Notes from a Bilagáana Lady
…in which your intrepid correspondent touches the Kryptonite…
by Janice Christensen
When the Black Lives Matter movement burst out of the hashtag universe into the streets, we all began living in a world that was forever changed, whether we realized it or not. It is a world where things that had long been invisible were now made visible. It was a world that demanded new understanding from all of us, and especially from us WPs.
The first reaction I had was, as our young friends love to say to us Boomers, To Kindly Take a Seat And STFU. It quickly became apparent that, like all WPs, I lived and moved through a world created to offer privilege to people like me. I tried to be aware and take some kind of action to make others aware of the situation. “No! Really, Mr. Burley Walmart Greeter/Door Guard, look at my receipt. Take your time. Check the contents of these bags. What? Why not?”
But anything I could think of do seemed, well, pretty lame.
Mahatma Gandhi said to Westerners who wanted to convert to an Eastern religion in order to be better, more spiritual people, “Don’t become a Hindu. Try being a better Christian.”
So that, perhaps, was a way I could contribute. I could begin by educating myself, and hope that a more useful, balanced life would grow out a new understanding. Perhaps I could become a better White Person. So I set myself to study, to listen, to find ways to learn that were not exploitative.
BUT! Of course, it’s also true that Silence is Violence.
So I have decided today to touch the Kryptonite. Because anything, ANYTHING that a White Person has to say about this situation is inviting disaster. Whatever we say will be wrong. We will make mistakes. We will stumble and fumble and say stupid stuff. Because we know absolutely nothing about what it’s like to NOT be a WP. We have to unlearn everything. We have to see things that are invisible to us. And we absolutely need to NOT DEFEND OURSELVES in this situation. Because our position is indefensible.
We live in a world specifically designed for us to succeed, and for others to fail. We cannot claim any success as our own. Our lives are built on the inequality of others. And we see those others every day. They are our neighbors and even, as much as possible, our friends. But every single moment, our comfort depends on their suffering.
And really, what can we say that will not bring offense? Just look at the imbroglio in our neighborhood resulting from the article by Tree Moore in the February issue of the Currents. Her comment that caused so much agita was this:
To begin my list of who and what matters, I am including living beings along with plants and animals at the top. Most of us are aware of the recent popular phrase, “Black Lives Matter.” The emphasis on “black” in this case has been created because there are those who believe that black lives do not matter, this phrase helps counter act that opinion…
In the spirit of full transparency, I edited Tree’s article. I read this paragraph, embedded in a piece that was intended to examine the word “Matter,” and to help people think about what matters in life. Now, it’s my opinion that a woman in her 80s has earned the right to express some opinions about what matters (and, actually, anything else she might choose to write about). I understood her paragraph about BLM to give a nod to the emphatic use of the word, “Matters,” in this vital movement of our time. And to acknowledge the great need for this movement because, as she said, “…there are those who believe that black lives do not matter…” This is one of those things that remains invisible to so many White People. It is absolutely necessary for White People to understand that UNTIL black lives matter to EVERYONE, there is NO WAY that the offensive phrase, “All Lives Matter,” can possibly be true. And that lesson has to be stated over and over in as many ways possible until we all “get it.”
And we don’t get it yet. That’s why we need to talk about it. That’s why we need to touch the Kryptonite and swallow our pride and say the stupid stuff and take our medicine and work through to a new reality.
There was a day in the mid-1980s when I had a terrible realization. As a radicalized Second Wave Feminist, I was filled with rage and horror at what I had discovered about our culture, and the place of women in it. But there came a day when I knew, I KNEW, that this would not change in my lifetime. Probably not in the lifetimes of my daughters or any of the younger women and men that I knew and loved.
But I also knew that I had to stay involved in the long work of educating others AND myself, trying to make visible that which was invisible. Not only did White Men need to learn, but in order for real change to happen they had to give up so much of what made up their core identity. This was going to be a series of long, hard, battles, many of which would be lost. But they had to be fought. And maybe, over the course of generations, change would come.
And now, a few generations later, the changes we worked so hard to bring have only brought to visibility the need for MORE changes. Third Wave Feminism, Intersectionality, Fourth Wave Feminism – all so necessary and so hard. There is much wrong with our culture, and much work to be done to make it better. My own understanding of all the new changes in Feminism is superficial at best, and were I to engage in any kind of discussion of it I would no doubt fumble and stumble and say stupid stuff. I have much work to do to educate myself. As do we all.
So back to our topic. One helpful tool I encountered at the beginning of my journey was a chart titled, “Racism Scale: Where Do You Fall?” It was created in 2017, and already it’s easy to identify problematic language in it. The phrase about “letting POC lead” leaps out immediately, as if there is somehow permission involved! The stupid stuff we say!
But nevertheless, it’s an attempt to look at things that have been invisible. When I first encountered it, I was uncomfortable to recognize some of my own attitudes in positions on the chart that made me cringe. But the chart does not suggest that ANY of us is NOT racist. It just helps identify HOW racist we are. And, one hopes, identify areas where we can do better.
There have been more lessons and contemplation since I first encountered that chart. Since moving to Cortez, Colorado, a few years back, it has been very helpful to learn about White “culture” through my growing acquaintance with members of the Navajo Nation, just to the south of us in New Mexico and Arizona.
The title of this piece uses the word “Bilagáana,” the Navajo word for White People. It was eye-opening to contemplate how many cultures have a specific word for White People. Indeed, we are The Other for a lot of folks. Some people call us White Devils, and I can’t say I blame them.
The Navajo call themselves “Diné,” which means “The People.” I heard a speaker explain that the word “Diné” means “five-fingered beings,” so actually, all people are Diné.
Living in proximity to the Navajo Nation has shown me from another angle how White People profit from the oppression of others. Did you know that uranium ore has a smell? It does. And sometimes there is a smell on the wind from the still-open shafts of abandoned mines. And people work their farms and graze their herds of sheep outside all day, and that smell is all around them.
Let me leave this discussion at this point. I’m sure I have said enough stupid stuff to get a lot of people riled. My final take-away from this Kryptonite-juggling session is this: Let’s talk. Let’s listen. Let’s do our best to spend some time with each other and do the hard work of shifting a paradigm. We – and by “we” I especially mean WPs – need to give up our privilege. And that’s hard, even if we are willing to do it, because there is still so much that is simply invisible to us.
It has been said that no one willingly gives up privilege. If change is to happen, privilege must be taken.
So, I guess, please. Take the privilege. I don’t know what that looks like, because there is so much I still can’t see. But I support it, whatever form it takes.
Chart: This racism scale was created in July 2017 by C Demnowicz after repeated conversations on social media showed a need for a visual method of explaining the many levels of racism in the US. It was created from the perspective of one white woman to another white woman, to help her recognize patterns of thought, speech and behavior that created a wall to understanding institutionalized and systemic racism in the USA. You can find this scale at www.racismscale.weebly.com. As noted in the article, this scale has some problematic language in it. Nevertheless, it can be useful as a tool to help people begin to “see the invisible,” and to serve as a focus for discussion.