A guest post by Lauren Herold.
White girls are getting a lot of attention lately. From @whitegrlproblem to BetchesLoveThis.com to the video Sh*t Girls Say, blogs, tumblrs, YouTube videos, and twitter handles love satirizing privileged white women and the things they talk about.
Franchesca Ramsey, in her video “Shit White Girls Say…To Black Girls,” takes the satire one step further: she uses the internet meme to recognize racial microaggressions that women of color face on a daily basis. In a blonde wig, she parodies the White Female Friend who starts sentences with the phrase, “Not to sound racist, but…” and asks inappropriate questions like, “Can I touch your hair?” It’s funny because it’s too real: most privileged white people feel uncomfortable talking about race, especially to people of color, and end up making awkward comments that tokenize and exoticize their black friends. While these comments are not purposefully offensive, they are problematic because they contribute to the receiver’s experience of social marginalization and often deny the significance of historical and institutional racism.
Ramsey’s video went viral yesterday. This morning, I noticed that every progressive person on my Twitter and Facebook had posted about it. In scrolling through my news feeds, I noticed a lot of these people were white. Which, theoretically, is great. As more anti-racist media is available via online activists, one hopes that white people will read, watch, and think critically about this media. But do they actually recognize that they are the ones who need to be internalizing these messages?
Because it’s far too easy, in this current meme-of-the-moment culture, to watch a viral video and then forget about it a few hours later. And it’s far too easy to get your liberal cred by re-posting the latest progressive video on your social media site of choice. I worry that white people will get a quick, condescending laugh at the stupidity of the “white girl” without processing the video’s messages.
I worry because, as a privileged white girl myself, I can theoretically ignore or laugh off these messages. If I don’t want to think about interpersonal and structural racism, I don’t have to, because I don’t face these issues every day. And it’s true: a lot of white people don’t educate themselves about institutional racism, as evidenced by the pervasive comments Ramsey parodies. In the third chapter of his book Racism Without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva discusses the awkward semantic moves that white people often make to evade talking about race. These moves include finding excuses for racism (“some of my best friends are black”), denying the existence of racism (“this is about class, not race”), and even being unable to express oneself coherently in discussion (“um, you know, I think black people, um, well, I don’t know, but…”). Bonilla-Silva says these semantic strategies are the result of “talking about race in a world that insists race does not matter.” Indeed, media personalities and newspaper articles insist we are “post-race.” So why would we need to acknowledge the experiences of our friends of color or the way we contribute to their marginalization?
Hey, I’ve been there too. I’ll admit it, I’ve asked black female friends about their hair, I’ve compared oppressions, I’ve become hopelessly awkward and incoherent while talking about race. I’m still developing an anti-racist language and consciousness. Thanks to people like Ramsey, I’m just realizing how many mistakes I’ve made. But if we, white liberal people, really want to become allies in anti-racist causes, we need to take anti-racist media seriously as the educational tool that it is. We need to apply its message to our thoughts, our actions, and our relationships. Sure, let’s re-post and spread the message, but let’s take the time to work on recognizing and challenging the racism we’ve internalized as well. That’s the first step to becoming supportive, productive allies.
Lauren Herold is an anti sexual violence activist and a senior majoring in Women and Gender Studies and Anthropology at Columbia University in New York, NY. She tweets from @takebacknightcu.