I'm writing this post at the request of several commenters, who thought that this particular comment thread contained enough riches to merit a separate post. It actually merits several. I'll do my best to summarize what seems to me most worth highlighting there, as well as the parts that I learned the most from (which means that this post is just my limited take on it -- do please point out if you can whatever I'm missing that was significant, and whatever I'm misstating).* I encourage you to read the entire thread, especially because I simply can't summarize its many qualities here.
The post that prompted the discussion is about the common white tendency to offer amateur diagnoses of mental illness, often as a way of derailing a discussion of racism (which is also, more or less, the topic of fromthetropics' recent post here). Early in the ensuing comments, self-identified black woman Witchsistah pointed out that while I'd been driven to write the post because "everyone and their momma" had jumped on me for offering my own amateur diagnosis of potential mental illness in a white man, no one had jumped on other commenters (in earlier threads) for in effect diagnosing her with mental illness:
All I know is people have been head-shrinking ME here without credentials and no one but me and RVCBard have said BOO to them. But when it happens to a White man everyone goes apeshit. Yeah, it may be because they don't want to give racists excuses and passes for their racism or soften up racist acts, but very few outside of the aforementioned and Imhotep who wondered why folks were trying to take our heads off, have even bothered to question the headshrinking into Angry Black Bitch diagnosis and dismissal that has happened to me.
On a blog about racism, this was a great and sad irony. A "group fail," as described by Willow, who went on to write,
Witchsistah's point is that there was also a very concrete situation of a black woman being pathologized very *explicitly* to delegitimize her experiences, and nobody else spoke out. . . . this was a concrete chance for WP in particular, but also non-BW as a whole, to show online that they are in the fight against racism for the benefit of black women** . . . And at this, we failed.
That seems to me like a teachable moment already, one lesson being that white people need to step in when black women, and any POC, are getting mentally and emotionally (mis)diagnosed by other white people, and to even see that the (mis)diagnosis is happening. They should also realize that they're more likely to step in when white people are being (mis)diagnosed, and otherwise mistreated (cf. "missing white woman syndrome"), than they are when that's happening to non-white people, and that they're doing so because, honestly, at some deep, unexamined level, they value black women, and other people of color, less than they do white people.
So yes, a teachable moment indeed. But the conversation soon got even more revealing, at least for me, when I found myself doing that kind of thing too. The
This next level of revelation (again, for white folks -- I gather that none of this is anything new to a lot of people of color) began when Sheila, a self-identified white woman, announced her support of Witchsista, along with -- crucially -- an explanation of why she hadn't offered it before:
As for 'defending' or 'not defending' Witchsistah, all I have to say on my own behalf is she seems fully capable of defending herself here and there would be nothing left for me to do but plant a 'me, too' flag on whatever smoking crater is left when she's done.
Sheila's comment struck a chord with me, especially because I thought that image captured well what I too see left behind after some of Witchsistah's replies to other commenters. And so, I wrote in a comment,
Ha -- EXACTLY. I've been thinking the same thing here. So, although it's belated -- I hereby plant my "ME TOO!" flags of solidarity in Witchsistah's smoking craters.
I won't speak for Sheila, but I felt good about finally expressing my support for this black woman's oft-derided efforts here.
Little did I realize.
When a white (male?) commenter named Lutsen asked Witchsistah what she thought of those two responses, she called them "disingenuous," and then went on to explain,
This constant non-defending of BW comes directly from the stereotype of BW not being "real" women as in not being seen as delicate, feminine, worthy of care, affection and protection. We are seen as "mules uh duh worl'" and as rhino-hided, she-beasts utterly incapable of delicate, complex feelings or thoughts. Basically no one defends us because we can "take it." It also leads to the idea that BW cannot ever be harmed (from this comes the view that BW are un-rapeable).
It's interesting. Treatment that would be seen as retrograde for other women is really radical for BW. Being seen and treated as valued, feminine, womanly and ladylike would be progressive when applied to BW.
That seems clear enough, but, white guy that I am (and whatever else I am), I still wasn't getting it. I responded defensively to the "disingenuous" label, and again later in the thread. I don't mean to make this post all about me and what I did and didn't do in that thread; I also don't want to go on and on here summarizing that thread, because I sense that I'm losing readers of an overly lengthy post already. I want to summarize something worthwhile from that thread for well-meaning white people.
