White women, I hereby do not absolve you of your sins.

***unless otherwise noted, all the people written about in this article are white (upper middle to upper class, and very, very liberal).

Yesterday, I had the chance to attend Gloria Steinem’s new book launch, The Truth Will Set You Free — But First it will Piss You Off! and conversation with Ronan Farrow at Pioneer Works, the interdisciplinary and hip art + science collective in Brooklyn.

I took the train up from Boston, looking forward to being part of a conversation around the protection of women and learning how two of my role models have done that. I’m still trying to learn where I fit into the conversation and how I want to spend my energy in the fight. That desired, my energy got depleted in ways I didn’t anticipate.

All I wanted to do was listen, catch up with a good friend and take a picture with Ronan Farrow. Instead, I ended up becoming a dumping vessel for white women’s regret for America’s sins.

All I wanted to do was listen, catch up with a good friend and take a picture with Ronan Farrow. Instead, I ended up becoming a dumping vessel for white women’s regret for America’s sins.

Vibecompany, December 2016

My friend next to me, Ify (a black woman from Nigeria), and I were holding our breath, feeling a little itchy beneath our skin. This was not because of the performance itself (which was really amazing by the way), but because the five to six black women pouring their hearts out on stage were doing so in front of a predominantly white audience. When I say predominantly, I mean that beside Ify and I, there was one other black woman in the audience and three black men. At least, that’s what I counted in the sea of maybe 150 white faces — mostly women with a very light sprinkle of man. The teenage girls on stage made visible their experiences of black exclusion in feminism through dance and poetry to the white washed audience. The irony was palpable.

“They are so beautiful.” A woman behind me whispered at the end of the performance.

Gloria and Ronan took the stage to talk about their exceptional work surrounding about women’s issues. When Gloria said: “You cannot be a feminist without being anti-racism, anti-caste, anti-colonial…” I shouted aloud from my seat, asking her to say that again. And she did.

Then, there was the opportunity for Q&A. Just what I was hoping for. I jumped at the opportunity and asked the first question. I introduced myself, Ronan and I had a brief exchange about our role in the MIT Media Lab scandal with Jeffrey Epstein and then I went on to address the elephant in the room:

“It’s very strange to be in an event like this, deep in Brooklyn, and there are less than 10 black people in the room, most of them being the performers who stood up here to talk about the exclusion of black women in feminism.” I then went on to describe the surreal experience I had of being vilified when I spoke out against MIT Media Lab’s director, Joi Ito, until Ronan Farrow’s voice validated mine. “What do you have to say to your audience about listening to and including marginalized voices?”

Gloria and Ronan both answered the question. They said things that I agree with, namely, that there needs to be less self-righteousness and more intentional listening. But this article isn’t about the two people on stage. It’s about the audience, an undiverse demographic of well meaning liberals who want to be told that they are good.

The rest of the evening left me baffled, bored out of my mind and rolling my eyes, questioning whether the awesomeness of seeing Ronan and Gloria in conversation was worth the unanticipated accompanying labor. Here’s what happened:

The next woman who asked a question rambled on about how she agreed with me and went on to make a comment rather than ask a question.

“I think white people need to listen more.” She started and I agreed. “But they[women of color] need to speak out more too.” She finished.

Ify and I gasped. Do we need to speak out more or do you need to listen more? The answer to your non-question is in your non-question, I thought. More on this in a little.

The next person to speak was a journalist who had moved from England. She started by doing something that all Q&Aers love to do when they get the floor. That is, start with:

“I was going to ask what she[myself] asked.” She said. “And I was also going to mention something that you brought up Ronan.” She continued.

Sorry I’m not at all sorry to be sassy but if the question has already been asked, sit yourself down or ask another one. Still, I questioned whether she really would have, had she gotten the microphone first, chosen to address the fact that there were practically no women of color in the room, but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.

“Ever since moving to the US, I literally cannot sleep at night.” She said, referring to the injustices in America. I’m paraphrasing, but for that, I do not give her the benefit of the doubt. I’ve spent a good amount of time in the UK and racism and exclusive white feminism there is alive and well. America, while unique in its struggle with race, is certainly not alone and certainly wasn’t the originator of these ideas. If you could sleep at night when you were in the UK and not in America, your issue is a different one, lady. It’s a self-righteous one.

Next, a man. Yay. He just had one concern. He was grateful to have heard things during the conversation that he’d not been aware of and wanted to learn more but had an earnest question:

“I feel like I’ve never had the space to ask these sorts of questions.” He said.

Exactly what ‘questions’ he had, I never found out, but I noted that only a white man would deduce that the reason he didn’t ‘know’ about some of these issues was because there wasn’t a space specially created for him to learn about them.

“Good question.” Someone in the audience next to me said.

My favorite question came from a man from India. He talked about the strict patriarchal societies in India and how it was much more difficult to be a woman there. “And yet,” He said. “In India we have managed to elect women leaders. Why hasn’t America?” He asked.

The answer to that, my friend, is white women. 53% of them to be exact.

Q&A came to a close and the event ended. My only mission was to catch Ronan before he left. I wanted to talk to him in person and snag a picture with him. I wanted the same with Gloria but she disappeared in the blink of an eye and felt satisfied that I at least had a signed copy of her book.

Before I could pounce, I was stopped by various audience members who wanted to say hi and thank me for my question and candidness. Two women seemed to have followed the MIT scandal closely and asked me questions about its implications for my future. I appreciated that.

I could see Ronan wandering from the corner of my eye — I really wanted that picture! But again, I was stopped by someone who wanted to have a chat.

“Thank you so much for your question. This stuff makes me soooo angry.” She said. “What can white people do to be better?”

