White Girl Tweeting

When I was in the tenth grade, I attended Virginia Governor’s School summer program – a month of state-run summer enrichment for kids all over the state.

I had grown up in white, middle class, suburban America …so deep into the center of that life that nothing ever punctured my bubble. In 1992, I could have probably counted the number of African Americans, Latinos, and LGBTQ people I knew on one hand.

The interesting thing about that summer experience was that my hallmates included the daughter/sister of Klu Klux Klansmen and the daughter of an extremely wealthy, Punjabi Indian businessman. And they happened to be roommates.

What I remember best about KKK was that girl’s uncanny ability to shave her legs with only a cup of water and a straight edge.  What I remember best about the Indian girl was that she spoke of herself in the third person, calling herself (straight-faced), “Princess,” and would never wrestle with her brothers because she needed to protect her ovaries.

Well, didn’t that just blow my little suburban WASP mind. I’d never even seen a straight edge razor and I certainly had never met a KKK auxiliary member and I wasn’t worried about my future children. For my unfertilized eggs to get in the way of anything – anything AT ALL – that I wanted to do…that was a new.

And would you believe that they got along better with each other than they did with me?

KKK often said she respected Princess’ socioeconomic status and ovary protection regimen; Princess would respond that she would usually never hang out with such a low class individual but could respect her structured view of society.

And I would just sit at the end of their dorm room beds going “Oh my God, is this really happening? What is going on here?”

And the KKK girl would roll her eyes (and continue to shave her legs, meticulously) and the Indian girl would laugh at me and say that I had the “oddest perspective on the world.”

And yet, here I am, twenty years later, and I’m not sure that my situation – NONE of the situation– is that much different than it was in Governor’s School.

I am ignorant, and yet more knowledgeable than I was.  I am married into an Indian family. I have one daughter who identifies deeply as an Indian Hindu and another who is much more eurocentric. And while I get the basis for Princess’ perspective, I know that its manifestation was interesting and fairly unique, at least in my experience.

As I seek understanding “what’s going on here?” I find myself turning to Twitter as a place for finding people who know about and are living otherness, intersectionality, marginality, and the like.  And even though I have learned much, I find myself in my usual and unpopular space.

When I try to interact with people unlike myself on Twitter, I’ve been accused of acting privileged (probably warranted), intrusive (not always reasonably), racist (warranted? I honestly don’t know), stupid (relative and contextual)…the list gets uglier and more abusive.

No one has ever called me judgmental, but maybe so.  That being said, though, I think I ask questions more because I find it all so interesting, and not because I think any of this is “weird” or “wrong” (I admit that in Governors School, I thought KKK and Princess were both a little weird and a little wrong, but I’ve grown).

And I often question myself – what am I doing here? How bad are my transgressions compared to my growing understanding – and will my understanding translate to being kinder and more helpful? How selfish am I being?  And am I truly racist and stupid and…harmful? Should I just stop trying to reach out across racial and ethnic groups – to understand the perspective of people who are not me – or should I retreat to the safety of people who think exactly like I do?

Ignorance.

I accept that I am ignorant.  The folk who get medium-angry at me on Twitter say that it is my responsibility – not theirs – to get myself educated.  I totally get and respect that. But, like everyone else, I’m super busy, I’ve got a dissertation to write, a field (which is not racial and gender studies) to learn, children to raise, a career to grow.  There are only so many hours in a day and I must prioritize and occasionally I get lazy and hope (just hope) someone is willing to slip me a bone.  I would be. I do it all the time.

Moreover, there are so many different, distributed voices on these subjects – and most of the time one person is calling the other entirely wrong…So, where to get good information?

My Twitter mentor, Maha Bali, has provided me with an article by Elizabeth Ellsworth.  I trust Maha and so I will start there.

But I also know myself well enough that I will always be that girl sitting on the end of the bed, watching Princess and KKK “respect” each other and I will always speak up (bless my heart, right?), wondering what the hell is going on while questioning if I even have a right to an opinion.

It’s not a popular or comfortable spot, but it’s is certainly interesting.   Stay tuned.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Maha Bali says:

    I am so looking forward to the article you promised me now, I am salivating 😉
    And I soooo think u should try changing your twitter profile photo (or creating a separate account) and see what kind of reactions you get. Oh, hey, I have an idea! Why don't we both create a fictitious character and SHARE using the account and see what happens? (emmmm pondering the ethics of this but finding myself excited by the idea… because you often wonder if a person's identity were different, would you regard their POV differently? So for example, because i know about your family, I take what you say differently; not because what you say is itself different, but because it's coming from a different place… if that makes sense).

