A Brown Woman and a White Woman Walk into a Bar

In the first post of our ongoing "The Blankety-Blank Bar Series," Broad-in-Chief Virginia Santy McCarver sits down with Broadview Denver contributor, Saira Rao, to talk about privilege, racism, and other topics. Pull up a chair and listen in to this excerpt from their conversation. . . .  Read on. 

VSM: Okay. So here we are. At a bar. For the inaugural session of the “Blankety Blank Bar Series” for The Broadview Denver. I’m here with my friend Saira and I’d say first, let’s just take a big giant sip of our wine. In fact, we should probably just get drunk.

SR:  Totally.

VSM:  Because we’re here to talk about a specific topic. This is “A Brown Woman and a White Woman Walk into a Bar” and we’re going to talk about race, privilege, white fragility --

SR:  Male fragility. White male fragility.

VSM:  Oh my God, there’s so much to talk about. Bring another bottle!  Okay, so let’s start by talking about -- let’s get this as granular as we can right now. Is racism alive and well in Denver?

SR:  Absolutely. Denver’s like every other place in the entire world where racism is alive and well.

VSM:  How so?

SR:  Can you be a little bit more specific than that?

VSM: I think what we hear a lot about in Denver is the following:  Denver’s pretty whitewashed. Where’s the diversity in Denver? Or you almost hear, like, “it’s Denver” as an excuse for not really seeing racism, because there’s -- I think there’s a misguided sense there’s not enough diversity --

SR:  Right, to even have racism.

VSM:  To bring it to bear.

SR:  Right. This is my understanding of Denver. I’m relatively new. Been here less than four years. Came from New York City, and I do want to disabuse people who’ve not lived in New York City of the notion that New York is a safe haven for everybody. It’s not. It’s segregated and racist. Eric Garner happened in New York, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo. Shit, Donald Trump lives in New York. There’s plenty of bigotry. As there is here, in Seattle, Portland, Austin, Miami, Chicago, etc. etc. We are a racist country, founded on the genocide of Native Americans.. We do have a large Latino population here. It’s just incredibly segregated.

VSM:  Yeah, it’s a very segregated city.

SR:  Sure but I don't necessarily think that’s different from any other big city. And now that loads of people from both coasts are moving to Denver, it’ll be interesting to see what happens. More black and brown people.  I wouldn't have considered moving here in 1996 when my good friends moved here because when I came to visit them, I literally looked around and said I’m the only non-white person here. And I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and Richmond, Virginia, felt much more diverse than here. That has changed. You see other people of color. I don't feel like I’m sticking out like such a sore thumb all the time, but I think people in Colorado are going to have to start dealing with more racial diversity, just because people are moving from both coasts, and culturally as a country, demographically rather, we’re becoming a much more racially diverse country.

VSM:  This is a leading question, I realize, do you see a flaw in the perception, in the argument that Denver is a very white city, therefore we don’t have a problem with racism?

SR:  Obviously.

VSM:  Where does that come from?

SR:  Well, people just do what’s comfortable, right? After the election, I became very aware of my race, and talking about racism, sexism, privilege, and one thing for me, the reason I’ve been able to sort of hide in this white world, sort of okay -- it’s because I exercise tremendous class privilege. My parents came as immigrants from India, as doctors, they didn't come as taxi cab drivers or convenience store workers. They came as doctors, so they were able to afford certain luxuries. They sent us to private school, gave us an education that sent us on our way, right? I get that. I am a recipient of that. I get that and I own that. I don't feel bad about it. I recognize that’s why I’m here today. The thing that bothers me -- you know, we hear about white fragility a lot, is people freaking out over the term white people, and frankly white people did get Donald Trump elected. White people are the reason we are in this situation. Obviously, there are a bunch of other reasons, but he ran on a platform of racism, sexism and xenophobia. That was his platform. That’s what got him elected, and it’s very strange to me that white people have such a hard time hearing the term white people and they are more fixated on that than young black kids getting systematically killed by police officers. We have a state sanctioned execution system of black kids in this country, and if you call it out and say that, white people jump on and start freaking out that you're blaming them for stuff. Stop feeling bad, stop being defense, just start listening, start owning it. And we can get somewhere, then.

VSM:  I think this concept of white fragility is so interesting right now. Very apropos to this whole kind of Trump era, and I just feel hella embarrassed by it. It’s like we’ve created this kind of political landscape and social landscape wherein we cannot be self-reflexive and we can’t admit we can learn from one another. And instead, it’s just this hypersensitivity. So what are your thoughts on how we cultivate sensitivity to one another without in turn creating this hypersensitivity within ourselves?

