This is the first in what I expect will be a series of posts about my practice of trying to shed whiteness. It’s a bit stumbling, rambling. But I’ve been chewing on this for a long time and want to get the ball rolling. White supremacy culture (that’s how I think of whiteness) demands perfection and I’m not going to wait for that:
For me, people being friendly means first names and acting familiar with each other and it’s reassuring and comforting. Casual and informal is friendly and feels like “we’re in this thing together!” I’ve learned that for many people — this is a cross-class as well as a cross-racial issue — that kind of familiarity needs to be earned.
Most people of color and people who are not from upper socioeconomic classes have spent their lives being treated as if they aren’t worthy of respect. I’ve moved in the world assuming I’ll be treated with respect because most aspects of my identity make it likely I will be. Someone being informal, casual, familiar with me feels friendly because I haven’t had to prove my respectability. For people from different backgrounds, it is simply another example of someone treating them as less-than, of assuming an intimacy that I haven’t earned.
Being forward and smile-y and personal with someone I don’t know well who is Black, Indigenous, Latinx, or from a working/blue collar class background (I can’t know that, obviously, but I also can’t know someone’s race) frequently comes across as obnoxious, presumptuous, disrespectful, and rude.
It is racist and classist to be overtly friendly in the way I’m used to doing it.
I’ve found it very important to be much more quiet and much slower to be very personal and familiar with people. I also use professional titles if someone uses them. I try to imagine what it would be like to be treated like “the help” most of my life, and how I should assume that any person of color will assume I’m going to treat them that way (reasonable, based on a lifetime of experience).
Being with that knowledge was really tricky at first, and still is at times (but it’s getting better). Knowing that people will reasonably assume I’m going to treat them badly is a hard thing to carry, but I don’t take it personally anymore. Of COURSE people of color might assume I’ll act like most of the white people they’ve interacted with in the past. Here’s something that’s really important: I need to not try to prove anything differently.
Instead of trying to prove I’m “not like that,” I stay with the feelings in my body — what it’s like to know someone assumes I’m going to treat them badly. It’s an awful feeling. I don’t want someone to think I will treat them badly. I don’t want that to be a part of who I am. I used to get really caught up in anxiety and nerves and fretting because it feels so gross to be seen that way. I notice the feelings, say hello to them, and let them go. I get back into my body and my heart and say, “Go slow, Heather. Don’t rush. Give space. Show respect (in the way I’m learning to but is still not familiar) by not assuming closeness or familiarity.” I tell myself if I want to not be that person (who will treat BIPOC disrespectfully) I need to just be that person, not try to make sure they know I’m not.
“Chiming in” is something I mostly avoid these days, when it comes to online interactions, for example. If there’s a chat feature on a zoom call, for example, I mostly don’t use it unless the host asks us to enter a response. I think that’s another topic entirely… I’ll write about that in another post.

Let me start by saying that I don’t consider myself an expert in anything related to race or class issues. I’m just a white straight cis able-bodied woman, raised in an upper-middle class highly educated family. I mention those “labels” because each of those labels gives me access to power in the USA. What I say on this blog has not been vetted by anyone but me. Take everything I say with a grain of salt, and look to the real experts (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who are invested in systems change) for your guidance. Most of what I share is repeating what I’ve learned from them, what they’ve been telling us since forever.

All that said, I feel called to share with other white people things I’ve been learning along this journey toward collective liberation, while I continue learning from others (of all races) who are on a similar journey.

Recently I began participating in a program for “embodied social justice.” It’s quite intense both in time required and in the emotional/spiritual/intellectual challenge of it. I realized in these first few sessions that we white people put our feet in our mouth all the time and have no idea we’re doing it.

I feel like I’m straddling this space where I put my foot in my mouth (and by that I mean do something stupid or hurtful in relation to a Black, Latinx, or Indigenous person, or other people of color too, probably) a little less often but also I definitely keep doing it. Over and over again. But, with practice, I’ve been doing it less.

What is the “it” I’m talking about?

