On Accountability: As the oppressor and the oppressed
Finding my way to accountability as a white womxn, and holding others accountable for size oppression.
In our times of social media and instant communication, accountability is crucial. Although, accountability has always historically been crucial. Our shadow sides are being highly illuminated politically and collectively, leaders of any type need to be absolutely certain that we are doing our own work above all else. Specifically, we, white leaders, need to do the work to acknowledge and unravel (h/t Staci Jordan Shelton) our internalized white supremacy, including our white privilege, white fragility, and white tears before we can even try to work on it systemically.
The work that I am speaking of can start a lot of places. For me, it took a long time to simmer before I started speaking up, which was a direct result of my privilege. Around 2001, I took a Black Experience I class at Kent State University in the Pan-African Studies Department. It takes a look at the experiences of African people up to the year 1865. I grew up in a predominately white, suburban city that was sandwiched between Akron and Cleveland, Ohio. I don’t remember me or my family having any black friends as I grew up. The only thing I remember is my mom talking about her experience being a nurse near Mobile, Alabama while my dad was stationed there during the early 1970s. She would recount how horribly black people were treated, and how she got in trouble if she asked questions about it. What my mom told me and what I learned in history class were about as much as I knew about racial inequality until I took the Black Experience class. I’ve always had a dislike for history. Now, I wonder if it hadn’t been whitewashed and patriarchal, would I have actually been interested in it. But I digress.
Even after taking this class, I was still pretty clueless about systems, racism, white privilege, reparations, and even feminism. The first person to talk to me about feminism was a therapist I had for about 8 years beginning when I was 22.
It was 2013 when I transferred for my job to Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I was a direct care staff providing care for individuals with developmental disabilities. This was when for the first time, I had a black supervisor, all my co-workers at the home I worked in were black, and all of my clients were black. I worried they wouldn’t like me. I worried I wouldn’t be accepted. I kept to myself and worked on my school work after the guys went to bed. I wasn’t really accepted. I was treated differently. I never realized then that I needed to acknowledge and own my privilege.
After a year at that job, I went on to be the supervisor of this home. I should have realized how disastrous this was going to be, but I was naïve and privileged. And I was the ignorant one that applied for the job. I lasted less than 2 months in that position. I was so unprepared for that experience. I regret many of my actions during that time. I often wish I could go back and apologize to the employees I supervised for being an ignorant white asshole. It wasn’t until after moving across the country to Oregon and learning more about my privilege, micro-aggressions, and anti-blackness that I understood better about what happened at that job.
It was during this time period, in 2014, that 12 year-old Tamir Rice was killed in Cleveland by a police officer. My nephew was the same age at the time. A few years earlier in 2012, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were killed after a high speed chase lead to a dead-end street where they were shot at 137 times by Cleveland officers in East Cleveland. The Department of Justice released another report on their investigation into the conduct of the Cleveland police force in 2014. A similar one had been issued about 10 years prior. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/12/05/the-dojs-jaw-dropping-report-about-the-cleveland-police-department/?utm_term=.7f17dc72c28f I mention Tamir Rice, Timothy Russell, and Malissa Williams, because their murders are part of what jarred my attention to the injustice of what it means to be black in the United States. There have been many people of color murdered by police long before this, it didn’t need to take so long for me to wake up to what was happening. But it did. And moving beyond shock is extremely necessary in doing our work as white people.
I moved across the country to Portland, Oregon in August 2015. I learned a few months before I moved about the racist history of Oregon through this you tube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWC-8hvP7aY At the time I was moving to my dream city for my dream grad school and I had to figure out how I was going to reconcile the cognitive dissonance that was happening. That my dream school had been founded in a state that openly declared itself a white utopia. Read more here: https://gizmodo.com/oregon-was-founded-as-a-racist-utopia-1539567040 It was then that I determined that I was going to learn how to use my voice to speak up about white privilege and racism. It was then that I committed to being accountable and holding other white people accountable as often as I could.
I started paying attention and reading more news by black news sources. I started owning my privilege more. I joined my school’s leadership organization, Leaders By Choice, as well as, Student Doctors for Ethnic Diversity club. I read more about white supremacy culture and more about settler colonialism. I gave a presentation on how we need to own our privilege as East Asian medicine practitioners at my school. I watched 13th on Netflix on “Thanksgiving” with one of my best friends. I started posting more on my social media. I started following many different people of color on my social media.
I had a 30-minute phone call with Desiree Adaway that left me realizing that I didn’t think about being white when asked if I saw myself represented in tv and movies. All I could think about was my identity as a fat person. This was striking, and it kept ringing in my head. It really made me realize even more how I didn’t consider my whiteness. I started talking about it more with my white friends. I started speaking about it more with my family. I started reading books written by people of color. I worked with a local organization that focuses on organizing called Metro Alliance for Common Good. I participated in few SURJ leadership meetings. I got involved with Let’s Talk PDX’s self-care work group that is now a growing non-profit called Portland Alliance for Self-Care. I participated in my first counter protest to a white nationalist Nazi group. I don't think everyone has to do all of things. I do think we have to start where are and do what we can. It's a process.
