Some articles, it seems, should come with this warning: ‘Caution! This is a criticism, not an instruction manual.’
And so it was with a recent opinion piece I published in The Guardian, which looked at the dynamics of inter-racial interactions between white women and women of colour, particularly in the workplace.
In ‘How white women use strategic tears to silence women of colour’, I used a combination of personal anecdotes and academic research to explain a widespread but subversive phenomenon. Despite both being oppressed to varying degrees by a still-sexist society, in confrontations between WoC and white women the intersection of sexism and racism gives white women a powerful weapon.
Because of the long history of the fetishisation of innocent white womanhood and the simultaneous framing of people of colour – including women – as dangerous, white women are able to lean into their race privilege by painting the other woman as an aggressor regardless of the specifics of the situation.
And it works. As I wrote then: ‘Brown and black women know we are, as musician Miss Blanks writes, “imperfect victims”. That doesn’t mean we are always in the right but it does mean we know that against a white woman’s accusations, our perspectives will almost always go unheard either way. Whether angry or calm, shouting or pleading, we are still perceived as the aggressors.’
The piece went viral globally, and predictably, if ironically, it was met with an outpouring of denials, and accusations from figures no less than “classical liberal” darlings Jordan Peterson and Maajid Naawaz that I was, “bullying an entire race of women”.
'Even before we speak, women of colour are already silently positioned as potential aggressors.'
Maybe, a few sage souls said to me on Twitter, maybe if I was making white women cry then ‘the problem isn’t really racism’, it is that I am ‘just an asshole’. Never mind that I was specifically referencing instances where it was the woman of colour who was trying to address her own mistreatment.
But even I was surprised when, over the weekend, the scenario reached Inception-levels of absurdity. I was contacted by an African-American woman who told me that sharing my article on her personal Facebook page, in a post that was set to private, led to her being fired from her job.
I’ll quote US broadcaster Lisa Benson Cooper from her public FB page where she says: 'I want you know, I did not quit my job [at] 41 Action News - KSHB-TV I was suspended for sharing a meme & a Guardian US article on my personal FB page and subsequently told I "shall not report to work" for the duration of my contract.'
In her emails to me Lisa alleges that, after years of being discriminated against she launched a suit against her employer, an NBC affiliate, and had shared my article on her page in the hopes it would “initiate much needed, beneficial dialogue about systemic racism”.
What Lisa and her attorney allege happened instead, was that two co-workers saw the post and reported her to management, who then suspended Lisa the next day for “creating a hostile work environment based on race and sex”.
Within three weeks, she claims she was told not to report for work at all.
I’m not sure there are words in the English language I am equipped to arrange in a manner that does sufficient justice to explain the layers of denialism, racism, and lack of self-awareness at play here. But I will say that I could not have scripted a more perfect scene to demonstrate my point.
Except, of course, this was no fictional theatre – this was a woman’s life. Her career destroyed because she tried to let her colleagues know how detrimental their behaviour towards her was. And they punished her for it.
Social conditioning is a potent teacher. And what it teaches people of colour is that any challenge we pose to the system will be swiftly and decisively dealt with. As David Lo Pun wrote on Twitter recently, “every POC who speaks does so in the understanding whiteness believes annihilation is the fair price for dissent”.
My first reaction to Lisa’s revelations was intense guilt; that I had done this to her, that I should have known better than to put an article like that out into a world that refuses to see itself for what it is. But that reaction is itself racial socialisation teaching people of colour that whatever negative thing happens to us, it’s our fault.
Self-blame is a powerful weapon, it can make you want to run and hide, make you want to try and take it all back, make you want to beg for forgiveness in the hopes you can somehow undo all the abuse, the scorn, the injustice, and go back to where you were before.
Except, where were we before? Where was I before I published that piece? Where was Lisa? Both of us - completely unknown to the other, on opposite sides of the world - trying to cope in our own ways with the consequences of attempting to assert ourselves and defend ourselves against the discrimination and erasure of systemic racism, only to be dismissed like so many women of colour before us and after us, as ‘combative’ and ‘bullies’.
Even before we speak, women of colour are already silently positioned as potential aggressors. Look deeper into the interactions you see at work, on social media, in your social gatherings. Witness just how often a WoC who stands her ground, demands respect, or gives anything less than overwhelmingly positive feedback and affirmation to others is met with harsh rebuke and swift ostracism.
Denied even the consolation prize of licking our wounds and lamenting our ill treatment, we are continuously fed a false narrative of blame and degradation. The more we fight, the more derision and abuse we attract from those who wish to keep us ‘in our place’. This is real. It is happening and it is endemic. No, we are not just ‘arseholes’, and yes, it is racism.