Nice White Ladies

WOMEN AND HONOR: Some Notes on Lying, an immense work of fourteen pages by the lesbian poet and white feminist Adrienne Rich, begins with a clarification in parentheses at the top of page one: “These notes are concerned with relationships between and among women.” Drawn from remarks Rich made at a writers workshop in 1975, Women and Honor was published two years later by Pittsburgh-based press Motheroot (RIP). My copy from Cleis Press was given to me by a white woman friend and mentor in 1994. Though I keep it close at all times, I haven’t reached for it in years; its message is so potent I only need to glance at it, propped among my pens and ribbons, to receive its guidance: Stop lying.

When I finished White Women: Everything You Already Know About Your Own Racism and How to Do Better (just out from Penguin) by Regina Jackson and Saira Rao, Rich’s pamphlet practically floated up from its place among the pens, landed in my open hands, and turned its own pages for me. I read these words:

The woman who tells lies in her personal relationships may or may not plan or invent her lying. She may not even think of what she is doing in a calculated way.

A subject is raised which the liar wishes buried. She has to go downstairs, her parking-meter will have run out. Or there is a telephone call she ought to have made an hour ago.

She is asked, point-blank, a question which may lead into painful talk: “How do you feel about what is happening between us?” Instead of trying to describe her feelings in their ambiguity and confusion, she asks, “How do you feel?” The other, because she is trying to establish a ground of openness and trust, begins describing her own feelings. Thus the liar learns more than she tells.

And she may also tell herself a lie: that she is concerned with the other’s feelings, not with her own.

But the liar is concerned with her own feelings.

The liar lives in fear of losing control. She cannot even desire a relationship without manipulation, since to be vulnerable to another person means for her the loss of control.

The liar has many friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness.

In White Women, authors Jackson and Rao make these same observations of white women as we struggle to admit our own racism and our conscious complicity in systems that perpetuate it. Not only is our denial itself an act of racism that harms Black and brown people, but our allegiance to whiteness and patriarchy keeps us dishonest and disdainful in relationship to one another. In other words, we treat Black and brown women the same way we treat each other: terribly. The authors have seen it with their own eyes, navigated it every day of their lives.

“A critical component of upholding white supremacy is employing a feigned ignorance that brings you here, to these pages, asking a Black woman and a brown woman to explain to you the nuances of this script; a script you wrote, directed, and produced, and from which you’ve amassed dizzying wealth and power,” Jackson and Rao write. “A critical component of our work is radical honesty. On our part, sure, but—more crucially—on yours.”

How have Jackson and Rao come to know us so well and see us so clearly? They are the founders of Race2Dinner, an organization that facilitates dinner-table conversations among white women who are often groups of friends. In the pages of White Women, we learn that the authors met in 2018, when Jackson, an accomplished and now-retired executive from the Bell System, joined the campaign to support Rao’s run for Congress in Denver, Colorado. Jackson is Black and Rao is first-generation Indian, and both women describe themselves as tokens who knew, having learned the hard way, how to code-switch to find acceptance within social and economic power structures maintained by white people. The idea for the dinner came about after Rao challenged white women during remarks along her campaign trail about their adherence to white supremacist and patriarchal authority. Afterward, white women came at Rao in droves to personally, individually, one by one, insist that they were not that. Other white women were, for sure—but not them.

Jackson and Rao had the idea to organize a gathering over dinner, where the white women’s racism could be discussed openly in the presence of other white women, rather than in these conspiratorial, behind-the-scenes dumps. Jackson and Rao would join them to facilitate. This decision brought them to the front lines of the catastrophe and brutality of white womanhood in America, our lying ways most of all. We lie to ourselves, we lie to each other, we lie to the men in our lives, and we lie, most of all, to Black women. The lie we tell most is the one about how powerless we are.

Race2Dinner—“Leave your tears at the door”—has been featured on The Today Show and in The Guardian and New York magazine. Reporters love to be scandalized by the fee for the dinner—$5,000 total—which includes dinner, dessert, drinks, pre- and post-dinner consulting, countless calls and emails just to schedule the damn thing, and which breaks down to a modest hourly compensation for in-person facilitation provided by Jackson, Rao, and resident white woman Lisa Bond. In response to the media’s giddy obsession with the price of the dinners, Jackson and Rao offer no apology, just a searing critique: “Why don’t you go see how much Glennon Doyle and Robin DiAngelo charge for 45 minute talks and get back to us. The fixation is racist AF.”

White Women chronicles what happened at those dinners. White women’s eye rolls, crossed arms, huffing, puffing, and throwing the utensils down. Then, the book chronicles why it happened, why it keeps happening, and tells us flat-out to stop it. Jackson and Rao demand honesty, accountability, and toughness—from those at the table and us out here, reading the book. The authors’ scathing insights are as relentless as white women’s condescending attitudes and contempt for the Black and brown women they hired to facilitate their dinner. “Every single frame of these interactions . . . contains a billion molecules of racism,” Jackson and Rao write, describing scenes around the dinner table that may have lasted fewer than five minutes but definitely left a mark—especially on them. “Every second is white woman entitlement,” they write, making it clear that, every time, it hurt.

“Consider this wild idea … maybe your feelings, right now, don’t matter.”

