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 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.