Finding a dangerous white lady is nothing like finding Big Foot; On Taking Impact Seriously
As a child my nickname was the truth teller.
There is embarrassing story after embarrassing story that depicts incidences where nervous laughter would follow something I had said or done to test the bounds of appropriate and polite observations.
I hope in this blog to honor those parts of me.
Almost a month ago now, I received a box of letters.
This time of quarantine has unearthed artifacts of my childhood trauma and grief, and many of them for the first time.
This box of letters among them.
Contained in this box were letters that came in following the death of my father in 1996.
I was six then.
There’s also a cassette tape of his funeral.
Letters between my father and his pastor, and my mother and father.
Photographs divided by year and topic in zip lock bags.
Given to me now.
I turn 30 this year.
If I could embody one thing in my epithet, it would be a straightforward prayer.
She strived not to be a dangerous white lady in everything she did.
It’s an abrupt pivot to move from casual mentions of childhood trauma to whiteness, but that pivot reflects the connections that must be spoken out loud.
Whiteness is many things, but it is no one’s mother.
Whiteness and nurturing are polarizing containers that ask us to unlearn the other, in small ways first.
The casualness communicates a poignant take away that is subtly downplayed.
That what happens in childhood contains blueprints for understanding ourselves and our families.
And, that whiteness erases those understandings from the buds on.
Buds that stagnated in hall way closets 24 years before we knew they existed.
I watched the TV series Little Fires Everywhere, and read the book simultaneously.
I found myself using Elena and Linda as shorthand for behavior sets I witnessed, and experienced, and even enact.
White women struggle to be seen as we are, instead of how we intended to be.
We coach ourselves to reject information that can’t be funneled into our intentions, and we scold those messengers who know us differently.
We extract value, and dispose of people.
We manipulate outcomes, and under-visualize process.
We think these puns are exaggerations and not sirens.
We think we are good enough to be blameless, that harm is more poetry than shrapnel.
We chain children to these windows into us, and we wonder why they struggle to love.
There’s a scene in Little Fires Everywhere where white freshman Izzy is challenged for her racism for the first time.
Mia who she fetishizes because she sees her, sees her, and tells her what she sees.
In her art installation intended as an act of solidarity, she overlooked her tactic of using blackface.
She overlooked that she is neither the baby or the bathtub — she is the fruit still growing on the vine.
In wishing for the vine to wither so that she can be free of it, she swims in her sense of powerlessness.
She feels hated, and hates, and begs to be seen.
Mia says to her, “No, you don’t get to do that.”
You don’t get to critique, and not be critiqued.
You don’t get to be passed over for all of the impacts you can inspire.
And especially, if your goal is to reveal truth, you have to take in fair criticism.
I watched this encounter and I thought, this is one white fourteen-year old’s first lesson in accountability.
It’s also her first lesson in whiteness.
And it’s her first glimpse that every dangerous white lady was first a younger child who felt powerless.
A child begging whiteness to be a better mother to her.
Without that language — the behaviors and attitudes embedded in the phrase dangerous white lady, Izzy feels viscerally an anger at whiteness, even as that doesn’t yet include herself.
Too many white women and girls believe that a dangerous white lady is hyperbole, or rare.
What happens when we root self-work in accountability to dismantling white supremacy is that
we can see that a dangerous white lady is someone
absent of self-insight and impervious to their own reflection.
It is someone who is stuck in an idyllic relationship with being a “do-gooder”,
without unpacking their own formation and complex experiences.
Maybe it’s someone who is so angry at their parents, or their partner, or even themselves,
that the step of personal accountability can’t be integrated into their worldview.
A dangerous white lady perceives that she perceives herself best, and her impact is only ever good.
A dangerous white lady is a euphemism for the daily microaggressions that can’t be addressed.
A dangerous white lady is an accumulating identity.
A dangerous white lady is dangerous because they won’t learn how to hold themselves accountable.
And because whiteness hides in plain sight, white women are persistently humanized and excused.
Predominantly white communities, like Shaker, and Arlington where I grew up, create Izzy and Elena on a continuum.
Elena has more of herself wrapped up in this indictment, which makes her reject the characterization.
I resonated with that fourteen-year-old, and tearfully thanked every messenger of accountability in my life.
I resonated also with fifteen-year-old Pearl who offers her writing as her mother and Izzy offer their art.
She translates in her final read journal entry, “I thought I wanted to be made of little girl things. I thought I wanted to be made of promises you made…where I’d never know what was real or only a dream. Was I safe?”
The word that isn’t used is gas lighting.
A relationship that hinges on not being able to tell the difference between what is real and what is a lie.
A relationship with yourself where safety and revelation feel incompatible.
A relationship with mothering that is only as a gatekeeper between you and experience and translation.
As Pearl writes, “The bird is in a cage, and the cage is in a town and the town is made of blinding white flour and beautiful lies.”
Beautiful lies, she emphasizes, covered wherever whiteness is exposed, and noticed as that internalization is tested and named.
I heard her words and recalled a conversation between me and a former therapist.
In our closing session she narrated,
It is usually my job to track you, but today I am not going to. Today I am going to track what is true, because this web that is spun around you is believable. I believe that if I had been around you then I might have believed it too.
My question is for that six-year-old.
What had you already learned and experienced that your reaction to being raped was not to tell anyone?
What had you already learned and experienced at fourteen?
Every morning commute, every sexual experience, every iteration of harassment and grooming, every work place, every classroom, every friendship, every repeated un-safety and response of resilience.
What I know is that we undulate between wanting to feel safe and unsafe.
What I know is that we swing between being wanted and unwanted.
What I know is that we run to things and away from things.
What I know is that timing is as important as context,
and surrendering interpretation to adults carried consequences for children.
What I know is that impact is as constant as breath work, enacted second to second.
We can’t get away from it, and we shouldn’t be taught to want to disappear and reappear.
Dissociation shouldn’t be how we nurture our competence at perpetuating whiteness instead of healing.
Hyper vigilance shouldn’t be called determination, anymore than helicoptering is a substitute for emotional presence.
Invitations to accountability shouldn’t lead us to lash out and shut down.
Invitations to accountability are rooted in mothering detached from white supremacy, and it’s a mothering that is at 30 as it was at 6 not realized.
And yet, somehow those yearnings feel much more real now, and I know I can trust them.
I know that I can’t live without nurturing,
which means I know that my work has to be to work to dismantle white supremacy
before it stagnates every remaining bud.
There are buds left sitting in our closets.
And we can ask for them back.