Recent University of Washington graduate Palca Shibale writes about why she declined to participate in The Seattle Times Under Our Skin project.
Editor’s note: When we first reached out to Palca Shibale, a student leader in the University of Washington’s Black Lives Matter group, she turned down our request to participate in the Under Our Skin project. She sent a long, thoughtful email explaining why, which echoed what we heard from several others. We felt it was a perspective that should be included, and she generously agreed to write a guest essay.
When a Seattle Times reporter asked me to participate in the Under Our Skin video series, my first feeling was anger.
She told me the goal of the project was to help define terms like white privilege and microaggressions that are commonly used in conversations about race.
I think it’s important for people to know what these words mean, but I felt angry because, as a Black woman, here I was being asked for the millionth time in my life to explain racism and to explain my oppression to a largely white audience.
I thought, why can’t people just Google this? Why are we defining terms that are not new? And most importantly, why do I as a Black woman have to constantly be asked to explain my oppression when the burden to teach and learn is not mine to carry?
My favorite author Toni Morrison captured my sentiments perfectly during panel discussion at Portland State University in 1975.
“It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction,” she said. “It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
I turn on the TV and I see another Black person gunned down by the police. I have listened to my professor try to explain that the reason we can’t say that Black people are less intelligent is because we haven’t gathered the scientific proof. Whether I get a job interview or a house loan or I’m labeled angry versus assertive is influenced by the color of my skin.
How do you account for all that in a video series?
But this video project is critical in helping people develop a better understanding of how to talk about and share their own stories about race.
The truth is, if you do not understand the very basic lenses of racism — the very emergency that is killing Black people at disproportionate rates — then you are living in a bubble of comfort only awarded to those who benefit from white supremacy.
That world is not real for me as a Black woman. Explaining racism is a function of racism and not of ally-ship. The responsibility to educate is on you.
The most powerful thing you can do is check the privileges that you carry every day, way beyond when you are reminded of them when you read pieces like this. Because if you are silent or neutral, then you are complacent. And complacency is antagonistic to changing the status quo toward racial equity.
Palca Shibale is a Seattle-based activist involved in community organizing around issues of racial equity. She organizes around various systems of oppression such as police brutality, gentrification and the prison industrial complex. Shibale recently graduated from the University of Washington where she pushed for more equitable access to higher education for minority groups.