This one time at journalism camp (Yes, there is such a thing.), a white friend that I had been bonding with for the week, leaned over and confided that until last year’s camp experience, she had been certain black people had tails. That same summer, another camper expressed her extreme dislike for rap music and then turned to me apologizing so profusely you’d think I was Kool Moe Dee himself. I’ve been “the only” in so many situations from childhood until today that when I spotted comedian Franchesca Ramsey’s new video, “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls,” I almost squealed. Man, could I relate! In college for four years in Iowa, I heard half these things four times between the shower and my morning class. For me, Ramsey’s entry into the “Shit ________ Say” meme was not only funny, it also contained important social commentary. But not everyone is laughing.
As the video exploded across the Internet, some folks, particularly white women, including ones who deem themselves liberal, anti-racist allies, pushed back. A cruise through comments over on Huffington Post, Jezebel and Facebook reveals some unhappy responses, including 1) This is reverse-racism/stereotyping! 2) Everybody says dumb racial stuff equally. Guess what this black girl said to me once? 3) Nobody really says this stuff. I mean, maybe in the South/Flyover States… 4) How come this is okay, but “Shit black girls say to white girls” wouldn’t be?
You think talking about “big” racial issues like loan discrimination and redlining and police brutality against black men is hard? It’s often a lot easier than discussing race-based “microaggressions.” Microaggressions is a word coined by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, meaning “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of other races.”
The discussion is hard because it requires good, well-meaning people to admit to and examine their own racial privilege. It requires those who may think of themselves as anti-racist allies to do more than tsk tsk along with black friends about some madness, say, Rick Santorum said, and recall the things they personally (and perhaps innocently) may have done to make friends, family and co-workers of color feel othered. That’s tough. And it’s not just tough for the “white girls” mentioned in Ramsey’s work. It’s hard for everyone who has any kind of privilege, be it educational privilege, sexual privilege, gender privilege, etc. (All microaggressions aren’t tied to race. Just check out the Microaggressions Tumblr to see the many non-race-related ways this can play out.) But “Shit white girls say…” is centered on racial privilege and that is what much of the push back seems to ignore.
Look, individual black folks say plenty of stupid stuff about race, likely some of it to non-black people they know. This ignorance is neither right nor good. Nor need it be tolerated by white friends. But it is not microaggression. The difference? Power, racial privilege and historical context. In an essay about reverse racism, anti-racist educator and author Tim Wise explains:
As a white person, I always saw the terms honky or cracker as proof of how much more potent white racism was than any variation practiced by the black or brown. When a group of people has little or no power over you, they don’t get to define the terms of your existence, they can’t limit your opportunities, and you needn’t worry much about the use of a slur to describe you, since, in all likelihood, the slur is as far as it’s going to go. What are they going to do next: deny you a bank loan? Yeah, right. So whereas “nigger” is a term used by whites to dehumanize blacks, to “put them in their place” if you will, the same cannot be said of honky; after all, you can’t put white people in their place when they own the place to begin with.