Oprah got us all going this week, didn’t she? She got at least some of us hoping, too, that a new day really could be on the horizon. She practically called that new day into being, right when we needed her to. Such is the genius and the power of Oprah.
But hope and admiration quickly faded as the white people of the internet began clacking our opinions about whether she’s going to run for president and if she’d be any good. I even saw several tepid takes about how it would be as dumb to vote for Oprah as it was to vote for Trump. As if, because they are both TV personalities, Oprah=Trump. Asinine.
And I did my share of clacking, too -- not so much about whether Oprah would be a good president, but more about my feelings about her feelings about her weight. My feelings about what it would mean for the women of the world if she could get over it. My feelings.
A couple hours later, I was washing some dishes, thinking about my post and the lively conversation that sprang up underneath it, and I got a different feeling. A sinking, shit/oops feeling.
What did I just do?
First, did I really take an actual important event in the world -- Oprah’s beautiful outpouring of hope to a country starved for it -- and make it all about my completely unrelated feelings about her? Ayup, that’s exactly what I did.
Second, do I really think it was Oprah’s job to fix not only the shitshow that is American politics at present but also all of our body image issues as well? Why do I feel the need to criticize this woman for being only, like, 98% perfect?
Third, don’t I hate it when skinny young dudes try to tell me what I should do with my fat middle-aged lady body? Because they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about? Then why am I turning around and doing the same shit to Oprah now?
How can I possibly judge a person who has experienced the abuse and the racism that she has experienced? Where do I get off telling her how she should feel about her body? Where do I get off giving unsolicited advice to ANY black person? Especially when white people are the ones fucking almost everything up?
All these thoughts were swirling around my head when I got a notification from my friend Maria, popping up on my thread to be like, GIRL. What are you DOING. Sure, it would be great for feminism if Oprah could love her body at any size, and it would also be great if white people would do a GREAT MANY THINGS DIFFERENTLY, and yet ... here we are.
She reminded me, as she always does, that racism can be far more subtle than the conspicuously horrible Jefferson Beauregard Sessions variety. It can just be about living in a such a way that we don’t think about black people at all.
For instance, when I wrote my post the other day, I was just spilling my feelings out onto the screen. I didn’t consider how it might sound or feel to black people (I imagine it's similar to how I feel when dudes share their feelings about womankind with me).
Nor did I consider that, if I’m really as concerned about ending racism as I like to think I am, maybe there’s a more valuable way to spend my time besides tearing down a black woman?
Now -- let me head off this question because I know it’s coming -- Am I really saying that Oprah and by extension all black people are beyond critique? No. I am positive that there are critiques to be made of Oprah and all black people because there are critiques to be made of all human beings.
But those particular critiques shouldn’t come from me.
Reasons I Am Not Qualified To Critique Oprah
Am I an expert on black women’s bodies or the way they are raised to see their physical selves or ideas about body image in black communities? No, I am not.
Do I know anything about what it means to have been horribly abused as a child and still find a way to make my life into a huge net positive for the world around me? No. Neither my abuse nor my contributions can be measured on the same scale as Oprah’s.
What do I know about racism from the pointy end? What experience do I have being black?
Finally, who the fuck asked me? Spoiler: No one.
So, I talked with Maria. She helped set me straight. And then I edited my post to reflect my changing thoughts. And hopefully this lesson -- don’t spew about shit you don’t understand! -- was reinforced a bit in my head. And we all moved on with our lives.
Why Am I Telling You This Story?
Because I thought it might be useful to walk through why what I did was racist in an oblivious liberal-white-lady kind of way, since this kind of racism often eludes the notice of many white people (including me, clearly)
Because of an exchange that I heard in a video by Robin DiAngelo, a researcher and teacher who coined the term “white fragility” and has studied it for decades. (The exchange starts around 18:20 in the linked video, but you should watch the whole 20 minutes if you can -- it's solid gold.)
DiAngelo says that in one of her workshops, she asked this question of a group of people of color:
“What would your daily life be like if you could simply give us (white people) feedback when we step in it, as we inevitably will, and have us receive that with grace, reflect, and seek to do something different?”
A black man in the room responded:
“It would be revolutionary.”
I haven’t been able to get this exchange out of my head since I heard it. And I think it’s because even though I despise racism, sexism, and all forms of discrimination and bias, I have also been swimming in them since the moment I was born … which means that they are inside me and, in fact, all of us. Which is more than a little depressing.
But when I heard this little exchange, I saw a way out of this hopeless-feeling situation -- I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to BE COACHABLE and KEEP TRYING. When someone is brave enough to tell me I fucked up, I have to be brave enough to take the feedback with grace and try to do better.
It is a vulnerable feeling to be called out for acting out of bias, but having gone through it more than once now, I can tell you that
- It’s honestly not that bad.
- It’s absolutely nothing compared to the shit that people of color go through regularly.
- And it is the only way we can learn how to dismantle and move beyond racist beliefs and institutions.
White folks of my acquaintance, I hope you’ll join me in striving for coachability, so we can learn where we're fucking up, and do better.