Bette Midler is my neighbor. She is my son’s elementary school teacher, my former colleague, and the lady in line with me at the grocery store who struck up a conversation. The Bette Midlers of the world have been in almost every class I’ve trained and present at every speech I’ve given. They are White, well-meaning, and uninformed (when it comes to race), and are totally clueless about their ignorance.
This combination of ignorance and cluelessness is volatile, particularly in today’s world when poorly chosen words aren’t simply uttered to one person; but can be broadcast to hundreds or thousands of people via social media. The pattern is the same:
- A woman comments on a situation with racial implications with good intentions because she cares and it comes from a place of concern.
- She feels as if she is qualified to speak on the subject because she probably has some connection to Black people (romantic partner, friends, studying African American history, etc.) and because she’s White (which unknowingly gives her a feeling of all-knowingness).
- She or her comments are criticized by people who are better informed and/or have direct experience.
- She is hurt and oftentimes defensive because she doesn’t understand the backlash. She knows she meant well and was speaking from a place of good-intention.
Bette Midler’s recent tweet is a perfect example:
I have no doubt that she posted this because she is concerned and passionate about women’s rights and equality. She has always been outspoken about human rights issues. But that intention does not make her comment any less offensive. It is insulting to compare the plight of one group to that of another. To suggest that White women’s struggles in America mirror those of Black people is fundamentally flawed, historically inaccurate and disrespectful to the people who actually faced decades of enslavement, family separations and lynchings. One injustice simply should not be compared to another. If, for example, you shared with a close friend that you had been molested for eight years by a former neighbor and they responded, “I know how you feel, my boss hit on me last week,” you’d be offended. You would feel as if your friend didn’t truly hear you, doesn’t respect your story or your pain.
The Black experience in America is unique. We have a painful history and live a daily existence that is negatively impacted by race today in social mobility, job opportunities, housing and police injustice. When was the last time an unarmed White woman was shot by the police? How many times has that White woman been left standing as taxi cabs refuse to stop to pick her up? No one but Black people can truly, fully and authentically understand that experience. Accordingly, we are the unequivocal experts on it. If you are married to a Black man, raised a Black child, have 100 Black friends, went to a Black college, or have a Ph.D. in African American studies, you cannot speak with authority on the Black experience: how it feels, how It should be handled, or to what it compares.
While it may be well-intentioned, and be influenced by unconscious factors, it is actually arrogant and offensive for White people to weigh in as authorities on the Black experience. It reflects the same level of privilege, patriarchy, and ignorance that shapes much of that Black experience each day.
The kindest thing a White person do, quite frankly, is to shut up. Listen, ask if and how you can be supportive, and then shut up.
My intention is for Black people to love themselves and each other. It sounds somewhat silly, I guess; but oftentimes my people are overwhelmed with negative images, bad news, and stereotyped characters about us. I’d like to flip that script. I’d like to remind us, as often as I can, how incredible we are. Read more