Conformity, Competition, Conditional Connection

—> Conformity, Competition, Conditional Connection and other weapons of whiteness that hold us “woke” white women back. <—

This post has been a lifetime in the making and nothing I can say here will really do it justice. I’m beginning to address it now because we’ve had a particularly active and impressive primary season here in St Louis and there was a lot of progressive white women bumping into each other and causing each other pain in predictable ways.

I also saw a post from Saira Rao this week that said: “Nobody has broken my heart more and more often than white women.” (Not to mention anything and everything Rachel Elizabeth Cargle has posted on insta in the last several months).

That post brought me sadness because I don’t have to think twice to know it’s true. In fact I imagine most white women would say the same thing. That’s not to diminish the pain we cause women of color. That harm is real, tragic and incredibly destructive. And there is an additional layer. Part of the reason I believe it’s hard for white women to recognize the harm we cause others is because we also do it to ourselves. Put more plainly, it’s our normal.

It’s also connected to some of our own deepest pains and obviously our biggest blind spots. Typically we have had little space or permission to process ourselves. And when the pain and pattern is raised by a woman of color many of us respond swiftly and predictably. Our response is governed by a lifetime of messaging that our intrinsic goodness is deeply intertwined with our popularity-meter and others’ perception of us. We like to be liked. And we must be seen as nice. It’s not really a matter of preference (although it may come to be) but it’s a matter of survival in our own networks. The niceness is a farce of course. It’s a veneer that’s only surface deep and a tool of oppression - for others and ourselves.

Our success as white women depends on our ability to tone police to ensure conformity, knock someone down a couple pegs to maintain our own status, and threaten disconnection and exclusion to maintain control.

These are tools and games that many of us know well but we rarely talk about with each other. But the absence of this conversation in our own community is not proof to me that this behavior doesn’t exist but it is proof to me that as white women we have come to expect this from each other.

I’ve spent a lifetime processing the presence of these behaviors in my own socialization and the institutions in which I was raised. Perhaps the pursuit of something different helps explain why twice in my life I’ve devoted myself to creating two massive supportive networks of primarily white women. First in NYC with my partner Amy Abrams we created a space for women entrepreneurs where we could work, meet and learn together. For nearly 8 years our membership consistently hovered around 300 women, the majority of whom were white. And since arriving in STL I have set to work with my partner Laura Horwitz on creating a network for more than 700 white families who are working to open up conversations about race with their children and in their communities. I share all that to say that numbers wise I have had far more life-giving relationships with white women than not. And yet I can also say no one has caused me more pain than white women.

Life certainly isn’t free of pain. And relationships can be messy. But what I’m thinking about most today is how we as white women often fail to de-weaponize ourselves - even as we move into more “woke”, progressive, and especially multi-racial spaces. Even when we know better, even when we are trying to know better we cannibalize each other. The result is continued unnecessary pain and carnage. And I worry it may cost us whatever gains we make in service of the larger movement of progress and specifically racial equity.

I want to speak to three specific themes that have come up often for me in the last several weeks, which have left me feeling judged, resented, and ultimately more disconnected from some of my white women peers - ones I have tremendous respect for and consider comrades.

Conformity. We foist it on each other. We get preoccupied with: What do we collectively think? Do you agree with me? How similar are we? This quest for sameness amongst those around us (friends, peers, neighbors, colleagues) prevents us from focusing on the questions of: “what are the collection of talents and perspectives that we as a group offer?” “What are you seeing that I’m not?” “In what ways do we and can we differ?” This is so closely linked with right/ wrong for me and either/ or thinking . There is a right way to think, act and vote. There is a wrong way to think, act and vote. We look less for nuance than we do for perfect alignment. And we are evaluative about it. How closely you mirror what I do tells me what kind of person you are - a good person or a bad person. All we want to know sometimes is: Did you come to the right answer, which is inevitably the same answer I did? We are evaluative. We police each other. These are weapons of supremacy.

Competition. I had the privilege to be a guest at Amanda Seales show “Smart, Funny and Black” this week. She made a simple point that I have heard my friends of color - in particular Black women - make often. She was talking about women complementing other women. “It doesn’t diminish us to big you up.” Who do we big up? Who do we celebrate? Is there more room at the table? How do we share? Shower others with love when there is nothing in it for us? Sometimes we white women respond to other women’s success or shining moments with resentment; sometimes it’s more about our own feelings of inadequacy. Our collective ability to shine isn’t fixed. My friends shine neither reflects poorly on me nor does it prevent me from shining in my own way. Personally I’m finding this one soften a bit with age but I still see a LOT of beauty and progress quickly extinguished by others feelings of inadequacy and resentment.

Conditional Connection. This is the mother of all whiteness weapons...the ultimate threat. When our white peers don’t do the conformity and competition dances the way we want, we abandon them. Cut them out. Drift away. Sometimes these disconnections are marked by a fiery break up. Other times they are marked by a passive aggressive contract to “agree to disagree” which often isn’t really about a tolerance for difference but a resignation that ‘it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to convince you to take up my conclusion.’

I worry a lot about the harm we white women cause people of color. I worry a lot about the harm we cause each other. Seeing so many white women joining multi-racial coalitions and backing candidates of color in particular is cause for hope for me. And yet...we still have lots of work. I believe that people who consistently cause others harm (in predictable ways without taking responsibility) are often suffering themselves. We are those people. The harm we inflict is a product of our own brokenness. We are suffering from our own wounds of white supremacy. And even as we invest in becoming more woke and even as we move into more multi-racial spaces in the name of anti-racism I can see that we still have our weapons pointed at each other. Not only does that make us dangerous to ourselves and others, it also makes us a liability to progress. I’d love for us to invest more time in de-arming ourselves lest we blow up the whole freaking movement (again). Will you join me?