Feeling “Safe”

Last night, I went to a talk sponsored by the Multicultural Research and Resource Center (MRRC) where two researchers, Dr. Mary McRae (an associate professor of Applied Psychology at NYU) and Dr. Sarah Brazaitis (a lecturer at Columbia University Teacher’s College and the Director of the Social and Organizational Psychology MA program) presented their work on the intersections of race, gender, and group dynamics. Their main point of inquiry was: How do our identities impact group
dynamics, group relations, and organizations?

The discussion of their research was really interesting, in large part because of their honesty and willingness to put such delicate and difficult issues as racism and sexism out there on the table.

At one point Dr. Brazaitis was talking about stereotypes of white women, and particularly ways of being in relation to white men and to men and women of color. She had many interesting and valuable observations, but one really stood out to me: that white women are criers. Now, she placed this observation in the context of historical stereotypes of white women as pure, naive, delicate; as “angels of the household.” She also situated her contention that, when conflict in areas of interpersonal communication arises, white women cry, in the idea that they feel that they cannot get angry, that they are not allowed to be angry, because to get angry goes against all our notions of femininity. Dr. Brazaitis also spoke quite a bit around traditional ideas of the feminine and how limiting these notions can be.

Although both talks could be the subject of good discussion, I find myself coming back to the assertion that white women cry because they don’t know how to express their feeling of frustration, disappointment, and anger in other ways, or that other ways of expressing these emotions threaten their privileged status as “ideal” white women in the eyes of the true power-holders: white men. Dr. Brazaitis recounted a story of the closing minutes of a group relations conference she has organized.

A young, White woman begins to share her reflections on the conference. She says she wanted to do deeper work in the conference, she wanted to reach out to others who did not look like her, but because it ‘was not safe,’ she was not welcomed…[An] African-American woman begins to speak. She says that White woman always want it to be safe before they act, White women always want the conditions to be just right before they will take a risk, but then it is not any risk at all. She says that waiting to ‘feel safe’ is a privilege of White women. It is never ‘safe’ for women of color to speak up, to share their point of view, to ask for what they want or deserve; yet they do it anyway because they have no choice. ( From her book chapter, White Women–Protectors of the Status Quo, Positioned to Disrupt It)

I am far from on expert on either race relations or feminism, and I won’t presume to provide a critical analysis here–but just to say, with studying multicultural education this semester, I am starting to ask a lot of questions about these issues…

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