There are a whole bunch of ways people from my background interact with the world that come across to people from different backgrounds as harmful, oppressive, obnoxious, clueless, rude, and exhausting. I’ve learned a lot about this mostly from people who are Black and Latinx, but on twitter I’ve also learned from Indigenous people and other people of color, too. There are even a couple white people I’ve been learning from!

When I saw my fellow white people behaving in these exhausting ways — and I know they have NO idea, because I’ve been that person (and definitely am still that person at times!) — I thought about sharing on this blog some of the things I do to help myself do those things a little bit less. My goal is to be someone who lives in solidarity with all people, working together (as I said above) for collective liberation. Another goal is to help my fellow white people do less harm. To do this, I know I need to change my behaviors and learn from people who are farther along the path than I am.

I don’t want to make this post too long for Internet reading. I want this to serve as an introduction to other relatively short posts I’ll make about examples of the exhausting-harmful (there’s a range) behaviors people like me have and how I practice doing it differently.

There’s lots of self-talk involved. Lots of emotional work, and lots of practice. I’m going to post tidbits of examples as I think of them, and I will take those posts “shedding whiteness practice” if you are interested in reading them.

posts also will be linked here:

Active Shooter, Whiteness, and “The Talk”

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27 years of alcoholism recovery and my ongoing addiction to whiteness

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25 years ago tomorrow

Only July 1st in 1996 I celebrated the fact that I wasn't an alcoholic by drinking many, many vodka lemonades ...

shedding whiteness practice: the trauma of whiteness

[Note: This is a series of posts related to topics I've shared with other white people. Some are lessons I've learned ...

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 ...

shedding whiteness practice: being too friendly

This is the first in what I expect will be a series of posts about my practice of trying to ...

reflections for my fellow white people: shedding whiteness practice

Let me start by saying that I don't consider myself an expert in anything related to race or class issues ...

When Bran and I discussed some of the idea of white people working with other white people about our antiracism work, a question I wanted to ask her (and very well may in a future post) is maybe it’s not that white people shouldn’t have those spaces, but that Black people should have more spaces without white people? I was reminded of a story I’ve heard over the years in our family about disappointing and harmful attitudes about creating safe spaces for Black people. I asked my father to tell it to me again. Here’s what he said:
In the late sixties and early seventies, Wellesley College, the prestigious all-women’s institution in the Boston area, had roughly thirty African-American students out of a student body of about 1200 undergraduates.  In an act of solidarity, those students banded together to demand that the college’s administration should provide them with a student center of their own. At that time, many of the college’s white students used the college’s elegant and spacious student center, from which the black students felt alienated. White students also had access to three gracious social clubs, akin to sororities. Black students had no place to congregate just by themselves, no place to prepare the food they might want to eat or to listen to the music they might want to hear or to entertain black male guests or just to be together without having to think about justifying their own presence in the wider college world.
So the black students decided to organize to bring pressure on the college administration to designate one of the college’s social clubs as a black cultural center.  At that time the college administration and many undergraduate students opposed that proposal, often on the grounds that the college was a single community which did not set aside facilities for “special interest groups.”  The administration argued that the student body should be one body, defined by what was then regarded as progressive social values such as “integration.”
Nevertheless, and against much social pressure, the black students organized to demand that one of the social clubs be set aside for them.  The administration and the majority of the student body opposed them.  Black students found support from only a handful of faculty and from the College’s Chaplaincy, sparked at that time by a Black Episcopal Chaplain.  The black student group, which took the name Ethos, eventually voted unanimously to picket the college President’s office and to call in the Boston area press.  At that point, the administration relented, and made one social club available to Ethos.
Along the way, many of the black students paid a large personal price in terms of friendships and collegial relationships with other students and with faculty members.  Many black students found themselves shunned by other (white) students and by a virtually all-white faculty.  It was a wrenching time for these black students, most of whom had never “protested” in this way, most of whom wanted nothing more than to do their academic work, to have a few friends of their own choosing, and to graduate to promising futures.  But very few of them, in retrospect, ever regretted the fact that they had chosen to band together in solidarity and to claim a meaningful space of their own at that prestigious, upper-middle-class white women’s institution of higher learning.
Fast forward to about a year later.  By that time, Ethos has not only become a thriving cultural and social center for black students, the group had created its own choir, which, from time to time, sang its own traditional and contemporary black music on Sundays in the College’s Chapel.  That Chapel at the time had become a center for worship and preaching that lifted up the vision of Jesus as a champion of liberation of the oppressed.
On one Sunday in particular, the Rev. Jesse Jackson had been invited to preach.  Members of the Ethos Choir practiced eagerly in anticipation of the visit from this then nationally known black progressive leader.  When Jackson arrived on campus, however, he mainly kept to himself and socialized with the entourage of supporters that he had brought with him.  Jackson made no serious effort to talk with Ethos members to hear their concerns or to learn about their struggles at the college.
So it happened that during his sermon Jackson advanced the idea that blacks needed to engage white society on its own terms and to take over positions of power on their own in the wider society.  As a contrast, he pointed from the pulpit in the direction of Ethos’ new social center and said words to this effect:  “we have to get out of a ghetto mentality and get out of our segregated communities like that little house over there — and claim power of our own.”  While there very well might have been validity in Jesse Jackson’s larger point as far as the society as a whole was concerned, his words had the effect of devastating the hearts and minds of the small number of black students who had fought so hard for a place of their own in their wider campus world at that time.  He ended up giving a — probably valid — sermon on black aspirations in America, but it turned out, due to his failure to keep his ear to the ground and to listen to the voices of the college’s own black students, to be a disaster for the black students themselves who had struggled so hard for a place of their own in that all-white setting.  At the time, the one black administrator at Wellesley College was heard to observe to a few friends:  “not everything that glistens black is black.”

