The Uncomfortable, But Necessary Cost of Solidarity


Heather Caliri -Cost of Solidarity3I was 22 when I read Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. The book, told from the perspective of a young Latina girl, chronicles the hardships of growing up in a marginalized, impoverished family.

The book was simple like a Zen garden is simple: gorgeous, spare, shimmering. In other words, not simple at all.

I hoped, like Cisneros, to write somehow about my childhood, except I was afraid. After college graduation, I didn’t quite know how to keep writing outside of school.

Reading her book, my heart sank.

I don’t have a story like hers, I thought. By hers I meant the story of an ethnic minority. Cisneros’ voice was so strong, so commanding, I thought that every story needed to be told from the perspective of a poor Latina girl in Chicago.

It’s not fair, I thought, idly.

I was depressed in those days, and though I had legitimate things to be depressed about, my ennui occasionally made a segue into self-pity.

It’s not fair, because I’m just white. Publishers aren’t going to be interested in the story of a plain white girl from the wealthy suburbs.

Twenty years later, I find this thought sadly comical. I’ve learned more about the incredibly white domain of publishing, plus the struggle of minority authors to tell their stories. Even as a woman, I am exactly the kind of person who publishers listen to while people like Sandra Cisneros struggle to get heard. I had no idea what “fairness” meant.

My misguided thought came back to me after #OscarssoWhite, and after “Moonlight” won the Oscar for best picture. It especially surfaced when I read a post on Cosmo about why the snafu onstage said something about equal access and opportunity.

One of the points of the article was this: if we make space at the Oscars for black artists, or Latinos, or Native Americans, there will be less space for white artists. Are white artists ready for that?

We can say we are in solidarity with people of color, but find the practice much harder to swallow. Unless we’re willing to grapple with our hurt feelings intentionally, of redefining “fairness” in our own minds, we will default to the way things are now.

Let me be clear: everyone, including white people, gains when we read and celebrate all kinds of artists, leaders, and ways of being. We gain kick-ass stories like Moonlight and Mango Street, and we break the monotony and narrowness of the “single story.”

But this is easy to laud in theory. In reality, we need to be really honest about what this gain in richness and inclusion will feel like if we’re white. It might feel like loss.

We should prepare ourselves for actual solidarity, and educate ourselves, so we don’t confuse our shaky insecurity for reality.

If we as white people lie to ourselves about how hard it is to lose a dominance, we shouldn’t have had in the first place, we are not going to make room. We will stay trapped in ennui and never notice how it impoverishes us.

When I think of true solidarity, I think first of Jesus, who bore the cross in order to save us all. Jesus, the humble servant, seems an awesome model to follow.

But for white people like me, I suggest a different model: John the Baptist.

John the Baptist might have been a star at any other time in history. He was a voice of a generation. His influence grew, and people flocked to him.

But for his moment, for his generation, he needed to play second fiddle. He stepped aside for the voice he’d prepared the way for.

Look, white people aren’t John the Baptist, and people of color aren’t Jesus on so many levels. But what I learn about John the Baptist’s response to Jesus was that he didn’t overestimate his own importance or underestimate Jesus’  importance. He knew that his voice, important as it was, needed to make room for something even more necessary.

He stepped aside, intentionally, knowing who needed to be heard more. Even if that meant he became “less.”

In this moment, a moment of a global refugee crisis, rising nativist populism, and ever more aching confrontations over race (not to mention the silencing of necessary voices over centuries) I know which stories I need to hear most. I know which stories can speak the most healing and newness into our culture.

Hearing them might not always feel comfortable (when did Jesus leave people comfortable?) They might not look like me, or have my background (neither does Jesus.)

But just as Sandra Cisneros’ Japanese garden of a book unlocked my yearning to speak up about my childhood, diverse stories free me exactly how I need to be freed. Their stories and perspective are the main dish many of us don’t even realize we are starving for.