One of the many powerful things about therapy is that it gives a cynical, emotionally stabby person the safety and space to discover how they perpetuate a pattern of learned behavior. Once I got into the practice of examining my motives, I started to notice several troubling things:
Sometimes, I think I'm being helpful but I'm not.
Sometimes, I actually make things harder for the person I think I'm helping.
Sometimes, the person I've decided to rescue doesn't need or want my help.
Sometimes, helping is really about me and I'm being selfish, controlling, arrogant, presumptuous and racist.
A year later, a coworker called me out. We often had discussions about racial dynamics and social constructs. In response to something I said, he pointed out how white women love to fix things because we think we have all the answers. "Everything is going to be okay, everyone!" he announced to an otherwise empty radio room, "The white lady is here!"
We laughed. But I also thought: Oh, damn. Message received.
When Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer on August 9, 2014, I caught a glimpse of just how pervasive racism is and how it profoundly affects the daily lives of people close to me. I thought I knew, but I had no idea. When I shared this revelation with a friend who regularly covered social justice issues, including the protests in Ferguson, he characteristically deadpanned, "Welcome to the party."
In other words, this is just another day in a black man's world, but thanks for noticing. That was a tough pill to swallow.
I wasn't a very good ally. Hell, I didn't even know how to be a good ally. As I became more familiar with terms like "complicity" and "microaggression," I recognized I was guilty of those things. But I certainly didn't think it made me racist.
Fun fact: subtle, unintentional acts of racism are still racist. Just because I don't fit the stereotypical definition of racist doesn't mean I'm in the clear. Implicit racial bias is complex and it sneaks into every aspect of our lives, including mine. But does that mean I'm a bad person?
Robin DiAngelo explains how that either-or, good-bad binary shuts white people down in conversations about race and keeps us from discussing, examining and addressing our biases:
If the other half of the story is how we address our racial biases, how do we do better? A recent discussion with a friend led me to the newly released Me and White Supremacy Workbook by Layla F. Saad:
Part education, part activation, the Me And White Supremacy Workbook is a first-of-its-kind personal anti-racism tool for people holding white privilege to begin to examine and dismantle their complicity in the oppressive system of white supremacy.This resource is available for free.
Even the way that white allies talk to minorities often demonstrates a lack of sensitivity and self-awareness. According to a new study from Yale University, white liberals' reliance on old stereotypes makes them appear less competent when interacting with African Americans.
That's not just code switching. That's intellectual downshifting. And it's racist. And guess what. I'm guilty of that, too. Here, I thought I was being relatable. Instead, I sound lame and condescending. Ouch.
Now that I know better, I vow to do better. I want to have the hard conversations and continue to peel back the layers of my own racism. When I feel the urge to be a "helpful white woman," I'll leave my ego and privilege at the door.