The true story behind the holiday most people call “Thanksgiving” involves a very rare moment of peace between (eventually to be called white) Europeans and Indigenous people. In our family over the last few years, it has felt really strange to celebrate what was an exception to the rule of the day; the rule of the day was my ancestors betraying and murdering Native people.
Last year, we celebrated Thanksgiving, but talked a lot about how complicated it was. Our 11 year old announced a few months ago that she was going to boycott Thanksgiving because of the harms white Europeans perpetrated against Indigenous people. Our family had some conversations about it and we have decided that we will no longer celebrate Thanksgiving.
We will, however, create our own new celebration. We are not simply re-naming the day. We will celebrate, and we will probably enjoy foods that we have shared over our lifetimes around this time of year. Our days of celebration will also include moments of solemnity and honor for all of the lives lost, the cultures crushed, and the overtaking of the land by greedy capitalists. We will live in the truth as best we can.
White supremacy culture is all we’ve known in our family, so far. What that means is we don’t have a “culture” that doesn’t relate to oppression of others. But, we white people can tease out of our family traditions, shared experiences, and other aspects of community those elements that may form a new culture or new cultures.
For us, we are trying out “Anticipating the Solstice” as our celebration. It will last two days (the last Wednesday and Thursday of November), so the kiddos can celebrate in both of their homes. The foods may vary from year to year, but there are sure to be many of the old standards we’ve grown up with. How we honor the true story of the first “Thanksgiving” will surely develop over time, too. We will start by using this as a reference. I know we will involved candles somehow, and silence. The rest we will work out as a family.
This is not going to be a “cheat.” This is not a way to celebrate Thanksgiving and still feeling good about it. We will not celebrate Thanksgiving as we have done before. We will join with our wider community in mourning the horrors our country was built on. And, on the same days, we will celebrate the bounty of our lives in joyful gratitude. Add to all of this the complexity that we know we are very lucky in our bounty, that too many people will be going without shelter, food, or family. We will recognize that, too.
As I was writing the last sentences to this post, a friend from our Quaker Meeting, Beth Bussiere, sent me an email about this very topic. I will leave you with her words: “What I found myself finally with was how interconnected lamentations and gratitude are. That without lamentations, without acknowledging the grief and the grievous, our gratitude can be misplaced or superficial. On the other hand, without gratitude, our lamentations can just pull us under.”

Changing our systems (built on white supremacy) requires great imagination. Versions of community most of us have never experienced. I saw these images on the Internet yesterday and had to share them. They got my imagination going. If we took the money spent on militarizing the police and spent it on (see below), our communities would start looking very different: