On White Anxiety: Bullet Points for My People

Or: Concrete Things to Do When You’re Scared Shitless About Being the Bad White Person

Or: How to Dismantle Your Racism from the Inside, Some Unfinished Thoughts

// Before you read this, read the post by Lily Luo that jiggled my own thoughts loose. Thank you, Lily, more than I know how to say. For context, I am a “white person [who] quoted Maya Angelou’s poem Touched by an Angel, at us.”

// I’m serious. Read Lily first.

  1. Dismantle your white supremacy/internalized dominance/racism like your life depends on it, because it does. Your integrity depends on it. Your relationships depend on it. Most of all, your life depends on it. Our lives depend on it. Everyone is dying from this thing. White people are dying slowly without realizing it. Many people of color are dying very quickly.
  2. Recognize that you don’t know what you’re doing, and you have much less experience consciously acknowledging racism than any people of color out there. No matter how much work you do, that will never change. Knowing exactly what you’re doing is not a prerequisite for doing what you know to be right.
  3. This is not about you being a good person or you being a bad person. We are dismantling this shit in order to access our humanity. You are a human person, and friend, that is enough. That is so much.*
  4. Did someone just call you out? Are you feeling traumatized to learn that maybe you’re not the good white person? Oof, that’s real. Take a deep breath. You are not actually in physical danger. You will not actually die. You can deal with a lot more emotions than you think you can. **
    1. Take some time to practice gratitude towards the person who called you out/in (especially if this is a POC). They took a big risk talking to you, and showed a lot of love to be willing to keep on engaging in relationship with you, irregardless of how you perceived their tone.
    2. Especially if they were the person hurt by your words/actions (and whoever the person was), that person has just experienced some trauma. Take some time to practice some compassion for them.
    3. Eventually,  it will be time to engage with the work of repairing the relationship and ensuring that thing doesn’t happen again.
    4. I say these things not only because it’s how I understand my role in those situations, but also because focusing on other people helps me to soften my ego and recenter what is important.
  5. Practice compassion for your defensiveness, resentment, anger, all those emotions you hate that you have towards people of color who call you out. If you don’t practice compassion for your reaction, then you’ll make those same people of color do it for you.
  6. Be prepared to constantly question your self-concept, the stories you tell yourself about what kind of a person you are. They are stories about you, not defining you. You can act much more terribly and also much more wonderfully than you realize.
  7. When you feel confused about what to do, remember that no one knows what they’re doing, no one’s got it figured out, but also that housed inside of you is a deep knowledge about what the loving, right, kind, just path is to take.
  8. Recognize that you are really bad at reading the “beep! beep! this is racist!” signals, so fine-tune your instruments! Listen to people who know more talk about their experiences of racism. Get curious with people and ask them what you’ve missed. Spend time letting your gut move you, hand on your tummy, and pause if something doesn’t feel right, even if you can’t articulate why and you feel stupid for saying something.
  9. Hold on for dear life to all the people who will listen to you unload all your racist, white nonsense, let it out, and who will, afterwards, help you re-find your humanity * connect to the courage+humility+conviction to get back into it.
  10. Avoid letting people tell you you’re doing a good job or that you’re a good person. It’s easy to get distracted by the “goods” and the “bads”, so remember #7, #8 and #3.
  11. Never forget: we do this work because we love people other than ourselves, and also because we love ourselves. That is why. When that is not why, then we know we’re getting tangled with our intellects or our egos, letting our fear take the wheel. Recenter. You will be ok. Put your hand on your tummy and breath.
    1. You know it’s not why when…. you’re worried about being seen as a ‘good’ person, you want someone to pat you on the back and say “good job”, you feel like you have to, you’re scared of people criticizing you if you don’t (or if you don’t do it ‘right’)
  12. Allow yourself to feel sad and angry about how much it sucks that there are all these amazing people in the world, but all this racism and internalized dominance inside us make it really really hard to have full relationships with anyone –white or people of color.
  13. + … I missed things and also messed them up in this list, but I don’t know what I did wrong or didn’t include! Please let me know in comments or by emailing me at savannahhauge@gmail.com. If you’d rather talk in person, then let’s do that. [last updated: 7/29/17]

* It was brought to my attention that the idea of a white person “finding their humanity” is problematic, because often, the ‘humanity’ of white people comes at the expense of POC being seen and treated as fully human. I need to think more about what this means/looks like, but it feels very true.

** I took out the “you will be ok” thing, because “ok” is not a goal, and reaching “ok” is not part of the process of making this stuff better. Healed, maybe. Transformed. Accustomed to pain. More connected. Other suggestions?

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Right on! I especially appreciate point #5 about not laying on people of color your horror and disappointment at your own failures, begging for forgiveness or absolution or support. It’s so easy to be an additional burden rather than a support!

    Like

  2. Andrew Harmon says:

    Savannah,

    Thank you very much for this. These thoughts are some of the most unspoken thoughts among white folks doing internal antiracism+anti-white-supremacy work. (The “anti-” language is in broad use out here in the Midwest, though it is unhelpful sometimes.)
    I like your post because it precisely doesn’t provide an instructive, but rather a dismantling guide on conversation and thought. In feeble groups trying to dismantle white supremacy, white folks like to have plans and do things. This is necessary, but we also need to sit in realizations of the destructive history of white supremacy and be uncomfortable.
    I guess I’m saying anxiety is real, and will pervade anti-white-supremacy work, but white folks cannot let it freeze our active dismantling work.
    I too have more things to say, but this work, like a lot of work, is best done in our own physical, geospatial communal contexts (because that’s how white supremacy has worked, and that’s how we live a lot of our life).

    Note: This is not centering white death but was a tangible fact of why this work is necessary: white supremacy caused two white deaths in addition to people of color this week. We all need this work.
    Thanks so much to Lily and Savannah for speaking. I hope others listen and speak in turn.

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    1. Andrew, I must have missed the notification, but finally saw your comment. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and engagement!

      I really want to think more about this especially that you wrote: “In feeble groups trying to dismantle white supremacy, white folks like to have plans and do things.” What does it look like to acknowledge and learn to accept our weakness as inherent to our existence (I see sometimes understand white supremacy as a simultaneous intense addiction to power + domination, and intense fear of weakness/losing that)? What would it look like to center the work more around principles that emphasize appreciably improving the lives of POC (responsiveness to the needs and concerns of POC high on that list) instead of around practices that concern themselves with the white experience? I think both are important, and one of the big things I’ve learned is that, left unchecked, I will veer heavily towards the latter because it is far more comfortable to me.

      I’m really curious about how this work manifests itself in your own context now!

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  3. Soren Hauge says:

    Thanks, I’m bringing this with me to the “difficult conversations” at http://www.northernyearlymeeting.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/2017NYM_Annual_Session-brochure.pdf.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Looks like a step in the right direction!

      Like

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