I appreciated reading your recent article in Salon, because I too am a justice-loving Jewish white person working to fight racism.
But I’m also totally bumming about what you wrote. I mean, I think you know you come off sounding like an asshole. To quote you explaining a fight with your girlfriend: “Eventually I felt good enough about where we’d gotten…to go upstairs and sleep with her.” I am down with writers exposing their full humanity. But you know that’s not cute.
An extra helping of discussing sexism would pair nicely with your on-point knowledge of racial dynamics. In fact, they have to go together. Your failure to acknowledge male privilege undermines the question that the title of your article elicits: how do we convince other white people that racism is real?
Based on your article, I’m unconvinced that you actually liked Jessie. Maybe she just wasn’t your type, or maybe a sexist society got you all confused about who you are supposed to like. Baring your real self is admirable, but because so many men regularly showboat their sexual abuse of women in the media, your confessions are nothing really that new or liberatory, unless coupled with an understanding of sexism and male domination. Your conversations with Jessie could have been a whole lot more productive if you’d also brought up sexism and admitted to all the complexity.
I feel sad that Jessie’s exposure to anti-racism was through such misogyny. I’m with you: racism is destroying lives and we have to get everyone on board with ending it. Right now. You ask what it will take? It will take recognizing that you can’t teach someone about oppression while exposing them to other kinds. That’s why the term intersectionality continues to be relevant—if we are not aware of other kinds of privilege, power and oppression as we do anti-racist work, we won’t be affective in bringing in more allies.
If women got a published article every time we radicalized someone via dating, we’d all be fucking famous by now. Almost every guy I have dated has become more radical, more feminist, and clearer about racism by being in a relationship with me. And most political women I know are in the same damn boat. My straight female friends often feel frustrated looking for a male partner who is both kind and loving and also understands systemic oppression. It’s a tall order. Many have opted for “kind and loving” with the hope that radicalization comes later. Sometimes it does. And then eventually these men get more credit for their work in the movement than we do because they are seen as a novelty. And because of, you know, sexism.
I’m sure there was at least one woman who brought you in, who helped you through the initial stages of unlearning racism and becoming an anti-racist activist. I would love to see her get credit. Was it a girlfriend? A friend? A teacher? Your mother?
Maybe the next time you find yourself dating a Jessie, or wondering how you can talk about racism with white people, you can remember the women who have supported you through your political mistrials, and then come to the relationship and the task of anti-racist education from a place of love.
Honestly, it sounded like you cared more about looking cool and anti-racist in front of your friends than actually getting someone else to join in the fight (or having a nice, caring relationship with another human). And you back this point up at the end, by saying that you’re not interested in the “go work in your own communities” approach.
I know you have done work with white people in the past, and you hint that you’re done with it: “I wasn’t interested in chopping it up with any hunkered-down white racists, that I’d had my fill of that ten years earlier when I published Angry Black White Boy.” It’s okay to take a break from doing the professional work of educating fellow white people about racism. Everyone gets to take care of themselves. But you can’t take a break from doing the work on a personal level. Because no matter how finely you have tuned your social circles, there will always be the Jessies. And to try to avoid them completely will not only render you ineffective, but will also make your life smaller.
We all have to do anti-oppression work from a place of loving our own people. And sometimes that will feel hard and terrible, but that doesn’t mean we don’t keep going. Because when we do it with love, we are that much more effective at explaining why ending racism matters so much to us, and why we need more help.
Talia Cooper is the program director at Ma’yan in Manhattan, where she leads anti-oppression workshops for educators, parents, and high-schoolers. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on writings and trainings. She can also be found playing music on Facebook and YouTube.