Confession time: I want people of color to see me as a “good white person.” My brain knows that the dichotomy of good white people and bad white people is not useful or accurate, it reinforces the social divisions that feed racism, and it prevents white people from being honest about their own unintentionally internalized belief in white superiority. My brain tells me that being seen as a good white person is not the point of the work.
And yet, at the White Privilege Conference in April where I was both a workshop presenter and a white affinity group facilitator, there was a moment in which I was acutely aware of wanting to be a good white person. I was attending a workshop about unlearning internalized white dominance. The presenters were white, there was only one participant of color, and the room was packed. When the presenters put up a slide asserting that white people believe in white superiority, a white man spoke up: “Isn’t that a stereotype about white people?” Immediately, there was a buzz of incredulity around the room. A white woman near me said, quite audibly, “Seriously?! You believe that?”
This is how we white people shame each other. This is how we tell each other that there is only one way to be an anti-racist white person, how we ignore that all of us are perpetually works in progress, and how we reassure ourselves that we are not that kind of white person. We “get it.” We are better than those white people. Needless to say, this mindset is counterproductive to racial justice work. It effectively pushes people out of the work rather than keeping them engaged in it. I spoke up: “Well, I think it’s important to distinguish between conscious belief and unconscious belief. I don’t think any of us consciously believe we are better than people of color, but our unintentional thoughts and actions often reveal that we unconsciously believe it.” He nodded and said, “Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.” I thought, I handled that so much better than all those white people who shamed him. Shit. And then I realized I really wanted my friend of color who was in the room to tell me how well I’d handled it. Double shit.
But where did this profound need to be seen as a good white person come from? For me, it’s about being a little kid on the school playground and wanting, but not knowing how, to fit in. It's about my sense of self worth during much of my childhood being enormously dependent on adult praise. It’s about not learning until adulthood – and periodically having to re-learn – to truly love myself.
While this is a common story, especially for people socialized as girls in a patriarchal society, it is not everyone’s story. I would argue, however, that every child constantly assesses what will and will not please adults and what will keep them in adults’ good graces. It is a survival strategy that becomes a reflex and follows us into adulthood. As adults, we all remember the consequences we faced in childhood when we did not please adults. Some of these memories are more painful than others. And while these survival strategies served us well as young people, they can often get in our way as adults.
So how did this survival strategy get in my way during the workshop? It made me question my value as a human being. It reinforced racism by centering my needs and feelings rather than people of color’s. It distracted me from the ultimate goal of racial justice work: equity for people of color and our collective human healing and liberation. At the same time, we can also benefit from positive feedback. And in the context of racial justice work, which often feels like trudging through thigh-high muck, getting positive feedback can help us persevere when the work feels especially hard. This is where community building among white people committed to racial justice can be enormously beneficial. Rather than shaming one another, we can lean on our fellow white people to encourage us when we make personal progress and take effective action, and we can also show up for one another when we fail. We can say to one another, “I’m proud of you for trying X. I’m so sorry it backfired. I’ve been there, too. Do you need a hug? What can I do to support you? Can I be a sounding board for you or help you find resources? How can we learn from this together?”
It is not reasonable to expect this from people of color. In the same way that I rarely have energy to take care of men as they heal from the myriad ways in which sexism harms them and as they navigate being active against sexism, we white people cannot expect people of color to take care of us and our big feelings. But it is reasonable to expect other human beings – in this case, fellow white people – to show us compassion and remind us of our inherent goodness when we find ourselves questioning it.
Here are some additional resources I have found particularly useful in my own learning and growth: