I was the only African American staff member on the Macon-Bibb County Mental Health Center Staff in 1973. I learned a lot during my time there and it has taken me almost thirty years to decipher some of those lessons. I learned lessons about white women that I have come to understand much better now than I did at that time.
One day all of the white women and I were in the lounge before lunch time and the discussion about where to go to lunch began and one of the senior members of the staff suggested that they go to her Club for lunch. All of them agreed and as they exited the room, I did not move. One of them turned back and looked at me and said, “aren’t you coming?” The senior staff woman replied, “she can't come, they don't let black folks come there.” They all departed for lunch and left me sitting there. When they returned, I felt certain that at least one of them would apologize or at least acknowledge that it was unfortunate that another suggestion for lunch had not been made so that I could've participated. No one ever said a word. Several of those women acted as if they were my friends. One of them went so far as to purchase some of the same type of skin care products that I used because she thought my skin was so healthy. I thought that she was my friend as well.
Now I realize that this behavior was very reminiscent of the way in which too many white women have betrayed black women's idea that they were friends who would stand with them in times of trouble or stand up for them in general and choose them if such a situation arose. Many decades of study and interrogation of racial issues in America and my deep sense of commitment to work for racial healing leads me to stay reflective about this tangled web and has forced me to search for ways to talk about it.
As I learn more about archetypal wounding, grieving and ancestral memory being passed along from generation to generation, I see how the sense of betrayal that black women have in regards to white women's overtures of friendship which seem grounded in quicksand rather than a firm foundation reflect our history. Because white women often claimed that our slave foremothers and foresisters were important to them, they must have wondered why they did not come to their rescue when they were being raped and dehumanized by white men.
Along with this I think about the white women who have told me how important their maids were to them and some have proclaimed them to be their best friends. But it is hard to understand the long hours that their maids worked which caused them to have to neglect their children and their families. They seemed to have no concern about imagining ways to manage a bit differently so their “best friend” could finish her work and get home at a reasonable time to see about her own children and have time during holiday seasons to prepare for her family as well.
This disregard has continued into the 21st Century. I hear many horror stories of betrayal by white women who have professed friendship with black women, but when the time arrives to stand up for their “friend” in the face of abuse they cannot be found. Yet many white women seem to enjoy being around black women and many seem to find it easy to engage in praising them incessantly for being strong, resilient and able to navigate so many struggles and pain. There seems little to no ability to see the black woman as a person like herself, who needs and wishes to have less struggle and pain.
Recently a white woman friend of fifty years, helped me to name this pattern of behavior as “trespassing.” You know that process of coming into someone's space to take what you like and attempting to model your life on some aspect of their life without deeply appreciating and caring about them. In the 1960's there was much talk about this issue in regards to black men connecting to white women. These relationships were so troubling to professional black women that they generated scholarly papers and many conference sessions during that era. They thought that the white women were just after the men, but they may have been after the soul force that they saw in black women and it would have been far better for them to connect to the women as they learned later when so many of those relationships ended badly.
It is possible for white women and black women to have honest and authentic relationships when white women are willing to tell the truth and admit to their envy and jealousy of black women and stop carrying on about their being strong and admit to their own sense of weakness instead. If they are willing to be vulnerable and stop trespassing in black women's soul gardens and admit that they are in search of healing and empowerment and think that black women can help them. If they will bring what they have to give and see what black women wish to give in return without trying to access what they think that they have to give without them knowing it. This would allow for the forging of paths to relationships grounded in the capacity to generate healing energy and authentic friendships where both groups can affirm their truth. Let's be a half shade braver.