Learning to see my whiteness: reflections of my growth as Chair of the Board for OWHE

But our future survival is predicated upon our ability to relate within equality. As women, we must root out internalized patterns of oppression within ourselves if we are to move beyond the most superficial aspects of social change. Now we must recognize differences among women who are our equals, neither inferior nor superior, and devise ways to use each others' difference to enrich our visions and our joint struggles.

 --Audre Lorde, 1980,  “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”

My tenure as Chair of the Board for OWHE has been my greatest privilege and honor so far. I have grown more in these last two years from OWHE than at any other time in my career. If you were able to attend the conference, you heard that OWHE is planning to pivot to focus on being a space for marginalized genders that centers anti-oppression, which means a new name and a recrafting of our mission, vision, and values. I want to include our membership in this conversation first by sharing how I personally got here. More than anything, I also want to be authentic and transparent about my journey as the Chair of OWHE and as a highly privileged person during this transformational time. 

I was elected Chair of the Board around the same time the Women’s March was coming under fire for being whitewashed. Through all of the news articles, I began to learn about the racist history of the women’s movement. Wanting to be the best leader I could be, I began to reflect on OWHE -- were we perpetuating those same issues? Did I need to do something to address this? 

At first, I denied that the organization I cherished was complicit in any systems of oppression. I was experiencing what Robin DiAngelo calls “White Fragility”. I had always had such positive experiences with OWHE -- how could the organization be doing anything wrong? I also identified as straight (at the time), cisgender, and white -- which is exactly who, I had been learning, benefited the most from “women’s spaces.” I was experiencing a cognitive dissonance that I wasn’t sure what to do with. 

Being the new and zealous Chair of the Board, I reached out to a few social justice trainers on my campus, saying, “I’m the new Chair of OWHE, you’ve taught me so much, do you have thoughts about how we can remain such an inclusive organization?” I was in for a wake up call. Thankfully, these trainers felt comfortable being forthright -- I heard stories of People of Color experiencing systemic and overt racism at the OWHE conferences. I was shocked and took a long time to process this news. 

I wish I could say, “Right then and there I realized my own complicity in white supremacy culture and thus the OWHE pivot was born!” But that’s not the way these kinds of transformations work. Fortunately, I had the privilege of stepping into a board that already had incredible momentum and a collective passion for justice. This pivot was born out of all the years of work previous board members have put in, it was born of the work of Black scholars generations ago, it was born out of the empathy and emotional labor of the People of Color engaging with OWHE. Even though I was Chair of the organization, my contribution at the end of the day was getting familiar with being uncomfortable, listening with humility and curiosity, and beginning to educate and de-center myself. 

I sat with the knowledge that OWHE was just as flawed as any predominantly white institution. Seeking actions and ways to address this guilt that I felt for benefiting from an organization that had left others behind, I read the books that had been given me but I still could not grasp what the root issue even was. I had no idea what to do to address this (at the time) mysterious “systemic issue”. Thankfully, the OWHE Board of Directors (BOD) is a collective of incredible, brilliant, and wise humans. I was not in this alone -- nor was I the only one grappling with this issue. My initial solution was to just ensure the board was well trained in diversity, inclusion, and equity work -- that’s the only model I knew. So, during our annual board retreat, I tasked each BOD member to give a 15 minute equity talk (yeah, I thought we could do lightning talks about cultural revolutions… we all have to start somewhere!). Creating that brief space and learning from that experience resulted in retreat that was grounded in inclusion and equity. 

Our rockstar BOD showed up with implicit bias, accessibility, and gender trainings. During the equity talks arose a profound question that shook our understanding of this organization to its core: “Is OWHE only for women? Do we welcome non-binary people and other marginalized genders? Do trans women feel welcome?” We all agreed that we wanted trans women and non-binary people to feel welcome,  but the details of how to build a space designed to be inclusive when our name was Oregon Women in Higher Ed took a lot longer. We dubbed this the “W question”. In some ways, I think the “W question” was a safe way for us white BOD members to explore the ways in which OWHE might be perpetuating systemic oppression without having to engage in uncomfortable conversations about race. It also helped us realize ways in which being cisgender brought us significant privilege. 

These conversations also helped me realize how much I’d internalized heteronormativity. Through the articles we shared and the conversations we had, I was able to begin wading through and dismantling a lot of my own internalized bias about gender and sexuality. I started to question why I wouldn’t date women (if I was being really honest with myself, maybe I definitely found women attractive???). I started to challenge why I felt the need to dress hyper-feminine -- was I trying to mask how much space I wanted to take up? I began to wake up to what was truly me and what identities I’d superimposed on my own life. I started to see the power of cultural conditioning in my own life. 

Fast forward a year to the next BOD retreat and another round of longer, more intentional, director-led equity talks: we talked about the racist history of Oregon, organizational anti-racism, and diet culture and fatphobia as tools of oppression. My contribution as Chair? I set aside the space for these topics, but otherwise, I sat back, listened, learned, and supported what our BOD had to share.  It was the first time I learned about white supremacy culture and I started to finally see the ways in which all of these threads of diversity, equity, and inclusion are connected to colonialism and maintaining white privilege. I was able to accept that I caused harm as a white person regularly. For example, even in that space, I expected the Black women on the board to educate me about racism instead of educating myself, without even realizing that’s what I was doing. 

But guess what? This work, and being a good leader, is not about being perfect. It’s about humility and curiosity; it’s about growing with each new lesson. So, I listened and I learned. I started to recognize the patterns of oppression. I started intentionally educating myself by reading Black scholars, following racial justice trainers on Instagram, and continuing to reflect on my own complicity. Still, lightning did not come down from the sky and strike me with the all-knowing anti-oppression wisdom. I was not all of the sudden “the best woke ally.” No, now that I was finally able to start to see, the real work began: challenging. Challenging my beliefs, my privileges, and the systems around me. 

So, I will start by challenging you, OWHE members, community members, and random readers (hi Dad!), to begin (or continue) to join us in this journey. For my fellow white folks, I'm not asking you to be perfect allies; that's just not possible. I'm asking you to lean into discomfort and get curious. I'm hoping to extend to you the same opportunities being on the OWHE Board of Directors extended to me, the opportunity of transformational growth. 

If you’re interested in learning more about how OWHE is transforming, getting involved, or digging through educational resources, checkout our page dedicated to the OWHE pivot.

Erica Curry is the Academic Program Manager for Oregon State University's Eampus. She has served as the Chair of the Board for OWHE starting in April 2018 and will be the first Outgoing Chair in April 2020. You are encouraged to email her at chair@owhe.org, especially if you want to talk about identifying as queer later in life, white privilege, justice focused leadership, running for the OWHE BOD, or just to connect! 

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