Just moments ago, I witnessed something really weird.
Earlier today, an announcement was made that Dr. Bernice King will be speaking at an upcoming reconciliation event hosted in Vancouver. This is especially remarkable because she is the daughter of renowned civil rights movement leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. This is what I would describe as huge.
A few hours later, I discovered that an online news/magazine collective blog has answered the recent #solidarityisforwhitewomen trend that brought issues of racism in mainstream feminism to Twitter. Salon.com has issued an open call for feminists of colour to contribute more articles. This is especially remarkable, as I have noticed that this website tends to reach a far wider and diverse audience than many similar websites that explicitly centre the experiences of women of colour and people of colour in general. Phrased slightly differently, I would say more white people pay attention to sites like Huffington Post and Salon than, say, Racialicious or Colorlines. This is huge.
But that’s when things got weird.
In spreading word of Dr. Bernice King’s upcoming appearance, her name was dropped all together and her defining quality has become her famial relationship to Dr. Martin Luther King. This is sexism. This is a slap in the face. And I now worry it has also simultaneously crossed the border of latent racism, into the land where all Black peoole are experts on racism because they’re Black.
Then, in spreading the word of Salon’s call for contributions from feminists of colour, a white female acquaintance I follow on Twitter put emphasis on contributions from women of colour. This isn’t where the mistake happened, because that’s not that big of a deal, considering that among the central goals of feminism, the advancement and liberation of women has always been. A friend of mine who is a Black feminist man corrected her on her erroneous gendering of the call for contributions. Still not really a problem, and in fact, I’m glad he caught that so that she can take part in including her racially marginalized male feminist allies too (among whom, I’m sure she counts his voice).
But she made a special point of thanking him for pointing it out after she had already acknowledged the error and made the correction. That’s where I get the sensation of a familiar slimey feeling. I’m left to wonder if it is white guilt that motivated this gesture, or a reflex rooted in internalized sexism.
Right now I bet there are people thinking “Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”
But no “whatever”.
This is exactly the kind of analysis of one’s own micropolitics that makes an ally. A simple acknowledgement of Dr. Bernice King by her own name would have defined her voice as worthy in its own right as a woman of colour, rather than defining her by her father’s legacy. This ought to sound familiar for a lot of women, because it was in Dr. Martin Luther King’s own lifetime that women were still being referred to and addressed by their husband’s names. And a simple “whoops!” by my acquaintance would have been enough to address the very minor infraction she made, rather than lapsing (though briefly) into a complex about it.
This isn’t being “oversensitive”, either. Just as I wasn’t being “oversenstive” the other day when a conversation about a white woman’s guilt complex over a very brief and isolated interaction with a Black man rapidly turned into a heat-seeking missile of racist stereotyping. There is no definitive point where one has crossed the threshold from “sensitive enough” about systemic marginalization of people of colour and women to “now you’re just being too sensitive”. There are no road signs telling you how to behave when you’ve made a mistake, either. But there is already a fairly rich pile of literature about it, and perhaps there will be even more opportunities to learn emerging out of Dr. Bernice King’s appearance and speech. Or even on Salon.