TO BE TRULY seen is a gift, though we may not like how it feels. “Consider this wild idea,” the authors offer in the preface, “maybe your feelings, right now, don’t matter.” I felt the lightning strike of Black women’s honest assessment of me years ago when I enrolled my white son in a shoestring-budget private school, democratically run, where kids have a say in curriculum, trips, and are “free to be themselves.” I swallowed my pride and got actual-married (breaking a vow to myself to never marry) so I could consolidate resources with my children’s father and get on his health insurance. I did an unpaid internship at age forty in the school’s administrative office to spy before I buy and determined it was good enough for my child. We then borrowed money and accepted gifts from friends and family to pay for the privilege—which is what even a poor private school is—of sending him there. During our son’s first year, the school hired a master’s-level educator, a Black woman from Bank Street College and, before that, the Bronx, to coordinate diversity and outreach. The first thing she did at this social justice school was call in the white parents and insist that we see ourselves as white in a society that favors whiteness above all else, at the grave expense of many. We were complicit, directly benefiting from a system we claimed to despise. Even the white parents who were lifelong activists. Even the white parents with lovely foreign accents. Even the white parents of Black, brown, and Asian children. “At a school whose mission is to free children to be themselves, who is not yet free—inside this building and out there in the world?” she asked us.

I had thought I was on the right path, but she let me know I was for sure not in my lane. To engage honestly with her questions changed my whole life trajectory—and hell yeah, I was resistant. Confronting whiteness broke me open and forced me to contend with more pain and rage at the ways two public schools had already tracked my son as “bad” by age seven; at the fact that I did work that was “good” for the world and (therefore?) still needed money from my siblings to pay bills; at the indulgent and neglectful behavior I put up with from men in my life, upon whom I remain, to this day, financially dependent.

White Women gets at the heart of what got churned up in me back then and still roils now. Jackson and Rao recognize this moment; they’ve seen it hundreds of times when white women freak out and run back to the safety and comforts of whiteness. They compare it to walking into a pond and stirring up silt. We fear what’s under all that muck and dash for the shore.

What if you were to walk into the water and stand there and be still? If you are willing to just be still amid murkiness and discomfort so profound that you feel pained, you will eventually be able to clearly see the systems that are meant to be invisible. Rigid and reinforced, but invisible. You will be able to see these systems of oppression and violence. Most important, you will be able to see how you are upholding them. You cannot change what you don’t see. Seeing is foundational.

Saira Rao & Regina Jackson, founders of Race2Dinner. Photo by Rebecca Stumpf.

White Women points out what we constantly miss: One, it is our own liberation we must fight for. And two, no one owes us a thing—neither gratitude for showing up to the Race2Dinner or white affinity group meeting nor acknowledgment of the harm we, too, have experienced within patriarchy. Even if we are certain we are owed it—back pay, an apology, a fucking thank-you for how nice we’ve been about being shit on by men and other women all these years—it’s never coming, and yikes, that’s not something to be proud of. Waiting for it, stomping our foot to demand it, is a waste of energy and a drain on our power, our real-right-now, all-caps, collective power as white women to dismantle the systems that both keep us down and keep us in a position to keep someone else down and out.

“The pain and hurt and discomfort are not ancillary to antiracism work, they are the guts of it. Without it, change simply does not happen,” Jackson and Rao assure us. The authors also ask us, with love that I can feel all the way into my bones, “Aren’t you tired of never being good enough?”

A theme throughout the book is how consistently the white women at these dinners confide flaws and shameful details about the other women the second those women leave the table or the email thread. “It was exhausting typing all the ways you attempt to outdo one another, and yourselves. The amount of time and energy and money you spend attempting to be perfect,” they write, exposing white women’s feverish need to look, sound, and raise our children the “best”—or, at least, to appear as though we do. “If we are tired typing it, you must be exhausted from doing it.”

Later in the book, they lay it all out:

You are never thin enough, smart enough, successful enough, sexy enough, a good enough wife, mother, daughter, person. That is trauma. You need to be nice, which leads to silence. You are silent when you are abused by men and each other. Trauma. You are silent when you abuse us. Trauma. You take abuse at work at the hands of each other and men. Trauma. You abuse us at work. Trauma. You were raised to be violent, and you are raising racist kids to be every bit as violent as you. Generations of trauma—to us, yes . . . but also to you.

Lest white women miss the point and feel sorry for ourselves, the authors bring us back to focus: “Your need to be perfect hurts us.”

To reflect white women back to ourselves is an act of grace that Black women have extended to white women—free, for nothing!—for far too long. Who better to hold us accountable? Nope. Actually, who worse? How dare we ask the people we exploit, endanger, do not befriend, and look down upon to sit at a table with us and tell us how we hurt them so that we can argue—defiant, tearful, whipped into a froth of defensiveness—our innocence and allyship with our white friends as witnesses? But that is what we do, with and without such carefully orchestrated dinners. It is what we have always done.

I UNDERLINED LINES on nearly every page of the book and folded corners all the way along so I could return to the wit, clarity, and directness—a reference to white supremacy as “the ultimate grift” and a demand that white women “stop penalizing Black and brown women for choosing honesty, authenticity, and kindness over your toxic white nice.”

Rich saw the toxic white nice, too, when she described the danger of “powerless people”—women—who “forget that we are lying,” and let deception become “a weapon we carry over into relationships with people who do not have power over us.”

An honorable human relationship, that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love”—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other. It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation. It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity. It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

Jackson and Rao have chosen to go that hard way with us. The choice is yours, as it is mine, to go that way as well.

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