I need to share something that happened to me the other day. My initial thought was that it’s part of a category in which one shouldn’t speak. Then, driving home from the Cape today and Podcast heavy with deep thoughts, I realized it’s the exact reason I should broach it.

I am going to headline this is a topic in which I have no expertise, no firsthand experience, no business making proclamations or suggestions. It’s extremely sensitive and easily offensive. It’s virgin territory and I expect it will be uncomfortable to read just as it is to write. I may offend without meaning to. Normally, I do mean to offend and rouse when I write. I am also not without blame whether subconscious or not. I am getting very naked here because I think there’s a point to it even if I don’t yet know what it is. And, much like getting naked, that is an area where I have jumped the gun many, many times in the past with men without first thinking it through so at least I have some precedent 😄. Sorry, have to infuse this with some humor to get myself started. Either humor or a beer. This is a rough one.

One of my favorite writers is Cheryl Strayed. She also had a super cool podcast which just recently ended this year in which I have listened to every episode. Even though many I didn’t personally relate to, I was always compelled to listen to learn something about other people’s experiences or to imagine how I might behave in similar circumstances. For example, having not been married and still dating at age 44, I found episodes dealing with blended families interesting as I anticipate being a stepmother if I ever do find someone.

I am just super curious about people. I am the only person I know who has been to Las Vegas five times without gambling because the people watching is sport enough for me. When listening to “Dear Sugars” I felt very empathetically challenged in the most positive of ways. I also enjoyed the diversity of “expert” guests on each episode and was introduced to brilliant writers I had not previously known. The lessons I learned listening to these podcasts on my weekend commutes certainly smoothed the way into my much more vocal feminism of the past year and desire to speak on behalf of marginalized people.

Cheryl recently partnered with writer Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) for a writer’s retreat and an article has been circulating online from a woman who attended and said she was the only black woman there. I was immediately compelled to read it because I genuinely wanted to hear about her experience while also finding it hard to believe this would be something Cheryl Strayed would intentionally orchestrate. I really wanted to know more because I believed that had to have been a terribly awkward experience and one in which one of my best friends has spent her life navigating….having been the only black person in our entire white Catholic High School.

My friend of nearly 30 years would joke with us about being the only black kid but never once ever told us what she must have really felt at times. She has a buoyant personality, never one to delve into the negative. For some reason, hers is a situation that has been on my mind a lot the past couple of years – an entire life she lived in front of her white friends without us ever really seeing her life through any eyes but our own. She has an entire life, vastly different challenges, experiences and feelings we know nothing about. How can that be? How did we never notice? Were we too afraid to ask or were we completely shrouded in white privilege oblivion? It bothers me.

I can pontificate on our behavior (or lack of) here and there but never really hit the target. She was from a wealthier family than many of us. Her parents were incredibly well educated and prestigious in their careers. It made perfect sense that she be in private school with the rest of us. It actually made the least sense for me to be there as I was the one who needed tuition assistance. She had a great relationship with both of her parents. I didn’t. I think I believed her to be more privileged than me. Her being black made no difference to me in our friendship because I just loved her. But it should have made a difference. I should have wanted to know more. I should have known she wore very different shoes from me.

When I read the essay about the retreat, I found myself disappointed with the writing. It had nothing to do with the author being black. I just expected something different. I had recently received editor feedback that my piece lacked a call to action so I started looking for that “action”in the work of others so that I may learn. I went into the essay expecting specific blame or thoughts on a future solution. Not necessarily her responsibility to teach white people about her history but something we are genuinely missing. It felt more like a couple’s argument where the woman doesn’t offer up much information and says to her partner “if you know me you should be able to figure it out by yourself.” Sometimes, no matter how loving the partner, partner needs a clue.

The author definitely did a good job of describing the white women there as being those with the cashmere shawls sitting around fire pits. I’d like to add wine to the image as it also fits. Pinot Grigio. Very fair description and those women make me uncomfortable too. I’m white but I don’t own anything cashmere. My shawls are typically scored as a free gift from DSW when I spend over $50 on shoes. But she’s right, that’s the exact type of woman I would expect to see at that retreat because it cost money to get there. The bulk of attendance would be likely wealthier white women wearing similar outfits as one another. I see them at TJMaxx quite often.

My critique of the writing got lambasted by another white woman who criticized me just shy of calling me a racist. Had she called me a racist, I would have actually been ok with that. I am not afraid to examine it within myself. It’s not that I want to be one. I have said my whole life I am not racist. I know I have even proclaimed the typical racist oblivious white woman response of “one of my best friends is black so I can’t be a racist.”

What bothered me about the attack was that she got my intent completely wrong and that she saw herself as superior to me. She missed something very vital. If she’s white, she’s just as privileged as me and has no business calling me out because by being white herself, at some point in her life, maybe even in this moment she too has racism inside of her. I am guessing she has a black best friend or a black partner or a black co-worker she has lunch with and that, therefore, she is an enlightened one in the position to educate us ignorant white girls she may mistakenly have assumed do not have any black friends. Losing my politeness a little myself, I accused her of having a privileged white woman hobby causing her to believe herself above the rest of us….quite mistakenly. I actually don’t think she has any business attacking me or branding me with incorrect assignation when we are of the same privilege. In fact, I believe she is a bully which really has no place in any dialogue laced with hope of change. My critique was of a person’s writing. Her criticism was of me as a person. Not exactly balanced and very much against the prospect that women need to raise one another up, not crush each with the sharp point of a red bottomed stiletto.

