Dear Rebecca Solnit, (An Open Letter to White Women)

Dear Ms. Solnit,

Hope you’re well. It’s been an insane couple of years for many of us. Do you have time to read my letter? Let me say that I enjoyed reading your column in Harper’s Magazine for many years—I was so delighted to find a woman holding that space. You have been a wonderful inspiration to me. I know this is a crazy time, but I’ve been thinking about writing you this letter since I read your book, Men Explain Things to Me several years ago and heard one of your NPR interviews. Needless to say, your book spoke to me and reminded me that, in your words, “It’s the job of writers and explorers to see more, to travel light when it comes to preconception, to go into the dark with their eyes open.” That’s why I’m writing you today.

You must be very busy, so I’ll get to the point. In your book, you describe the internal impact of the silencing arrogance of men as a force “that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare: that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.” Sadly, this is comparable to my experiences with White women in professional circles. I’ve lived with this behavior for fifty years and counting. It exhausts, degrades and alienates us. And because of the intersectionality of race and gender, the situation for black women like me is compounded and layered like a tightly woven and shrinking fabric of deafening silence. We wear this oppression to our graves. I long for an outlet—a voice of reason to counter this toxic narrative.

You describe how for White women, “Credibility is a basic survival tool.” That too is lost on Black women, especially in our shared collective spaces. We /I work to prove and re-assert our credibility from day to day, to the same judges, often White women, who guard the gates of the sacred and vast White Feminarchy and hoard its riches. While I entirely agree with you, Ms. Solnit, that “a certain amount of self-doubt is a good tool for correcting, understanding and listening and progressing,” it’s a bit much for that self-doubt to be externally driven and used as a weapon to clear the public space of Black-Female interlopers who have not waited patiently enough for an invitation that may never arrive. Can you possibly help to explain this? I need an air hole from the shroud of White-female feminists, who persist in practicing and egregious form of openly displayed oppression. Can you write about this? Can you help me to write about this in a way that is impactful and changes the future for my nieces?

My well-read copy of Men Explain Things to Me

Ms. Solnit, you accurately discuss the violence used to silence women. It’s something no woman can escape, unfortunately. Regrettably, the same dehumanizing violence you speak of is meted upon Black women by White women daily and without the convenient mantel of sexism to blunt the impact. This violence is perpetrated in the ladies’ rooms anywhere in our nation. It manifests as microaggressions in the boardrooms from coast to coast. In truth, Black women are eviscerated with constant slights, aggression, withholding, discrimination, othering, humiliation and undermining by White women at the yoga studio, the grocery store, the bank and the hospital waiting room.While none of this is your fault, the situation begs the questions that you ask in your own work: “Am I reliable witness to my own life? Am I credible?” Here I live in the liminality of “erasure and exclusion” that is so sublime it hurts, so pervasive that it is tied to my health outcomes.This is what you describe as “violence unto death.” By your standards, women of color are being killed daily, Ms. Solnit.

Don’t misunderstand me. We, too, have been touched by male violence. Of course, we have! It’s inconceivable that a poor Black-Dominican girl from New York City has escaped molesters, rapists and other predators of all ilk en route to adulthood. But those acts are finite. They leave marks, cause nightmares and require remediation for healing. But this intra-gender violence: White woman’s violence on Black women, is slippery, coy, sly, deniable and concealed. We can’t run to the doctor for a rape kit, yet the trauma is just as real. I must explain to my White-female therapist why being repeatedly interrogated by colleagues, White women, demanding to know how I got in the locked faculty lounge after eight years is harmful. Even when I seek mental-health care, I must do battle.

Money and power can liberate only if they are used to do so. They can imprison and inhibit more finally than barred windows and iron chains.

Maya Angelou

One of my personal heroes Ernestine L. Rose fought for suffrage and like you, held the opinion that we are all slaves if even one of is. Well, some of us are still enslaved, Ms. Solnit. Wealth, power and race are constantly stacked against Black women, and when the intersectionality of these is ignored in favor of gender, we begin anew to compound the weight of oppression on those of us pushed to the margins with insidious inequities in education, mentoring, hiring, and lending practices. I wonder if you have the capacity to use your great prestige to begin to address these issues and support Black women like me, who have long gone ignored and marginalized in America.

We Black women can’t even go to the doctor without experiencing oppression. This constant violence results in high rates of maternal-birth mortality. Compounded by classism and sexism, White women are active participants in killing us. Yet our pain is not credible. We do not require, according to the unspoken rules of society, the same care, the same tenderness, the same wages, the same benefits or the same consideration as our White-female counterparts.The evidence is all around us, yet when it comes to personalized incidences of violence, we Black women are not, as many in the “Me Too” movement have recognized, credible enough. Personally, I’m tired of being punished for what you eloquently framed as “claiming my voice, my power and my right to participate” in the office, in the academy and nearly any place that I inhabit long enough to want to speak. Ms. Solnit, I wonder if we can be agents of change here.

As I conclude this letter, Ms. Solnit, I have a recollection of an interview you did for NPR some years ago in which you suggested that there weren’t any Black women to join your group of intellectual warriors. That was surprising to hear. I would love your help working with Black women, Indigenous women, Latinas, Asian women, transgender women, immigrant women and poor women toward our liberation. We all need mentoring to have successful careers. It’s been hard (impossible) for me to find a good mentor, one who cares enough to help shape a career, open a few doors, provide guidance and runs interference for the unceasing oppression women of color face. Black women hear that we’re simply not good enough for any job, but I believe, just as Audre Lorde did in her days, that it is really a question of seeing, fostering and growing young people who don’t look exactly like you and giving them opportunities to shine. What do you think, Ms. Solnit? I’d love to hear from you and share more about my work, hopes and dreams for transforming our society for the better.

With deep respect and gratitude,

Edissa Nicolas-Huntsman

Social Joy:”
One of few images available on the Internet where a White woman is mentoring a Black woman. Most images are of groups of white women and/or White men mentoring each other. There were a surprising number of images of Black women mentoring White men and White women–a remarkable finding.

Edissa is an award-winning essayists in the Feminist collaboration Fierce: Essays by and About Dauntless Women.

5 Comments

  1. (And this is not “how surprising that a woman of color could be so eloquent,” it’s plain old “beautifully said and I thank you very much”.)

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