July 16, 2018
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Writing about racism while white

Contributed photo | BDN
Contributed photo | BDN
Heather Denkmire
By Heather Denkmire, Special to the BDN
Updated:

An opinion column is inherently navel gazing; it’s about my opinions. I began writing this column because after divorce, bankruptcy, a young child and a new baby and also some mental health issues, I found myself living in poverty the likes of which I’d never known.

I called myself “newly poor” because I come from privilege. As I have said many times in this space, the fact that I received food stamps for a couple of years doesn’t qualify me in my mind as actually poor. My survival skills are much different than those I’ve met along the way who come from generational poverty, from real poverty. They have skills I don’t have.

I write about what it was like and what it is still like in many respects living in or near poverty because I believe my experience can benefit others. I can’t be sure how people might benefit, but some will. Perhaps people who share my background who are also struggling financially will feel less alone. Maybe people will feel better about themselves because they see me as too fragile or clueless (I’m looking at you, comments section readers!) — no kidding, I see how that can be a benefit to someone.

When I tell you I think the “good cop” stories on Facebook are an ugly distraction or that wealthy people should buy the (sometimes) more expensive organic vegetables to help the rest of us, those are my opinions. As a person with many opinions, I delight in sharing them. I don’t feel the need to have life experience with most topics; I just want to know enough to have an informed opinion.

But when I write about racism, I’m sharing ideas I’ve learned from black and brown people, and it feels different somehow. There are black and brown people who live with racism day in and day out, who write about it with strong voices and knowledge I can never have. As a commenter suggested last month, what business do I have writing about racism when there are so many people of color who could do it and do it better? As I told that person, it’s something I consider. In fact, the idea for this month’s column came from one written by a person of color.

The truth is, I am white and I write for a mostly white audience. There might be white people who are just starting to wonder if they, too, might be racist — as I learned I was years ago — who might learn from my experience. Maybe it will be enough if they learn that racism isn’t about us, the white people, and our sad and frustrated empathetic feelings. Maybe they, like me, can learn that racism has nothing to do with our feelings. If we want to “process” the feelings we have, we can do it quietly and among ourselves. It’s not about us.

Are you white, like I am? Do you want to break down the system of racism? Here’s what I suggest: learn. Then learn some more. Watch this video. Seriously, please watch the video. If you want to read books, I recommend Michelle Alexander’s “ The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “ Between the World and Me.” Both are available as excellent audiobooks.

So, yes, because I’m white, racism is mostly an intellectual and emotional issue for me instead of a crushing system of oppression; I am not the most qualified person to talk about it. That said, I’ve not yet reached a point where being quiet feels like the right thing to do.

Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at column@grantwinners.net. Her columns appear monthly.


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