by Aimee-Noel Mbiyozo
[published in Art of Superwoman Magazine, Issue 1, 2020]
In 2020, no reasonable person denies that racism exists. There are many, however, who believe that it happens somewhere else by someone else.
In the George Floyd moment, many white women reached out to me. I made a public appeal to stop emotionally dumping on black people during these moments and to approach me with their questions and guilt instead.
They came. Mostly the people who needed it the least. The ones who think we “make everything about race” or believe in ‘reverse racism’ stayed predictably silent.
Most have come with true vulnerability. They are overwhelmed by the issue. Scared of saying the wrong things. Unsure where to get more informed.
I was raised in suburban Canada. We did not have anti-black racism in my neighbourhood because there were no black people. Racism is about power and we had one black person in our 1,000-pupil high school. I learned about it on TV and in books before moving onward to spend 8 years in America and 14 in South Africa, where anti-black racism is foundational. I had read Long Walk to Freedom and I Write What I Like before I set foot in South Africa. This outsider’s perspective allowed me to see evidence and follow it to its logical conclusion – race is fundamental to our life experiences; racism is everywhere, in everything, all the time.
Only in my adulthood have I reflected on the anti-Chinese, anti-Iranian and anti-Indigenous racism that I grew up seeped in. Our neighbourhood had plenty of these people and plenty of racism to go with it. I was complicit in all of it; without knowing it. It turns out that interrogating my own internalised racism is much harder than other people’s in other places. I remain saddened and embarrassed by the histories I do not know, the divisions I never queried and the lack of curiosity and compassion I have shown towards people.
Facing our own blind spots is hard. It can be confronting and involves value judgments. Not only towards ourselves, but towards our parents, educators and other people we love and trust.
But white people are also soft. We like to feel good for our efforts and have come to expect it. We like finish lines and graduations. We want praise when we do ‘good’ things. “But how do we fix it?” I get asked, like clockwork. One woman ordered Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy; she was one book away from being able to answer this on her own. Long-suffering internalised struggle is not our place – please watch Michelle Wolf on how hard it is to throw a revolution from under a duvet). We fatigue quickly.
Our collective knowledge as white people about racism is extremely low.
White feminists, by definition, are capable of understanding that we live in a society that was built for and by white men. We know that patriarchy has very little to do with whether our fathers and brothers are nice people. We know that misogyny is like air. It permeates all the spaces, including the ones inside of us. It is in our beauty standards, the reasons we apologise too much, get paid less for equal work and have to worry for our safety.
Yet too many of us fail to apply the same approach to racism. This must be willful. Somewhere along the line, we well-intentioned white people became more afraid of being called racist than we care about dismantling racism.
Reducing racism to a question of personal morals or opinions denies the ways in which whiteness is weaponised against others and distracts from the institutions that profit from it.
The biggest pass we give everyone from the huge multinational corporations, to politicians to our own schools, friends and households is the lie that racism is a personal disposition; when it is the ground we stand on.
It is also a missed opportunity. There is a freedom that comes with knowing there is much more at stake than our wokeness. It releases us to fight it collectively.
My husband is a glorious Pondo from Lusikisiki. I first saw him on the hallowed Jammie steps at the University of Cape Town where we were both students. You couldn’t miss his rugby-playing quads. We met as equals in a shared space. We now share even more equal spaces: our home, kids, finances, family, vacations, history.
Yet our pathways to those Jammie steps – and every day since – have been extremely different. The burdens we carry. The way the world perceives and treats us. The things we worry about. The triumphs and traumas that shaped us. The lessons we impart to our children.
I can say with authority that mine is easier than his. I can say with the same authority that easy does not mean better.
I will end by urging you never to move backwards. The world needs you to move forward. Anyone slowing this progress is a distraction. You do not owe white women an education, particularly if it is not enriching you. Unfortunately, I have no ninja secrets for how to dodge Carol from HR who gets drunk at the holiday party and corners you to insist we should stop seeing colour. But I can promise you that her feelings and failures are not your burden. God has bigger plans for you. Keep raising the bar.