The perimeter of my life is all white picket fences and no caution tape. Smiling faces abound at my alabaster skin. I navigate through malls and museums entirely unsurveyed. No stairs prove challenging for me except for when I’m out of shape. My vision discerns signs and traffic lights. The days my childhood religion deems holy are acknowledged in this country. People exchange my first language easily in middle America. This country feels like home to me not because I was born here (I was), but because no one questions that this is my birth country. I am all Americana, apple pie, ranch dressing, “May I speak to a manager”, “not to be ____-ist, but…”, amber waves of grain. I, Marisa R. McGrath, am a problematic white woman. And while, I use pronouns like “we” and “you”, reader, you must know that I’m talking about myself. That although being problematic is pervasive, I hold myself the most accountable in this essay. I’m not here to indict anyone but myself.
I’ve traveled alone. People are all too willing to assist a smiling, pretty white woman. My presence is innocuous. I am white, able-bodied, cis, feminine, smiling, conventionally polite, middle class with the teeth to show for it. They want to protect me, preserve my assumed purity and fragility. The world falls at the feet of those who do not threaten the status quo. While grateful for the help, I wonder what reception I’d receive if I were black or butch or disabled or someone less legible. Would kindness be more elusive? We know the answer to that.
I contemplate the fragility of whiteness, how I can display my vulnerabilities with ease and trepidation. I don’t know that I would be afforded that luxury if I were a person of color. Weakness is a liability, if not fatal, to those who aren’t white.
We, as people, need to embrace that humanity’s default standard is imperfection. Perfection is too high a bar. No one is #woke enough. There are always things to be learned, behaviors we can modify. This is not the oppression Olympics. We don’t need to compete to see who is the worst off. Conversely, when a marginalized person advises you, heed that advice. Addressing privilege is not the beginning of a negotiation. It’s ok if you screwed up. It’s ok if you’re not as progressive as you thought you were. We are societally conditioned to identify with the oppressors. And unpacking that is a painful process.
To make it less painful, here’s a list of problematic things I’ve done:
- I touched a black woman’s hair without her consent.
- I appropriated culture.
- I used slurs when I thought they were funny. They weren’t. They never were.
- I’ve slut shamed other women. I’ve talked about them behind their backs. Your bodies are your choices. I am so sorry I disempowered you. You didn’t deserve that. I’m beyond sorry to be an echo in the chorus of voices telling you to doubt yourself.
- I avoided differently abled people when they made me uncomfortable, rather than leaning into that discomfort and learning.
- This list could be limitless. I’m sure I’ve uttered things others cringed at. I am sure that I will continue to do problematic things, but I hope that I grow. I will not repeat mistakes and will educate myself to be a better person because that’s all I can do.
Even my marginalized parts translate to the predatory palette. That is to say that I am a “good one”. A “good” woman because I posture as feminine. My hair is long. I wear dresses and skirts and makeup. I am a “good” queer person because I still like boys and present as feminine (aka– men still have a chance to sleep with me–SCORE!!). It’s easy to lull yourself into passivity with approval from society at large. But they are scraps that will only leave me starving. Passing and assimilation for “the good ones” is a tactic that divides groups. I want my whole groups to be ok– the poor, the uneducated, those who perform in a more radical way. It isn’t enough to “let” a few of us into the party. We all deserve to be seen and celebrated.
I, Marisa R. McGrath, am and will always be a problematic white woman. My social intelligence fails to ascend my privilege, but I always try to be better. I try to pay attention. When someone addresses a behavior or remark I made, I suppress my defensiveness. The impact is more important than the intent. My job is not to explain why my intentions were good, but to listen when I am informed that the impact was hurtful, that the landing was more cannonball than compliment. That doesn’t make me great. That makes me less than terrible. I am over this notion of celebrating privileged people for doing the work of civic engagement. That is, in fact, what we should be doing. Celebrating woke white men or white feminism detracts attention from the oppressed, makes the white voices louder, the privileged spaces bigger.
Roxane Gay espouses a great theory about white allyship, which is that it sucks. White allyship creates a remove between the marginalized group and the “good white people”. I agree with it because I’ve lived it. I’ve attended the demonstrations, only to return to my cozy middle-class existence. The perils of poverty and immigration evaporate within the comforts of my home. I constantly ask myself if my activism is only performative– what am I doing to enact real change? How do my daily practices align with my values? I do, however, like the word accomplice. No endeavor in social justice is ever clean or easy. There is danger in speaking truth to power, but there’s greater danger in remaining silent. Justice has never been enforced through silence. Power does not quake at the presence of closed mouths. So, we must speak. It is a civic duty to remain vocal.
It is not humanity’s job to make you a better person. You have to do that yourself. It’s your job to be self-aware and pay attention. Fair warning: this is profoundly uncomfortable. To assess yourself and the world around you is to awaken in ways that hurt. Dawning an intersection lens involves viewing loved ones through a more complicated light. Suddenly, the same jokes don’t sound as funny as they do cruel. Be mindful that it is a sign of privilege to awaken– some folks were born with both eyes wide open. We chide marginalized groups for being “too sensitive”, but if your body was a battleground, if centuries of oppression and hurt ancestors ruminated inside you, wouldn’t you be tired? Wouldn’t your humanity ache because it just wants the same care as everyone else gets every day?
I am problematic. Spoiler alert: you are too. We all are, and the worst thing we can do is remain defensive atop a pedestal. Get down into the grit and dirt. Be humbled and awakened. Be uncomfortable. To be self-aware is to be unsure more than you’d like. Perhaps that’s part of solving the problem, being less comfortable, less sure, and more willing to listen.