WOC Success: One Encounter with Racism
I feel compelled to write this personal essay for a close friend who has recently been smacked with a somewhat subtle variant of white supremacy which relative to the horrendous injustices recently suffered by men like George Floyd, pales considerably. Because I believe white supremacy can only be addressed in a comprehensive manner when people of color — and in particular, African-Americans and Native-Americans/Indigenous peoples — have actual positions of power in our society, I believe each instance in which this opportunity is depleted should be exposed. All evidence of white privileging which involves self-deception in the interest of maintaining dominance should be exposed.
My friend, a female doctor of Bolivian-Chinese descent, was exposed to a toxic form of erasure and invisibility less than a year ago which continues to damage her on a regular basis; she continues to discuss this incident. While discussing with her over the months, we attempted to examine the motives and final results of this behavior, and the way one woman clearly illustrates her investment in white supremacy despite claiming she is ‘liberal.’
My friend, ‘CB,’ was a doctor for several decades. She has been subjected to repeated episodes of racial and ethnic discrimination during her career from patients, other doctors, and administrative staff at hospitals and insurance companies. After Trump was elected, much of this racism came in overt fashion whereas prior to this, it had mostly come in covert fashion; she knew none of it was new because, like most women of color, or WOC, she had faced it all her life, including in medical school, training, and her career. Repeat: in order for her to achieve, she must always perform at a higher level to compensate for her non-maleness and non-whiteness. This is a reality for women and for people who aren’t white, especially in a white, male dominated profession such as medicine (she started in the 90's.) In a country with a history of widespread Indigenous genocide and long-standing slavery, black and Native American peoples will have even more institutional barriers. (Heavy foot on their necks which need to be removed.)
When a patient threw something at CB and made a racist comment, and his son followed this by laughing, she knew it was time to leave this context. Her decision is an aggregate of many years of discrimination: a heavy cumulative burden that has gradually eroded her even before any physical assault. This decision was difficult for her because she had hit her stride in the profession — which has a steep curve — and because she had only recently paid off her student loans. All else being equal (which it isn’t), her best years, professionally, were ahead of her — both from professional and financial perspectives. She took a job with a company in which her exposure to potentially racist people would be minimized: a research position. By then, she had been eroded due to: being not white; being Asian; being Latinx/Bolivian; and being female. These are a lot of very heavy boots to have on one neck, and though there is overlap, these are all separate forms of discrimination she received.
We attended a course together on screenwriting and making movies. During this time, we met several other people, including a white woman, ‘AM,’ and a group of six of us sat together for the next few days, chatting and getting to know each other. AM, a self-described feminist, talked about how white men get more opportunity in screenwriting, in Hollywood, in writing in general, in acting jobs, where they get paid more, etc. She mentioned that, in order for women to succeed the way men do, they must exhibit greater performance and make a larger contribution. We all generally agreed.
At one lunch break, people were talking about their jobs, and CB mentioned that she was a retired doctor. In the middle of this sentence, AM (who is a PHD in psychology) interjected that ‘doctors were rich so why do you have to write a screenplay?’ This sort of comment was followed with several others in the next few days; a doctor actually stood up in the crowd at one point to ask a question of the speaker, identifying herself, and AM immediately whispered to us loudly — including CB — that the only reason she’s here is because she’s a rich doctor. She admitted she doesn’t know this person.
Next comment: CB mentioned, during one of our last conversations with AM, that her (doctor) friend was cutting back working hours to both pursue music and to help take care of her parents in India, where she will travel during the year. AM immediately announced to the table that CB’s friend can do it because ‘she’s so lucky. She’s rich because she’s a doctor.’ CB’s parents were immigrants who came her without anything at all, and her Indian friend must help her poor, ailing parents because her family has very little money.
I assume AM may have some sort of economic difficulty in her background given her bias, or perhaps she has been terrorized by a doctor (a female brown one, though??) But my point in writing this is not to elaborate on the medical profession but to illustrate how AM, a person willing to acknowledge that white men are receiving things through privilege/patriarchy — that she is disadvantaged by gender — simultaneously disregards that women of color are IN ADDITION to gender discrimination also dealing with racism and/or ethnocentrism.
When it comes to AM’s success, she places herself in a position of subordination from a gender perspective, implying that if she is not successful, it must be because a mediocre man was privileged. Yet, when it comes to other females who have that barrier AND race/ethnicity, etc., she assumes that these WOC’s have somehow stumbled upon good luck. She completely erases the CENTRAL reality for CB: that she has been damaged by white supremacy due to racism, and as a result she has to work harder, perform at a higher level, and even so, will be potentially subject to racist attacks both verbal and physical!
AM’s attitude conveys that these women don’t deserve what they have, that they got ‘lucky’ somehow, and she’s going to remind them with these backhanded comments. AGAIN: she has completely erased the fact that WOC’s have tremendous barriers in historically male-dominated professions like medicine (psychology is female-dominated); she eagerly offers that women work harder, but not that ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’ has anything to do with it. She erases her advantage, casting herself as embattled victim, which erases our disadvantage. We know our disadvantage exists. Therefore, this is denial in the interest of supremacy maintenance. Any high-achieving WOC (by our social standing) — and certainly ones that achieve in white, male oriented professions — should be assumed to have exhibited a high degree of performance. CB wouldn’t have been allowed her position to begin with any other way.
AM’s responses are a form of white supremacy. They allow this white woman to claim victimhood for herself relative to her gender struggles, yet also allow her to completely disregard and render invisible the ADDITIONAL obstacles that WOC deal with on a routine basis. She acts like women of color have the same ‘luck’ and opportunity as white men! This degree of self-deception is not just appalling, it is dangerous. It allows her to maintain white supremacy without ever admitting it.
White people of all genders should be working on this deep-seated tendency to underline their disadvantages while rendering invisible the greater number of obstacles people of color (of all genders!) have relative to this. As humans, we all have a tendency to favor ourselves at an individual level, but at a collective level, there is only WHITE supremacy.
Before a woman like AM discusses her own oppression and her own superlative performance relative to mediocre white men, she should also be ready to acknowledge that women of color are working that much harder, generally speaking. The stance she takes — that women of color have somehow benefited inappropriately — is not only grossly inappropriate, it is racist.
If white women are willing to say that they must exhibit higher performance than white men to sit at the same level, they should also be ready to admit that, when women of color are sitting there, they’ve had to work harder than anybody else in the room.
That goes to this suggestion: shouldn’t a black woman be president, and Biden be vice-president at best?? A black woman sitting next to a white man has in very high likelihood exhibited significantly higher performance.
In fact, she’s probably exhibited higher performance than anyone else in the room.