“Listen more.” I said.

And then, she rambled on and on about how everything in life was a political statement, “even where you shop.” It’s why, she said, she chose to live in Harlem even though when she’s walking on the street, people yell at her and tell her to move downtown. “I get that the people yelling at me in Harlem have a collective anger toward me…like how I haven’t been offended by all men but feel a collective anger toward them.”

What?

“People think I’m white all the time” She continued. “But most people don’t know that my dad is muslim so for me it’s personal.”

Good to know. Honestly, if Ronan Farrow wasn’t literally about to disappear before my eyes and I wasn’t about to lose the only chance I might ever have to take a picture with him, I would have stuck around to help her work through the issues of being white passing but now was not the time.

There was a brief lull in the conversation and Ify and I escaped, freeing ourselves from the captivity of white woman guilt and made our way to Ronan. We had a good chat, he promised I could slide into his DM’s whenever, and, Ify, such a team player, took a photo of us together. Mission accomplished.

Me and Ronan Farrow at the event

A rumor was swirling that somewhere outside the building there was a cozy fire pit. Ify and I wanted to find it, get some warmth and digest the evening.

But then, I got trapped again.

“Hey, I just wanted to say thank you so much for your question.” A woman said. I noticed it was the woman who asked the question right after me, the one who felt like black women needed to speak out more.

I was honest with her.

“The part where you said black people need to speak out more — ” I began but then she cut me off.

“Oh, that’s not what I said, so sorry, I didn’t say black people need to speak out more.” She said, flustered. “I said, white people need to listen more and minorities need to speak up more but it wasn’t my opinion I was just saying what was on the wall when viBe was performing.”

For some context, quotes and speech excerpts were projected onto the wall as the viBe troupe performed. The woman said that she was just quoting what had been written. To be honest, I have no clue if what she is saying is true or not. Maybe it was written and I didn’t see it but even if it had been written, it would have had a totally different meaning when said by black women during a spoken word performance about race than when a white woman said it to feel smart and wide awake.

“I think the problem is that white people need to listen more because women of color have been speaking.” I said.

Fire pit, fire pit, fire pit.

The woman apologized for the question in many words, I said it was fine and tried to move on. But no, it was time for round two.

“I’ve been talking about these issues with my friends, in fact we just talked about it last night.” She said, literally blocking my path so that I could not move forward.

Ify and I exchanged a quick look at each other. She was about to rant.

“I mean, I started a civics club and it’s all white women.” She said before starting on a rant about her realizations, fears and hopes for a more equal world.

I have this thing where I feel like I’m getting high blood pressure when people that I don’t know, especially white people, want to dump their guilt on me. I can feel my blood temperature rising when I realize that I’ve become a priest in a confessional; there to make you feel better but not a part of the conversation.

I became a priest in a confessional; there to make her feel better but not to be a part of the conversation.

Me and white women

And honestly, there was a time in my life where I had the patience for it. In my senior year at Yale, the school was grappling with a lot of issues around race and gender. I wouldn’t have called myself an activist then. I was quiet in most of the discussions but I was always a willing ear for my white friends, mostly male ones, who wanted to learn more about the issues. I would offer myself as a black woman who wasn’t angry and could hear them out. I will never forget the white boy in my bible study who said in prayer:

“Dear Lord, I just want to pray for all the white men during this tough time at Yale who are being attacked right now.” This is not sarcasm, he actually said this, word for word. I offered myself as a counsel to him to discuss the issues and helped him see why his prayer was problematic.

I think it was the right thing to do at the time, especially since I had the patience for it. But my patience has since worn thin. I’ve completed my community service to white people and their guilt, passed with flying colors, and shouldn’t have to do any more.

I checked out of the conversation with the woman, after she started talking about her civics club of only white women. When she finished talking, she could sense the boredom in Ify and me but she didn’t want to leave without the acknowledgment that we thought she was a good person. You know, the part where the priest lets you know that you’re all squared up with God and free to go start sinning again.

“We are all on the same side you know.” She said and the most I could manage was a smile. What I would give to be fifty feet away by the fire pit where the smell of smoke would not leave my braids for weeks.

“I feel like I just talked for so long and didn’t even ask you about your work.” She said. Again, not sarcasm, she actually said this. The irony of the evening was reaching a whole new level.

The woman tired of talking and Ify and I were able to escape. When we finally got to the fire pit it was a welcome experience. There were other people sitting outside and actual conversations happening. Nobody was dumping their sins on Ify and me and we could openly bitch about the ridiculousness of everything that had happened.

We met a man who worked in public radio. I asked him what he’d been working on and he said he’d just finished producing a show about Harry Belafonte. We clicked on the subject, Belafonte means a lot to me and my family.

“What’s something you learned about him that you didn’t know before?” I asked.

“I didn’t know how philanthropic he was. Do you know he supported Martin Luther King’s son through Harvard?” He said. He told me the story.

I didn’t know that about him. I did know, though, that in the 60’s he helped Kenyan students come to America for higher education. We chatted a little bit about that too. Belafonte is such a generous man, we concluded, agreeing that generosity and philanthropy were two different things.

I was glad for that short conversation. It was, at least, a conversation where I was a participant and not a confessional where I was a blank face on the other side of a curtain. Perhaps, from now on, I should just embrace my role as de facto priest and end those types of conversations with:

“Thereupon, I do not absolve you from your sins, in the name of women of color that do not know you at all. Peace be upon you. Amen.”

Virtual Reality Programmer; Storyteller; Feminist; Adrenaline Junkie; MIT Media Lab Graduate Researcher.; Sometimes I think I’m a pixie; virtuallyari.com.