Watch Yourself, Don’t Squish the Butterfly

An Open Letter

Dear White Persons,

This is an open letter to three people specifically. For almost 29 years of life, I lived in blissful ignorance of how I survived these things called microaggressions. It was only when I was placed into a situation when I was unable to use my only coping skill that I realized how this survival was possible. I was lucky enough to live as a beautiful brown woman for 29 years without ever having to feel the powerless insignificance of a slight based in complicated power dynamics rooted in centuries of oppression and hatred.

When faced with ignorance or misguided ideas or simply a situation where a foot is inserted in a mouth, I engage. I don’t know how I learned this. I don’t ever remember my parents sitting me down and saying anything about how to deal with racism. The first time I was called a nigger it was by a sweet black boy who I am now certain meant that word as a term of endearment. Baby Eichelle didn’t understand that, she only knew that word was the most hurtful thing she could be called. She was wrong.

So, I engage. When you say, “So, what are you?” as though I am another species or an alien or a vampire, I view it as an invitation. You didn’t know it but you just asked me to talk to you about white privilege, power dynamics, how you should treat people, how you will treat me, use of language, social injustice, systems of oppression, the history of racism with in America and anything else that may come up. You didn’t know it, but you are the lucky winner of a chat with an empathic, loving, thoughtful and convincing woman. You get to hear her thoughts about the world and you will leave this conversation knowing who she is. This process for me balances everything out. It allows me to move on.

At age 29, for the first time I was in a situation where I couldn’t engage. I couldn’t tell the man who refereed to Water Protectors as “bad guys” how offensive that statement was. I couldn’t explain why asking me if I had looked into my ancestry might not be a fun activity but one of anguish. I couldn’t explain why smudging is not a performance. I couldn’t explain why going out of your way to introduce me to the one black acquaintance you have is problematic in many ways. I just had to smile.

It was only today that I understand why I couldn’t just let it all go. It was today when you assumed me to be the help. When you talked about me in front of me, as though I’m not worthy of engaging. It was only in that moment that I started to understand why I was holding on to stuff from over a year ago.

The reason I engage and can then move on without a second thought, even from talking to a neo-Nazi leader is that when I engage you hear me. I get to be heard. If you continue to live your life full of willful ignorance and still think you’re right it’s fine. It doesn’t matter to me.

A microaggression seeks to impose a reality that is false to my existence. When I engage I at least get to scream into the void. I get to make known my reality.

Today when you talked around me and assumed that my presence had to be explained, you shifted the power dynamics. The only way I could be there is of course if I was the nanny. And of course, nannies shouldn’t be talked to directly. I don’t know what this was like for you. I don’t know why you felt a need to understand what was going on with this brown woman who came in with a parent.

I know that for me I felt powerless. With all of the privilege I hold. With all of the amazing people I have in my life who love me and lift me up, you could in one moment of inconsideration steal my power. It’s as though I’m a butterfly that you accidently stepped on. The pain you caused me couldn’t reach your ears.

I hear my dad’s voice now. He would say something along the lines of, “Why you givin’ that lady your power?” Then I hear the voice of my cousin. “What can you expect?”

To answer you both, this simple interaction represents a greater dynamic. Part of me agrees. Yes, I shouldn’t give this person, these people another thought. Me writing this right now is trying to do that. Another part of me simply hurts. The world exists so that it is okay for a white woman to do this to me. Yes, it was done to me. So, what do I do now?

Well to answer my cousin, I don’t know that I can accept the reality that many, many white people don’t know better. The reality that the three people I’m writing about have no idea the pain they have caused and probably never will. Two of them had the chance to listen but couldn’t.  If I accept that the current reality is all there is and move forward allowing this reality to color all future encounters I become someone I don’t want to be.  So, what do I do?

I write. I share this hurt. I hope that some will read it and think of others. I write to release the hurt and in some small way rebalance things.

When these three people did what they did, they shifted the power in their favor. They asserted a narrative that I refuse to believe: White is better and knows best. By sharing my side, I am saying, “no.” I am yelling, “NO!” I am saying, “hey, I’m a pretty butterfly flying here watch yourself.” I am saying I matter. That will have to do for now.

With love,

A beautiful brown woman

 

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