Martha Plimpton and I have engaged in many heated debates about the intersecting land mines of race, feminism and politics. Sometimes those debates end with us walking away for a time and "liking" each other's statuses on Facebook so that we know we're still good—because that's what you do in 2016 in a hyperconnected world.
What has enabled us to remain friends is the fact that, though we come from wildly different backgrounds and experiences, we are both committed to the fight for social justice, particularly as it pertains to women's reproductive rights, and we both have faith in the moral core of the other. We both believe that a better world is possible, even if we have different road maps for how to get there.
After one such debate—which occurred at the crack of dawn—I read one of Plimpton's statuses on her private Facebook page that was both powerful and self-aware. In a blunt statement to white liberals who remain silent in the face of state-perpetuated and state-sanctioned violence against communities of color, Plimpton made it plain that white fragility in the face of black anger and frustration at apparent white obliviousness is ultimately self-serving and nothing more than a flimsy excuse to walk away from issues that should be urgent for us all.
Audre Lorde taught us that there is nothing black women can do with the guilt of white women unless that guilt is turned into action—and she was right. There is nothing that black women can do, or should do, with white women's anger when that anger is solely used as justification for their own silence or apathy—not that the two reactions are mutually exclusive. As Lorde wrote:
I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.
To that end, it is past time that white people, particularly those in positions of power and influence, "speak directly" to other white people about being beneficiaries of white privilege—and that is exactly what Plimpton has done.
Her words were directed toward her circle of white friends who sometimes don't know what to say, let alone do, in the fight against institutional violence against people of color. And she was able to engage them in a way that black people not only are tired of doing but also shouldn't be expected to do as we navigate a white supremacist system that hates us for our freedom.
Toni Morrison taught us that explaining ourselves and our reason for being is a distraction from the work that needs to be done. It keeps us from claiming joy. It keeps us from claiming victories that—as my sister and Drug Policy Alliance Senior Director asha bandele reminds me—are all around us. It keeps us from laughing hard and loving harder because our focus is on the white gaze and justifying ourselves to those who should know better and often do know better, but who choose comfortable silence or open antagonism.
What Plimpton has done here is begin building the critical foundation of allyship. It is the self-reckoning of someone who wants to be better and who wants white people, particularly white liberals, in this context, to be better—even when they are tired and frustrated or angry—because, as she wrote:
I can handle some people thinking I'm a … cracker for a few days because I said or did an oblivious thing that either came out wrong or was based in some self-focused [a—] thought. What I can't handle is the thought that if I were a black woman in this country, catching a cop on the wrong day could result in the death of my husband, my partner, or my child. Or myself.
What you are about to read is unedited, unscripted and initially meant to be off the books—but, with Plimpton's permission, it is now on the record. This is a white-privilege check. Testing, check 1 … check 2 …
Rant alert: *Context note: This is mainly for my white, liberal friends and cohorts whose hearts and minds are in the right place, but who have felt alienated or uncomfortable at various times when a movement doesn't include us whiteys as primary partners, or when the Black Feminist/Womanist movements, which oftentimes use the terms "White Feminism" or "White Feminists" when drawing attention to inequities in feminist action and thought, appears to be antagonizing, rather than inclusive in the ways that we nice, polite white peoples prefer (I say this with love!)
These are not new ideas and I am not saying anything original, or even new for me. I'm just compelled, by recent events and the recent calls for white people to start showing up and being present for our compatriots, to write this, because I know there is a history of [f—ked] up communication that is largely the result of white people not liking to be re-directed, myself included:
A lot of white people are nervous about their ability to be allies in the fight against systemic racism for reasons that are purely self-conscious. I've certainly had those feelings and I'm not proud of them, even if they're human. No one wants to look like an [a—hole], even if that makes us look like a bigger [a—hole]. But there's no way to get it right all the time, and white people are used to not having to explain ourselves or change our ideas or accept that we're not central to, well, anything. So we get freaked out when some people of color get annoyed and fed up and tell us they're not here to "educate" us, or that how we've acted or spoken was ignorant, so why bother, etc. We feel like we're not being accepted and appreciated for our efforts, and we want to throw our hands in the air and say, "Well, fine, then, good luck! I guess you don't need me, then!" This is a stupid thing to do, and a mistake on about 42,987 levels. Not least because it reveals we're not actually being allies, we're just wanting to be thanked, which is NOT WHAT WE ARE HERE FOR.
Being human is hard. Being a decent human is harder. Being a decent human who tries new things and is willing to make mistakes and [f—k] up and still keep trying is even harder than that. But think of all the human beings we live with, and beside, and among, who pay a price for being human and OF COLOR that us white people literally cannot fathom. I can handle some people thinking I'm a turd-head cracker for a few days because I said or did an oblivious thing that either came out wrong or was based in some self-focused a**-thought. What I can't handle is the thought that if I were a Black woman in this country, catching a cop on the wrong day could result in the death of my husband, my partner, or my child. Or myself.
I am going to say and do—[f—k] it, I have said and done—some stupid [s—t] in my life. Some of it prolly in the last 24 hours. None of it has ever, or will ever, cause my life to be in jeopardy. Being thought a schmuck will not kill me. Even BEING a schmuck will not kill me.
What I am trying to express here is that white people have basically nothing to be afraid of, or lose, by trying to be present and conscious and helpful to our fellow humans of color, even if we fall flat or [f—k] up. We have nothing to lose. And sure, there are these "white people middle class losing ground blah blah" think pieces and whatever, and fine, they can write those and we can think about that [s—t] if we want to. But I am not terribly interested in those. As my Mom always says and I'm fond of parroting, "I don't really care WHY you're an [a—hole]. It's enough that you're an [a—hole]." That's kind of how I feel about white middle-class angst.
So I am willing to be a schmuck and fail and say the wrong thing. It's better than saying nothing, trying nothing, and believing that that is an adequate way to live my life.
Be a schmuck for your fellow citizens. Fail for them. Say the wrong thing, for them. Reveal your ignorance, for them. Accept the dressing down, for them. Be human, for them. Learn to crawl so you can learn to walk so you can learn to do what is right. That's all we are here to do on this planet: become better. It costs us nothing. There is a far greater price to pay in watching our fellow citizens, our sisters and brothers and neighbors and loved ones and friends and family and fellow Americans, have to fight for their right not to die because somebody else had a bad [f—king] day and didn't feel like holding fire this time.
I'll humiliate myself any time in the act of trying. It's my job at work, and it's my job as a human being. And it won't kill me. — Martha Plimpton
Kirsten West Savali is a cultural critic and an associate editor at The Root. She was awarded the 2016 Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence which honors exemplary reporting on black life in America. She was also named to Ebony magazine’s 2015 “Power 100” list and awarded a 2015 Harry Frank Guggenheim fellowship. Her provocative commentary explores the intersections of race, social justice, religion, feminism, politics and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter.
Martha Plimpton is an actress and co-founder of A Is For, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing women’s reproductive rights and ending the stigma against abortion care.