She Called it “White Woman Shit”
On the morning of August 8th, I clicked on an Electric Literature essay that showed up on my FB timeline. The essay was written by a white woman who was attempting to own how she was complicit when confronted with racism. Imagine my surprise when I saw an entire paragraph of one of my essays quoted and I, the author, was referred to as “a writer you know from Facebook.” The essay ended with a line from my essay. “Where. The. Fuck. Were. You?”
At first I was like, “Cool, someone valued my work enough to quote a chunk of it.” But where’s my name? Why wasn’t I given credit by name? It felt like erasure but I wasn’t sure if I should address it. Should I be content with my words being quoted and not my name? Is this my ego? Am I just being difficult?
I checked in with my FB fam:
Serious question: If your essay is quoted in someone else’s essay, do you think you should be named in said essay? Just saw my essay quoted and I’m not sure how I feel about being referred to as ‘a writer you know on Facebook’…
There were 90+ responses. They all said: yes, you should be cited. More than few mentioned the irony of erasure in an essay on race.
Erasure: e·ra·sure, əˈrāSHər/, noun:
- the removal of writing, recorded material, or data.
- the removal of all traces of something; obliteration. “the erasure of prior history” (Google.com)
Cultural erasure is a practice in which a dominant culture, for example a colonizing nation, attempts to negate, suppress, remove and, in effect, erase the culture of a subordinate culture. The idea of “civilizing” nonwhite people can be seen as cultural erasure. (Reference.com)
I reached out to the writer, used the word “erasure,” asked her to share her thought process. She apologized profusely, said it was a “style” decision, offered to give me credit in the comments section on her page. We went back and forth. “How would you feel?” I asked. “You ended your essay with a line from mine.” The result? The essay was updated later that day to include my name and a link to my essay. But the accent on the “a” in Mártir was missing. I questioned myself again. Should I bother? I mean, they did give me credit…but that’s not my name. I pushed through my self-doubt and contacted the writer again. The change was made. The author also added “defensive” to describe me.
I was left wondering why I even questioned myself in the first place. Me, a woman who is so quick to express herself and tell people what’s exactly what on my mind, why did I hesitate? What is it about my dynamic with white women that makes me, a normally very outspoken, quick to defend herself woman, get quiet when challenged or dismissed by them? What is this silence I’ve internalized? Where does it come from?
I reached out to my friend D who went to NYU and works at NYU and whose daughter recently graduated from NYU. She shared stories of “me too”—the white female professor who gave her a dirty look; having to ally herself with people who would use her for what she could do for them…there are so many sacrifices we make to survive in white spaces.
I thought about the reflection I wrote after AWP15, color in AW(hite)Place : “There was a time when I refused to believe that race was such a pervasive issue. I’d cringe when people cried ‘racism.’ I’ve been known to say, ‘Not everything comes down to race.’ I’m not that naïve anymore.”
And I thought about how I’d ended that essay: “Because silence is a political act.” My silence is a political act. Is this who I want to be? Is this how I want to show up in the world? Acid settled in the back of my throat. It burned.
That night I pulled out my journal and started writing what became a pages long list of the white women who’ve silenced and shamed me. I traced it back to when I was a thirteen year old girl from Bushwick just trying to get an education.
There was my guidance counselor my first year of boarding school in 1989 (I’ll call her Ms. G) who reminded me every chance she got that I was too much, I needed to be tamed, quieted, the Brooklyn bred Latina taken out of me, by force or shaming if necessary.
When I talked too loud or laughed too loud or showed excited too loud, “Hush,” Ms. G said.
The keys that dangled from my hip jingled too loudly. “Take those off and put them in your bag.”
“It’s want to, Vanessa, not wanna.”
“You only speak Spanish in Spanish class, Vanessa.”
When she looked at me, she was tight lipped, nose turned up, her eyes scanning me, looking for something else to correct, to make right, to contain.
Years later, my boss would look at me like that. I was in my mid-twenties when I started working at a medical management company. I was still learning the ways of corporate America. I was never taught the etiquette of corporate America and could have used loving guidance, instead, she and the director of nursing tag-teamed to remind me that I did not belong there. They policed what I wore. They policed what I said and how I said it. They policed who I talked to. They even tried to police what I did outside of work.
