Peep Inside My Invisible Knapsack

Before and Afro michelle joni

Photography by Jessica Lapidos

Since the last time I blogged five days ago, a LOT has gone on in my brain. I’m back… and I’ve been to the MOON in the meantime. I have some news. My bubble has popped. I have re-read almost all of your comments. I have indulged in your suggested reading materials. I went to lunch with Kelly, one of my generous readers who has been a key voice in this conversation. And it has happened: I have come to realize my white privilege. Let me tell you, it is a VERY sobering experience. “Practicing gratitude” has taken on a whole new meaning. There is so much that I’ve taken for granted.

For example… My belief that people are perceived as equals in America in 2012. I have taken for granted that THAT is how I see the world. That a black president is an all-pervasive sign of progress. You know that beautiful, ideal place of oneness written about in songs? I have taken for granted that I, personally, have felt for even a minute that any such realities exist.

michelle joni blonde afro

So now you get to watch what happens when blindly-white-privileged afro girl learns about the realities, and the social injustices of the racial system that have unknowingly affected her, and then tries to understand how and why that system operates. If you are unfamiliar with White Privilege, the place to start is (this blog post, duh! Or, historically…) Peggy McIntosh’s very famous article Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack from 1988. The unearned easy-streets for white Americans. “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks,” Peggy explains.

Michelle Joni Blonde Afro

For a few examples my privileges:

  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.

1988 may seem outdated, but my assumption is if you think that (kinda like I do/did), you’re too blinded by your privilege to realize it still exists. But no matter what you think of it, there’s an underlying fact that holds true regardless of the prevalence of each statement: As white people we are not free of worry, but we are NOT forced to think about our race on a daily basis.

“I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” – Peggy McIntosh

Michelle and Jessica Lapidos

The outpouring of support after my NPR interview was astounding. I’ve connected with so many fantastic new people since then who have given me new validation, new insight, new hope. Even MORE polarized people on both ends of the spectrum have emerged… does that mean keep on trucking?

It’s one thing for me to shed my anger and proclaim the way the world should be: “Screw the system! Screw the commercials and the straight-haired beauty ideals our society holds! Let’s catapult our minds above all that and think for ourselves. Let’s embrace the idea of being offended (because in the end, we all are) and laugh instead. Let’s love one another and celebrate our fascinating, humanizing differences. Let’s be fair and open our hearts, because we are ALL in this together.”

lapidos sisters

…but it’s quite another to live it. There’s that whole system, and it doesn’t work that way. The world does NOT exist like that. We can create communities where it seems like it exists – like general bubbles of friends… yoga retreats… Ru Paul’s Drag Race. And even if a lot of people felt that way, it STILL wouldn’t work. We’d be making progress, but we would need everyone. As a nation we have far too much baggage, and we must all stick together to carry it in order to dispose of it properly.

girls in the bathroom

So, do I deserve to wear an afro wig? The answer is NO, America. We as a country have not earned the right for Michelle Joni to wear an afro wig. Oppression festers in this nation like an open battle wound. I have not experienced the struggle and strife associated with having an afro. I have not been systematically marginalized due to the color of my skin or texture of my hair. I never had to fear going on a job interview with my natural hair. The fro is something to earn. To EARN. The pain of the Civil Rights era still exists still today. By acknowledging that pain, it opens my eyes to a whole new set of human emotions… within myself. I never, ever set out to create a conversation about race, as the wig was only a personal analogy… but “following the fro” has lead me here, and I am very thankful for it.

blonde fro

I would rather live in a world where the people who own these gorgeous fros can wear them proudly, with no hesitation or exception. A place where NOBODY feels mocked or minstreled if someone wants to wear a big bulbous coiffure, because THE AFRO is as much of a beauty ideal as any. I would rather all this than to wear a fro in a country where such backlash and anger is warranted.

How to do this? Well, championing the fro is not the way. Me falling to pieces telling you how much I love wearing the wig does not sit comfortably with a lot of people. There are many people of color who have told me my fro-wearing is an amazing inspiration, but it’s not enough, and it doesn’t detract from the heavy pain felt by others. Insisting I have freedom of expression to wear an afro does not change any of this daunting reality. There are plenty of established blogs and forums already created by people of color about embracing afros, so where does that leave me? When it comes down to it, my rules on how to handle this situation simply do not apply.

There ARE some general rules I found for this though, and they were (thankfully) not made up by me. I am highly unqualified to make assumptions on how to handle issues of race… I majored in fashion, remember? Extra points for self-expression, experimentation and disruption! But hang tight, YSL, DVF, VPL… for these rules, I defer to PISAB.

blonde afro

PISAB is the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a national and international collective with the mission of “Undoing Racism.” It works with anti-racist, multicultural community organizers and educators dedicated to building an effective movement for social transformation. Yes, there are people who have dedicated their lives to making a dent in progressing the hard-bound issues of structural racism, and I sure have not been one of them.

