Well Intentioned White Woman ™ rolling her eyes and furrowing her brow as woman of color attempts to explain the myriad ways she and people like her have been othered by mainstream society.
“Yah, but it’s moved on hasn’t it,” another WIWW says impatiently.
The sheer arrogance & dismissiveness of other panellists towards @afuahirsch its like the shutters have come down, barricades have gone up & mindset of total denial has kicked in. pic.twitter.com/USBu57LrhR
— Lester Holloway (@brolezholloway) January 21, 2018
As a Black woman, you gasp and then you sigh. Because really, what else is there to do? These women don’t get it, and there’s a very simple and distinct reason for that.
The day before the January 18th edition ofThe Pledge made the rounds on social media, I was in Hermanus preparing to attend the burial of my godson. The funeral was in Hermanus, a five-hour drive from our home in Plettenberg Bay. My husband and I set out just before noon on that Wednesday, and by the time we’d arrived at the B&B where we’d be staying, we were dusty and hungry. The air in that portion of the Western Cape is dry and laden with loosened particles of earth. It covered our vehicle like a fine, brown mist. The owner of the B&B welcomed us and showed us to our room, pointing to a laminated sheet on the room’s teak wood dresser.
“There are some lovely restaurants in the area,” she said merrily. “You should check them out if you’re hungry!”
After a quick online search for their menus – we settled on one known for its stunning views of the ocean and diners sampled fresh-caught ocean fare. The reason we were in this beach front town was never far from our minds, so an evening of serenity and good food was certainly in order to take our thoughts away from events, if only for an hour or so. I washed my face and neck, reapplied my chosen fragrance, straightened my shirt now wrinkled from the long drive and we set off.
Visually, the restaurant offered more than the laminated sheet or website could have prepared us for. Large glass windows offered amazing views of the roiling sea just a few meters away. Chandeliers fashioned from seashells and tea lights swayed gently above us. You couldn’t help but smile. And so I did.
And then I turned to smile at the wait staff, three women (two white, one Black) who had ceased their conversation when Marshall and I had walked in and still hadn’t said a word to us. Instead, they stared at us coolly. I widened my smile.
“Hello,” said the oldest and blondest of them.
I filled the silence with a request.
“Could we have a table for two, please?”
“Do you have a reservation?”
As if cued, Marshall and I scanned the expanse of the room in unison. Of the forty-odd tables, three were occupied. The restaurant was essentially vacant. This, of course, made my husband laugh.
“No. Why? Do we need one?”
“No,” said one of the waitresses tersely.
They shared a look amongst one another before the Black one asked us to follow her. She led us to a table that gave to worst view of the ocean and the closest to the kitchen/bar. It was unmistakable that our presence was resented. Marshall, never the one to let a slight go unaddressed made it a point to bring up how absurd it was to ask for a reservation in an almost empty venue, especially one that doesn’t require one to dine. The older blond waitress was at our table bringing menus at this point. She seemed taken aback that he would be so direct with her.
As the next 90 minutes unfolded, we watched as casually dressed white couples filed into the restaurant were greeted enthusiastically by the hostesses and shown to tables that offered what each hostess gushingly declared “a great view!”.
This is just one of the many incidents – in South Africa and in America alike – where I’ve been the recipient of similar micro-aggressions.
When I shared the incident on social media the day after, and before I’d seen Afua on The Pledge, a number of my friends immediately picked up on happened. Half of them were white women.
“Oh MY GOD, Malaka! I’m so sorry.”
“Where did this happen?”
“Can you write a review on Yelp?”
“There’s no Yelp here….and to be honest, if I wrote a review every time my family or I received treatment that made us feel othered by some establishment, it’d be all I’d spend my time online doing.”
Now we come to the crux of the matter. The only reason white women don’t understand the mechanics of racial prejudice, othering and marginalization is for this reason alone: THEY SIMPLY DON’T WANT TO.
If Afua had been telling a story about how she was paid 30% less than a male counterpart in the same industry rather than the subtle and overt racist overtures POC face on a daily, the chances she’d be shouted over and talked down by her white female colleagues would be far slimmer. To them, the former is a more likely, believable scenario, only because it’s something they are more likely to confront. These people lack empathy, an essential trait if you deign to declare yourself any sort of ‘ally’.
Rather than sit and listen to people of color as we explain the difficulties and discomfort of navigating a world that functions in a way not of our choosing, WIWW would rather deny us the right to our experience by denying the occurrence altogether. It must be all in our heads.
Again, they don’t see it because they simply do not WANT to observe. And because it is simply more comfortable to erase a matter than address, WIWW want us to do the labor of forgetting our pain for them too. Not gonna happen.
A missionary friend of mine who moved here from Tennessee pointed this out to me back in December. She’s white.
“How come is it every time we go out to eat or to enquire about a service, folk always look at me? They always address me. Never you.” She snorted sardonically. “I’m thinking to myself, I don’t know why y’all are looking at me. She’s the one with all the money!”
The town that we live in is overwhelming white and very wealthy. I was driving during this conversation, so I kept my eyes fixed on the road partly for safety and partly because I didn’t want to look at her face after asking such a naïve question.
Instead I said, “I know why.”
I allow a hollow laugh escape my lips.
From the corner of my eye, I felt her eyes drill a hole into the side of my head. The force of her stare compelled me to pull my eyes from the road and glance at her, just for a moment.
“Girl. I know why too,” she said darkly. “And it’s stupid. “