I was on a run this morning with two of my dearest friends. We are all privileged white women who are trying to figure out how to be effective allies. One of my friends was sharing a current struggle of another friend whose family was facing some significant oppression by “well intentioned” people and a system that was stacked steeply against them. My running partner wanted to be a good friend and didn’t want to make some of the same mistakes we have seen others make and was asking us to help her think this through. In the process of the conversation, I became aware of a few patterns that those of us who have lived lives of privilege too often fall into.
Fixer: We women of privilege are good fixers. It is what we do. We are smart and well resourced and our endless supply of positive attitude make us well equipped to fix any problem. So we start tossing out our “Have you thought of this?” or “Did you try this?” or even better “You know, when I had this experience, I did this.” In our heart of hearts, we know that these aren’t actual solutions to the deep oppression that exists, but we cling to our propensity to fix things like it is a super power that defies all evidence.
Fleer: When faced with deep, ugly, systemic oppression, people get angry. We women of privilege are not big fans of anger, and have some pretty strong tendencies to take it personally. Once we start over personalizing someone’s very valid anger at a system that is stacked against them, we start fleeing in one of two ways. The first one sounds something like this….”We are all volunteers just trying to do a good job. Rather than getting angry at us, maybe you could thank us for all of the work we are trying to do.” The other goes more like this, “I am worried that you are so angry about a problem you can’t fix. Have you tried taking a more positive approach? I have found a lot more success with this.”
Whether fixing or fleeing, our underlying feeling is “This is really uncomfortable and I need to resolve that feeling.” In the process, what we really do is invalidate the feelings of an equally (or oftentime, more so) intelligent, thoughtful, strong woman whose relative lack of privilege has not allowed her to pretend that she can fix or flee from this very real challenge. She is not coming to us because she needs us to generate new solutions…..she has spent more than enough sleepless nights wracking her brain to come up with a solution that doesn’t exist. She is not coming to us for positivity training. When you face systemic oppression, particularly when this oppression has been with you for generations, getting up each day and taking on the world is an act of positivity beyond what most of us could ever fathom.
What she needs is a friend. That is what she is hoping you will be…..someone who will sit with her in the muck and validate that this really sucks, she is not alone, and while you have no answers, you are going to be there sitting in that shitty, uncomfortable space by her side. And somehow, that really will make it slightly better. Underneath it all, the deepest wound of oppression is often disconnection. Assuring her you will be there no matter how bad it gets is more powerful than any words you can speak.
I sent my running buddy a message of support after the run. She responded back, “Today I feel shitty and inadequate. I must be doing it right!” I am so blessed to have her as a friend. May we all be true friends to each other!