I did an experiment! With friends.
My friends and I wrote this week’s essay together. It was pretty fun writing with other people. This is the first time I ever tried it, and I may try it again in the future.
When the world is on fire I turn to my writer friends because they understand the compulsion to use our writing in a meaningful way. I turn to two particular writer friends because they are the women I’ve been having hard conversations with since long before the horrors of 2020. I didn’t know how to navigate a thoughtful, impactful conversations about race until I was in my 30s and became friends with these women. I didn’t have examples of what respectful, honest, race based conversations could look like—it’s not something that was done in the white world in which I grew up.
Today I offer you a conversation between the Coptic Poet Mary Silwance, the African-American Essayist Dawn Downey, and me, the white Fantasy Writer who wants to use her voice as an example of how white people can learn, own how we mess things up in our ignorance, and provide hope that we can be part of rebuilding a system where everyone is treated as well as white women historically have been.
Mary, Dawn, and I are publishing this simultaneously on all of our platforms today, because it’s easier to be brave and have hard conversations when you have a friend standing next to you.
THREE VOICES. ONE STORY.
by Mary Silwance, Dawn Downey, & Jessica Conoley
Mary: If my day wasn’t weird enough yesterday, I have a story for you two. A woman I know via environmental stuff called me Friday to let me know that a shamanic practitioner friend of hers created a shielding powder for POC to sprinkle around themselves/their cars and homes to protect them from racism. She was offering 10 people this powder for free and my friend thought of me. The friend said this wouldn’t change systemic racism but it would keep individuals safe. What does one say to such an offer?
Dawn: I love the shamanic racism protection powder, because not too many things leave me speechless anymore. It’s a writing prompt on steroids. You could go in so many directions—magical realism! Humor. Political satire. Sci Fi. Fantasy. Dystopian fiction—who are the ten people who get the powder (why is Mary one of them?) and what happens to the rest of society? A nature story–what are the plants and herbs that go into making it. Which of course leads to cook books! Racism Protection Powder is the best thing I’ve heard all week. Thank you!
Mary: Thank you for making me laugh, Dawn. It might tickle you further to know that the Powder was offered by white women. To be fair, I want to be open to diverse spiritual practices and experiences and not impose my judgement, biases, stereotypes and fears onto a potentially powerful/redemptive other worldly experience. But yea. Um, what? And I think I got the golden ticket because the environmental gal and I had a conversation the day prior to George Floyd’s murder so I was on her radar.
Dawn: Oh joy! There’s a whole other angle to the story…white privilege! Because white women had access to Racism Protection Powder even before people of color did!
Jessica: This is the weirdest email to come home to ever, and my brain doesn’t know what to think.
Dawn, your writing prompts are straight up genius face, because yes so many questions are invoked by the introduction of such a magical powder to the universe. But then it makes me think of the book [The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore] where they sold Radium as a cure-all, but really it gave everyone radiation poisoning and they died the most horrible deaths I’ve ever read about, so I’m gonna say my initial inclination is I don’t trust it…
Mary: I don’t usually write about this stuff, but here goes:
The shamanic practitioner from upstate New York created a powder my friend, who I want to now refer to as an acquaintance, offers me. It is the morning of the first of many days of protests after the lynching of George Floyd, the latest lynching white Americans are-yet again-shocked by. The Shamanic practitioner from upstate New York has created a powder that POC can sprinkle on their bodies, their cars, their homes, to protect them from racist acts. She is offering the first 10 vials of the POC Protection Powder for free, and my friend, I mean acquaintance, wants to know if I want one.
At first I am confused. Why is she offering this to me? I’m Coptic. Which is to say, I am Egyptian Orthodox. Which is also to say, no one in the Midwest knows what that is. And, like other Egyptian immigrants I know, I’ve spent most of my life striving for whiteness. If we can’t fully be who and what we are, we seek assimilation into the culture that seems most ‘successful.’
It’s only recently I’m coming to understand myself as a brown woman and understand I’ve always been seen as such. Hence the offer of POC PP. So I do what I have also spent most of my life doing when white women say things that make me uncomfortable: I respond deferentially, almost obsequiously.Told myself, she’s trying to help, she thought of me. Told her I’d think about the POC PP. I thank her. Repeatedly. But in my mind she shifted from friend to acquaintance. And she won’t know because that’s something else I’ve always done: take that slap of ignorance and use it as a slab of concrete for the wall between us.
