Essay: “Do You Still Love Me If I’m White?” by Sonja Johanson

In the days immediately after the election, many of us were shocked, grieving, enraged, and struggling with the knowledge we had, for too long, been silent as our friends, neighbors, and family members took sides with bigotry. One of the first acts for many was to take to social media and declare sides publicly, announcing our positions. Here’s what mine looked like—

Any of you who actually know me know where I stand. In case there is any doubt, at all, count me on the side of the poor, the downtrodden, the disabled, the unemployed, the elderly, Latinos, blacks, Asians, Native Americans, all my friends in the LGBTQ community, immigrants, anyone who has struggled, and—oh, yes, WOMEN who have dealt with everything the patriarchy has to offer them. And if this for one second makes you want to argue with me and tell me I’m overreacting, unfriend me now, here and in the real world, because I’m not going to pretend politely anymore.

I saw a lot of those statements in that first week, and I saw one reply to such a statement that struck me. In response to one woman’s declarative post, a man asked, “But will you still love me if I’m white?”

It’s easy to dismiss this as a cruel piece of snark (and, in fact, I feel certain the author meant it that way), but underneath that is a staggering admission of self-centeredness and insecurity. I don’t know what can be done about self-centeredness in an adult, except perhaps to point it out and hope the person is capable of being embarrassed. The insecurity, though, perhaps I can help with. The original poster answered him, “Yes, of course I do,” and she’s right, but I’d like to offer a more nuanced answer.

I have a pair of good friends who, after two decades together, split up. These things happen, and I’m not inclined to lay blame on either side, but one person was suffering much more than the other. She did not intend or want the split, but as a result of it she had to move. She lost her partner, her home, her job, much of the community she had lived in, and her sense of trust in the world. Her friends and family rallied around her as best we could, supporting her as she made the necessary changes to her life. We did not work as hard to support her ex, and at least on my part, it was not because I did not care about him. Though he initiated the split, he too lost his longtime partner, and he too felt repercussions in his work, family, and social life. I feel compassion for this. But the fact is that he kept his home and community, and he had a new relationship to bolster him, so his need was not as immediate. My first duty was to the person most in need of support. My friend never complained about this, and I respect him enough to assume he was able to figure that out on his own.

So if you are white, yes, you still matter. In particular if you have struggled with intersections such as gender discrimination, disability discrimination, ageism, or discrimination based on your sexual preference, I named you as one of the people in need of support. If you are suffering financially due to under or unemployment (and this applies to MANY conservatives in rural areas), I named you, too. That’s where I grew up, I know what that struggle feels like, and I see the raw deal you have gotten. I’m on your side in this.

But if you are white and are not in one of these marginalized groups, you’re fine. If you are upset that the world is changing, that your religious values are not shared by all, that you don’t get first dibs at all opportunities the way you once did, that’s not hardship. Your religion is yours to practice on yourself, and perhaps you are beginning to see what a level playing field looks like, but that’s not discrimination, that’s fairness. You might need help making sense of all this, but you don’t need my help as much as some other people do. And while you deal with the implications of watching society change, as societies do, I’m going to practice triage. I’m going to lend my support to those who are struggling the most, and when they are a little safer, and a little more stable, if you need to talk over a cup of coffee, I’ll help you figure it all out.

***

Sonja Johanson has recent work appearing in the Best American Poetry blog, BOAAT, Epiphany, and The Writer’s Almanac. She is a contributing editor at the Found Poetry Review, and the author of Impossible Dovetail (IDES, Silver Birch Press), all those ragged scars (Choose the Sword Press), and Trees in Our Dooryards (Redbird Chapbooks). She divides her time between work in Massachusetts and her home in the mountains of western Maine.

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