Blog Q & A: Being Unaware is in No Way Blissful, it’s Harmful. Written by Jill Zawisza
Blog Series: Confronting Inequities in Our Field - August 26, 2020
I’ll start by saying I know writing this piece in no way makes me ‘better’ than any other white person. I don’t set any standard, clearly. I was asked to write this blog and am taking it seriously. I’m going to be completely honest about myself, and what I hope to see in our field. It will be filled with imperfection. Mistakes. Misgivings. I hope to read it again in a year, and cringe because I’ve continued to unlearn my racism, and evolve my behaviors. That being said, here’s what I have to say on July 16, 2020.
What truths did you have to acknowledge about your own privilege in your organization & this movement?
Collectively, the DV movement has its roots in the passion, ideas and love of Black, Indigenous, & other Womxn of Color. Us white women, especially those of us with positional authority, have made aspects of this history invisible. This insidious and ongoing transformation was systemic from the start and it still is. The professionalization of the field is a direct result of whiteness, and moves us away from the collective liberation and cultural humility of our grassroots beginnings.
I was a part of that transition. I am a part of that divestment from our roots. I’ve been doing DV work for over 25 years now. I actively participate/d with willful ignorance, minimization, and deprioritization of the contributions of Black, Indigenous, & other womxn of color. At times, I was promoted before my Black, Indigenous, & other womxn of color peers. I took over positions from Black, Indigenous, & other womxn of color who were pushed out, scapegoated for organizational failures, and the failures of the nonprofit industrial complex, all informed by white supremacy. For a number of years, I didn’t question the WHY behind why Black, Indigenous, & other womxn of color left, or were pushed out of the field. I kept my head down and worked hard, and that was the only reason I thought I was promoted. That way, I didn’t have to question my privilege; I didn’t have to acknowledge the role my whiteness has played in the steady progression of my career. It’s really only been in the past ten years or so that I’ve started to consider my privilege. That, in and of itself, is using my white privilege. Being unaware is in no way blissful, it’s harmful.
Have you had instances in which you’ve caused harm in the field? How have you tried to repair that harm?
I have 100% caused harm, and the full extent of that harm was felt by Black, Indigenous, & other womxn of color, and others, not by me; so it’s impossible for me to speak to the full extent of the impact. It’s very hard to sit with.
There have been times when I thought allyship looked like stepping back, so far back in fact that I said nothing. I did nothing because I was afraid of messing up, or being seen as a racist power hoarder. My inaction, I now understand, was ego driven.
I can think of two other instances when I caused harm worth mentioning. I was engaged in feeling fragile when Black women held up a mirror. On two different occasions, I guess about 15 years back, I was given the gift of hearing Black women share their stories of being unseen, discriminated against, and unsafe in DV organizations (one as a client, the other as a staff member). This feedback wasn’t personal, it was offered to two different audiences of DV workers. Yet, I claimed white supremacy’s right to comfort and felt offended. I was scathing in my evaluations of their presentations; I cringe to think of whatever the folks who read those evaluations felt. The potential for insight and change on my part was astounding. Instead, I scoffed and tuned out. It wasn’t just harmful, it was abusive–instead of seeing the feedback for what it was, I twisted it into something else, willfully misunderstood, and was passive-aggressive in my critiques, hiding behind the anonymity of pen and paper. It was small and mean spirited.
I now understand that Black, Indigenous, & other Womxn of Color don’t owe me (or any of us white women) their stories. We’ve/I’ve shown time and again that we can’t always be trusted with them. In the cases I mentioned above, I did one of my least favorite things that people who use abuse do: I weaponized their vulnerability. I ignored a call to action, filled with Black womxns’ hopes for improvement, collaboration, calls for allyship and caring, ALL of which were offered with love, hope and sincerity.
How do I repair that? That’s hard. There are Black, Indigenous, & other Womxn of Color teachers and content creators out there STILL offering their gifts, stories and talents. I listen. I appreciate. I pay the Black, Indigenous, & other Womxn of Color content creators and educators. The experiences and knowledge these Black, Indigenous, & other Womxn of Color dare to share came at a price that us white womxn made/make them pay; that I’ve made them pay. The least we can do is send them 20-something-dollars a month. There is healing in making reparations. It’s the best I can think to do in addition to listening and changing my toxic behavior.
