By Diane Lefer
When I returned to the US in June from a project in Senegal, West Africa, the first thing a friend asked was, “Do they practice female genital mutilation?”
I thought at once of my Senegalese friends, who hate that when Americans talk about Africa they think only of atrocities. I could have given a little lecture about how right up into the 20th century, some doctors in the US and Britain performed clitoridectomies–yeah, surgically removing the clitoris–on infants, girls, and young women to discourage masturbation. Instead I calmly corrected her: “Genital cutting.”
See, almost twenty years ago, an African woman in Los Angeles had corrected me. “Please use neutral language,” she said. “People won’t change if you try to shame them, if they feel their culture is under attack. What do you want?” she asked. “To express outrage and feel good about yourself? Or to end the practice?”
Years later, I’m still repeating her questions in my head as a white ally of social justice movements here in the US. Because damn it! I am outraged. If anything, our culture needs more shame. Those FOX news commentators, bank CEO's, smug NY Times pundits, police department mouthpieces, those sold-to-the-highest-bidder elected officials–how do they look at themselves in the mirror? Bleeped-out invectives aside, what can I call them but "shameless"?
I want them to feel ashamed. I want them to feel dirty and hypocritical.
So I've been trying to figure this out, and what I figure is we've been using the wrong word. Because shame wells up from inside. It's the judgment we make on ourselves, not the stigma put on us by others. Slut-shaming, for example. Women subjected to public taunting, exposure, and insults have nothing to be ashamed of. You're backwards, barbaric, slutty, delusional, stupid? That's not shame. It's humiliation.
Another African woman in LA told me that to her, much worse than having been cut, was what happened when she gave birth in a Canadian hospital. Residents and nurses were called over to her bed where they gathered round, gaping at her vagina and expressing outrage, horror and disgust.
But to answer my friend's question: Cutting is no longer a cultural practice in Senegal. Not because of the intervention by international organizations, not because it was made illegal. Instead, one woman whose daughter died from the procedure said Let's protect the health of our daughters. Her message spread from village to village. She never said cutting is barbaric. She didn't address a taboo topic: women's sexual pleasure. Mothers and fathers joined her, saying we love our daughters and we now know they can die from cutting. People talked about good health and love. No one condemned the cultural tradition as barbaric. Women who had been cut or who'd had their daughters cut weren't criticized or blamed. No one was humiliated.
So, as it happened, I was thinking about the distinction between shame and humiliation when a black friend said she was uncomfortable with the way the survivors of the hate killing in the Emanuel AME Church were quick to forgive the killer. “Black people have never felt safe in this country,” she said. She wondered whether the forgiveness was sincere or meant only to placate whites.
My own first impulse was to rant about the cowardly limp-dicked jackboot-licking Fascist-piggy murdering deluded white-supremacist racist asswipe scumbag loser.
I don't want to manage my anger. Anger is a good thing. It makes you stand up straight. Most of the time the powerful don't hear you until you shout–about, for example, police killings of unarmed black men and women.
My gut doesn't want to forgive. But...
I do believe police are more likely to respect and abide by new policies if we respect them enough to recognize they should have a major role in writing them.
And I don't know what was in the hearts of the people whose family members and friends were slaughtered in that terrorist act in Charleston. But whether intended or not, forgiveness was a brilliant tactical choice. Instead of spewing invective and expressing fury at the killer and at racism, these survivors demonstrated moral and spiritual stature. With this unboastful grandeur, they didn't humiliate the white folks in South Carolina; they triggered enough shame to bring down the Confederate flag.
It's just a symbol, the problems run deeper than that, blah blah blah. Not just that: the focus on the Stars and Bars means that in the rest of this enduringly racist country, those of us who never lived where the flag waved or decorated cars, trucks, and clothing can–as usual–put the white supremacist label on the South and Texas and exempt ourselves from blame.
That's only natural. Jeffrey Dahmer's father, after all, acknowledged yes, his son was a serial killer, and yes, he was a cannibal. But no, he was not a racist! Except for the sick and vicious subculture of those who are proud to trumpet their bigotry, the last thing anyone wants to be called is racist. Not the Southern gentlemen who always made a point of saying nigra instead of the other word, and not the residents of lilywhite neighborhoods in the North. Racist. Where's the neutral language for that?
How do you talk about white privilege to white folks who are poor, who've lost their homes and jobs, who are in prison or struggling, homeless back from Iraq or out on parole? Or who get branded with a pejorative that never became politically incorrect while their kids got to watch a popular children’s' TV show with its recurring comic shtick–the "Hillbilly Moment"–in which the show's stars portrayed rural stereotypes, acting stupid with their teeth blacked out?
And what could be more humiliating in this so-called land of opportunity than to be labeled a loser?
I don't know. Maybe get rid of all the label-words. Stick, instead, to stories and facts.
But the flag, my mind keeps circling back to that damn Confederate flag. What does it represent anyway? To many of us it stands for slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and, and, and—you get the picture. On the other hand, it's said to stand for heritage and honor and sacrifice. But does that even make sense? I think about Sherman waging total war on civilians as well as combatants, burning cities and crops while Union soldiers killed and pillaged, leaving nothing but devastation in their wake. Seems to me that the sight of the Stars and Bars would evoke devastation and defeat. Humiliation.
Humiliation festers, breeding resentment and rage. It feeds violent paranoia and delusions that the white Christian race is under imminent threat, that a black man in the White House is a harbinger of the End of Days. Then I think of the woman in Senegal who stopped genital cutting, and I wonder if maybe no one is as qualified to take down the flag as white Southerners. Not because they are shamed into it, but because they love their sons. Because they will stand together and say, Let's protect the mental health and well being of our sons.
Some ideas for white allies:
These days I try to stock up on interesting information, such as:
Hey, did you hear about the experiment they did at the National Bureau of Economic Research? They responded to employment ads with resumés, half of which had names that sounded African American–Lakisha Washington and Jamal Jones–and half with names–Emily Walsh and Greg Baker–that suggested the applications were white. It didn't matter how skilled the apparently Black applicants were on paper. The white-sounding names got many more callbacks. (As far as I know, no one's done the experiment with Maria Garcia and Jesus Sanchez.)
To collect facts about white privilege you can use instead of the catch-phrase, you could do worse than to hook up with Tim Wise and his essays like this one.
But most important? When black folks or other people of color have something to say, especially when they are using some of those label-words? Shut up and listen.
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist living in Los Angeles with a gorgeous cat. She addresses political issues in her fiction, in the story collection, California Transit (Mary McCarthy Prize, Sarabande Books), and the novels, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty (Rainstorm Press) and Confessions of a Carnivore (Fomite Press). Her ongoing collaboration with Colombian exile Hector Aristizabal includes their nonfiction book, The Blessing Next to the Wound: A story of art, activism, and transformation; arts-based social justice workshops, most recently in Senegal; and the play Nightwind which has toured the US and more than 30 other countries as part of the worldwide campaign to end the practice of torture. She is currently facilitating writing workshops in English and Spanish for torture survivors rebuilding their lives in Southern California. Oral histories she's gathered from other survivors can be found here. For her ruminations on the challenges facing nonviolent movements in the US, please see this. Follow her at her website.
Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:
Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting
David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme
Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent
Rudy Landeros: Wars of Their Own
Gene Kwak: Dirty Work
RE Katz: The Shift
P. E. Garcia: Some Thoughts on Forrest City