    I'm reminded, for example, by a recent article (I won't name names) critiquing the DH field. The author was a person of color. I was told she got backlash. I asked if it was by White men. I was told it was by two other POCs. Interesting. I can tell you the rest of the story separately… but I think it mattered that it was POCs critiquing a POC. It's different. And I'm not gonna get academic about it 😉

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  2. francesbell says:

    I think that it is possible to learn through social media about people who are different from ourselves. Sometimes we can engage in dialogue but other times (when the topic is too hot and our difference puts too much of an onus on those who suffer for their difference) We just have to watch and listen. But let's not forget the interests of the social media themselves . We could say that emotions drive traffic. Last week l noticed a hash tag #distractinglysexy where women scientists posted funny pictures to refute the silly suggestion from an elderly and foolish scientist that women were a distraction in the lab. He was forced to resign within a day after a media storm http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jun/13/tim-hunt-forced-to-resign . Great for social and traditional media who benefited from the perfect storm. Good for feminism and science -I am not so sure. Does the knee jerk sacking without due process suggest that UCL are highly committed to gender equality? or are they more bothered about bad publicity?
    So what started as humour morphs into shame that drives traffic and will be forgotten in a week.

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  3. Laura Gogia says:

    I am so grateful for your comment, Maha, because it tells me that I didn't say anything too horrible up there–otherwise you would have DM'ed me and said “oh no no no, you need to take that down and we need to work on it.” At least I hope you would have :). As I said, I've come to trust you as a mentor in these matters.

    My experience of racial, educational, cultural, socioeconomic privilege (because it's all mixed up together, isn't it? Although it tends to put different aspects of its identity in the forefont, given the context) is that it's incredibly dynamic. I can literally start a conversation from a place of privilege and end it as the disadvantaged – and vice versa. And I don't necessarily walk out and suddenly become privileged again – it just doesn't work that way when you live as the “other” intimately, even if you are the privileged publicly.

    My husband has a cousin who married a white woman, but there marriage works entirely differently than ours – she has her family, he has his; holidays are separate; children (who are nice, btw) are urbane/cosmopolitan in the sense of a generalized “rich.” That's probably the track we were heading down until my eldest child opted to be identified as Indian. And I mean full out, religion, dress, vegetarianism, language, history, cultural Indian, beyond my husband's understanding (and my mother-in-law's wildest dreams). And because I love my daughter and want to support her in every way a mother should, I knew it was time to dive in, which means dealing with these concepts of privilege and cultural knowledge every single day.

    My daughter has told me she feels sorry for me because I am white. I've had to explain to the other daughter why the women at the Indian dance class stare and point at me. I not only recognize the lack of empowered brown faces (any brown faces) in children's TV shows, etc., but it fills me with this intense maternal anxiety that my daughters will internalize ALL of this. We have many conversations that other families don't have.

    I'm scared that I'm doing it all wrong and I need help from someone who understands.

    And none of that shows up in the Twitter avatar of a youthful looking white woman. It is in moments like these that I understand just how static and one dimensional those things are.

    I've thought about changing my avatar to another race or gender but I don't want to do that – I don't speak from the position of a POC anymore than I do a position of the white heuristic. I am that person on the avatar but I have dimensions, as most of us do.

    So what to do? I'm going to start by reading that article :). And I'm going to cherish the friends I've found along the way. And I will continue to get in there and ask questions and get trashed. And love my daughters. And let life continue to move forward.

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  4. Laura Gogia says:

    I hear you and share your concern, Frances. But sometimes social media is the only place I can go to find people who aren't rich, white, and educated (or, alternatively Indian and educated…I've got those two demographics covered in my life). I was talking about this with my husband yesterday…we have an ongoing discussion about whether or not people are getting more separated, clustered, cliqued-up than they were 20 or 30 years ago. My argument yesterday (it changes) was that we aren't more cliqued-up – geographical and physical boundaries back in the day guaranteed cliqued-upness; however, now, in the advent of social media, we can see that we are cliqued-up. We have the opportunity to talk across boundaries but we don't. Things have remained the same. That's my current argument, anyway. And as far as the #distractinglysexy hashtag…as a former lab rat, I sympathize entirely with those women; every post I saw with the hashtag (and, admittedly, I didn't do a wide search, I just saw the ones retweeted on my stream) were completely appropriate showing women doing the completely NOT gendered things that they presumably do everyday (that I did everyday too). I don't know that I'm knowledgeable enough to speak to the impact on feminism, but from the perspective of a lab rat who just got unjustly sexualized, I'm all for the hashtag and its images.

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