shedding whiteness practice: questioning my thoughts when faced with “that’s racist”

[Note: I’m very aware that the sweeping generalizations I’m making in this series of posts don’t apply to everyone. We are a complicated species with loads and loads of influences and motivations for our behavior. If what I’m saying about my experience or opinions doesn’t match yours, it’s probably not about you! :-) ]

When I hear or read that some behavior or process or system or occurrence is racist or classist, especially if it’s something I’ve done, my mind often goes to the other reasons why that behavior/process/system is the way it is. For example, when I learned that offering my opinion or experience joyfully and eagerly when I wasn’t asked for it is often a reflection of my whiteness, I immediately thought of a lot of reasons to explain to myself why I am this way.

It’s true that some of us, no matter our race, are super-excited to share about our experiences, share knowledge we have, or participate in conversations by sharing our opinions. There are lots of reasons people have these kinds of personality traits. But, when I respond to “that’s racist/classist” with “but I’m this way because of xyz” I am not hearing the critique. I am dismissing it and explaining it away.

When I hear that something I do — something I may even enjoy about myself (that’s another complicated topic for another post) — is racist or classist or ableist or transphobic or otherwise harmful, my practice now is to pause.

I start by assuming the person sharing that information is correct. That’s where I begin. This isn’t low self-esteem or assuming everyone knows me better than I know myself. I do this because it’s been my experience that explaining other reasons for the trait/behavior is one of whiteness’ ways of blocking feedback that will help me break free from it. My whiteness wants me to find any other reason besides being racist.

So, when I get feedback that my behavior is harmful in some way, I believe it. I will reflect on it over time, with breathing into my belly and sometimes writing about it. (We all have our own tools for “processing.”) I’ve also begin gathering other white people in my life with whom I can discuss these things. People who won’t say “oh but no, it’s just that you’re an outgoing person!” but who will sit with me in the likelihood that I’ve found another area of myself that has been shaped by white supremacy.

I’m not kidding when I say that this kind of identity shifting has significant emotional and cognitive costs. It’s scary being in a place where I’m not sure who I am when I find out some of my personality traits have come from white supremacy culture. Sorting through the garbage and the goodness requires for me a spiritual connection to a power greater than myself that I call god. I need to have faith that what I’m going through is actually challenging but that if I don’t force change I will see the truth and get grounded again. Breathing and centering into my body is also really helpful.