I see each of these things as ways that I have started acknowledging my privilege, and unraveling my internalized white supremacy, and taking action towards equity and liberation. And there is still so much for me to learn, read, and do. There are so many different ways people can go about this process. I do know that it cannot all happen on our own. Sure, reading and some learning can happen by yourself. But to really push ourselves to grow personally and collectively, we need to step outside of our comfort zone. We need to be willing to be uncomfortable and learn alongside others.
I recently was reminded that I cannot know what I don’t know. This is very simple, yet really important to understand. As a white woman, I really cannot know what I don’t know. And sometimes that means stepping on toes as I learn how to keep going with this work. Sometimes that means having a problematic thing that I’ve said or done be pointed out to me by a person of color and/or sometimes a white person. Is this easy? No. And the more I’ve done it, the more I have gotten over my white fragility. So, now I can say I’m sorry, and decide if it’s appropriate to ask the person calling me in more about what I did and how I can do better. If I can or can’t ask the person calling me in, I can always take to google, and learn more about what the problem was. Basically, it’s guaranteed that someone has written about it.
If I didn’t have these ways of holding myself accountable, I would have no idea how to reduce the amount of harm I do as a white woman. The reality is that left unchecked and unexamined, I will do more harm to people of color whether directly or indirectly, and I will continue to perpetuate the white supremacy of my ancestors. Without this unlearning and accountability as an oppressor, I’d have no idea how to bring my understanding of power and inequity into my personal relationships, the action I take, or the business I am creating. And even then, I have been working with a black femme coach on how to incorporate activism into my leadership and business. This is important for each of us, as white people, as white womxn. For anyone with their own business, in any position of leadership, in any position where there is a power imbalance (coaches, therapists, doctors, health care practitioners of all types, managers, CEO’s, spiritual and religious leaders, etc.), it is 1,000 times more important for us to do this work.
An example of what can happen if we don’t do our work, recently unfolded in an online Facebook group called We Are the Culture Makers which was led by Kelly Diels, a white womxn. Many womxn of color left her group after providing another round of emotional labor where she didn’t step in as a leader until too late. They also realized their interactions with Ms. Diels were quite transactional. If you want to read about the events, Alexis P. Morgan wrote about her experience in this essay On The Saga Of Kelly Diels: Straight, No Chaser and this one The Faceless: On Whiteness & Emotional Assassination. Ms. Morgan writes about another way that white womxn can be harmful through the persona of the spiritual white womxn. Living in Portland, Oregon, hell living in NE Ohio, I’ve known and seen my fair share of spiritual white womxn. Even more honestly, I used to be one. We, white womxn, have been letting black and brown womxn down for a really long time. At least hundreds of years, if not thousands.
I work to center people of color as much as I possibly can, and I am committed to holding other white people accountable. (Let's be real. I'm human. And I still mess up, step on toes, and miss opportunities for this.) I am committed to holding people accountable where I can for any systemic non-dominant identity, including fat people. Sizeism is defined as prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s size, and it is a direct result of our capitalist, cisheteropatriarchy. Most recently, this meant writing a 6-page letter (with an additional 3 pages of references) to the administration of my grad school describing the ways that I was discriminated against for my size and how uniformed they are about eating disorders when many of the modalities students are trained in revolve around dietary recommendations. I sat in the Dean of Students office while he read my letter, and then spoke about how systemic change needs to happen.
It was pretty excruciating to write this letter. To detail the specifics of major events. To recount how much disrespect I encountered covertly and overtly. To wonder if it was all just in my head, and to understand that this is how micro-aggressions work. To worry about how professors I deeply respected will respond if they find out what I wrote about my experience with them. No matter how painful it was to write the letter, I knew I was not going to leave my school silently. I had a deep drive to make known why it was that I took a leave of absence. For every higher weight student who attended the school before me, for those who continue to attend currently, and for everyone that will come after me. For every past higher weight patient of the doctors, acupuncturists, and nutritionists in training, for their current higher weight patients, and for all future higher weight patients. And all of the thin people who are harmed in the process. I needed to let my school know what they were doing was and is harmful. No matter what they do with the information. I did my part to disrupt the system. I do hold hope that my school will consider how to change the way they educate students, so that no one else has to deal with sizeism in the classroom, or in a medical appointment.
Accountability is crucial. We must learn how to unravel the insidiousness of the cisheteropatriarchy and white supremacy within therapeutic settings and how this violence deeply affects our bodies, because healing is not separate from racial and social justice.