mindful living (Page 2)

[Note: This is a¬†series of posts related to topics I’ve shared with other white people. Some are lessons I’ve learned (almost always from Black, Indigenous, or Latinx people) and some are just about the journey of doing my best to shed whiteness to the best of ability at the present moment.]

I’ve learned recently that because I live with PTSD, that is, I have experienced trauma in my life (unrelated to racism), I need to learn skills to sort out which fears are related to old traumas (unrelated to racism), and which fears (dissociating, “leaving my body”) are related to the trauma that whiteness requires of me.

Last week, I experienced deep and nearly dissociative terror throughout my body in just imagining breaking the rules of whiteness. This was in a guided process facilitated by one of the instructors in the “Embodied Social Justice” program. The terror was so deep, it was almost exactly like symptoms of PTSD. It has become clear to me that to shed whiteness, I need also to strengthen my skills related to those other traumas. I want to know what is old, part of my story, and what is because of whiteness (something I share with other white people.

To be a white person who won’t harm Black, Indigenous, and other people of color and who can effectively play a part in our collective liberation, I must break through those terrifying barriers that prevent me from staying present with myself. Whiteness is so powerful. But, together, we can be more powerful.

[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! ūüôā ]

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.

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”

Many white people I talk to about the roles we play in upholding white supremacy in the USA recall the ...

27 years of alcoholism recovery and my ongoing addiction to whiteness

Note: This post is about me as a white woman dealing with my racism, written mostly for readers who are ...

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.”