According to PISAB, the underlying belief when it comes to undoing racism is this: Racism has been consciously and systematically erected, and it can be undone ONLY if people understand what it is, where it comes from, how it functions, and why it is perpetuated.

Alright. This seems fairly credible, and I can’t deny its logic. So it’s time to try and REALLY understand. What IS racism? Where does it come from? How does it function, exactly? Why is it perpetuated? So I started researching. And THAT is what lead me to begin to really understand my white privilege, which I described before. I’m befuddled. I’m enlightened. I can hardly wait to do one of PISAB’s Anti-Racist Alliance trainings – there is just so much to learn and know about this, it’s mind-bloggling!

For everyone like me who is new to this concept, or even more seasoned, you should read Ten Things Everyone Should Know About White Privilege Today, an article by Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., published in Psychology Today earlier this year.

I found it yesterday morning… and look what it’s done to me.

No, really, LOOK:

no fro

History is not yet history. And frankly, right now, it’s way more important what I’m putting inside my head than what I’m putting on it. I’m ready to LEARN. This whole thing has made me want to seriously go back to school. Simply voting tomorrow is not enough. America, we must figure out how to do better!

I’ll leave you, for now, with Dr. Lyubansky’s tenth and final item on his list of racial truths:

10. Those who flaunt their privilege today may be willing to own it tomorrow.  People change, sometimes in ways that are difficult to predict. The person who manifests white privilege today may become an ally tomorrow. The goal should be to support that shift and perhaps accelerate it, not to prove that he or she is wrong or bad. If we can focus on the outcomes we want rather than on our own emotional needs, we are much more likely to act in ways that actually produce those outcomes.

28 thoughts on “Peep Inside My Invisible Knapsack

  1. oh honey, michelle, i’m so very proud of you. i knew, i just knew you’d come to this point eventually. full disclosure time since i haven’t said much about myself in my past posts. i have had natural hair for 1 year. i was raised in a good hair obsessed family. i lost my mother to cancer just this summer, and do you know for the last year of her life, everytime i saw her she told me how horrible and embarrasing my hair looked, and how much i needed a perm (relaxer). imagine that, her hair is gone, and she’s obsessed with how “ugly” my natural afro is, my dying mother. on top of that right now i’m 6 months pregnant with my first baby, a girl. and i’m trying to understand how i’m supposed to teach this little lady that god intrusted me with to be proud of her hair. in a world of relaxers and disapproval, i’m going to raise my girl with natural hair, and i’m scared for her. kids, no PEOPLE can be mean. but michelle, watching you grow and learn and understand. you give me HOPE for the future of this country, of race relations, and beauty standards. hope that in 25 years, when my baby is exactly my age, this will all be what you thought the fro wearing was in the beginning, no big deal. so i thank you, and again ask you to please keep this blog going.
    and by a complete and utter coincidence, last month, before i had heard of this blog, i learned my baby’s sex and chose her name: michelle. funny, huh?

    • This gave me shivers. Well done, Michelle. And I agree, keep blogging and allow others to learn with you (including me).

    • I literally have tears in my eyes… Shannon I will keep blogging. For you alone, I would. And I can’t believe you are going to name your baby girl Michelle… it is a coincidence but I am beyond speechless at the workings of The Universe! Thank you for everything. ❤

  2. I may be mistaken, but it doesn’t look like you are a natural blond anyway. That’s salon hair, and probably takes a lot of product not to be a frizzy mess.

    • Full disclosure: My hair dries naturally wavy like you see in most photos, but not frizzy. When it’s straight, that means I blow-dried it. I usually don’t use any product… it’s fun and girly when I remember to, but really makes no difference in how it looks. And you’re right – I’m NOT a natural blonde! I’m naturally dirty blonde. For the color you see I take no credit… I have my man Brucey to thank. (… hit that.) 😉

  3. I’m inspired by your journey and growth and honored to have contributed to the latter, even in a small way. As a writer, this is the kind of impact I hope to have and I hope your writing has impact too!

  4. wow Michelle, I too am very proud of you for realizing, researching, and admitting your privilege. race is a very complex thing. I am disappointed that you chose not to continue with the afro, if it truly felt like you were being yourself, because of pressure from outside sources.

    while shannon’s story is touching, and sad, it just shows how people are projecting their feelings about their own hair onto you, which i still find problematic. Yes, I get how it is a product of centuries of racism, i just don’t agree that you shouldn’t be allowed to don a fro because of it, but perhaps I am just projecting as well. After all, we’re all reflections.

    peace love and light ❤

  5. Congrats, Michelle. This is a huge improvement, and PISAB training is a great idea. It really sounds like you’ve grown.

    I hope that you see how what you’ve learn about white privileged also applies to cis privilege – the wig has been retired, but the problems of “Joni Dreams of Drag” remain unaddressed.

