THE BLOG

It's Time for White People to Stop Talking and Start Listening: The Lesson I'm Learning From the Charleston Shooting

06/23/2015 04:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

This is an article about race.

I don't explicitly write about race often; I'm a feminist writer. My convictions and beliefs about women and gender and equality are central to my life. They shape the way in which I move through the world. Feminism, more than any other dogma or creed, is my religion, the thing about which I am most passionate.

But I don't want to talk about feminism today. I want to talk about race.

I approach writing about this subject with some apprehension. I believe strongly that the best and most helpful view of feminism is the inclusive, diversity-awareness of intersectional feminism, but I'm also a big believer in authenticity. I feel I can write about feminism because I'm personally informed on the subject. I've been a woman all my life, and I've been confronting sexism and prejudice for it for nearly as long. My experiences inform my writing and my opinions, and I think my writing is the better for the sincerity of that. I feel qualified, in a way, to make unequivocal statements on the subject and stand my ground in the face of vitriol and hate and have confidence in my conviction because I believe that my personal feelings matter.

And I don't feel that way about race.

I'm a white woman who was raised in rural North Dakota, one of the whitest places in the United States. For many years, I knew two people of color: one was my second cousin, who is black, and the other was the sole black kid in my school system. That was it. Racism in North Dakota often takes the form of prejudice against Native Americans, but in my isolated small town, hours of miles from the reservation, even that was diluted, simply because it wasn't immediate and therefore at the forefront of anyone's attention--at least, it wasn't at the forefront of my attention.

I grew up, I moved away, I met new and interesting people from a variety of diverse backgrounds, and I learned about intersectional feminism. I learned about the privilege of my childhood and my skin color, and I learned that we are not all the same and that our differences are what make us beautiful, that color blindness does not equal lack of prejudice, and that equality for one is nothing without equality for all -- but I've never lost some of my inhibitions or shook the feeling that my voice wasn't that important in discussions about race. It's one thing to advocate for racial equality, to know that flying the Confederate flag is bullshit, for example, or to talk about disparate rates of incarceration, to talk about facts. These things I'm comfortable with, and these things I do. It's something else, though, to talk about how I feel about the experience of people of color, especially in the face of tragedy.

I've often thought that this inhibition was a failing of mine, that if I were better educated on the subject of race, that reservation would go away and I would feel like my voice could meaningfully contribute to the discussion, but as I've watched the media spiral and do backbends to avoid using the word terrorist, as I've watched Fox News try to make the Charleston shooting about religion and not about race, as I've watched the sparse coverage of the victims flash photos of the shooter and not photos of the beautiful faces of the victims gone too soon from this world, I've come to believe that inhibition is a positive thing, an awareness of the limitations of my identity.

I don't know how it feels to be a person of color in America. I imagine, sometimes, it can be very difficult and very scary. I'd like to hear more about that. We don't need more white voices clamoring for attention, talking about how this act of domestic terrorism makes them feel. Movements like #NotInOurName, though well-meaning and doubtlessly heartfelt, only inadvertently reinforce the centering of attention on white people. That's not what we need. That's not what this country needs. The voices of people of color are the ones that we should be listening to right now. They know, in a way white people can't, why this has happened, why this keeps happening, and what needs to be done to make sure it doesn't happen again. Those are the voices we should be lifting up -- not our own.

I'm going to stop writing now. I was hesitant to start given the subject of this article, but I think this needs to be said. I'm going to be quiet, and I'd like to ask other white people to join me. There are some people who have some important things to say, and they deserve our full attention.

We have a lot of listening to do.

Special thanks to Tynishia Walker, Andrew Rilometo, Lisa Casarez, Cher Underwood Forsberg, and Kyoungwha Lee for their general excellence, insights, and their willingness to engage and discuss this topic. I appreciate it more than I can say.