SR:  That’s a good question. I think the biggest issue here -- and Bryan Stevenson, who was my law professor at NYU and has written this blockbuster book Just Mercy -- is amazing. This book should be required reading. It’s a great place to start -- articulates it perfectly. Our country was founded on genocide. We don’t say that. We don’t acknowledge that. That is not in the history books. The only thing our kids learn is Thanksgiving and that is a completely made up holiday, right? Genocide. Number one. So, white people -- white people came here, killed an entire race of people essentially, right? Left a couple on reservations. And we’ve seen how great that’s worked out for them. And then went to Africa and brought in black people to serve them. That is our country’s history and we don't learn it. We don't learn it because we don’t acknowledge it. And when you don't acknowledge and learn your own history, you make the same mistakes over and over and over again. That was Bryan’s point and it’s so well-articulated. I think until and unless we change the way that we teach history -- and by change the way we teach history, we have to really embrace our history -- nothing’s going to change.

And so now flash forward, here we are, and we’ve got -- we have -- every board room is filled with white men. Most CEOs are white men. Most partners at law firms are white men. Most people running heathcare are white men. A room full of white men drafted legislation to determine the healthcare of all Americans. Spoiler-it involves yanking it from MILLIONS of people who are not rich white men.  That’s what happens when you don't acknowledge where you came from. That’s what happens. Now we’re in a situation where we’ve always been. At least we’re acknowledging it for the first time. If Donald Trump has given us anything, it’s a little bit of honesty about what people really think.

SR:  I’m working myself into a frenzy.

VSM:  I know, you’re working yourself up. We need to get this lady a glass of wine, stat!  I love it and I think it’s important, and let’s stop pretending like this is all -- we are not living in normal times.

SR:  But we are. That’s where I disagree. What I really appreciate about this time is the honesty. I, in a billion years, never thought that it would be Donald Trump to bring the cause of racism, sexism, xenophobia to the forefront, but he’s done it. Based on his campaign, based on what’s happening right now. So I don't think we’re living in weird times. I think we’re living in honest times. I mean, the administration is lying about everything, but everybody else -- never before have you seen on Facebook people really being honest about -- a lot of my Facebook friends, who are old friends from Virginia and New York City  are racist. And I didn't know it. They didn't know it, and they continue to not know it, and they voted for Hillary Clinton. They are sexist. They voted for Hillary Clinton, and they think that -- don’t blame me, I voted for Hillary Clinton. But they also don’t want to hear the words “white people.”  They also don’t want to hear about women being second class citizens, right? I had a dude, a white dude who told me to get over it, women got the right to vote 100 years ago. Quote: get over it, women got the right to vote 100 years ago. Thanks.

VSM:  Yeah, thank you!

SR:  Stop complaining about being a woman. And I thought first of all, I’m not complaining about being a woman, because I love being a woman. I would hate to be you. But secondly, do you not understand how history works? Every president we’ve had has been male, and but for one, white male. How can you say that we don’t have a problem with sexism and racism without being a fucking idiot? Like, I really don’t understand it. I really don’t understand it. So let’s stop saying it. Let us stop saying it.

VSM:  Talk to me. What do you want to see from white people? I’m not afraid of that phrase from “white people.” 

SR:  Honest discussion. Honest to God discussion. Tell me about your privilege. I think everyone has privilege and I think everyone has handicap and being honest about what that is. There are people who have terminal illnesses, there are people who’ve lost parents at early ages. Everyone has something, but acknowledge where you’ve come from and what you’ve benefitted from and what you’ve been burdened by and I think we’d be in a better place. Again, Facebook is a really interesting place to be right now. Having white people say they don’t like television shows that don’t depict a single white person in a positive light. Do you know how black people feel about the way they’ve been depicted in the media? Do you know how brown people feel about the way they’ve been depicted in the media? Do you know how women feel? Honestly. Really. I don't feel bad for you at all, you know? And it’s -- let’s have a serious discussion. Let’s open ourselves up. People criticize me all the time and I listen, and listen to what is being said. Not always. And when I find myself getting defensive, I know something is hitting a nerve somewhere that I need to pay extra attention to. Give that more attention rather than less attention. What is making you defensive?

VSM:  I think there’s so much to be said for that kind of critical examination. And I am mindful of the words of Audre Lorde who reminds us it is not anyone else’s responsibility to educate you.

