There’s this electronic band called Stars. They’ve never been what I would consider a favorite band of mine, but I’ve always downloaded each of their albums and enjoyed listening over the years. Some songs I come back to; some songs I skip. They write sparse, sad, slightly angsty, but always hopeful ethereal music. Male and female singers trade lead vocals and make beautiful harmonies. They evoke feelings. Most of their lyrics focus on turning the ugly, messy parts of life into ghostly beautiful memories; turning bloody battle cries into enchanted elegies.
Stars released an album in 2003 called Heart, and the first track is a song called “What the Snowman Learned About Love.” The song is a mostly instrumental journey through what I imagine to be unadulterated childhood joy of building a snowman and the sharp turn through the conflicted sadness as you watch your own creation melt away when the sun comes out and warms your skin; a perfect metaphor for life and love. And with focus on the snowman, you can learn that love and life are fleeting - it’s quality, not quantity that counts. All good things are temporary. Just because that good thing melts doesn’t diminish the joy that brought it to be. You can focus on the loss or you can focus on the life. You can focus on what’s gone or you can focus on what it felt like while it was here. You can take the always already melting joy with you in your back pocket as you warm your face in the sun.
This is all a slightly overwrought and possibly pretentious introduction to say, “What The Snowman Learned About Love” begins with each band member offering up his or her heart:
“I am Evan and this is my heart
I am Amy and this is my heart
I am Chris, this is my heart
I am Torque, this is my heart.”
Listening to those words got me thinking: Isn’t it the bravest thing a person can do to show the world your heart?
So in that spirit, I am Kevin…and this is my heart:
I’m white. You can easily tell when you see me up close. You can even tell from far away. I’m a white man. White as snow. I’m a snowman. But I don’t melt, as desperately as I might want my whiteness, my maleness - the privileges, power, and violence that profit from those pieces of my identity - to melt. Whiteness, maleness only harden on the outside making their surfaces near-fucking-impossible to crack.
My whiteness takes up space. I take up space. I can shrink into corners; I can hide in shadows, but I am still taking up space. Whiteness is still lurking. I can’t disappear, though some may want me to. And they may have genuine, valid reasons. People of color have been hurt, victimized, erased, negated, murdered by whiteness. By my whiteness - because my whiteness is connected to the force and velocity of whiteness as an Oppressive force in the world regardless of my own personal intentions. My whiteness is triggering for people. And I’ve never wanted to hurt anyone. Sometimes I wish I could melt like the snow…but the world would just build another snowman. Same shit, different pile.
Despite knowing all this, despite being constantly vigilant and critical of the space my whiteness takes up, I willingly step into rooms and stand in front of diverse groups of people and try to engage them in conversations about the fucked-up nature of our world, and brainstorm ways to make it better. I don’t pretend to have answers. I try to celebrate and highlight the words of powerful black feminist activists and writers and discuss race and gender in popular culture and how representations might be seen as political. I choose to use black feminist writers as examples of the way forward because black feminist literature is the only writing I have found that speaks to the intersections and complicated nature of making progressive political change happen in a critical, loving, and nuanced way. I do not pretend to have much of anything in common with actual black women living life in what Audre Lorde calls “the mouth of this dragon we call america.” I know, in fact, that I don’t. My privileges afford me many things. My skin affords me an assumption of power. But I have also felt the sting of some forms of oppression, given other pieces of my identity. My pieces may not equal your pieces. My pieces do not always have to contend with racism and sexism; but they are also not completely foreign to those systems. My pieces touch your pieces somewhere in the middle, if only briefly.
Again, I never want to hurt anyone or cause pain. But the very things I do risk me doing just that. And still I do those things. Why? Because I don’t want to live in a world where the only role for an ally is to not be seen; to not take up space; to disappear. We cannot segregate, although we certainly do need spaces in which we can be among people that do not cause us pain; spaces where we can be among our own kinds of people, however we may define that distinction. We need those spaces to heal and regroup. But we also need the uncomfortable spaces. Some people will be hurt by seeing me stand in front of a group of people and speak about black feminism from my own vantage point - even given every ounce of respect, kindness, honesty, vulnerability, and empathy I can muster. But even one person might be changed by seeing a white man stand up in front of a diverse group of people and speak about why the world needs to heed the call of black feminist writers and activists. And that’s a chance I have to take every time I’m asked to speak in a room. Given that chance, I usually, albeit uncomfortably, roll the dice.
And yes, I will ask other folks up on stage with me to downplay my own voice and privileges when appropriate - but only if it also will not tokenize those diverse folks or put the extra undue burden on their backs of validating not only their own voice, but my white voice as well. And yes, I will engage in discussion and conversation with audiences as opposed to lecturing and speaking at them, as long as audiences remain comfortable and feel affirmed through that strategy. And yes, I will stand in the spaces where critique and criticism and sometimes even nastiness and rudeness are hurled at my body because that is my job as an ally - but only if it remains a constructive means to work through anger and critique for a common endgame; I will not kill myself or let you kill me.
In the spirit of coalition and collaboration I will do all these things. But in that same spirit of coalition and collaboration, I cannot consciously make myself disappear from all discussion of social justice. I cannot melt and evaporate. Yes, every oppressed community should talk to themselves from within, but we must all also engage in the same dialogues across differences or else the Oppressors win. We are all oppressors (with a lowercase o) in some regard, with some kind of privilege that oppresses some other group, no matter how many other forms of oppression we face on a daily basis. Oppression and privilege are sliding scale - not either/or. If we are to take down the Oppressor (with a capital O), we must see the ways in which we may want the same thing, despite having different methods. If your particular brand of social justice is only about destructive criticism and telling others why they are NOT and can NOT be part of a solution, your politics are often your own obstacle to building coalition and reaching across differences - something else Audre Lorde insists we all must do. She powerfully demands this from her own very specific position as a Black Lesbian Feminist Warrior Poet, but she demands it of all of us across our own differences.
I know that I will make mistakes. And I want everyone around me to call me out for every mistake I make, every misstep I take. I anticipate these mistakes but I will also put myself in the position of making those mistakes because some of the mistakes my privilege affords me to make are necessary mistakes, as they might change one person slightly; my mistakes may hurt one person while igniting a passion in two others to also embark on a journey to change the world. Of course, no one deserves to be hurt, but is it worth one bruise to save a life? Bruises heal, but this world will not heal with out every single ounce of effort that we all can manage to give. And maybe it won’t heal even given all that effort. I still want to try.
I will take on bruises and I will help shield you from bruises if I can. I will most likely also inflict bruises in my effort to do the work I still feel is important. I will still speak, but I will also step aside to let other voices speak when there are other voices ready, willing, and able to speak on those same things. There is room for a multiplicity of voices speaking for change, despite the Oppressor trying to silence us. When my voice silences other voices, I will step aside. But why not speak together? Why not speak in collaboration? Why not speak in different spaces, using different registers, tones, notes? Why not speak together and create harmonies like the music I listen to that evokes such feeling from an audience?
I can and will also wield my privilege strategically to sneak into exclusive spaces and share messages that might not otherwise be welcomed when spoken from other bodies or positions. The Oppressor uses these same tactics to silence and placate communities - inserting conservative people of color in communities to downplay critique; normativizing LGBTQ critiques of oppressive systems by making it all about marriage equality. These issues and systems are more nuanced; we cannot afford to be basic in our organizing, strategizing, or politics. And of course in a perfect world, none of this would be necessary. But these tactics might actually work; fighting fire with fire. It might shift the thinking of one person who will go on to shift the thinking of another person. It’s not necessarily “right,” but as Whitney Houston sang, maybe it can be okay. At this point in our collective history, what do we have to lose?
I will apologize for doing the wrong things. I will apologize for making mistakes. Every. Fucking. Time. But I won’t apologize for who I am and for my belief and vision in a better world. And that won’t be enough for everyone. And I will sit in my own discomfort with that. It has to be enough for me. I know my whiteness can’t melt. It is frozen solid. But my hope is that the surface of the Oppressive force of Whiteness can crack. Ever so slightly. Tiny fractal patterns can form - invisible to the naked eye. But nevertheless enough to deflate the monolith of Oppression in all of its forms. And it’s not just whiteness - Oppression includes a multitude of intersectional forces. But we all have to start somewhere. We all have to put ourselves on the line when we are able - especially when our privileges allow us to take on bruises and scratches and battle scars and heal quicker than others. I am sorry for the bruises I have caused. I only pray those bruises were worth it in the long run. I am sorry for the bruises I am yet to cause. If we disagree, I hope we can still work toward a common goal together and not block each other; not destroy each other. We want the same things. We have the same vision. We want the same world. I wish winter was over, but I fear it’s only just beginning. I wish I could melt. But as long as we’ve got all this snow, we might as well use it to our advantage.
I am Kevin…and this is my heart.