author – activist – faculty – mom
I’ve been blogging here for almost three years now. I have published over 200 posts. I have had nearly half a million visitors and over half a million views. But by far the most viewed post has been the one from 2014 around this time: “Dear White People/Queridos Gringos: You Want Our Culture But You Don’t Want Us – Stop Colonizing The Day Of The Dead.” It received over a thousand comments, and over 400,000 views.
I want to appreciate Anna-Marie McLemore, Ella Martin AKA E.M. Caines, and Móni BQ for tweeting about the piece earlier this month, as we move into Day of the Dead season for 2015. Unfortunately, it’s just as relevant this year as it was last year. And people are still commenting on it, nearly twelve months later. I don’t generally read my comments, but I was surprised when my friend Shailja Patel alerted me last year that it had over 800 comments. When I went to read them, I was shocked to find that the majority of them (that I read at the time–I am not sifting through 800 comments) were negative feedback from white people that I was racist.
I found this very surprising because I had been so careful to say that I wasn’t talking about all white people. To be specific, I said: “Not all white people feel this way. Thank you to those of you who speak up against this. Thank you to all who boycott these events, support Latin@/Chican@/Mexican@-led events, hire our community’s artists, and hold the tradition with reverence. For those of you who haven’t been doing so, it’s not too late to start. Challenge white people who attempt to appropriate. Boycott their events and be noisy about it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to participate in this deeply human holiday, there’s something wrong with wanting to colonize.”
But this didn’t seem to have any effect on the massive number of comments from white people who felt personally attacked by what I had to say about “all white people.” I was truly baffled.
I developed two theories:
I was really curious. In fact, so curious that I asked one commenter: “did you not read the whole post, or was my explicit distinction between white people who do and don’t choose to appropriate POC holidays not enough clarification for you? I am particularly curious because you say I have done a mass generalization about white people, but I was very clear about which white people I was criticizing and which ones I was appreciating….I’m not sure if people just read the first few paragraphs of the post and then comment, or if some white people can’t tolerate any criticism of the racism of any white people….Would I need to start with a bold disclaimer “I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT ALL WHITE PEOPLE” in order not to have this problem repeatedly? I know online conversations can be snarky, but I am hoping for real dialogue here, because I feel frustrated when people comment on my posts by criticizing something that I explicitly addressed…”
As I was reading the comments, I recalled a hashtag that has been trending on Twitter: #WhiteFragility. It seemed as if these folks might be able to help me understand. According to a great article on alternet by Sam Adler-Bell, the concept of white fragility was developed by Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicutural education at Westfield State University and author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy. DiAngelo (who is white) defines it as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”
This perfectly described my experience. I also wondered if the problem was exacerbated by the use of the Second Person. In creative writing, we sometimes call this Point Of View, where a piece is either speaking in the voice as follows:
First person: “I”
Second person: “you”
Third person: “they”
Because the movie “Dear White People” had just come out when I wrote the post last year, I decided to call the post “Dear White People/Queridos Gringos,” and to put the post in the second person. I think this may have heightened the experience of white people feeling accused. Afterall, I did say “you.” But when R&B singers say, “I’m coming over to your house to sex you up” (I’m paraphrasing) and the doorbell rings, I don’t expect the singer to actually be there. That is to say, we all have experience with an author using the second person and not thinking they’re actually talking to us, personally. However, as part of white fragility, the defensiveness may be so heightened that the second person is too confrontational.
So as the Day of the Dead draws close once again, I’ll close this year’s post with a quiz.
How many people of Mexican ancestry live in your area?
a. few or none
b. many or very many
If you answered (a), go to Part IV, answer A.
True or False:
I have never heard of the Day of the Dead.
If you answered True, go to Part IV, answer D.
When the Day of the Dead comes around:
a. I don’t participate
b. I like to participate in events run by and benefiting members of the Mexican@/Xican@/Latin@ community
c. I like to paint a skeleton on my face and go to my tech company’s Day of the Dead microbrew party where my CEOs rock band is playing
If you answered (a), go to Part IV, answer A.
If you answered (b), go to Part IV, answer B.
If you answered (c), go to Part IV, answer C.
A: I have no idea whether or not you are racist.
B: I don’t know if you are racist, but I appreciate you making an effort to support our community.
C: you are definitely appropriating the holiday. Appropriation is part of racism. Please reconsider.
D: if you live in an area where there are lots of people of Mexican heritage and you have never heard of the Day of the Dead, then I suspect you might be racist, because you are so unaware of the cultural traditions of the people of color around you. On the other hand, The Day of the Dead is not celebrated in all parts of Mexico, so maybe there isn’t a strong tradition in your area…