I want to believe in Shamanic work even if it is done by white people. So I try to imagine POC sprinkling this powder in their beds, shaking some in running shoes, slapping it on necks like aftershave. I imagine it in a bag of skittles or on the couch when playing video games or used as seasoning at a BBQ. I try to imagine this powder snowing on red, yellow, brown and black bodies in ghettos, reservations, cages and prisons, freeing communities.
But the Shamanic practitioner from upstate New York provides this unnecessary disclaimer: it will not dismantle systemic racism.
It’s made to be sprinkled on the wrong people.
Dawn: Mary, whoa! Your conclusion blew me away. You’re right, of course, absolutely. I was nodding right along with you through the part about responding deferentially. I do that, too, and after my deferential response, I’m pissed at myself. It’s embarrassing to admit.
I appreciate your collecting your thoughts about the shamanic “gift” and expressing things so clearly. I’m sorry that one of the casualties was your friendship. And thank you for calling the crime by its true name–the lynching of George Floyd.
Mary and Jessica, you two are my safety zone.
Jessica: Mary, you’re such a good writer. And I feel like maybe the email was written without a ton of editing or revising, and it needs none. Because it’s phenomenal. The way you lead us through every aspect of it to the straight up correct conclusion is genius.
Dawn, I’ve never thought about the word lynching until you did a Color Eater edit one week. In the burn-her-at-the-stake scene I had used the word lynch, and you corrected me. That was the first time I realized that your experience of the word & mine were two completely different things.
This powder thing is the perfect example of white people f-ing it up. This is us saying, let me fix your problems for you, be the white savior, and I’ll feel better about the situation. All the while we never stop to examine what is inherently flawed in our thinking and how we’re playing a part, and we’re the ones who need to change our behavior.
As your spy to the inner working of the behind the scenes white world I want to let you both know that in the past 48 hours I have had conversations about race with 6 other white women. I cannot think of any other time in my life I have actually had conversations about race with white people. I remember my mom telling me not to use the n-word when I was in elementary school, but that is honestly & entirely the white social race conversations I can remember. So it feels like there’s a waking up behind the curtains that you may not have access to. I feel like the conversations are the tiniest first steps, and that gave me some hope. I hope by sharing this with you it gives you a little bit of hope too.
I know a lot more than talk has to happen, and there’s sooooo far to go. But the fact these women are even attempting to find the words to have these conversations means they’re also practicing hard conversations so when we go into rooms of all white people we can say the things that have been unsaid for too long.
Mary: Thank you, Jessica and Dawn for your affirming responses to my essay. It is hard for me to justify weaving my experiences as a brown person into the narrative of American culture since I don’t fit into the standard identity categories. Jessica thank you for the heartening glimpse behind the curtain. May these conversations be ongoing beyond the current crisis.
Mary did rewrite that essay, and it’s fantastic. Read White Pow(d)er on Mary’s blog.
Things We’re Learning.
Mary: I’m learning that once you begin to peel back supremacy you see how deeply ingrained it is within yourself and society. There is so much pain, loss and disillusionment upon waking up to it. But here’s the thing about that. Your personal story is intimately and uniquely intertwined with the larger societal story. As you discover and reflect on your internalized stuff you see how you uphold supremacy within and without. I try to be curious and present to where I’m constricted, blind, afraid, resentful, angry and ask why. This is where I get to evolve. Since it’s taken centuries to build these constantly influencing and unconscious ways of thinking and behaving, it’s going to take a long meticulous and mindful time and engagement to construct a pluralistic society. We cannot dismantle racism from without until we dismantle it from within.
Dawn: I’m learning there’s no escape from the outside world. I’ve turned off the computer, locked myself out of the internet, and left the television room when the news comes on. Under quarantine, I don’t have to leave the house at all. The racism quagmire of the country gets in, anyway.
Since hiding is not possible, I’m learning to choose the manner in which I respond, and it’s different every time. Sometimes, I write. Last week, I signed a petition and donated to ColorofChange.org. Yesterday, I responded by deleting an email from someone giving me advice about how to respond.
Finally, I’m learning that my sense of urgency has waned.
Jessica: White culture unconsciously taught me it is rude to have conversations that make people uncomfortable. Conversations that impact change are going to make you uncomfortable, and by participating you are likely going to make other people feel uncomfortable. I feel like I’m “doing it wrong” every time I open my mouth in race based conversations, but I won’t figure out how to “do it right” unless I practice. And, if you don’t know what to say, that’s okay. LISTEN. We (white people) have had the floor for a hell-of-a-long time. It’s our turn to listen and learn. I found the book Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving to be really enlightening.
Read Mary Silwance at: http://tonicwild.blogspot.com/
Read Dawn Downey at: http://dawndowney.com/