About a year ago, I shared my thoughts on the modern feminist movement’s inclusivity problem in an essay on my blog entitled Still a Feminist?. In an effort to promote a more diverse dialogue and a culture of listening, I posed questions to women who I thought identified as people of color, then shared their responses in two follow-up posts, Women of Color on Feminism Part 1 and Part 2. This project proved way more challenging than I expected and left me grappling with my own racism and white privilege in ways that made me feel… well, like shit.

But even though it felt bad, I made myself stay in this space and push through the emotions so that I could truly examine what had come up and why it was there in the first place. I am absolutely positive that more white people need to be doing this. And not just once or twice, but on a regular basis. I am also positive that more of us need to be talking openly about racism. There are so many women of color on social media leading this anti-racism conversation (see list below), but the work isn’t on them. It’s on us. Yeah, it’s complicated, emotional, and risky — I will probably say the wrong thing, and I will probably receive some negative feedback — but we have to at least try. So here goes.

I’ve hated labels for a long time. In my youth I viewed them solely as words that divided us, but now I see how labels can actually bring us together in solidarity as much as they allow us to discriminate and differentiate. After the experience of working on this project for my blog, I also see how important labels are in identifying ourselves to ourselves and to the world around us. I’m reminded of an activity in a college class I took, “Race, Music, and the Spanish-Speaking Caribbean,” where the professor, Raquel Z. Rivera, instructed us to make a list of words we used to describe ourselves. I was one of two white people in the class, and we were the only students who didn’t include race or ethnicity on our lists. I wrote female, daughter, sister, friend, student, but I didn’t write white or American. However, all of the other students, all people of color, included their race or ethnicity as their first or second words. I was fascinated and perplexed by this difference and spent a long time thinking about it. Twelve years later, I’m still thinking.

When looking at my experiences through the lens of white privilege, I find that I don’t have to explain or defend myself nearly as often as people of color do. Perhaps because of this difference, words commonly used as racial and ethnic identifiers don’t have the same personal connotations for me. I tend to view them from the cerebral space of an English teacher who loves the dictionary as opposed to what they mean on an emotional level. As a writer, I do consider the cultural and personal meanings of words in general, but this consideration obviously comes from my own white perspective.

I’ve always thought of “people of color” as all people who are not white, and according to Oxford Dictionary, a POC is “a person who is non white or of European parentage.” I’ve struggled with this term because it can be so widely applied to such a large swath of folk and doesn’t allow for cultural differentiation (I like BIPOC a lot more), but at the same time, POC is way better than identifying people with the negative prefix “non.” However, I didn’t realize that other people might see this term as meaning African-American or black, and that Latinos, a group of people I’ve always assumed to be included under the “people of color” umbrella, might struggle with having it applied to them. I also didn’t realize that it doesn’t matter if the dictionary agrees with me or not; what matters is listening to people and using the terms they prefer when talking and writing about them.

This idea of who is included and who isn’t is at the heart of why I don’t like labels — they inherently create insiders and outsiders, and I believe we’re at a point in our country where diverse people need to come together and listen to voices that have previously been silenced or quieted as opposed to debating who’s in and who’s out. But through my efforts to ensure that those voices were being heard, I ended up creating a lot of anxiety for my friend, a Cuban American who participated in Part 1 of this project, because she doesn’t identify as a “woman of color” and felt that having this label applied to her meant she was usurping other women’s experiences. In an attempt to make her feel more comfortable, I changed some language in the original post, including replacing one usage of the phrase “women of color” with “marginalized women.” Her discomfort also sparked an interesting and important thread on Facebook, so at the end of the day, I sat back feeling pretty pleased with myself — I’d created a space for a valuable dialogue, I’d participated in this dialogue, and even though I’d messed up, I’d done my best to fix it.

Not so fast. The following day I received an email from a different contributor who does identify as “woman of color” but was surprised by the word “marginalized.” She explained, “Certainly, I’m not a member of the white feminist movement by virtue of being a woman of color but… does that make me marginalized? It’s not a word I particularly identify with, but perhaps with elaboration, it could make more sense as a framing for who you engaged in this series. I definitely identify with ‘woman of color’ and engaged the topic from there, but based on all the privileges I carry, I can’t get comfortable with ‘marginalized.’”

While reading this response I thought, Dammit, no matter how hard I try, I can’t get it right! I agreed with her that “marginalized” didn’t completely get at the heart of the project, but at the same time, returning to my trusty friend the dictionary, the actual definition is “to treat (a person, group, or concept) as insignificant or peripheral,” and I do feel that women of color across all levels of privilege have been treated as insignificant or peripheral in some way by the modern feminist movement.