I had the opportunity to see one of my other favorite writers speak a few months back. It was Roxane Gay. Brilliant writer and a black woman. The audience had some diversity but was mostly white women again. What is that about? I don’t know. She’s an amazing writer and force in the literary education world and speaks at a ton of events. Her writing is relatable for any woman. And I do think we want to be genuinely supportive. We are white, yes. But we are also women and marginalized on gender so I think we are starting to feel some kind of kinship and responsibility to reach across. We just don’t know the right way to go about it.

A white woman in the audience asked what white women can do to support black women? Could she teach us? Wrong question. We may all be marginalized on the basis of gender but there are thousands of years of history that further marginalize women of color. It still happens now. Roxane said something to the effect of the first thing we need to do is not ask that question. It’s not for black women to relive their horrific stories of 10 years ago or 20 minutes ago to teach us what to do. We will never be on equal footing, The first thing we have to do is acknowledge we are still more advantaged than them and always will be. That’s a hard pill to swallow when you genuinely do not think yourself better a person than the black woman sitting next to because you aren’t. But your life is better and that is fact. It’s ok for her to resent you, even if she is your friend and loves you.

The biggest takeaway from that event was that privileged people can and should use our voices to speak for those who are not privileged. It’s not fair that it takes us to put a spotlight on an issue for it to be noticed such as the “#Metoo” movement which was started by a black woman. It wasn’t until white actresses started speaking that it became a movement. It’s not right but it’s the way it works. That’s where we have a major responsibility to scream at the top of our lungs for everyone because we are listened to. It will only be from the fight from me and my friends, that my entire community of friends might eventually benefit and be protected. But no one will listen to my black friends, my Asian friends, my Latina friends or my gay friends alone. It’s only if I can articulate what their rights mean to me that the audience puts down their phones and can be compelled to action. Gross but true.

Why would I be ok with being labeled a racist? Because it’s fair. I don’t actively discriminate against anyone and I do put myself in harm’s way in this political administration by speaking up for anyone whose rights are or will be threatened based on the changes to the Supreme Court. But, am I comfortable driving down an unlit Boston back road at 2am with my car doors unlocked? No. I will tell you that I am not in that moment fearing attack from a black man. I am actually fearing attack from any man or strung out woman, truth be told. But that doesn’t mean the black man didn’t make me think twice. In order to be real, to move forward meaningfully and intentionally in this world, I believe I have to allow it to surface and give it words. I am ashamed of it. Our country has conditioned me to think it even if for only a millisecond until I correct myself, which I always do. The inherent bias is in all of us and I think the healthiest thing might be just to admit it. Admit we aren’t perfect. Admit we have to take a second to unfilter our cultural filter and we have to admit we are better off. We are privileged and we don’t know what it’s like to be less privileged than our current state.

Perhaps realizing my privilege and asking to be understood and forgiven for it is what I am so desperately searching for men to say when I am ferociously blogging and updating Facebook statuses on women’s rights. It’s not like women don’t know men have it better than us. It’s not that we blame all of them ( though many actually are at fault – maybe a little more than many….trying to think of how racism started in the first place and I think it was the white boys….) just as it’s not a secret I have it better than black women do. Keeping it from being said out loud doesn’t make it untrue and it doesn’t make the next privilege down from ours not notice what they have less of.

So just say it. Say you know you have it better than someone and that you are sorry for their experience. You wish it weren’t the case but you are trying to understand and you want to do something useful because of it. You know you are, at times, ignorant and that’s not what truly is in your heart. You are not looking to be educated by anyone but you are willing to listen and to look around with a wider gaze. That your presence is at least an indication you are prepared to explain to others what your privilege allows you and how everyone should be entitled to what you have. You should get a little uncomfortable and start fighting for others because old white men with money listen to other white people with money. That’s the only fighting chance this country has.

In exploring this topic and opening up about my own unintended ignorance, I am not looking for a pat on the back or an argument. I am not proud that I don’t know what it’s like for my best friend to walk into the same stores I walk into while it’s probably assumed she can’t afford to be there. The funny part is, she actually is the one who can afford to be at Louis Vuitton, not me. I’m the one they should side eye. But they don’t and that’s the point. She’s a brilliant, hard working, well established business woman, loving wife and amazing mom. She is everything in this world I am not. The only thing I am confident I am better at than her is my driving. I remember her as being a frightening driver and the fact she has a motorcycle license keeps me happily 2000 miles away from her while staying in touch via text messages.

I am proud of her and proud to be loved by her. And, I am only just realizing she still probably had to teach her son about how to behave around police. I would never have to do that if I had a son. I have access to better, less biased healthcare. She had a higher chance of dying in childbirth than our white friends did. She has a higher risk of dying from late to diagnose cancer than I do. She is more likely to be manhandled by police at a traffic stop than I am. We need to start realizing and saying these things. We are the ones who have to fight for those experiences and outcomes to change because the establishment doesn’t listen to anyone else.

I’ve gone 30 years not asking questions and assuming because my best friend never says anything that everything is fine. I don’t want to do that for another 30 years. None of us should. I guess that’s my call to action. Call yourself out and then call our government out until we ALL have equal footing…or at least as easy as the white men do.