When I returned from vacation once, the temp who’d covered for me told me they’d offered her my job, told her: “You’re just the kind of girl I need to be my assistant.” She’d graduated from a private college like me but was white, wore loose button down shirts and skirts below the knee with flats. She didn’t go to Happy Hour after work. She was raised in the suburbs in upstate New York. She would never be accused (as I had) of smoking a joint during lunch. Nice, suburban white girls don’t do that. Hood Latinas do.
There was that professor at Columbia who after a challenging semester told me I was irresponsible when I showed her the doctor’s note excusing me from taking the final. When I went to take the make-up exam, she glared at me and slammed the exam onto the desk. “You people…” she muttered as she walked out and yanked the door behind her. I wondered what she meant by that. Did she mean you people of color? You spics? You hood girls?
There was the CEO of the nonprofit I worked for as an editor who referred to me in a Fast Money Magazine article about the organization as “the Latina single mom.” No mention of my education or publishing credits. No mention of the work I’d done for the org, helping them re-build the website by writing and overseeing the content creation. I was the stereotype in her eyes. No more. All those accomplishments didn’t matter. I was still just a spic.
A few months ago it was my partner’s friend (I’ll call her S) who offered me unsolicited advice on my workshop though she’s not a writer or a teacher nor had she ever asked me a single question about what I do or why. When we visited S in Minneapolis, she continued to antagonize me, treating me/us like the help. I spent the morning of my first day of what was supposed to be my vacation, helping her get her house ready for her housewarming, where she was debuting her new house to people. I did it and didn’t complain though I felt a certain way about it. That night, after a full moon ceremony, when I shared that this was the first of two consecutive full moons in Sagittarius (June and July of this year), she leaned forward, pursed her lips and said, “No, that’s not possible. Let me tell you how this works…” and proceeded to go on her spiel about how wrong I was, which I must note I was not. I got up and walked away to look at the moon in all her glory. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
This happened repeatedly, where I felt antagonized and condescended, until I couldn’t take it anymore and walked out of the house for good, returning later only to gather my things and leave.
The thing is: I didn’t say anything. I didn’t defend myself. I didn’t take her to task for talking down to me. I simmered. I seethed. But I said nothing.
As I was working on this essay, I posted a blog about what I was writing, including quotes, in my-essay-a week-in-2016 challenge (dubbed The Relentless Files). I posted the link on a private FB page for writers. Not long afterwards, a white woman responded, telling me that I was seeing microaggressions where they did not exist. She insisted that the essay demonstrates a “litany of people who offended you who are pretty much bending over backwards to apologize or accommodate you in some way.”
Here are a few tips: 1. Stop telling people of color what racism looks like. We already know. 2. Apologies do not negate or erase the oppression that warranted the apology.
To be clear, yes, critique is hard but I’m open to receiving it from people I know respect my work. Telling someone that what they experienced isn’t racism isn’t a critique of craft; it’s judgement of their experience. It is up to the writer to determine what feedback is valuable to her. This feedback wasn’t valuable, but in the end it was a helpful reminder of why I hesitate to defend myself when it comes to white women.
What ended the conversation finally? She claimed that she was sure that what I’d experienced was not a result of my skin color or ethnicity. I responded: “You’re sure about something you did not experience nor were there to witness. Say that I did that to you: took one of your experiences and judged it through my lens. Wouldn’t that be problematic? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls that the danger of a single story.” She never responded. The reflection was too much for her to handle.
Later, I posted an FB status saying unapologetically that I do not write for white people. (I don’t. Punto.) A white woman whom I’ve known on an acquaintance level since we were teenagers, who has never commented on anything on my page, not my work, not my pictures, nothing, compared her having been raised a red head in an urban area to systemic racism and disenfranchisement. When I called her on it and told her this wasn’t about her, she accused me of hating white people and unfriended me.
Both situations served as reminders. When I post something they don’t like, one of two things will happen: 1) I will receive messages from allies who will thank me for holding them accountable (I am grateful for y’all); or 2) I will be gaslighted and whitesplained. I will be told I hate white people.
