By Kali Shulklapper
Activist and author Jenna Arnold’s new book Raising Our Hands highlights how white women can stop avoiding hard conversations and find their place on the frontlines. We spoke with Jenna and Denise Hamilton, Founder and CEO of WatchHerWork.com, about how women can help dismantle systemic racism, and build genuine power alliances across race, gender, and class.
Q. In the midst of many non-Black Americans racial reckoning, why has the role of white women come under such a spotlight, and why is it so essential?
Denise Hamilton: There has been quite a lot of discussion about the patriarchy, and how white men maintain this system. But there is shared responsibility. And it’s a really uncomfortable conversation for us to be having, especially when we think of all women as victims of the patriarchy. Because we take on this dual role as both the beneficiary of diversity practices and procedures, but also the perpetrator. There’s this sense for women that when we get into these positions, because we’re already the minority, we ourselves don’t have to be ethical and impactful in that space of equity. But we have to acknowledge our role as both victims and perpetrators of systemic racism.
Video footage of problematic behavior by white women also creates an opportunity for us to aggregate this kind of behavior so we can name it and identify it as a problem. You can no longer look away or ignore it. It’s uncomfortable because quite frankly, we never saw this behavior as problematic behavior. But this whole concept of a “Karen” has really challenged us to look at the role that white women play in this.
And to clarify, to me, a “Karen” is not a white woman. A “Karen” is a white woman who abuses her authority, who takes advantage of her proximity and her access to power to monitor black bodies. She’s someone who would quickly call a police officer to involve themselves in something that’s a minor skirmish, because she feels like it's her responsibility. It’s about the abuse of power, and the abuse of privilege. And now that that behavior has been singled out and named, we’ve begun to see the behavior as offensive. Something we thought was okay before now has this really negative pejorative kind of context.
Jenna Arnold: With the Amy Cooper situation, I heard so many white women say “That’s so horrible. I would never do that.” And it's hard for me not to lean in and say, “are you sure?” Because white women have been so conditioned in our entitled role as peacekeepers. What’s been happening across the country is that white women have been forced to identify the role that they play in advancing system racism, and acknowledge that their merit may be the consequence of a system that has prioritized people who look like them.
Q. Can you speak to the language that we use when engaging in conversations around allyship, and why this language may actually be problematic?
DH: One thing we don’t really talk about as much as we should is how painfully inadequate our language is. It really hampers our ability to discuss these complicated nuanced topics. We only have one word for racism, so we use the same word for the guy in the KKK hood burning crosses as we use for the guidance counselor who tells all the Black kids to take an easier major because the math and science are going to be too hard for them. Those are not the same people, but we only have one word for the full continuum of that experience. So when I say, “What you’re doing is racist,” we lose the ability to have the conversation. It's difficult to hear someone say “that's a racist policy” or “what you said was racist.” It feels like a knife in the heart. So we resist these words. And we hate every word that tells us how we need to fix something: reparations, defund the police, affirmative action, white supremacy, Karen. We get so tangled in the verbiage because that tangle is quite frankly more attractive than the tangle of the surgical procedures we're going to have to do to extract racism from American life. We major in the minors instead.
Q. If language isn’t powerful enough, then how do we, as leaders, take tangible steps of action towards authentic allyship?
JA: There’s this notion that white women have always known their privilege helped get them to where they are, but now, we’re being called out on it. So even in my own conversations around what it means to build alliances and what it means to show up in this moment, I'm looking back and seeing more clearly how I myself have perpetuated oppression. If you are a woman with certain levels of privilege in a leadership capacity, you need to show up with humility. You need to step into your team, and ask your team members what you’re missing. Because the second a leader gets most uncomfortable — that's their frontline. That's where they need to dig deeper. There's no diversity on a dime here. I always admit that I don’t know what I don’t know — both in my employee handbook, in our governance documents, in our P&L sheets. If anyone is open and willing to participate and help me see more clearly, then I have all the time in the world for you. I look to my team to provide feedback.
There’s also no single diet here. If you want to get fit, you can’t just eat more blueberries. It's about drinking more water, working out, meditating, finding a balance, eating vegan, or even giving yourself permission to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner. There are 10,000 things you have to do to take care of your temple. There are going to be 10,000 things to do this kind of work.
DH: Unfortunately this conversation is so laden with guilt and shame that people are hesitant. They're afraid to step into the space, afraid to say the wrong thing, afraid to offend, and afraid to look at some of these things. So I would start your journey by looking deep inside yourself, and being honest about the true difficulty of the process. True diversity and inclusion is hard. I want to challenge leaders to cultivate and deepen their relationships with Black people, because so many of these conversations could go so much further if they’re grounded in relationships. Instead, CEOs are leading in a vacuum — calling all the Black employees in the company who they've never spoken to before. That lack of relationship creates opportunities for misunderstandings. It’s also important to note that this process is not a light switch — this is a dimmer. It’s about incremental change. None of these issues are new. They’ve been around for decades. So even though there are 10,000 different things you can do, pick three or five. Pick the ones that are within your purview, and just start. The need for stamina is the hardest part. So just keep going.