This white woman’s inner work

In this post on Black Girl in Maine, Shay Stewart-Bouley writes to white people: “You aren’t going to read 75 books, amplify marginalized voices online, donate money, attend rallies and occasionally have an uncomfortable encounter and earn a good white person badge. That’s not how any of this works. Instead, your mission if you accept it is to strike at the heart of white fragility both internally and externally.”

What does doing “internal” racial justice work look like? I wrote a bit about doing internal work here, and here, but in this post* I’m going to experiment with going inside some aspects of my experience in a train-of-thought way. (This won’t be a post that offers solutions.)

I’m a middle-aged white woman with a nice smile. As I’ve become less visible in our culture, carrying more weight and showing my age, I’ve noticed a decrease in some of the special treatment I used to get when I was younger and thinner.

When I started learning about white privilege, I became hyper-aware of the good treatment I receive in public spaces, even as a relatively less-visible older woman. I’m also able-bodied, cis-gendered, and come from an upper/middle-class socioeconomic background. The world generally treats me well. Sometimes, when I’m out in public being treated well, I feel a nervousness.

This is what it’s like: I feel an emotional shakiness. Maybe twinges is the right word? There’s a wordless sense that I’m going to lose something valuable. In my body it’s a whispery bad-butterflies in my tummy kind of feeling. Anxiety. My nervousness is that part of me doesn’t want to lose what I have.

Some of me likes trusting the police will look out for me and assume the best of me. Some of me likes that I’m frequently called on first when a group of us is waiting for [insert any group-waiting activity like boarding a ferry or purchasing something at a store where the line isn’t well-formed]. It’s convenient and nice to know most servers will defer to me and give me what I want. Store clerks won’t assume I might steal something.

Why do I feel like I might lose this? Realistically, our whole social structure of white supremacy isn’t going to change overnight. I’m not going to lose my nearly-top-of-the-heap social status overnight. Plus, in some ways, the ideal would be everyone gets to be treated as well as most white people are treated. Why do I feel scared or uncomfortable? Part of it is that I’m working on finding ways to change these structures. I am actively working to change a system that benefits me. It’s confusing!

There’s nearly constant cognitive dissonance. I know it’s not right that I get all this good treatment, this assumption of innocence that people of color don’t get to have. The nerves are probably related to shame, too, that I get this and other people don’t. Not that it’s my “fault,” but as I benefit from the good stuff, people of color don’t. What do I do? Do I walk around saying “don’t treat me so well!”

And then, there are my own emotional/spiritual sickness issues of too frequently putting other people’s needs first. I’m working on those issues, too. So should I celebrate the fact that I expect to be treated well? Should that be an example of how I move in the world in a positive way, that my needs matter?

As I said, I’m not talking about solutions in this post. I’m only talking about how much of my mind and emotional energy goes into sorting through these confusing feelings. I feel the fear, the anxiety, and the shame. I feel the enjoyment of good treatment by strangers when I’m out in public. Feeling all of these mixed up feelings is a part of what I have to do to clear away the garbage and get to being just human.

Part of this noticing all of these mixed-up feelings has led me to realize how much of my racial justice work has to be done on a spiritual and emotional plane. I can’t think my way into not being complicit in white supremacy. I can’t even act my way into changing. Like an addict who wants another hit, I like being treated really well and believed the lie that it doesn’t hurt anyone. In many ways, it goes against the ugliest parts of my nature to change the system. My addiction to white supremacy wants me to keep coasting.

For me, and I recognize this won’t be the case for many other people, I need to turn to prayer and meditation to help clear the garbage out of my head. The fear of losing my status is something intellectually I know is foolish—I want the system of status to be dismantled and I’m working on being a part of that change—so I use my spiritual tools to release me from the bondage of self, of fear, and I let go.

Usually I don’t try to put into words how things are changing inside of me, but they absolutely are. I have no gifts like spiritual leaders like Thich Nhat Hanh or Rev. angel Kyodo williams who can use words to describe spiritual transformations. But I want other white people to know that the messy emotional expression I just did in this post is only one part of the inner work I do. I have the over-thinking (thinking enough?), hyper-awareness (absence of denial?) and I have new peace.

I can be with my advantages, notice them, and always be on the lookout for ways I can share them. Racial justice work is a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes I’m a mess inside, sometimes I’m grounded and okay. As long as I’m continuing to learn and practice in my everyday life, I’ll be doing more good than harm.


