Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Taylor Swift Dilemma - Centering Whiteness in Conversations About Race

Last night, Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift had a Twitter spat.

Read this to learn the full story, come back, and let's discuss.

Here's the base essence of the tweets

In the process of decrying the racism which elevates artists that appropriate black music while ignoring black artists who created it in the first place, Nicki Minaj was greeted by an out-of-the-blue Tweet from Taylor Swift. Taylor's response was confusing, but some mass media still came to Taylor's defense. Make a note of this: Nicki Minaj specifically invites Taylor Swift to "speak on this," and Taylor stays dead silent...and proves exactly what Nicki is talking about: #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen.

Also last night, I had a conversation with a white woman whom I've long considered a second mother. (If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen me talk about it. I'm going to reiterate the same Tweets I made.)

She (let's call her "Margaret") told me that she, as a white woman, felt hurt by a Facebook status I made, and told me to watch out because I could face unemployment (in my head, I was thinking "not being published") if companies looked me up on Facebook. She called my status a "rant" and insisted on calling it that.

Now, please trust me when I say, I am not a 'different' person when I am on Facebook. I know the difference between rants and telling one's story. I know the difference between being ignorant and hateful (demonizing all white people) and critiquing white supremacy. My status did not even mention white people. It told the story of me, an Hindu Indian American, being upheld as a Model Minority at the same time I am treated as an outsider. Being used as tool to demonize Blackness ("look at Indians, they're doing so well, why aren't you?") by the same people who wage war on my Muslim siblings, by the same people who unintentionally wage war on non-Muslim brown folk because we look Muslim. I told my story. And I got a LOT of love for it - from all people. But Margaret said, "As a white person, I felt very hurt by it." She told me how every race is racist, & how Indians are very racist too. Which is very true - racism is prevalent in Indian society.

This Taylor Swift - Nicki Minaj argument reveals the truth of what happened between Margaret and me. Attacking white supremacy is not at all an attack on white people - white people should join us, in fact, it will make the movement easier. But conversations on race get very testy with many white people because many feel they are automatically seen as evil, and so they do not involve themselves in the conversation. It is simply too uncomfortable for them.

As Dr. Robin DiAngelo says in his landmark piece, "Why It's So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism"
"Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority and entitlement that we are either not consciously aware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We experience a challenge to our racial worldview as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. It also challenges our sense of rightful place in the hierarchy. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as a very unsettling and unfair moral offense."
Nicki Minaj never mentioned Taylor Swift. I never mentioned Margaret. And yet both called themselves out - and revealed themselves as problematic without any help from Nicki or me.

If your contribution to any conversation about race is, "But not all white people," or, "All lives matter," you are derailing the conversation. You are insisting on centering a conversation about racism on white people. That is being racist. That's okay - simply apologize, and change your behavior, but do not go silent, please.

What shook me is that Margaret told me to keep quiet or I will not find employment. What scared me even more is that she might be right. I wanted to tell her, "I know you are hurt. Imagine how we feel. We tell our stories, and so we must fear from the system. We hurt more." But I couldn't tell her that. I feared her anger. I just hugged her tight, twice, and I've been thinking about it for hours. I must speak - but at the risk of unemployment?

How beautiful it must be to never think about race. How beautiful it must be to never have racism on your mind, at all times, wherever you go. How beautiful it must be to never have to compensate for the effect your skin color has on everyone's instinctive idea of you.

White tears are not, in the slightest bit, more important than black blood. If you see black people as equals, that statement should not offend you at all.

I know I am talking to a mostly-white audience. Think about that! Aspiring writers are mostly white. Why is that? Many reasons: socioeconomic discrepancies, access to libraries, public education quality, acceptance within America, people who feel comfortable asserting their space in these industries, academic freedom, etc. 

Your whiteness is NOT a burden - you have power, and that is important! Use that power to center these conversations on people of color. Use that power to stand behind and with black people, and do not hide from your white privilege. It will always be there. Use it to talk to other white people about race. Use it to uplift the voices of people of color. Use it to encourage children of color to go into writing (and all the horrors that writing entails). Children of color don't see publishing as an option for them - you can help to create writers of color. The true mark of a white or non-Black ally is learning when to stay silent and use the power of retweeting and quoting instead, because white voices will ALWAYS be lifted above people of color voices in conversations on race (see: John Stewart).

But a word of caution: do not speak on a topic you do not know enough about. It is better to be silent than to misspeak, because with your power comes impact from your words. Trust me. People respect you so much more if you say, "Actually, I don't know enough about that topic to answer that question." If you are unsure, refer the person instead to someone who might know more about the topic. 

Another word of caution: do NOT pat yourself on the back for doing this, do not let others pat you on the back for speaking out about racism. Treating people with dignity and respect is not something to celebrate - it is something to expect. The white savior trophy will be thrust upon you. It is your duty to reject it at every turn.

White authors: consider this your invitation to the conversation. It is my Nicki-equivalent invitation for you to "speak on this." You will make mistakes, you will be called out, you will be challenged, you will be confronted (hopefully, by me - use #WriteInclusively as a safe place for these conversations). You will mess up, society has trained you to. That's okay. I'm asking you to catch yourself when you do.

I went through a tough learning curve too (thank heavens it was outside of Twitter). Let confrontation be a learning process, but do not stop uplifting people of color and make sure to center the conversation on people of color (unless you are addressing/teaching other white people specifically). Do not stop speaking. We people of color don't have the privilege to stop speaking about race.

Right now, I'm trying to start a hashtag: #HireAgentsOfColor. It is part of the #WriteInclusively campaign. Please help me get this hashtag going! Why do you think it's important to #HireAgentsOfColor? What changes might you see? Tweet Tweet Tweet (and also RETWEET writers of color!).

(This hashtag, and #WriteInclusively, are separate and not related to the "We Need Diverse Books" campaign, although we'd love to work in solidarity.)

If you want to learn more about what you can do, please consider signing up for the Write Inclusively newsletter.


Also, feel free to continue the conversation in the comments below!

1 comment:

  1. I do not believe you will lose a publishing deal over speaking your mind on this issue. Most of the publishing world is white, that's true, but so many agents (not sure about publishers, honestly) are looking for stories with diversity of race, culture, etc. This suggests to me that they're also open to discussions on race and racial issues. Keep talking. I'm an introvert, so I'm silent most of the time, but I stand with you. And for the record, I'm a white, conservative libertarian Christian.