As first posted on theinclusionsolution.me
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Many of us want to do good in the world. We want to elevate the voices of those who have been systematically silenced. We feel empathy with other people experiencing pain, and we don’t want others to experience the pain we have experienced.
There is no doubt that all humans experience suffering; it is one thing we universally have in common. But we all have to reconcile with the fact that suffering happens to “good people” who “don’t deserve” bad things, and, more importantly, even good people can harm others, despite their intentions.
I met a woman the other day at a fundraising event. Let’s call her Jan. Jan walked into the event we were hosting at a coworking space. Conveniently and inconveniently, the coffee was also located in this room. She stumbled in apologetically, definitely not intending to run into a bunch of Black women raising money to support survivors of color subjected to sexual assault, stalking, and intimate partner violence.
“What are y’all doing here?” she asked as she took in the room staged to be Bridgerton-themed.
“We are fundraising for our organization that works with Black and Brown women and girls who have been impacted by sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and stalking.”
As Jan ran her hand through her blonde extensions, she proceeded to tell us about a stalking case from 2017 that is just now getting to court in 2022, as well as other ways she has experienced interpersonal violence in her life. She understood our cause intimately.
In the line of work I do, I am frequently encountering survivors of interpersonal violence. Unsolicited disclosures are an unintended ramification of the job.
But the disclosure isn’t the part of the story that affected me that day. The part that really had my professional demeanor faltering was all the “cringe” statements Jan made, the worst of which was her repeating, “I believe in supporting all women.”
Of course, on the surface, this statement seems benign. There is nothing inherently wrong about supporting all women. Yet, immediately I was reminded of the All Lives Matter camp.
I was getting agitated because the way Jan kept insisting that she believed in supporting all women felt very much like she was insinuating that we were not supporting all women because our organization specifically focused on Black and Brown women and girls. It felt as if she was insinuating that we didn’t support, nor care about, women who looked like her.
One problem with privilege is that people get so defensive when you recognize the way they have privilege. Insisting your humanity is insisting your suffering. When people feel like their suffering and struggle is invalidated, they want to point out all the ways they have been “oppressed.”
Jan talked incessantly about how she worked her way up from nothing as a result of leaving an abusive relationship, going above and beyond to emphasize all the things taken away from her. It looked to me as if she felt like she had to prove that her story was real, that her suffering was real.
One thing I will acknowledge is that Jan did recognize her privilege. She talked all about how she felt like her education level overcame many barriers thrown in her path compared to women who have less education. She also talked about how white women often tear other white women down. We even talked about how anyone can be an enforcer of patriarchy, how it affects white men too. All valid observations and beliefs.
However, Jan negated (in my eyes, anyway) everything she said with her other comments and insinuations. The way she kept referring to her “African American” fiancé and how hot he was made my skin crawl. She oozed, “My friends are Black so I can’t be racist!” You very much can be racist with Black friends and a Black husband.
I am not recounting this story because I think Jan should be villainized for her level of tolerance. Learning how to get it right takes a lot of getting it wrong, but it really did seem like Jan was trying, and we validated her and her story in ways I don’t think she was expecting that day.
I want Jan, and those like her, to know I want you to do better. The lesson here is for white people to know to not take up space in a room full of people of color to invalidate all the work we do to provide equitable spaces for our own people by telling us that all *insert whatever label* should matter. I know that wasn’t her intention, but that is how I felt. You may not intend to hurt someone if you didn’t intentionally trip them, but you still caused harm and should take accountability.
I work in a space that prioritizes the experiences of Black and Brown women and girls because we know they are some of the most vulnerable to interpersonal violence with little support that meets their needs. Jan had access to every other resource available in the community for survivors of sexual assault and relationship abuse. Those programs were started by women who look like her and largely cater to her needs. And at no time did I say our organization would turn away a white woman.
I vehemently believe in uplifting all women. I also believe centering the needs of the most vulnerable and oppressed liberates us all. It was really sad to hear how Jan lost so much of her support system and resources to take care of her children. No woman should have to go through that.
All spaces are not for, nor should be for, those with the most privilege in our society; they have literally everything else at their disposal. Our work of carving out spaces for the oppressed will continue to be of the upmost importance until the people dismantle the patriarchy, white supremacy, and ableism within our systems. Please don’t insult and invalidate our work for liberation by saying we should focus on all lives when systemically all lives do not matter yet.
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