Hand Wringing and Reckoning

We are pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 RCWMS Essay Contest. The theme was “Experiencing White Supremacy.” The first place winner is Danyelle O’Hara of St. Paul, MN, for “Hand Wringing and Reckoning,” which first appeared in our March newsletter, and is republished below. Second place goes to Karen Erlichman of Pacifica, CA for “Layers of White Privilege.” Many thanks to this year’s judges: Marcy Litle, Marcia Rego, and Rebecca Welper. The judges report that they were touched by the thoughtful honesty expressed by all the writers as they tackled this challenging subject. We send our thanks to all who entered our contest!

Hand Wringing and Reckoning
by Danyelle O’Hara

Recently, I was involved in completing a large collaborative report. I edited the full document after coordinating multiple partners to make their contributions. When the product was signed, sealed, and delivered to its final destination, my supervising colleague sent an email to all parties involved in the project thanking them for their contributions. He did not thank or recognize me—publicly or privately—for the key roles I played in producing the report.

I noted the oversight, but I don’t think my colleague did until one of his email recipients sent a “reply all” thanking me. Awkward. Even more awkward was when my colleague made an ineffectual attempt to recover himself by hitting “reply all” to the previous message echoing the thanks to me. If we’d been in a conference room together, I would have crawled under the table.

This kind of thing happens all the time doesn’t it? Spouses, family members, friends, and colleagues—we all sometimes fail to thank the people who do the most.

What also almost always happens for me, a life-long African American woman, when I am on the receiving end of such an experience with a white person in a position of authority, is a chain of events. First, a rush of shame. Indignation and anger invariably come later, but the raw immediate emotion is shame. Next, an almost uncontrollable impulse to assuage the feelings of the person who has slighted me. Mindboggling, but I’m telling this like it is: I take responsibility for ensuring that a person who has forgotten me, ignored me, dissed me, etc. doesn’t feel badly for their behavior.

This time, though, I made a conscious decision to respond differently.

I didn’t count the number of times following the awkward emails that my colleague lauded my excellent work on the report. It came up in every follow-up email and phone contact we had. I felt badly about my colleague’s omission, to be sure, but much more strongly, I felt a resolve to not involve myself in making him feel okay about his shoddy treatment of me. Not rush to his rescue and deliver what he needed from me in the wake of his omission: to know that he wasn’t as bad as his behavior indicated he was. And maybe he wasn’t. But I chose to let him determine that for himself. White people often want me to bail them out of their bad behavior, and I usually do it because I’m conditioned to and because it gets me the response I seek—to be the well-liked and approved-of Negro.

Being a well-liked, approved-of Negro is a painful and ironic requirement in my liberal, nonprofit, philanthropic, social justice, do-gooding, down-with-the-people, challenging oppression, and dismantling racism world. Although we like to talk about “the revolution,” reality is that funding for it comes from mostly white pockets and my standing in the field depends largely on approval from those people. Not always, but often. People of color carry all kinds of burdens for liberal white people to make them feel good about who they are and their place in the world. We carry those burdens because there could be consequences if we don’t. My professional well-being is largely tied to rewards available to me if and when I do my part to uphold the world as my liberal white colleagues want to see it.

I find myself wondering what W.E.B. Dubois would call this particular burden. There’s something reminiscent of the term Dubois dubbed “Double Consciousness,” where black people know what white people are thinking almost as well as we know what we are thinking. This was imperative during slavery to save one’s black ass, literally. The parallel today, because power and resources are so often controlled by white people, is about saving my job, or maintaining access to white-controlled opportunities. I have to know the white mind in order to navigate the realities they have framed and the resources they control.

The rescuing burden I am talking about is related to Double Consciousness, but it’s not the same. It’s still about staying a couple of steps ahead in order to stay in the good graces, but it’s also about covering and protecting the white ass when it is bared to me. Not only am I undermined, not only do I forgive the poor behavior, but I then make sure the liberal perpetrator doesn’t feel badly for their bad behavior. I do this because the perpetrator feeling badly for their behavior would indicate that they had, indeed, behaved badly. And that does not correspond with the masquerade that they are liberal and progressive and down with dismantling oppression. That they don’t perpetuate the oppression they say they seek to dismantle as easily as they breathe. Or do they? They shouldn’t be made to contemplate that possibility. That’s my job, to make sure they don’t have to.

What I’m talking about here might be unique to the nonprofit, activist, socially progressive world, where white people see themselves as beyond racism. Their image of themselves is as of allies, helpers, people who are making the world better—the good guys. When that image is called into question, it’s a crisis because there’s a whole career, public persona, discourse, and sense of self at stake. It’s obviously a fantasy, but just as obviously, it is where so many people live in terms of self-awareness. One of my roles as a woman of color, if I want to continue reaping the rewards of access to opportunities, is to do my part to make sure this self-image remains intact.

So what happens when I choose not to play the game? What happens when I decide not to rush in and assure my colleague that it’s okay he failed to acknowledge me; assure him that no one even noticed, and if they did, they knew it was unintentional; make it clear that it wasn’t just me who produced the report, there were a lot of people involved; remind him that we all make mistakes and in the realm of mistakes that could be made, this one was pretty minor? In short, what happens when I don’t rush in and hold him while he reassembles his image of himself? I think we go into free fall. We don’t know how to be; there is nothing to uphold the structure, and my colleague has to be with himself and whatever his omission of me means. And I have to be with the possibility that I’ve moved off the preferred list onto the shit list.

Some months ago, a commentator on NPR, self-identified as a black man, talked about being out with a couple of friends one evening in Baltimore after the civil unrest there. The fact that this guy is on NPR and the way he talks suggests that he’s had a certain kind of education. He’s a freshly scrubbed, well-educated, possibly middle class man. And you assume he keeps company with similar kinds of guys. So, three of these freshly scrubbed guys out one evening in Baltimore. A white police officer comes and tells them to move along. The police officer then makes reference to the fact that he smells something illegal and implies that it is coming from these men. The men are perplexed because this is not what they are about and soon thereafter it becomes clear that the smells are coming from someone else, a white guy. After everything is sorted out, the police officer says something along the lines of, “Hey guys, sorry about that. You know how it is, right?”

The three men let their silence communicate to the officer, “No, we don’t know.” In the NPR piece, the commentator talked about how he chose not to take on his regular “job” of rescuing the well-meaning white police officer out of his racist blunder. The commentator talked about that moment of what I call “free fall”—that moment when no one knows what to do because we are so unfamiliar with the situation and there is no recognizable social scaffolding to hold onto. The commentator saw the moment and chose not to be the good Negro, not to cover the well-meaning racist white person’s ass. He chose dignity for himself and responsibility for the white police officer.

The commentator decided not to perpetuate the cycle of oppression that day. The cycle of white liberal racism that has white people continuing to step on people of colors’ necks and expecting us to make them feel okay about it. The cycle that has people of color explaining that we understand and reassuring white people who commit acts of racism that they’re not so bad, they’re not like those real racist people.

He didn’t. And I didn’t with my colleague because, really, how is that cycle any different from any we’ve been whirling in for the past five centuries?

I let my colleague do his hand wringing and flustering. I let him send his emails and make his protestations. I said nothing. I had nothing to say. I didn’t understand, so why say I did? Rather, I let my colleague reckon with himself. I don’t know if he did, but at least I didn’t have a hand in robbing him of the opportunity. And in robbing me of my dignity.

Danyelle O’Hara works with nonprofits and foundations on issues related to land, natural resources, and rural people. In the rest of her life, she is a mom to two amazing children, a partner to their wonderful father, and a writer when the spirit moves her. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.