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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Fox Watching the Hen: Devouring POC Space

I went to a social justice space the other day which was for POC (People of Color) only. I tried not to talk too much because I am not "POC only", and I look white. At the group discussion I felt the need to chime in on the issue of interracial dating. Someone questioned why I was there: "ain't she white?" and it became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. I lost myself in carefully humbling my whiteness to this black bodied person (which is so necessary but happens with white folks so infrequently). But in doing so, my comments sounded more like white guilt than useful dialogue. I was irreverently taking up the space I said I wouldn't and I was rambling. God, I was going on and looping circuitous comments together and passing them along as insight because what was I even going to say before that nervous joke- something about dating white people? "I dunno; that's all I had to say." came out instead. I was distracted by the flash-bang of my own whiteness.

After the meeting, a friend of mine said she felt protective of me because of that person's comments about my whiteness. She felt the need to "vouch" for me.

I decided a long time ago it is wrong for me to seek racial catharsis at the expense of my brown (half) brothers and sisters*; if they are uncomfortable with me, I leave. But I think, often, my friends don't see the politics behind this. They see me, seemingly lonely, looking as marginalized as it is possible for a white-bodied person to look and they want to help. They (one) drop me back into a conversation in which I don't necessarily belong:
My hair is not dangerous.
My presence is not startling.
My self-love can never be radical.

When I come to these events, I know I can be distracting, and frankly, the fact that I know this to be true means I really shouldn't be there at all, but I lack community- and if it wouldn't look elitist/colorist, I'd  have my own group for white-passing POC because that might be less onerous on visible POC. But I'm here and I'm trying to get a grasp on this tinted life, which means I need community.

But, when I'm here, I don't want you (POC) to support me. That is the opposite of my intent.
POC should not be supporting white people, especially not for being an "ally". I don't get a gold star for being a human being and acknowledging POC are just that: people.

To be honest, I initially felt a wave of gratitude. So infrequent is it that a POC/WOC validates my identity (albeit rife with contradictions). It's usually something people who are close to me express. But almost immediately, the gratitude for this gift of acknowledgement, of support, turned into the realization that, in taking this support I am also taking up the emotional and mental energy of a person of color with my almost whiteness. I said this to her, because not saying it felt like not saying thank you to Santa at Christmas.

I wanted to shake Santa and say, "It's okay; I don't get it".

Besides the space I take, there's a real level of discomfort I cause POC in my life. They have to reconcile the fact that I, a white looking person, have been admitted by them into the most intimate parts of their lives; that as WOC we discuss and sometimes even bond over racial tensions and anxieties.

So I think they are sometimes trying to deal with the cognitive dissonance that accompanies creating safe, black-only space while allowing me, a very white-skinned person, into that very same space.

"Clair is like Mariah Carey [Thanks!]. You can tell something's off because she looks white but she's black; she just came out wrong [Thanks?]." This is the way one POC friend of mine used to describe me. And it was okay because I did feel like I came out "wrong".

They want to validate the blackness in me but can't do that without making the whiteness in me purr.

They want to feed my hunger for solidarity because they know what it's like to lack community, but allowing myself that indulgence on a group political level is an affront to my values as a supporter of the community. I am essentially, in practice, an ally. Because, even asserting my space as a "black woman" feels like a colonizing of my own body, a comfortable lie my whiteness wants me to slip into: "You're tired. You're POC. Take a break from this hyper-vigilence." The fox is guarding my hen house and I need to be "awake" enough to keep it at bay.

I have an indefatigable source of power and energy which is my whiteness, so I vow to use it so it won't fester and become the all consuming guilt we often hear about.
This means watching every last video of police brutality, this means keeping racist and bigoted "friends" on my Facebook so they can ask me those invasive or ignorant questions, this means doing research on social justice rights and violations.
Above all, it means taking shit from POC.

When  they don't like how much air time I'm taking up, I need to be okay with that because they will always be more racially fatigued than I am.

I'm not Tim Wise; I do this because, though I don't have a claim in the black community, these are my people. These are my family, people I love and whose deaths I mourn. And it has nothing to do with "charity" or "saving" them. And that's how I know I'm black.

That's why I allow myself the label "white-passing POC", because for white people, this work is an exhausting battle they don't have to face. There is nothing intrinsically urgent or mandatory in these stories for them, and when a person of color "dare" to confront them about the space they take, sometimes they say "Well, I'm only here because you need me here. I'm doing this for you." But for me, it isn't like that. This is very much for me. It is a pleasure to fight amongst my community because I feel at home here.

This home is our hard-earned, gated community that keeps us safe, at least in theory.
It is a salve on the wounds from the slaughtered POC and the anger we feel, and the deep whirling depression and anxiety that blows through our neighborhoods like a storm every time another one of us gets shot. And it protects us from people who try to waltz into our space and belch loudly "all lives matter".

I know what my version of that indignation feels like, and it's not because I'm "human"; it's because I'm black.

So, really, it's okay for people to ask "aren't you white?", because visibly, I am. I want them to question me. It's also okay to not want me around, because I know what it's like to long for black only community. I want POC to question me and have a voice, especially when talking to a white face because that's the whole point of my activism, not to be on a soapbox, but to carve out a space for trans, queer, fat, brown bodies the space they deserve to talk. If that space comes from my own ground, then all the better. Safe space is the best of what I have to give.

*This is meant to include trans POC.

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