First off, I am a white woman. A white woman who is very aware of how much she has benefitted from white privilege, who has worked most of her career in education reform serving minority students, their families, and the teachers who serve them, and who once took an online implicit bias test and came back with “moderately racist” results. I try very hard to be woke, but I am not. I would say I am, as Anand Giridharadas puts it, in the space of still waking.
So, before you read on, please be aware that you read this through the lens of a (insert however you identify yourself) reading about one white woman’s experience and perspective.
I will begin in the third person, but I do not pretend to be above any other white person…
White people — the ones who are “trying to do the right thing” that is — are still fucking up. And here’s why: White supremacy which is what this country is founded upon. White privilege which is what every white person is granted simply because of the color of their skin. White fragility which is the main reason, I believe, white people just can’t, just won’t engage in conversation. They don’t want to “look racist”. They don’t want to “be wrong”. I won’t explain these terms further, but if you don’t yet understand what they truly mean, look them up. I am reading two books right now I recommend: Me + White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.
I will switch to first person, to account for my own contribution to all of this…
Unknowingly or knowingly, mostly with good intentions, we — us white people who are “trying to do the right thing” — are still fucking up. I spent the last week researching it and talking to friends, both white and black, and here is what I found:
White people are posting about Black Lives Matter but it’s simply performative. There’s no action.
White people are just donating money. There’s no action.
White people are not showing up for protests. There’s no action.
White people are showing up for protests and causing violence. Black people will be blamed.
White people are texting their one black friend and asking them how to help, which is further exhausting their one black friend who is tired of having to explain racism.
White people are saying they are appalled by the recent murder of George Floyd, but violence against black people has been going on forever. White people are saying the wrong thing.
I can agree with all of it. I can take responsibility for some of it. Especially this last part of “white people are saying the wrong thing.” I have many examples of saying the wrong thing. My ex-boyfriend was black. One time we were out for dinner and he commented on how all the other tables around us had been visited by a waiter and served their water, but 20 minutes later we were still waiting for someone to come to us. He asked me if I noticed. I said no. He asked me if we could leave. I said no. We stayed. Later when we talked about it, he told me that what he wanted was for me to stand up and leave with him. I told him that I just wanted to have a nice dinner together. I asked him — were we going to have to leave a restaurant every time we weren’t served right away? I silenced him. I invalidated his feelings. I put my aversion toward inconvenience and confrontation above his feelings, his psychological safety, and his reality of being a black man in a white world. I didn’t even know I was doing that at the time. Can I take it back? No. Would I do it differently if I could go back? I would have listened more, I would have observed more, I would have quieted my white privilege around being inconvenienced, I would have spoken up to a waiter, and now, if a black person ever told me that he or she felt they were being unfairly treated, then they were. Period. No questions asked there.
I didn’t learn all my lessons while dating him, but I am grateful to him for what he taught me even though he was probably exhausted from having to teach it. Sometimes lessons take time to reveal themselves. This is where the “unfortunately, the only way we can get it right is by fucking up” part comes in. The best learning comes from making mistakes. And owning those mistakes. And growing from those mistakes. But that process doesn’t happen overnight. Just like The Civil Rights Movement didn’t happen overnight, the internal shifts and the external behaviors that individual white people need to change won’t either.
So here’s what needs to happen: C O N V E R S A T I O N. Difficult ones. Really, truly uncomfortable ones. And no, I don’t mean you black people are solely responsible for starting those conversations or calling us out. You have enough work on your plate. Truly. I mean us white people. We need to take on this work. We are, after all, “trying to do the right thing”, not as Brene Brown distinguishes, be right. Doing is actionable, but it means sometimes we will be wrong.
Just the other night I had a difficult conversation with a close white friend, who has equally as good of intentions as me in terms of wanting people to be well and the world a better place, but who abhors lines like “we are all racist”, or “white people’s silence is violence”, or even slogans like Black Lives Matter. We didn’t agree. But we talked. On the phone for two hours. What came out of it? I practiced patience. She is after all on the same path to waking as I am. I just got a head start. She felt seen, valued, and heard, not shamed. Likely, she will come back to me to talk more about this. And maybe with more conversation, her perspective — and maybe mine too — will shift. I am grateful to her for this conversation.
And so here is the process of C O N V E R S A T I O N — and no, it doesn’t always have to be directly with another person with opposing viewpoints (that might be for more advanced students). It can be a conversation you spark on social media or with your black friend via text or even a conversation with yourself in your journal….Speak up. Post the thing on social media. Ask the question. Show up to the rally. And fuck up. Welcome the comments and the looks. Be grateful for them for they are guides. Reflect on what you said or did that was wrong and why. Own your contribution to racism (and I don’t mean “you are racist”, I mean the actions you consciously or unconsciously engage in that promote racial injustice). Apologize. Vow to do better. Do better. Fuck up again. And repeat. Until you are no longer just in the space of still waking, but you are woke.
So please, if you are a white person who is trying to do the right thing right now, know that you are likely to fuck up. Be patient. Work hard. You will get it right. And if you are a black person and you have been disappointed or angry with your white allies, we’re sorry we haven’t gotten it right yet, but we are still in the space of waking. We will get better and we will get it right.