By Jade Foote / News Editor
Being a woman of color is extremely important to me. Growing up in a predominately white space, I never felt comfortable with my Blackness. It took a great deal
of learning and unlearning to reach self-acceptance. Recently, I find that as my confidence in who I am increases, the easier it is for me to speak about issues that impact my life and the lives of those who look like me.
This freedom brings with it a troubling realization: the more comfortable with my Blackness I become, the more isolated I feel from my white friends.
I’m further reminded of my isolation when I read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in which the protagonist is a Black man whose color rend
ers him invisible. Lately, my white friends’ neutrality toward issues that are important to me makes me feel like the title character: that I’m here and I’m seen, but not for who I really am.
This past July, more murders of innocent Black men at the hands of law enforcement rocked the Black community. While scrolling through Twitter, I was discouraged to see my friend whose character I’ve always admired take a neutral stance on the issue. They advocated for “peace, love, and positivity,” and later when protests against police brutality led to the shooting of Dallas officers, they tweeted, “Killing cops won’t solve a damn thing.”
While the deaths of the Dallas police officers were tragic, and while it would be nice if everyone could just get along, this rhetoric is damaging: it is dismissive of the anger and pain that Black people experience. People of color are allowed to be angry; anger is a natural response to being systematically oppressed. Perhaps my friend didn’t realize how much their silence hurt me, how much it devalued my reality.
Some of my white friends’ unbiased attitudes toward the upcoming election are also frustrating. Of course I’m not happy with our options, and I recognize that both Clinton and Trump are corrupt and far from ideal. However, simply saying, “Well, both of them are awful, and I don’t want to vote for either of them!” isn’t an option for me or for people who look like me. Not everyone has the privilege to think this way. Several groups of people’s civil rights are on the line with this election, including minorities, women and the LGBTQ community, just to name a few. We can’t afford to be noncommittal.
It’s hurtful when my white friends do or say these things that come off as insensitive. These are the same friends who choose to socialize with a girl from my hometown who used a racial slur in an Instagram post. The same friends who defend someone who voted for Trump in the primaries, dismissing their lack of knowledge as a result of their sheltered upbringing or where they grew up. If they can so easily acknowledge and defend other people’s points of view, why can’t they do the same for me?
I believe that everyone has the right to an opinion about anything. But I also believe that opinions are not equal; one’s knowledge and one’s experiences matter. And many times, attempts to invalidate experiences of marginalized people is a characteristic of the condescension of historically privileged and powerful groups.
Invalidation often leads to people repressing their true emotions because others insist that whatever they’re upset about isn’t that bad and that they need to get over it. It’s harmful to invalidate other people’s emotions and opinions. When someone is hurting and chooses to discuss their experiences, the last thing they need is to be talked over or dismissed entirely.
The late Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” As a Black woman, I don’t have the luxury of being neutral. It is something that is on my mind every single day, because I’m reminded every day that I am a Black woman, and there are systems in place that were created to work against me.
My white friends’ impartiality indicates that they don’t consider how a person of color feels and thinks, and how they might have a different experience. As humans, it’s natural for us to only listen to and care about the things that we find useful and gratifying. However, privileged people need to look at how they engage with people of color so that we can make more progress. By genuinely listening to them, they can use their privilege to uplift people of color and work against oppression. I can’t help but feel as though my white friends’ refusal to see other points of view is also a refusal to see me.
So where does this leave my relationships with my white friends whose company I enjoy, yet whose failure to acknowledge my experiences as a Black woman is disheartening?
I know that drifting apart is often an inevitable aspect of growth, but this makes me sad and angry. Why does growing in my identity have to result in losing friends? Why should I have to feel so unseen by friends who, intentionally or unintentionally, choose not to recognize my Blackness? How can they not see all of me, especially when I try to see all of them? Why don’t they see how much their indifference hurts me?
Honestly, I don’t have an answer. But I do know one thing: at the end of the day, there really is no way to engage with someone who dismisses the pain, injustice, and mistreatment of marginalized people. If I feel unable to talk about a major part of me, and if I’m afraid that my friends won’t care when I share my feelings and experiences, then maybe they’re not true friends.
Disclaimer: I’m aware that every white person isn’t awful, but I’m not going to soften my vocabulary to make people more comfortable. Necessary dialogue isn’t always easy to have.