It was also fascinating to me that one woman wasn’t okay with “of color” because she was afraid that having a lighter shade of skin meant using that phrase was usurping the experience of a darker-skinned woman, while another wasn’t comfortable with “marginalized” based on a similar line of reasoning, of wanting to respect and not step on the experiences of people who aren’t as privileged as her. I didn’t anticipate these differing interpretations and was flustered by it, but what struck me more was how these women were so caring about understanding their own privilege and not assuming anyone else’s experience, whereas so many white people I know make no effort to understand even the most basic ways in which their privilege affects themselves, other people, or greater society. I’m baffled and angered by the vast amount of white people who choose to stay disconnected from other people’s experiences rather than analyze and reflect on these different realities and their role in perpetuating it.

Which brings me to a confession I’m having trouble writing out. You know how I said that while I was reading the second email, I felt frustrated over not being able to get the wording right? Well, that’s true to an extent, but it wasn’t my first thought. My first thought was actually, Why are they being so sensitive? It really doesn’t matter this much.

I instantly regretted this thought and got straight to editing the post again, ultimately changing “marginalized” to “women whose voices we need to hear,” a phrase that explained my intentions a lot better than either term I’d used, anyway. But when I reflected on this thought again later that evening, I was flooded with embarrassment and shame. Not only was I handing out labels as I pleased without fully considering other people’s perspectives‪‬ (even though I myself don’t even like labels), but I was also feeling like other people should simply accept my labeling? All because the dictionary said so?

Basically, I was yet another white person telling people with darker skin who they are, and then getting annoyed and defensive when they didn’t like it.

I spent a good chunk of the weekend feeling terrible over this. I reread everyone’s answers in both Parts 1 and 2 and was even more embarrassed and ashamed over the questions I’d posed. Instead of asking what they or other women in their communities were doing to battle the patriarchy or to stand up for women’s rights, I’d asked about how to make my concept of feminism more inviting to them. And to top it all off, I was self-congratulatory about it.

But you know what? I’m glad these feelings surfaced and forced me to take that hard look at myself. White people need to spend a lot more time feeling like shit about racism or else nothing will ever truly change.

How do we package and sell this to the masses, though? How do we convince white people to go through this process even though it’s painful and long and full of shame? I have no real answer to this question, but I keep coming back to the idea that it’s a matter of morality. The relationship between white people and people of color in this country is based on that of master and slave. We can’t keep pretending like slavery is some far away story told in a textbook. It is our moral obligation as white people to confront our country’s history of slavery, segregation and racism, and all of the horrible feelings that come along with it. And we have to recognize that this isn’t a one-and-done situation. Last year, when the police murdered Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in the same awful week, I felt such an intense, guttural reaction that I wrote an essay in a single sitting about my white privilege and how I finally understood systemic racism. It received a lot of positive feedback and I thought that I’d done my work, that I had an easy path ahead of me. But now I’m seeing how anti-racism is an ongoing, evolving process that we must stay committed to for the rest of our lives.

After all of this introspection, I have been left wondering if I spend too much time trying to find the right language and not enough time protesting or marching or organizing. But perhaps this analysis of words is a revolution in itself. If thought shapes language, then language can also shape thought.

Besides, language isn’t just a form of communication. It’s how we identify ourselves, our culture, our traditions and our creativity. It’s how we tell the world who we are. What might seem like a semantic debate to me may feel to someone else like a debate over who she is and what value our society places on her and her culture.

In the end, this experience was good for me in many ways. As a writer, I’m reminded that it’s always better to be clear and to choose my own descriptions rather than looking for the “right terms.” As a white person, I’m developing a clearer understanding of how our entire society is based upon white supremacy, and I’m more deeply committed to dismantling the ways in which I contribute to this. And as an activist and educator, I am reaffirmed in my commitment to listening to diverse voices and to providing people with access to English education. Literacy is a right, and if we truly want a more just and equal future, we’ve got to give everyone the power of language — and the power of being heard.

Further reading material:

On Instagram: Rachel Cargle, Layla Saad, Leesa Renee Hall, Aja Barber, Jen Winston (please follow these women ONLY if you are already engaged in anti-racism work; do not go to their pages and criticize them or center your comments around your feelings)

What Makes Someone a Person of Color or White in America? by Daniel Rivera, Fusion Magazine

The Term “People of Color” Includes Asian-Americans by Frances Johnson, The Ithacan

The Journey from “Colored” to “Minorities” to “People of Color” by Kee Malesky, NPR

Urgently Visible: Why Black Lives Matter by Jeffrey Renard Allen, The Evergreen Review

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Becky Fine-Firesheets

Becky Fine-Firesheets

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Writer. Mama. Educator. Activist. She/her. Vox, keys, and sax in the Brooklyn Players Reading Society — thebprs.com. Blog at beckyfinefiresheets.com.