SR:  Except for you. You educate yourself. When people say to me tell me what I should read, what I should do, what I should -- blah, blah, blah. I think…go figure it out. And also, I think you hit the nail on the head. Be unafraid. Open yourself up. It’s okay to make mistakes. My learning curve on this stuff has gone from zero to 60 since the election. Truly. I’ve educated myself. We’ve put together this whole book, Nevertheless We Persisted, to educate ourselves as much as it is to educate other people, but we have an author who’s a black woman, she has MS, she’s a lesbian, and I feel like she has tried to talk about some of this stuff with me before and I was incredibly dismissive. After the election, I called her and I said I’m sorry. I owe you an apology. I now understand -- now that I’m being targeted for being a Muslim threat. Now that Indian men are being shot in the streets. I used to pretend that I wasn’t affected by racism, that walking into all white rooms, classrooms, parties, conference rooms wasn’t a big deal. That people whispering Hawaiian or exotic or worse late at night, in bars, didn’t matter. That the time I got dumped by the boy I was going with in fourth grade because his parents said he couldn’t go with a black person didn’t matter. In the end, I didn’t feel afraid for my family’s physical safety until now.  And that’s how black people feel in this country every day. Have always felt. Every fucking day. In every single city, in every single county. Rural, urban, coastal, mountainous. That’s how they feel, and I didn't listen to her, and I’m listening now. I am listening now. I am not a black man, and thank god I’m not a black man. Even worse than the black man, I am not a black woman. I’m a brown woman. There’s, like, gradations, right? But the person at the fucking top, always, is the white man, and I think we need to examine that and I think really and truly, white men need to examine that. Because this is not going to change until they’re willing and able to do that.

VSM:  What does a “woke” white person, a woke white man look like?

SR:  Someone who is reading voraciously. I think more than anything reading voraciously right now -- my husband, who’s a brown man, who I would say was unwoke and now is woke, you know, again, we were New York City liberals before moving here. He stopped reading as much as he used to, and it sounds trite, but he actually started reading The New Yorker again, and I feel like it’s changed his perspective. As in he’s awake again. Read. Ask. Listen. Talk to people. Stop cutting people off. Stop cutting people down. And when you are a person in power and someone is saying “something is wrong here,” don’t have your feelings hurt. Don’t get defensive. Just listen. Just listen to what that person is saying. Listen to your wife. Listen to what your wife is telling you. You know? Hear your children. Read. Read more than Fox News. Read more than the Washington Post. Read books, read novels, read nonfiction. Figure out how this has all come to pass, and figure out how you have effortlessly come to the position in your life where you are.

VSM:  Okay, so I used to be so afraid of offending someone. Like, can’t you see I come from a good place and I don't want to offend you and sorry if I do. And I’m like you just have to own that as well, and say I might offend someone.

SR:  And you can’t be afraid of that. I think that’s the biggest thing is I’ve stopped -- I feel like I’ve always had fairly radical opinions and kept them to myself largely. I’d toed the line. I was president of my school in Richmond, Virginia. I was captain of every team. I joined the sorority at the University of Virginia. You know, I clerked on the third circuit, I worked on Wall Street, I did all of it. I never, ever spoke up. I made jokes. That’s a big thing. You hide behind humor, right? I made jokes all the time. Irreverent jokes. Now that I’m not joking anymore, people are very offended. When you actually come out and speak the truth, people listen. They might not like it, but they listen.

VSM:  And there is nothing wrong wanting to engage more fully with others and say,  “I want to talk to you about this, I want to recognize this, and I understand I might tread indelicately at times.”

SR:  I agree. So I had a very uncomfortable -- uncomfortable’s a nice way of putting it -- dinner with my three friends shortly after the election. And it was just -- it sucked. What was amazing is one of them, afterwards, emailed me and said I want to understand this. I need to understand this. I’ll meet you anytime, anywhere, and she let me come and -- and just like dump on her, right? And she’s made a really big effort to understand and that’s great. That’s what I’m doing with my black friends. You know - everyone’s got a learning curve. Nobody has all the answers, but it’s great to keep asking the questions.

AND LISTEN when people are telling you that they feel a certain way, and that things have happened.

VSM:  Thank you for your time.

SR:  Thank you.

VSM:  Yeah, let’s drink some more.

SR:  Let’s do it.

The above conversation is just that--a conversation between two people who want to share ideas and learn more. We hope you'll continue the conversation with us on social media and share your ideas on who you'd like to see "walk into a bar" together. 

Saira Rao is Co-Founder and Creative Director of In This Together Media, packagers of children's books with more - and more authentic - diversity in terms of race, gender, gender identification, sexual orientation, class and disability.  She is a graduate of the University of Virginia and New York University School of Law and enjoys tacos, Elf and pulling out chin hairs.  You can find In This Together Media on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram