What Menopause Taught Me About Recognizing Racism

Hot flashes remind me that I am neither too young to experience menopause nor too liberal to examine my complicity in racism. I’m exactly on time.

I wake up most nights burning. Streaks of heat shoot through me. I roll over and groan, throw off the covers. Usually, I get up to use the bathroom. Still sweating, I get back in bed and lie there, knowing it will pass. It does. Just like that. A world on fire to a cool, calm bedroom. I pull the sheet back up first. Then the quilt.

On the good nights, I fall back asleep. But the pattern repeats itself multiple times a night. The dance of the hot flash.

Illustration by Julia Yellow

It happens during the daytime, too. When I’m working, driving, or in the middle of a con­versation. A flaming ribbon unfurls from the base of my skull. My face is instantly flushed, and my low back sports a pool of sweat. It’s all-consuming. It’s not, Oh, I think I might be a little warm. It’s, I’m on fire. I fan myself. I take deep breaths. And I wait. Because it always passes.

I’m 46 this month, and it’s been going on for more than a year. All physical signs con­firm that I’m well on my way through this transition of life. Menopause. “The change,” my mom’s generation called it. How peculiar that it’s found me now. It seems too young, especially because I’ve been a late bloomer in every other instance. I mean, I didn’t really date until I was 20. I’ve been married for only 13 years. I had a baby just 10 years ago.

Being among the youngest of my cohorts to experience this transition hasn’t fit in with my narrative about myself. And misaligned narratives are a difficult thing for a writer. So this question of Why now? has been bothering me.

And then this summer, as Black Americans were burning with anger over the racist and violent policies that stretched back 400 years to the beginning of slavery, I saw that it was the exact right time to be going through a transition. More to the point, that my narrative about being too young to go through menopause was almost as un­helpful as my narrative about being too liberal to be racist.

Black people experience racism both as specific incidents in their daily lives and cumulatively, as one generation inherits the effects of racism from the previous one. But white people merely have flashes of recognition about racism, whether it’s a moment of recognizing racism within themselves or, more commonly, within others or an institution. Like hot flashes, these moments are uncomfortable. Also like hot flashes, they pass, and then we go back to our lives, back to sleep, until another flash finds us.

In theory, these flashes of recognition can help us transition into allies and antiracists. My analogy is questionable here though, because with menopause, women’s bodies are set up for the transition. We’re always heading to this place, and whether you notice or not, your ovaries are going to retire. But a white person becoming antiracist—a term I’ve come to understand by reading Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist—means moving beyond flashes of understanding and awareness to actively working to dismantle the racist systems you benefit from.

I’m still in the flashes stage, noticing things like how white people usually say, The oppression of Black people versus active voice, White people oppressing Black people. How I’m conditioned to think none of it involves me. How I didn’t know anything about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. How I’d heard the term redlining but didn’t understand it was a modern form of Jim Crow laws. How I couldn’t have told you one Black-owned business in Cincinnati.

My body sweats at 2 a.m., and I get flashes of another kind too, flashes of privilege when I review stories that I never examined closely before. Circa 1984, my brother, Paul, drove by the police station in Ft. Wright and yelled “Fuck you, pigs!” to the police officers outside the station. They followed him home. He was arrested for drugs in his car, but no guns were drawn. He was unharmed. He wound up getting off. The story eventually turned into a funny anecdote about the crazy things Paul used to do. Why did it never occur to me that it was a story steeped in privilege? Why did it never dawn on me that he went out of his way to provoke the police with drugs in his car because he had no fear of being shot—and none of us ever even considered that he might have been?

In college at Northern Kentucky University in the early 1990s, I had W. Frank Steely for American history. He was NKU’s founding president, and I loved his charm and way of telling a story. A Black student challenged him one day when he was talking about the U.S. military involvement in Somalia. I remember this because it was one of the first times I was in a classroom with Black students. She was distrustful of the U.S., the student said, because of its history of lying to and killing Black people. Another older male white student who had been in the military shut her down. I can’t remember exactly how Steely responded, but it wasn’t to engage her.

What must it have felt like to have her history be invalidated by a room full of white people in a history class? For all my feminism and liberalism—I had just voted for Bill Clinton, after all—I didn’t think about that. I didn’t think about the fact that her experience of being unprotected by anyone in the room was essentially the Black female experience in the U.S. Rather, I thought, Why does everything have to be about race?

These reckonings, these flashes of realization, these transitions from ignorance to seeing are happening in white people’s houses all over the country. I know, of course, that it’s sporadic, with a lot of stop and go. If you’ve ever used the “transitions” feature of PowerPoint—the morph, the fade, the wipe, the reveal—you know that these little tricks hide the seams and make it all less jarring. But transitions in life aren’t like that. They’re not smooth. They’re uncomfortable and unpretty. Violent even. Full of what author Robin DiAngelo has explained as white fragility in her book of the same name: white people’s extreme defensiveness and refusal to see ourselves as perpetrators in the story of racism.

Earlier this summer, smack dab in the middle of Black Lives Matter protests and marches in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, signs suddenly appeared in my town of Madeira saying, “Thank You to Our Madeira Police.” The signs were privately funded, handed out door to door, and stuck in prominent places around town. A friend, who is white—as most people in Madeira are—challenged it on a com­munity Facebook group. She suggested that while we are grateful for our police, the timing of these signs felt reactionary and, as Madeira is known as the “friendly” town, questioned who these signs were saying we were friendly toward and who we were not friendly toward. Wasn’t this tone deaf, she asked. I agreed, and many other members did as well.

A discussion started, but it took only minutes for white fragility to shine forth, as some commenters began railing against “monuments of history” being torn down and any number of other things. DiAngelo could have copy/pasted the entire thing right into her book. The moderator grew frustrated at the name-calling and personal attacks, understandably, but then deleted all the posts and said there could be no more discussion of race because it was too divisive and not what the group was for.

Of course there could be better ways and better platforms for having thoughtful discussions about race than a Facebook group created for the purpose of sharing tips, promoting events, and learning about community resources and businesses. But what struck me is that race is actually all over this particular group, because it’s full of mostly white women making recommendations about mostly white businesses and answering questions about mostly white schools. I should know; I am one of them. But when someone actually speaks of race, it’s suddenly intolerable and causes many to double down on how they absolutely, positively are not racist and how dare anyone suggest that because it’s completely disrespectful to everything America stands for!

PowerPoint does not have a feature for making people see something they do not want to see. In fact, it lets you hide any slide you want. Poof. Gone from the presentation.

As I write this, it’s been almost a year since I’ve had a period. One year without a period is what marks your official passage through menopause. But if you have a period, even on the 15th day of the 11th month, the year starts over.

So I don’t know if I’m through it or not. I’m definitely not through the work of learning about my own racism, not when conversations about race still make me exceedingly nervous. I feel like, at any point, I might get sent back to the beginning. I might have a reactionary moment when I read a social media post by a Black woman about how white women think and vote, and want to scream, But I didn’t vote for Trump! I’m one of the good ones! Back to square one. Grab a tampon. The work starts again.

These flashes, though. They matter. They keep dancing in front of me, waking me, shaking me, making me stop what I’m doing, putting me squarely in my body, reminding me that I am neither too young to experience menopause nor too liberal to examine my complicity in racism. I’m exactly on time.

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