Week 1 Response: Whiteness and Complicity

Allow me to preface my first reading response with the statement of one simple fact: I understand that this class is not about how I, a white person, react to anything that we read, as most of our readings have been written by poets of color about their experience with race and most of these experiences have never and could never have happened to me. My role in this class, primarily, is to ask questions (when appropriate) and to learn, to learn more about how racism manifests in ways to which I have been blind through the reading experimental poems. In doing so, I will chip away at the invisible whiteness that has been the backdrop to my life, which has allowed me to read fiction about experiences similar to my own as “universal.”

I have so much learning ahead of me in this class (and the more I learn the more I will realize that I do not know) but also so much unlearning. I need to unlearn the idea that the way I see the world is the way that it is. I do not have any sort of double-consciousness; most history books, blockbuster movies, “canon” literature, other facets of mainstream media were created by people who come from similar backgrounds as me and perceive the world in a similar way. The fact that their representations of life and my perception of life have lined up as led me to see it as the objective perception of life, which couldn’t be more wrong.

I have rarely felt burdened with race, and this is also wrong. Ari Banias points out that no one lives a life untouched by race, which it is something that shapes all of our lives, but as a white person, I have the option to think about it whenever I want to, and then stop when it feels “too difficult.” Only white people have this option, which is bitterly ironic as we are the ones who deserve it the least. As Banias writes, we have an obligation to face these issues head on. Saying that they are not ours to talk about gives us an easy out of a difficult conversation that needs to be had. That demands to be had.

I am not trying to make a grand display of white guilt by writing this, I am not trying to get brownie points for saying “look, I get it!” I’m just trying to figure out my role in this class, because I am aware that in my effort to learn in this space I must not take too much of it. The readings will cover the way that race shapes the identities and lives and of people of color in that will be familiar to many people in this class, but not to me. In those moments, my job is to listen. Maryam Afaq writes about the sickening feeling that by contributing her perspective as a woman of color in her graduate feminism seminar, she would be “taking too much space” for herself. It is deplorable that she was put in a situation that made her feel that way; her experiences and perspective have been given such a disproportionately tiny platform, she should be able to take up as much space as it takes to make people listen. But my platform has been disproportionately large, so here I must make sure that I do not take too much space for myself.

But to circle back to my first point: listening is not enough. As Helen Klonaris writes, one of the most powerful ways white people can strike back at racism is to tell the stories of manifestations of racism we have witnessed, that we have maybe even been a part of. We need to put the validity and audience that our whiteness wrongly and unfairly gives our voices to good use. And we must never let ourselves forget that we do not exist separately from the rigged system; it is rigged in our favor.


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One Response to Week 1 Response: Whiteness and Complicity

  1. Erica Mena says:

    I appreciate the care with which you’re considering your space in this class. I think it’s one of the things that could be fruitully talked about in class, about taking up space, and about holding space for those who are excluded from the discourse. That’s what this class is essentially about: about recognizing the exclusions that function within the poetry discourse around experimental work, and holding space and amplifying that which has been marginalized. Recognizing your responsibility for this as a white person in the class is hugely important.

    But equally, being silent is not the solution. As you yourself acknowledge. I’m espeically interested by your statement: “Saying that they are not ours to talk about gives us an easy out of a difficult conversation that needs to be had.” I think one of the most important things white co-conspiritors/allies/comrades can do is help other white people think about these issues carefully and complexly, and hold one another accountable, thereby reducing the labor that people of color are already having to do to make progress in this discourse. So acknowleding that silence is an “easy out of a dificult conversation” I wonder how you think you can begin to participate in this conversation in a way that respects the space needed for others, but values your own particular abilities to contribute?


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