White Women: We Need To Talk About Race

“White women like me” is a phrase you hear often when you talk with Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner.

Rowe-Finkbeiner is the co-founder and executive director/CEO of MomsRising.org – a grassroots organizing nonprofit that takes on “the most critical issues facing women, mothers, and families by educating the public and mobilizing massive grassroots actions.”

Both her activism at MomsRising.org and her latest book, Keep Marching: How Every Woman Can Change Our World, focus on the idea that we can meaningfully fight sexism only when we also fight racism and economic inequality.

In this book, she calls on white women to engage in difficult conversations with one another and to become change agents to dismantle racism in America. Keep Marching is a how-to guide for doing just that.

From the outset, Rowe-Finkbeiner explores the feminist movement’s legacy of prioritizing the experience of white, cisgender, middle class women above all others. In the book and throughout her work, she uses her own identity and experience to engage other white women in a conversation about race and class that prioritizes the experiences of women of color, of low-income women, of trans and gender-nonbinary people.

It’s 7am at Rowe-Finkbeiner’s home in Washington state when we begin our first interview. She warmly apologizes for having lost her voice, telling me her daughter’s high school graduation was the night before. Despite the initial raspiness in her voice, she is full of energy and passion for the topic at hand – her book and white women’s responsibility to work to end racism.

A few minutes into our conversation, I ask about the perfectionist instinct that many white women (myself included) struggle with and how it might affect our ability to engage in meaningful conversation around race. Personally, I’ve grappled with a tension between not wanting to offend and the need to just start having the conversations.

Rowe-Finkbeiner says that whenever she fears, “Oh my gosh, I’m not going to get this right,” she reminds herself to do three things:

1) Get a sense of scale.

Rowe-Finkbeiner says, “There’s a concept that’s important for white women – and this definitely includes me – to hold closely: the feeling of fear that you’re going to mess up is nothing compared to the fear of death.” She continues, “Young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police [than their white counterparts]. That fear of socially messing up is nothing compared to the fear of losing a child or of being intentionally separated from your child – like is being done across our nation right now.”

If white women consider scale, if we weigh the actual impact of an uncomfortable social encounter against the relative harm to the people of color, we’ll be more likely to take action. She wants white women to recognize that we are walking around with such privilege every day, that “the harm that comes to me from having a difficult conversation is nothing compared to the harm whole communities often experience from us not having those conversations.”

2) Remember, this isn’t supposed to be easy.

If this were an easy issue to address, Rowe-Finkbeiner says our nation wouldn’t have such rampant inequality. She wants white women to remind one another that it’s inevitably awkward and difficult, but keep trying.

“Don’t be afraid of your internal implicit biases, be in conversation with them,” she says, “We haven’t flexed or even found the muscles. It’s going to be inelegant.” This discomfort doesn’t mean we’re actually harmed as white women. Again, it comes back to scale.

Furthermore, because implicit bias is integrated fully into everything we experience within the US, into our very culture, she acknowledges that it isn’t something you fix once, “It’s a work in progress.”

3) Take responsibility.

At the end of the conversation, she adds something that came up throughout our interview: essentially, that we’re going to make mistakes, and it’s imperative that we own our mistakes when we do.

Rowe-Finkbeiner brings up the concept of white tears. As she describes it, it’s the idea that when white women find themselves in difficult conversations, instead of meaningful work, we often end up with white tears. These tears are seen as an act of manipulation, a way to both garner unearned sympathy and to avoid meaningful discourse when it gets hard or we face criticism.

Again, scale. Those white tears “pale in comparison to the life and death matters that many communities are facing each day.”

We each have blinders that impact our experience of the world – we see it through our own lens. When we inevitably miss something as a result or have made a mistake, Rowe-Finkbeiner says, “Have a conversation with yourself.”

Instead of feeling defensive and insulted or bursting into tears, Rowe-Finkbeiner encourages white women to feel gratitude if someone lets us know about our unintended impacts. “Someone took time out of their busy life to open your eyes to something that was happening outside of you,” she says.

As a white woman myself, I’ve been deeply inspired and energized by talking with Rowe-Finkbeiner and following her work.

It reminds me of a conversation I had about workplace harassment with Celeste Kidd, who has since been honored as a Time Magazine 2017 Person of the Year through role as one of the “Silence Breakers” surrounding sexual harassment. She told me rather than, “I don’t have the answers, so I don’t want to talk about it,” her approach is “No one has the answers, so we have to talk about it.” What was true for Kidd prior to the onset of the MeToo movement is true for talking about race and all manner of difficult conversations.

To both Kidd and Rowe-Finkbeiner, not having the answers is an opportunity. Whether sexual harassment or racism, we can and must get creative to develop meaningful new solutions. And as Kidd said, “The key to making things better is talking about it.”

Rowe-Finkbeiner is out there doing the work, having the conversations, and encouraging others to do the same.

Lelia Gowland works with women who want to increase their leadership capacity, impact, and career fulfillment. She’s a sought-after speaker and writer on workplace dynamics. Follow her on Twitter.

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