While I completely understand the need for Professor Blair L.M. Kelley’s hashtag #WeHelpOurselves following the outing of Rachel Dolezal as an appropriator of black issues and blackness itself, I feel a more appropriate hashtag would be #WeNeedEachOther. In reality, none of us succeeds on our own, and people, regardless of their skin color, can work to make change in each other’s lives. My black father worked for the NAACP in the 80s and 90s alongside white allies, and he never questioned their purpose or intentions, because they remained ever aware of their own whiteness. Below are five women I have known over the course of my life who have made a difference in equality without feeling the need to deny their own heritage.
1. Verity Norman
Verity is a white South African who grew up during Apartheid. Through her parents’ activism, she was always aware of the privilege that came with her skin color. In an effort to foster racial unity in a country with very recent segregation and violence, Verity has pursued educational and career objectives that enable her to help bridge racial divides in Zimbabwe. She received an advanced degree in International Education in the States, and then returned to Africa to work as a Program Officer for World Education.
Verity says of the hashtag: “While I understand where the #WeHelpOurselves sentiment is coming from, I’m not sure I subscribe to it. I think we all need help from each other, in different arenas. I feel it is important that […] we show solidarity for each other, speak up for each other, and ensure that racial prejudice is not allowed to fester behind closed doors and private conversations. If we don’t stand up for each other in those arenas, who will?”
Growing up as a white South African, Verity has encountered many individuals who say it is impossible for whites born in Africa to consider themselves African. However, Verity knows that regardless of the nation’s history, her country of allegiance is that which she was born into, and that “black” and “South African” aren’t always synonymous or mutually exclusive. Verity has recently, and inadvertently, taken a new step in understanding the complexities of racial inequality by becoming engaged to a prominent black African figure. Verity and Fungai came together not because of or in spite of race, but due simply to their love for one another. This love is also apparent in Verity’s cross-racial friendships: “I don’t feel the need to try to ‘save’ black women or somehow become them – the black women I’m friends with would whoop my ass if I tried to do that!!!! They are just as strong/capable as I am – some much more so.”[sc:shn-ad3]
2. Elizabeth Dueck
Elizabeth and her husband Darcy worked as missionaries in Guinea, West Africa. While the rhetoric surrounding missionary work often subscribes to the notion that missionaries are there to save the natives while maintaining proper distance, Elizabeth always felt that her work would only be meaningful if it were built on true connections. Elizabeth and her husband helped build a medical clinic in their village, taught literacy, built a bridge, and performed many other necessary tasks in order to help the villagers lead healthy and self-sustaining lives.
While she taught the village what she knew, she was also passionate about learning from them, and viewed their relationship as mutually beneficial. Regarding her outlook on village life, Elizabeth says:
“I was so tired of always hearing missionaries talk about ‘my people’, ‘the people’, ‘the village people’, ‘the Africans’, etc. I would never refer to my neighbors in North America in that way, so why do missionaries do that there? And so I never did. I made friends and lived in a wonderful neighborhood of a village with some of the most friendly and caring neighbors I’ve ever met.”
3. Ana Stevenson
I met Ana at the Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference in 2011 where we shared our scholarship on the same panel. The conference was filled with mixed race individuals of various, and mostly brown-skinned, ethnicities. I was immediately intrigued by this fair-skinned Australian who felt a sense of community with us without feeling the need to appropriate a culture other than her own.
Ana is a PhD candidate in History with an emphasis in 19th century feminism. Her paper explores the intersectionality present in the woman-slave analogy as used by women activists in that particular time period. She delineates how this analogy was used to foster a connection between black and white activists in an effort to work together to obtain social reform. In addition to her academic pursuits, Ana is also a semi-professional musician who plays the recorder, cello, double bass, tuned percussion, and is a choral singer. She feels a strong connection to other cultures through music. She says, “I feel that the cross-cultural engagement, of cultures past and present, developed through these experiences enables me to make sense of myself and others in a way that shapes my identity and worldview but does not ask me to be anything other than who I am.”[sc:shn-ad3]
4. Kimberly Abruzzo
Kimberly was reluctant to be praised for any activism, especially in light of the recent shootings. She said, which is true, that my desire to include her in this article comes mostly out of our recent engagement in the Martin Luther King Day parade here in LA. Kimberly and I met in grad school, and she is an aspiring travel writer and photographer who feels most at home immersed in cultures other than her own. Kimberly is well aware of her privileged status and wrestles with feeling that she can’t, in good faith, claim to have any real understanding of what it means to be a minority in America. What I like about Kimberly, however, is that exact humility. She largely works behind the scenes, capturing activism through her camera lens in an effort to shed light on others’ struggles in their quest for equality.
5. My Mother
My mother was born into a middle class family in Marin County, California. She was born with a cleft lip and palate, which caused others to question her intelligence. My mom developed an affinity for other marginalized groups whose intelligence and abilities were questioned based on purely external markers. As a young woman in the 70s, she participated in marches, rallies, and even passed out fliers during Cesar Chavez’s grapes boycott. What I’ve always loved about my mother is that she understands cultural oppression without feeling like she needs to put on a false identifier. She says that she can relate to being stigmatized, but not to being black. She says this upset my black father, who was also upset by my limited understanding as a biracial individual. However, my mother and I can’t be anything other than who we are. We continually work to build connections between races and cultural groups in our everyday lives, while also aware that we can’t understand what it means to be 100% black.