So, I'll just say that what I came to realize, especially with the patient help of Witchsistah, RVCBard, Commie Bastard, Lady Dani Mo and others, was that while I thought I was expressing solidarity with Witchsistah, and with black women and POC more generally, by seconding Sheila's comment, what I was actually (or, maybe, also) doing was reducing her to the stereotype of an aggressive, loud, and angry black woman. In that sense, then, I was acting "white."
The thing is -- well, one thing is -- Witchsistah is clearly more than that. She's written more than enough here for me to gather that she's scary-smart, too. And so, among other current commenters, is another black woman, RVCBard, who has pointed out how she gets received here (and elsewhere) when she instead writes in a calm, rational, seemingly smart (instead of seemingly angry or aggressive) way -- she often gets ignored. And she certainly doesn't get the kind of attention that Witchsistah does when she writes in ways that seem to trigger common conceptions of the "Angry Black Bitch."
So what I'm seeing here, in what I'm sure is a rudimentary way, is a reductive, paradoxical set of conceptions and expectations that gets imposed on black women by well-meaning white people (like me). When they express themselves with any sort of conviction or passion or vehemence, or sometimes even humor, we typically see them as either "angry" (when we disagree with them) or as "feisty" and "strong" and "perfectly capable of defending themselves" (when we agree with them). In both cases, we reduce black women to a simple, non-rational, purely emotive caricature, which blots out the rest of their humanity. Also, I think our tendency to deny their full humanity, especially their intelligence, has been further demonstrated here by the relative lack of attention received by RVCBard's . . . shall we say, less demonstrative? approach. Even when she uses that approach to point out precisely what I'm trying to summarize here.
So, as the title of this post says, white people tend to treat black women like they're made of teflon and adamantium (thank you for suggesting even that title, RVCBard -- I recognize, though, that I haven't even addressed the "teflon" part). We also tend to pay them less attention when they don't act that way. And so . . . well, I hate this feeling I've had writing while writing this entire post, that I'm speaking too much about what black women, and other people of color, have to go through. Who am I to say?
So I'm just going to leave off with words by RVCBard, and then a few more by Witchsistah:
When Black women talk about their experiences as Black women here at SWPD, people (particularly White people, but at times other WoC as well), tend to respond with knee-jerk contradictions (typically betraying a lack of true engagement with the content) or remain silent.
For me, personally, it would be nice to see more comments make a more proactive attempt to engage with Black women in a more constructive way.
How about treating Black women as if we are, first of all, human? Yeah, it goes without saying, but from how we're treated, I'm not always sure people truly assume that from jump street. How about treating Black women like women and not disobedient children? Again, it goes without saying, but from what I've seen, I'm not sure if a lot of you really grasp that. How about treating Black women as though our lives are important to us? Once more, it goes without saying, but the things I've seen make me question whether you genuinely understand that.
IMO, there will be less explosive fireworks and fewer ruffled feathers if more people started showing us that they are operating from these very basic foundational concepts.
And finally, some words that Witchsistah wrote elsewhere, directly to me, words that I appreciate, like all those above and elsewhere, and words that I'm doing my best to take to heart, and mind, and actions:
We're actual people. You seem to encounter a huge stumbling block regarding seeing me and RVCBard AS people. You definitely need to examine the hell out of that.
* I also recognize now -- again from comments in that same thread -- that the very way I'm restating in this post some insights uttered by people of color is a common, and probably egregious, white way of taking part in discussions of racism. As Cloudy wrote in that comment thread, "you know what gets old really quickly? When white people parrot back exactly what was said to them but preface it with an 'It sounds like...' as if they were the ones who observed everything and came to this conclusion. Never 'Am I correct in understanding...?'" I hope I've registered in the way I wrote this post that I'm not sure I'm correctly understanding the conversation that I'm writing about. I started out writing the entire post in the form of "Am I correct?"-like questions, but I decided it was becoming difficult and tedious to read.
** Willow's footnote says, "all POC, but Witchsistah is right in that BW and, I think, Native American women get treated particularly callously"