  6. Well done Michelle. I am proud of the journey you went on and where it ended up. I don’t think it’s an issue with any clear easy answers, and it’s obvious you did your best and your heart was always in the right place.

  7. Wow. You realized that your little experiment was an astounding example of white privilege and them go on to prattle about how it is all about you. How narcissistic and self centered can one white woman be?

    • I have to agree with Friday Foster. While I can appreciate the sentiment behind this blog post, it still reads a bit disingenuous and self-serving to me. I also don’t think you (or anyone) deserves accolades or a pat on the back for doing what everyone should be doing and trying to understand the way in which racism, classism, sexism etc. (in your case racial privilege) influences their lived experiences. You don’t deserve congratulations for “no longer being a racist”. I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and believe you when you say you are repentant as you say you are but if so you need to shut down this blog and start another one, and if you decide you NEED to continue blogging about racial issues please do not position yourself as some sort of cultural messiah of enlightenment, oneness, and racial harmony. People have been dissecting and discussing these issues for years but aren’t given mainstream attention because of their marginalized positions. My number one piece of advice for you if you desire to be a white ally is to shut up and listen, until you start doing that I will have to continue believing that you still don’t get it.

      • I’m really glad that these comments is here as well, and I would say it balances out the purely positive ones. I would say that this blog and its style of writing is somewhat inherently narcisstic, and perhaps we can’t hope for it to change, at least not immediately.

        This post is a very, very significant progression for the blog, and that should be recognized. However, it is also only that: a progression. It’s not so much “congratulations you did it” (I feel that there should never be congratulations for realising things like privilege just because everyone should be aware of it) but more “you’re not as ignorant now. Keep going.”

        The tone of this post is somewhat “yay me, I crossed the finish line” and that worries me a bit – please be conscious of the fact that a) you will never stop learning and becoming more aware of this and b) you shouldn’t really be getting congratulations on a subject like this one.

        This post is still not as open and informed as I would like, BUT it is an improvement from before. I hope people won’t be too harsh on you, because it is a learning curve. I’m not going to say “oh poor white girl it’s so hard to learn about privilege,” (I am white, by the way) but you are undergoing and will keep undergoing a continuous process of learning and re-learning the world around you, and you have to go one step at a time. So, all the best, but don’t be too proud of yourself (it’s not good for you).


  8. oh my gosh . . . just went on your twitter and saw a picture of “Roses Fung Wah”? Please remember that racism is NOT just black people. Objectifying other races (such as what I assume is supposed to be Chinese . . . ) is not okay either.

  9. Just remember, that just because your eyes have been opened to this, does not mean this is the end of your journey or that you “understand white privilege”. I have been struggling with my white privilege and what it truly means to be an anti-racist ally for years and years. So please, never stop learning, never stop growing. Sometimes learning about these systems and the intersections of oppression can be sooooOOOOo daunting and overwhelming, and that point people get paralyzed. They are paralyzed because the system feels too big to change or “I’m so small, what am I actually doing to contribute to end racism/sexism/ablism/heteronormativity” and so on and so forth. DON’T EVER STOP! Don’t let those moments of doubt and fear stop your journey. And yes, you will make mistakes, mess up and say something stupid or ignorant (trust me, it happens all the time with white folks), but these are moments where we LISTEN and LEARN and GROW and be accountable to ourselves and those around us, and move on with that new knowledge. There are so many people and communities fighting and risking their LIVES to make a beloved community where no one feels fear or hatred for who they are. You can use this love and passion you have gained to enlighten those around you an continue growing. We need white antiracist brothers and sisters in this fight. We need you, too.

    And remember, “Love is an action, never simply a feeling.” – bell hooks. Now, let’s go DO something!!!!

    (May I suggest reading anything by bell hooks. She is a shero of mine and is a source of incredible empowerment and knowledge.)

  10. “I have come to realize my white privilege” reads as so disingenuous and shallow, especially when accompanied by a dozen photos of you wearing some hipster clown costume. You don’t become an anti-racist from taking off your wig and reading a few articles on the internet any more than you become a recovering alcoholic from reading an AA pamphlet. You’re still in detox; don’t flatter yourself into thinking you’re ready to be the anti-racist poster child just yet.

  11. Pingback: And This Is Why I Love The Bus | before and afro

  12. I suspect that your plan all along was to come to this vast realization at whatever the most opportune time was. I suppose it’s now. Congratulations for learning what most decent human beings know instinctively, you should be really proud.

    • Seriously. I hope she never gets that book deal, or whatever the hell she wanted out of this. It was all for attention, at the expense of a lot of people.

  13. And yet here you are…still in an afro wig! I especially like the fact that your act of unpacking is so shallow that you actually refer to McIntosh as “Peggy McIntyre” above. SMH.

  14. I saw you at the UDress event 2 days ago wearing the afro loud and proud. I am deeply embarrassed that we’re affiliated with the same school. Have you learned anything?

  15. Pingback: The Craziest Thing I Did In College | before and afro

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