What Happens When a Black Woman Writes a Viral Article about Race

by | May 10, 2018 | OPINION

About a week ago I wrote an article titled: Michelle Wolf’s Performance At the White House Correspondents dinner is White Lady Goals, that challenged white women to look to their neighbors, friends, and associates (who are also white) and encouraged them to start to having uncomfortable conversations on race. 

What happened next is no surprise–the episode surrounding Michelle Wolf still remains provocative–but let’s chat about the post-white lady goals article. For starters, and almost immediately, I started receiving private direct messages (DMs) that were worded ever so kindly: typical white lady form does not include anything brash, loud, or rude. 

Some messages came from strangers, yet the majority came from white ladies that used to call me a friend. In my world, former white lady friends are defined as those that approved of Chesterfield County Chelsea, but not the Chelsea that challenges racial narratives. Yet as I reflect on the past week, remember that I am still a whole human, fully loaded with emotions. Don’t let the black woman exterior and Wonder Woman cape fool you; I have feelings. 

These former friends all started with a polite approach that all black women count on from white ladies. “I support you but…” or the, “I think what you’re doing is great but…” oh and don’t forget the “congrats on all of your success, but…” Then comes the questions about how a mixed-race county girl, which the white ladies used to love, but with my newfound voice on race are unsure of whether to support me or lurk from a distance. 

Well, I channeled that former county Chelsea and attempted to answer their questions in a tone that matched their politically correct approach then kept my day rolling. 

That’s actually a lie. My day didn’t keep rolling. Remember my humanity, that I mentioned earlier? I was triggered with a level of annoyance that only wypipo can spark. I took to Facebook to rant about how with such a successful article, I was now moody from being shamed by former white lady friends. Yes, I may have mentioned “white lady toxicity” to align my rant with my article and as a result, I was reported for peddling hate speech and sentenced to 24 hour Facebook jail.  

I laughed initially, but only just. 

Then I realized, this was white lady toxicity at a new level. A form of conversation that has been weaponized against a black woman observing what she sees and experiences in her day-to-day. I have read that even locally, women had used their networks and influence to have black women fired for speaking out against white privilege. I recognized this was the first step to silencing my voice. 

I followed the steps to have Facebook review my post. But since it was marked “hate speech” I was able to confirm – for myself – that this platform is also set up with the same social hierarchy as our economic, political and social hierarchy to benefit white people. As a black woman with moderate access to influence in the city, it is my responsibility is to speak truth to power, but I will forever have this association of “hate speech” attached to my name on a public platform. 

There may be no further details available around my article, about my post, or about how this white lady slid in my DMs to harass me and bringing on such a label; it will only be that I have been identified as someone who practices hate speech. 

Yet here’s a blast from America’s racist past: Remember that time the Black Panther Party was labeled a terrorist organization as they protected their community from police brutality and white supremacy? Are you now thinking, well the Black Panthers were pretty scary, Chelsea? If you are, then you’re proving my point. This incomplete narrative sits on the tongue of many Americans because labeling black activists as dangerous is a common and successful method of invalidating black voices, it’s easily swallowed by most of us, even black folks. 

This was only four days after my article launched. I had solidified lost friendships, been put in and released from FB jail, and been called a racist in all sorts of creative ways; so this black writer deserved a drink and a night off. Out and about in RVA I quickly discovered that I needed to add rooftop bars to the list of spaces where white ladies can start to have these conversations – along with the yoga studios, cafes, and breweries. The need for these additional spaces to be added to the list is evidenced by my unsafe experience with the “bystander effect.”

Let me give you the textbook definition of what I mean by this: 

“The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation. Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley popularized the concept following the infamous 1964 Kitty Genovese murder in New York City. Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment while bystanders who observed the crime did not step in to assist or call the police.”

Sound familiar? Allow me to provide a more personal example. 

While rootopping this past Thursday, it was mentioned that I had just recently written an article challenging white ladies to confront privilege in their circles. An intoxicated man, who just happened to be white, started to share his thoughts about my work. These thoughts included how racial equity work was ridiculous and I was the one who was racist (stay classy RVA). The volume in his voice started increasing as were the number of bystanders. 

Prior to this self-affirming rant, my friends had gone downstairs and I was left alone with this 6’6” white man who was pointing and yelling at me. Being black, I know when people get loud because of the alcohol, it’s time to go. Being a social worker, I also know this man should not be left alone, so I encouraged him to walk out with me – escaping this awkward situation. As we were leaving, the looks continued from white people. I could tell some were scared, some were attempting to lend their support through looks, but all were simply bystanders as I was verbally abused. 

Knowing that there was only one other black person on the rooftop (yes I always count) I walked away planning to do what black women do best – work it out by my damn self. But thankfully, I didn’t have to. The one other black person in this establishment approached me and in a very protective manner, assured me that he would not allow me to walk out alone with the white man, then escorted us out.  

Thank you to that Black King. 

Black folks in America have developed tools of survival, risk assessment being one. We do this by reversing the scenarios with our black face and use history to provide a clear picture of how we must act with caution in comparison to typical white behavior. Imagine if I had gone off on this white man? What if I had gotten loud and stood up for myself the way he deserved? What if his entitled demeanor was an indication of him being someone with social, economic, or political connections in RVA?

Can you see that headline now? Aggressive Outburst at Quirk Causes Extra Security.

I was protecting myself by masking every human emotion I was experiencing so to not cause a scene because I knew better, most black people do. When I saw the looks, I knew they were not going to defend me against this man, much less to the police if someone called 911 because the black woman on the roof was being loud and threatening, #ChikesiaClemons. I waited for the white on white privilege disruption from the audience that never came. 

This is a snapshot of just one week after writing a viral article on race. 

People often hear me talking about the emotional labor that black woman expend to push racial narrative change forward. Remember this is a near endless battle and comes into play for more than writing articles or having group feminism discussions; it’s a lifestyle. 

Our existence alone – just being black – has us set up to fight the education system, the economic system, the criminal justice system, this list could go on and on. As a result, our allies could offer us a break occasionally. The existence of the white voice as an ally, rather than the bystander, can and will make a difference from having the police called on us, being more comfortable in white-owned spaces (like rooftops), and even down to staying out of Facebook jail due to an observation on Michelle Wolf’s performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. 

I’d like to thank all the white ladies who made this possible by using their voice for good and to those that entertained me on twitter while I was in FB lock-up. All Power to the People.  

Chelsea Higgs Wise

Chelsea Higgs Wise

Chelsea Higgs Wise is a social worker and intercultural communicator who specializes in connecting underserved and misrepresented communities to policymakers to advocate against racism and misogyny. As an activist who helps evolve narratives and policies, Chelsea has been an instrumental voice in numerous campaigns and was recently highlighted on the PBS News Hour as a community change-agent. Chelsea values genuine connection, authentic relationships, and meaningful impact. Ask her about how she’s recently worked with some of the coolest people in Richmond on feminine hygiene drives, diversity education summits and leadership initiatives for young adults.

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