In this midst of all of this, I read Nicole Chung’s “What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism.” I nodded in solidarity as a slew of memories of similar experiences went through my mind.
“The social pressure on people of color to keep the peace, not get mad, just make sure everyone keeps having a nice time—even when we hear these remarks in public, at our workplaces and in schools, in our homes and from other friends’ mouths—can be overwhelming, bearing down on us in so many situations we do not see coming and therefore cannot avoid. What does our dignity matter, what do our feelings amount to, when we could embarrass white people we care about? When our white relatives or friends or colleagues might experience a moment’s discomfort, anxiety, or guilt.”
I’m tired. I’m tired of the erasure and microaggressions, of having to stay quiet because I don’t want to offend anyone or make them squirm, or, dare I say, stand up for myself in a situation where I will likely get pushback, my experience denied and questioned.
This is what I’ve come to today, after too much time of thinking about this and talking about it: I could spend days listing the microaggressions and episodes of blatant racism and erasure that I’ve experienced. I could quote friends and essays and books. I could talk about how it took me weeks to read through Claudia Rankine’s Citizen because it made me cringe and cry. I may have even thrown the book across the room once because I saw myself in so many of the same situations, in boarding school, in college, in corporate America, just walking in the street or riding the train…
Like that time on the downtown 5 train when an older white woman kept shoving me maliciously. The woman could barely walk but she thought it was okay to push me because like her, I’d asked for people to make room for me to enter the train. She didn’t push the white man next to her. It was me she targeted. There was enough room for both of us but how dare I take up her space. How dare I insist on making space for my brown body. After the fifth or sixth time, I stared her dead in the face and said, “Imma need you to stop pushing me.” She sneered, but she stopped. That day I stood up for myself. I haven’t always been able to. That’s changing, starting now.
Today I’m looking at the ways we internalize those episodes and quiet ourselves, shrink ourselves as a result. The purpose of erasure is to make us doubt ourselves, make us feel like we’re buggin’, like we’re the problem if we speak up, if we dare to defend ourselves. Someone thought my words were insightful enough to quote my essay, but my name was not worthy of recognition. Even if that wasn’t the writer’s intention, I’ve been down this road enough times to know what erasure tastes like. I deserved to be cited. Me. By name. And asking for that isn’t too much nor is it confrontational or defensive. And, no, a note in the comments, as she suggested, is not enough. The essay should have been published from jump including my name and a link to my essay. I shouldn’t have had to ask for that to happen.
We should feel worthy enough to demand that much respect for the work we do, that we labor and lose sleep over. And we shouldn’t feel bad for that or worry that we’ll be labeled problematic or angry.
A few weeks after the incident with the essay, I met up with my coworker Sarah for lunch. She too is a writer of creative nonfiction and is also working on a memoir, so we met up to talk about the journey, our lives and, inevitably, the upcoming election. We were still naive enough to think Trump didn’t stand a chance. But still, we worried for this country where this caricature of a human could actually be in the running for our next president.
We were sitting in a cafe having lunch near Union Square. It was still warm out so we sat on the second floor of an outdoor patio in the back of the restaurant, surrounded by potted plants and the brick of the buildings around us. The little bit of sky we could see was bright blue.
Somehow the topic came up of the essay where my name was omitted. “What?” Sarah said exasperated. “That’s bullshit.” I told her about the white woman on an FB page telling me what I had experienced wasn’t racism at all. Sarah shook her head, took a bite of her sandwich and with her mouth still full said, “That’s white women shit.”
I was surprised into silence. There she was, Sarah, a very white woman raised in Iowa, dubbing another white woman’s ridiculous behavior “white woman shit.” Then Sarah laughed, more at my expression than anything. I smiled. “White woman shit, huh? Word.” I knew exactly what she meant.
After the election, Sarah texted me saying she was thinking of me. We left our conversation in the cafe with her promising she was going to work on being a better ally. I saw this as evidence. She wrote something about seeing and feeling me. I responded, “53% of white women voted for Trump. That’s some serious white woman shit. Damn…”