I have conversations with other white people about white supremacy and harm doing–while I know I can’t ‘teach’ white people to dismantle their white supremacy as I dismantle my own, we can talk about how to show up, how to step up and back, and being mindful of intent vs impact–to name a few examples. I build my self-awareness so I can change my behavior, not just feel sorrow, shame and guilt. I am honest when I offer apologies for harm I’ve caused, or harm I think I may have caused.
While I hope that all leads to repairing, I cynically question if that is even possible. Especially when I don’t know the extent of the harm I’ve done. A mistake when made in the spirit of repair is better, however, than apathy and inaction, so I forge ahead.
How have you been intentional about making space to listen to Black people and people of color in your organization?
I am the only white person on our leadership team at WOMAN Inc. As such, women of color make space for ME, I don’t make space for them. Being a part of conversations about white supremacy culture, its impact, how we can work against it in our work and organization is a gift. These gifts, working with this group of Women of Color hasn’t only made our organization better, it’s made me a far more motivated, kind and adaptive leader; it’s made me a better person in general. I am so grateful. We are a leadership team, and each person helps hire folks, helps determine who will volunteer with us, helps decide who will join the board. It’s a team and as such, I didn’t build it on my own. It’s OUR team that WE built, together.
On a very practical level, I try to assess each opportunity that comes my way. Does someone want an interview? Do they want my input on a project? Do they want a WOMAN Inc representative on a panel or in a class, for example? I assess whether this opportunity is truly for ME, or if it can be shared with others on the team. I let go if I can share the opportunity to support staff development.
Finally, let’s not forget white women in management or ED roles–it’s also our job to support staff development, not just be ‘the face’ of the organization. My ultimate goal is to transition our structure to a Co-ED model. I hope this will make the ED role more personally and professionally sustainable, creative and dare I say fun? I think this is the best use of my authority and privilege–setting goals that speak to liberation, a culture of care and a leaderful organization.
What is the role of power sharing in making our field more equitable?
That’s a big concept, SHARING POWER. I think what’s even bigger is being fully aware of your power, including the power you hold in an organization. Understanding your power is pivotal if you are to wield it with love. White supremacy culture encourages us to hoard power, and tells us white people we are entitled to more of it, which is a lie. As such, sharing power helps us dismantle white supremacy and racism. I hope that’s a shared goal across our field.
I get the discomfort at play; as a survivor of DV and as a woman who has been sexually traumatized, I’m highly invested in my personal power. At the same time, if it’s my one and only lifeline, who doesn’t get the power I grasp onto? We KNOW Black, Indigenous, & other Womxn of Color get the fuzzy-end of the lollipop, again and again. Our power hoarding results in the replication of habits put in place by whiteness. We aren’t supposed to replicate abusive cycles of behavior, right? So why do we?
In general, us white women need to actively examine our power, how we share it, the power we keep, and how those decisions have been impacted by trauma and the full spectrum of our identities. We don’t want people who use abuse to weaponize their trauma histories, why do we get to weaponize ours, white women? We get away with it all the time, but it doesn’t mean it’s RIGHT, or will bring about collective liberation. The racist patriarchy isn’t about protecting us, white women, so let’s leave the violence and emotional warfare it sanctions behind.
So part of sharing power, for me, has been the result of sometimes painful processing and healing of wounds. Once that started to happen, sharing power became less scary and more liberating for me. I hope it’s helped those around me feel better about actively engaging in their own healing. I hope it’s also impacted WOMAN Inc’s culture of sharing power, and culture of care in a positive way.
Discriminating against Black, Indigenous, & other Womxn of Color, the folks whiteness has given us ‘permission’ to discriminate against the most, won’t bring about authentic power OR healing. It can’t heal us if it harms others. This is power-over, it’s inauthentic and ugly. It’s toxic and abusive. It keeps us stagnant, it keeps us afraid and closed off to amazing things Black, Indigenous, & other Womxn of Color are doing in the field and beyond. It informs myopic views of the work, ignoring the intersectionality of DV and racism, for example. It contributes to folks feeling unseen, unheard, and results in toxic culture that pushes Black, Indigenous, & other womxn of color out of the work. We need Black, Indigenous, & other Womxn of Color, white women. We need everyone who is lovingly invested in ending DV and other abusive cycles of oppression.
I say this with so much love, I know we can do it: let’s do our own healing work, and stop making Black, Indigenous, & other womxn of color pay for our pain, trauma and fear. That, in and of itself, is power-with–and it is our work.