Thursday, June 15, 2017

Conscientiousness, Ally-ship, and the Big Picture

This is Essay #24 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished, totally messy!) essay each week during 2017.

The field across from Bread Loaf Inn. Just because.

Let’s talk about race, shall we? And white ally-ship, yes?

First: a few excerpts from Camille Dungy’s essay, “The Conscientious Outsider”, from her new Guidebook to Relative Strangers:

“I was thinking about how race directs the course of all my actions. My taste in films, who I befriend, the things I choose to write about, all are influenced by the particular position (or number of positions) I occupy in American culture. My otherness manifests itself in what I eat, what I watch, what I read, what lipstick I can wear, where I can walk unmolested.” (p. 8)

“This is a set of exchanges you can’t get away from if you life in America in a body that looks like mine.” (p. 9)

“When you are a conscientious outsider, dinner can be a dangerous and tiring affair.” (p. 10)


In grade school, I often received comments on my report card from teachers who used the word “conscientious” to describe my work as a student. I never truly understood what that meant. To me, it simply said that I paid attention in class; it wasn’t that hard to do.

Our friends at Merriam-Webster define it as: governed by or conforming to the dictates of conscience: scrupulous; and meticulous, careful.

As an adult, I now understand it to mean there’s a certain level of awareness, a kind of knowledge that stretches beyond definitive facts. It takes into account other factors and circumstances that may influence how one looks at the facts. In other words: it looks at the big picture.

Camille’s essay has brought this word to my attention once again. In the essay, she talks about her position as a black woman moving in American spaces and how we, people of color, are continually, for lack of a better phrase, on alert. How we look at everything through a racial lens because of the skin we’re in and the position we occupy in this country. The essay’s title has made me stop and consider: am I still a conscientious student? I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that I never stopped being one. But what I’m finding is that, as time goes on, there are less people like me. There are fewer people who stop to really examine the facts before them and inquire how that information may be influenced by the big picture. Or even by their own individual lens.

This is so apparent in our current cultural and political climate. Too many of us are quick to accept what we read as indisputable fact. We are quick to judge and crucify those who do not fit our vision of the world. There is no room for nuance. (See: reactions to Alex Tizon’s essay, “My Family’s Slave”, which appeared in the June issue of The Atlantic.) Critical thinking has all but vanished from the general public. (At least that’s how it appears at first glance. There are plenty of media outlets that prove otherwise and I am encouraged by them! Check out Bitch Media, for example. What I am referring to here is “mainstream” media, which often is bought and paid for by those in power who want to send certain messages to the uncritical public. But that is for another discussion.)

While at Bread Loaf Orion, I had many amazing conversations, which ranged in topic from writing process to political activism to kundalini yoga and everything in between. Two conversations in particular stand out to me after having read Camille’s essay.

Joe Wilkins, one of the faculty, read a chapter of his new book due out next spring. From what I remember, the story takes place in the Badlands. The chapter was in the voice of a man (the book’s villain) who, in trying to protect his land, unlawfully shot a wolf, which took a turn where he then shot a police officer. This excerpt was part of his lecture on “Hearing Voices: Speaking as the Other in Environmental Writing”.


With a title like that, I couldn’t help but think: Oh, white guy is going to write from the point-of-view of a person of color. Or, perhaps, from the point-of-view of an animal or some entity in nature… after all, it says right there “—in Environmental Writing”. Because I’m a woman of color, when you say “Other” and it comes capitalized, this is what runs through my mind.

Uh, nope.

This chapter was told from the point-of-view of a white guy. And Wilkins’s attempt to write the Other was simply from the perspective of someone who was a villain. The character was just like him: white and male. The only difference was economic. That, and the character was seen as the “bad guy”.

Not exactly much of a stretch in my opinion. But, I was willing to listen anyway. I wanted to be as open-minded as I could. (Why is it that folks of color tend to do this more often than white folks? Just an observation from my personal experiences.) I ended up leaving a tiny bit early during the Q & A when one woman in the audience gushed and gushed over his reading about how he was so successful in humanizing a villain. What I missed out on was a question from a woman of color who challenged him.

Later, in the computer lab, I bumped into a white woman who praised him, saying “Wasn’t he amazing?” To which I replied, “Really? Can you tell me why? People are praising him and I don’t know why.”

“Just the way he was able to capture that character in a way that showed compassion. Just amazing.”

“Eh. I guess. (pause) I really wasn’t into it.”

“Really? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on it.” I was surprised.

“Really? Everyone seems to be so taken by his reading. I didn’t think anyone would want to know about a different response.”

“No, no. I want to know.” So I took a deep breath, preparing myself for a conversation I know all too well and then proceeded.

“Well, as a woman of color, I see everything through a racial lens, and well, all I heard was yet another white guy telling a white guy story. To be honest, I’m kinda tired of these stories.” I waited for the usual rebuttal. For this white woman to come to Wilkins’s rescue. Instead, she surprised me.

“I want to hear more, but I have to run to a meeting. Let’s find each other over lunch and talk.”


“Yeah, I’m really interested in hearing about your take on it.”

And so we did it. We found each other during lunch and had a really great, open dialogue about race and representation, who gets to be heard and who doesn’t. This woman, Trish O’Kane, came to the conversation with an understanding of her own white privilege and put that aside to hear me, to really hear me and see me. We ended up talking about a wide range of things with regard to race and privilege and position. We talked about ways in which we can take action, ways in which we can inspire and incite change. It was such a lively, engaging and productive conversation – and one that felt like an equivalent exchange between peers, people who were receptive to each other’s thoughts and ideas. Trish was and is an example of a true white feminist ally. I am grateful that our paths have crossed.

But it doesn’t stop there. There was another woman, Claire Boyles, with whom I shared housing. We were assigned to the Earthworm Manor (sounds like a children’s show, says my friend Mo, complete with hand puppets), which was a bit off campus. We hit it off right away, exchanging stories about our kids and our attempts at trying to be working moms and writers at the same time.

On the last night of the conference, we happened to bump into each other and Wilkins’s reading came up again. She, like others, was taken by his reading. I casually expressed my disinterest, which perked up Claire’s ears.

“Why didn’t you like it?” Here we go.

I proceeded to tell her the same thing I told Trish. Surprisingly, we ended up having a conversation similar to the one I had with Trish. It was really engaging and productive, as effective dialogue should be. We actually heard each other. She told me that the story resonated as she is a former farmer and could relate to the struggles that the character faced. I could see how she enjoyed his reading.

As we talked, plenty of questions were raised. For whom are we writing? Are we thinking about who is included and/or excluded? What purpose might that serve? Generally speaking, how can we create art that connects us? That makes us want to care? Maybe this last question is the key –because I really didn’t care about Wilkins’s story. Maybe the answer is in the writing. Is the writing compelling enough to draw you in, to make you want to care? Because, in the end, it comes down to appealing to our common humanity, right? Or, at least that’s the idea. If we’re aware enough of the big picture.

It was quite refreshing. To be seen and heard (instead of dismissed or gaslighted) by conscientious white women on two occasions in one week. It was also heartening.

I thanked both women for hearing me, for truly listening.

“What more can we do?” they each asked.

“Get your white women friends and share your viewpoint with them. And to really challenge them on their ideas of allyship.  Ask them what they’re willing to do in order to incite change, to really make change happen. They’re more likely to listen to you than to me.”

I think we were hopeful and inspired by each other, leaving Bread Loaf Mountain with new genuine connections and a brighter outlook.

At the end of both of these conversations, we asked ourselves: will it be enough? I don’t know. But at the very least, it’s a start.

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