Crying over spilled water? It’s more than that when it comes to interracial interactions

Last May, I attended an event called “Telling the Truth: Exploring the Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations.” At this event, Shay Stewart-Bouley (our own “Black Girl In Maine”) and a white author named Debby Irving modeled for the audience what it is like to discuss issues related to race across racial lines.

The weekend before this event, Shay and Debby had been hired to speak at the Seattle Equity Summit. Before she and Shay went on stage, Debby was sitting in the audience with a little plastic cup full of water sitting at her feet. The water spilled in the hubbub of people moving around. She did not clean up the water or even acknowledge the spill to the person next to her before she went on stage. When Debby was on stage with Shay, that Black woman who had been sitting next to Debby publicly called her out for her water getting on her personal belongings and framing this as racist.

At the May event, Shay and Debby talked about the experience they had in Seattle. Shay explained how disappointing and infuriating it was to be let down, once again, by another white woman. Debby explained how it had taken her a while to come to understand her thoughtless behavior as “racist.”

Now, spilled water may seem a small thing, but it is bigger than that. The issue isn’t that spilling the water was racist per se. As I understand it, the impact of Debby’s thoughtless behavior with the glass of water was more than that one action. It was a whole history of white women treating Black people as less-than. Her actions were racist not only because they were inconsiderate to a group of mostly Black and brown bodied people, but because it was yet another example of white women expecting people of color to clean up after white people. Also, a presumption that “mere water” isn’t a big deal (and yet what might have been in the other’s woman’s bag that might have been ruined by moisture—this is something that hadn’t occurred to Debbie in that moment or even in the hours and days following having her actions labeled racist).

The fact is that it is easy for white people to disregard the feelings of people of color, particularly Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC). Doctors routinely assume Black people have higher pain tolerances and employers routinely assume people of color won’t “fit into” their workplaces or won’t be as good at a job as a white person no matter what their resume says otherwise. And this is an example of when an entire group is complicit, because most of us white people do things like this often without thinking about it. Cutting off non-white people more readily in lines, for example, or making assumptions about them.

Now, sure, you can say that treating white people as a monolith and talking about how we are all a lot like Debby in thoughtless racism is wrong. You could argue that Shay, for example, shouldn’t be seen the spokesperson for all Black people or that Black people shouldn’t be judged by the crimes of a minority of other Black people because Black people are not a monolith. You would be right, but there is a distinction to be made here: BIPOC move in a world that not only assumes the worst of them, but also holds them responsible for every tiny mistake they (or even others like them) might make.

To point out the racism of white people even in seemingly small actions and indicting the whole group, to a certain degree, isn’t some kind of “reverse racism” here. White women like me haven’t had to fear negative consequences of our racist behavior most of the time. The fact is, if I am thoughtless in public it is safe to assume I am supporting white supremacy. I am a part of the group that has consistently behaved in racist ways, so my behavior carries the history of my group. This awareness helps me as I practice being in the world in more thoughtful and considerate ways.

One of the reasons I recommend you hire Shay if you need a speaker or a consultant on issues of race and related social issues is that if you’re anything like me, you know we white people need a lot of practice being with Black people and many other people of color. We need to shed our fear of making mistakes; we need to break free of our desperate need for approval, too. We need to realize that as a group, white people have indeed made a terrible system filled with racism and we need to own that, as well as to stop blaming other groups for the damage and hurt they incur from that system.


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Being made “not to belong”

A couple of years ago, one Saturday night I was called—as I often was—by the security company that monitors my former school. As an administrator, specifically an administrator that lives less than five minutes away, I was the one they called when the alarm went off. It was never anything serious but I responded every time.

  • 6:15 a.m.
  • “Hello sir, we are responding to an alarm and possible intrusion at your school; we have dispatched officers. Can you meet them there?”
  • “Yes, of course.”
  • “O.K., what will you be driving?”
  • “Silver Yaris, ‘08”

I jumped out of bed. I got dressed. I got in the car. I cursed my life. It’s probably one of my teachers, one who has insomnia and often shows up at 4 a.m. to work and forgets to turn off the alarm. Still, I have to take all of these calls serious; it’s part of my job. But I’m pissed.

I get to the school; I see his car. Before I unlock the back door I remind myself this guy is just here working? Why take my anger out on him? I will just remind him again about the alarm. I walk in and greet him; ask him if he’s O.K. I tell him I am going upstairs just to make sure “there really isn’t an intruder.”

The cops are probably upstairs at the front door waiting for me anyway. As I left his workspace and start to head up the stairs I stopped. Dead in my tracks. I looked down at what I was wearing, I reflect on how I look. I get scared. I try to discern—am I worried because I look like shit because I just woke up or because I look (am) black? I mean, its 6:30 in the morning and I jumped out of bed in a flash—my hair is all knotted, my beard is tamped down on one side, I’m pretty sure I still have some dried up drool lingering on the corners of my mouth. I don’t want to walk up the dark stairs into a dark room to meet the police who have no idea what I look like. I decide to turn around go out the back door and get back in my car and wait for the police out front. They know what my car looks like.

I was reminded of this episode as I was recently leaving a late school meeting in a predominantly white school district that I work with. At the end of the meeting it was just me and the superintendent. Everyone else on the floor had gone home. I needed to use the bathroom. I left him in his office, grabbed my bag, and walked across the hall to another office I knew had a bathroom. And then that old memory hit me. I walked downstairs, into my car, and drove to a gas station.

I remembered sitting In my car waiting for the police. I was angry again. But I was also relieved.

The feeling of not being welcomed is a terrible one. The sense that you do not belong is haunting. It sticks with you and you’re reminded of it on a consistent basis. The worst part about it is that most of the time you can little to remedy it—there is little you can say to someone who thinks you do not belong here. Especially not in the heat of the moment.

Make no mistake. The thought that you are where you do not belong is a threat to some.

While I understand that Trump is in fact threatened by the very existence of four women of color (“The Squad”) in what he perceives to be his world, I’m worried about the safety of these four congressional representatives recently attacked by our president—their president. Will they get killed just by showing up to work?

I worry that those who do not see anything wrong with what the president said also see nothing wrong with profiling, with stereotyping, with dehumanizing. But as much as I worry about them, I worry more about the people who are unaware they are being hurtful and violent—the ones who say they are acting out of “pride” and “love” and “safety.” I fear the outcome of weaponizing patriotism.

Ask yourself if you would have, even for one second, wondered about getting killed at your workplace because of how you look. And it’s not just at work that I worry. Being in predominantly white spaces I worry.

I worry when I get stopped by police. I’m one of the “good guys,” I contribute to my community, but does this cop give a shit or even consider those possibilities?

And it’s not just with the police. I worry when I am walking alone in Portland. I am a good husband, I do my best to stay positive, most people know me as a cheerful, shirt-off-my-back type of guy—but does that next white person whom I pass on the empty street give a shit really? I look out of place. I can feel it. I am not paranoid. I can be hurt at any moment because of the way I look. What’s crazy is that I know that in some bizarre twist of irony my presence also hurts those who feel I do not belong.

Telling someone to go back where they came from (whether they come from somewhere else or not) is not about patriotism, and it is not just racist. It’s also violent. It is meant to shock and meant to demean you. It is meant to take from you. Its aim is to amplify that painful sense that you are wrong for just existing. It’s also meant to deter you. It is a reminder that in the mind of those who believe they belong here, they have the right to oppress you.

Let us remember that it is the oppressed who will liberate the not just their fellow oppressed folk but also the oppressors themselves. We must continue to work on educating our communities, our neighbors, and if the chance presents itself even your fellow stranger. We must continue to correct the record and make space for each other. We must strive to create a sense that all who are here belong here. If we do this then we can ensure that our next generation of folks will walk with more confidence and less fear. Perhaps even that they or a generation soon after them will not have to worry when they show up to work. They will feel like they belong, they will contribute, and they will continue to make America free.


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Actions I take (as a white woman) to help dismantle white supremacy

[An evergreen reminder: I am a white woman writing about racism so I might share with other white people what I learn—mostly what I learn from people of color—so we can all work toward societal transformation, liberation.]

“What actions do we take to help dismantle white supremacy?” I asked my nearly-10-year-old to help me brainstorm for this post. Of course, I already know a lot of the things I do on a daily basis, but I’d say 90 percent of the racial justice work I do is mostly internal or bit by bit with other individual white people. I know that internal and individual work is an essential part of the process of recreating our systems, but I want to share in this post actual actions I take as a white woman in this work.

I suggested to my daughter that our listening (and re-listening) to and discussing the “Seeing White” podcast series by Scene On Radio was an action we are taking. She disagreed because, she said, “That’s not action, that’s just education and learning.” She has a point. I want to get beyond the stuff I’ve talked about before in this space; I’ve already talked about self-education, reading and learning from people of color, and (as the kids say today) “diving deeper“ into my own inner world’s messy complicity in white supremacy to shed the garbage and be in the world differently.

One more thing I want to address before I share some of the actions I take is how uncomfortable it makes me to tell you about it. The magnitude of racial injustice in the United States is so vast, whatever I do will not be “enough” if I look at it through a white supremacist lens. Meaning, the perfectionism and the discomfort I feel is a part of what keeps be from sharing. I also don’t want to seem like a “show off.” I return to this document describing “white supremacy culture” very frequently when I’m feeling blocked. I see how white supremacy is keeping me quiet, I assess the context (have I been invited to share?), and I move through the fears.

What actions do I take to help dismantle white supremacy? Some of what I do is:

  • set aside several (usually five to 10) hours each month to do pro-bono grant winning or other consulting services for people of color who are engaged in systemic change work;
  • risk being seen as the “Debbie Downer” just about everywhere I go. For example, when I catch us white people falling into some of our patterns—such as believing we’re the “good ones” so it’s okay to politely coerce people of color to join our activities before we’re ready or safe for them—I find the courage to say something and help our white people groups take steps back and look at ourselves;
  • share resources with my daughters’ teachers and offer to help. I am so grateful that both of my daughters’ schools are doing great work in racial justice, but part of dismantling white supremacy is not being alone in the work, so sharing resources and offering help is a part of that;
  • attend events and participate in workshops geared toward helping us white people do better, such as Racial Justice and the Beloved Community (New England Yearly Meeting [Quakers]), or Tell Me the Truth: Exploring the Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations with our own Shay Stewart-Bouley and Debby Irving (author of Waking Up White);
  • hold a bi-monthly “whiteness class” with my daughters where we explore what it means to be white. If whiteness means oppression and greed and self-centeredness—and history shows that it does—how can we be white and good? (It’s possible, but it doesn’t happen without effort). We listen to podcasts or watch movies and discuss, we set our own “homework” assignments and check in with each other about what we’re working on, and, most of all, we practice talking about racism and whiteness. We also notice how easy it is to let our good intentions slide because racial justice work can seem like it’s not “life or death.” We keep making the time for it.

There. I’ve done it. I’ve shared with you some of the actions I take on a very regular basis to help dismantle white supremacy. I hope these examples can be helpful for you white readers. I’d also recommend looking at this list or this program/workbook for other ideas that might work in your own life.


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

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