In this post on Black Girl in Maine, Shay Stewart-Bouley writes to white people: “You aren’t going to read 75 books, amplify marginalized voices online, donate money, attend rallies and occasionally have an uncomfortable encounter and earn a good white person badge. That’s not how any of this works. Instead, your mission if you accept it is to strike at the heart of white fragility both internally and externally.”
What does doing “internal” racial justice work look like? I wrote a bit about doing internal work here, and here, but in this post* I’m going to experiment with going inside some aspects of my experience in a train-of-thought way. (This won’t be a post that offers solutions.)
I’m a middle-aged white woman with a nice smile. As I’ve become less visible in our culture, carrying more weight and showing my age, I’ve noticed a decrease in some of the special treatment I used to get when I was younger and thinner.
When I started learning about white privilege, I became hyper-aware of the good treatment I receive in public spaces, even as a relatively less-visible older woman. I’m also able-bodied, cis-gendered, and come from an upper/middle-class socioeconomic background. The world generally treats me well. Sometimes, when I’m out in public being treated well, I feel a nervousness.
This is what it’s like: I feel an emotional shakiness. Maybe twinges is the right word? There’s a wordless sense that I’m going to lose something valuable. In my body it’s a whispery bad-butterflies in my tummy kind of feeling. Anxiety. My nervousness is that part of me doesn’t want to lose what I have.
Some of me likes trusting the police will look out for me and assume the best of me. Some of me likes that I’m frequently called on first when a group of us is waiting for [insert any group-waiting activity like boarding a ferry or purchasing something at a store where the line isn’t well-formed]. It’s convenient and nice to know most servers will defer to me and give me what I want. Store clerks won’t assume I might steal something.
Why do I feel like I might lose this? Realistically, our whole social structure of white supremacy isn’t going to change overnight. I’m not going to lose my nearly-top-of-the-heap social status overnight. Plus, in some ways, the ideal would be everyone gets to be treated as well as most white people are treated. Why do I feel scared or uncomfortable? Part of it is that I’m working on finding ways to change these structures. I am actively working to change a system that benefits me. It’s confusing!
There’s nearly constant cognitive dissonance. I know it’s not right that I get all this good treatment, this assumption of innocence that people of color don’t get to have. The nerves are probably related to shame, too, that I get this and other people don’t. Not that it’s my “fault,” but as I benefit from the good stuff, people of color don’t. What do I do? Do I walk around saying “don’t treat me so well!”
And then, there are my own emotional/spiritual sickness issues of too frequently putting other people’s needs first. I’m working on those issues, too. So should I celebrate the fact that I expect to be treated well? Should that be an example of how I move in the world in a positive way, that my needs matter?
As I said, I’m not talking about solutions in this post. I’m only talking about how much of my mind and emotional energy goes into sorting through these confusing feelings. I feel the fear, the anxiety, and the shame. I feel the enjoyment of good treatment by strangers when I’m out in public. Feeling all of these mixed up feelings is a part of what I have to do to clear away the garbage and get to being just human.
Part of this noticing all of these mixed-up feelings has led me to realize how much of my racial justice work has to be done on a spiritual and emotional plane. I can’t think my way into not being complicit in white supremacy. I can’t even act my way into changing. Like an addict who wants another hit, I like being treated really well and believed the lie that it doesn’t hurt anyone. In many ways, it goes against the ugliest parts of my nature to change the system. My addiction to white supremacy wants me to keep coasting.
For me, and I recognize this won’t be the case for many other people, I need to turn to prayer and meditation to help clear the garbage out of my head. The fear of losing my status is something intellectually I know is foolish—I want the system of status to be dismantled and I’m working on being a part of that change—so I use my spiritual tools to release me from the bondage of self, of fear, and I let go.
Usually I don’t try to put into words how things are changing inside of me, but they absolutely are. I have no gifts like spiritual leaders like Thich Nhat Hanh or Rev. angel Kyodo williams who can use words to describe spiritual transformations. But I want other white people to know that the messy emotional expression I just did in this post is only one part of the inner work I do. I have the over-thinking (thinking enough?), hyper-awareness (absence of denial?) and I have new peace.
I can be with my advantages, notice them, and always be on the lookout for ways I can share them. Racial justice work is a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes I’m a mess inside, sometimes I’m grounded and okay. As long as I’m continuing to learn and practice in my everyday life, I’ll be doing more good than harm.
* As a writer for Black Girl in Maine Media’s blog, I was tasked with writing about racism without centering on whiteness. Through that work, I realized I haven’t yet found a way to do that. In the introduction to Robin DiAngelo’s new book, White Fragility: Why it’s so hard to talk to white people about racism, she says she’s going to center on whiteness because she hasn’t figured out how not to do it while also using her position as a white person to bring important issues to wider audiences. I suppose that’s where I am, still, in my own racial justice work. In this post, I’m writing mostly to white people. I welcome readers of color, of course, but, again, what I say may cause harm because I haven’t learned how to not center on whiteness. As I said: yet.
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