* As a writer for Black Girl in Maine Media’s blog, I was tasked with writing about racism without centering on whiteness. Through that work, I realized I haven’t yet found a way to do that. In the introduction to Robin DiAngelo’s new book, White Fragility: Why it’s so hard to talk to white people about racism, she says she’s going to center on whiteness because she hasn’t figured out how not to do it while also using her position as a white person to bring important issues to wider audiences. I suppose that’s where I am, still, in my own racial justice work. In this post, I’m writing mostly to white people. I welcome readers of color, of course, but, again, what I say may cause harm because I haven’t learned how to not center on whiteness. As I said: yet.


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Learning about white culture to unlearn it as the default

Driving through Oxford County, Maine, over the weekend, my daughters and I were talking about how fascinating and puzzling it is for us to imagine being a family whose idea of fun would be hanging out in an RV in the parking lot of the Oxford Plains Speedway and going to the races. We talk quite a bit about racism and whiteness, as well as socioeconomic differences and similarities among people here in Maine. I got to thinking about the question: What exactly is white culture? I have my own ideas, but surely scholars have studied this, right? (They have.)

I have some ideas about what I think “white culture” means, but that’s informed by my own background. What are the qualities that make whiteness, the culture? Maybe something about being restrained and tight in communications? I don’t actually know. I’m curious. I want to know more. What is white culture? What do I think about this essay describing white culture? What are the traits that make someone “seem white,” and how are our children taught those qualities in school and in life?

And that’s when I realized what I’d like for young children to learn today. I’d like there to be lessons about white culture and whiteness. I’d like for us (especially white people) to examine how we learn how to be white; what are whiteness’ expectations for social and economic success? As Ijeoma Oluo wrote in “White People: I Don’t Want You To Understand Me Better, I Want You To Understand Yourselves,” “Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it’s required your ignorance.” She’s not the only voice of knowledge sharing this concept—we white people need to understand whiteness, how we learn it and perpetuate it and expect it wherever we go. (Again, my curiosity runs away with me here…those of us white people from financially comfortable backgrounds probably expect everyone to be like us even more than white people who come from poverty; how is that taught? How can we unlearn it?)

I’ve been imagining what it might be like if young children learned about whiteness: that it is one culture out of many. Perhaps then it wouldn’t be assumed that the default is whiteness. Children could go through their schooling with a critical eye. I’m confident they would catch many of the ways whiteness seeps into every facet of their lives if they were taught early about the ways we’re steeped in the expectations of whiteness. The teachers and children could still continue with their studies, but they’d bring with them an awareness that most lessons are taught with an assumption that whiteness is the default. They could take apart everything they learn as they go.

And, because there are few spaces that are 100-percent white, I’d want these lessons to be shared with the understanding that almost everyone in the United States learns how to be white—to survive, most people of color must learn to code switch—but to be sure to bring in Black and brown racial justice experts to guide the lessons, making sure Black- and brown-bodied children aren’t harmed by the study of whiteness.

It turns out (remember, Google is always our friend!) there are tools to help teachers as they are teaching while white, including a “build a learning plan” tool. Even in just a few Google searches I can see that the study of white culture is definitely already a thing (here’s one example); I just haven’t studied it myself, yet.

So, alongside the valuable lessons children in many schools are learning about “different cultures” (e.g. music from Indonesia, cultural studies of South American countries, fundraising for Puerto Rico, attending performances of theater groups like Maine Inside Out, etc.), students might learn about white culture as just one of the many “different” cultures. And, instead of those “other” cultures seeming to be exceptions to the whiteness-rule, the children could know that whiteness as default is a lie kept in place by power-hungry, greedy, selfish people who don’t know how to share. (Children recognize how not-sharing is problematic!)

Perhaps if generations of children learn about whiteness and white culture, we might have a better chance at dismantling white supremacy. As I’ve mentioned before, a white friend of mine pointed out that white supremacy wants to keep us apart. Understanding whiteness can shed light into those spaces we’ve been tricked into ignoring. Let’s walk together in the light.


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If you are a witness to injustice, will you intervene?

Preparing to write this piece, I started with the suggestion that I address current events, such as the wrongful arrest of two men in a Starbucks for the crime of sitting in a Starbucks. Of course, identifying an event for discussion where people of color are treated like garbage in public doesn’t require digging. Here’s an example, here’s another example, and here’s another one. So many of us want to end this violence; so many want to make a difference. What can we do?

That people of color have been treated as second-class citizens, as criminals, and as less than human has been true since Europeans took over the land where the United States exists today. People of color know the truth; they live it every day. White people facing the truth comes in waves. We all know something about the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s. We know about Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus (not all of us know about Claudette Colvin, now only 78 years old, who took action before Rosa Parks). But even in this age of phones recording video and social media sharing the stories, many people consider each of the stories of violence against people of color as isolated incidents. They aren’t. They are a part of a system of oppression many call “whiteness.”

So, the first step for many of us in changing our system of racism is to recognize it is a system. It isn’t just some bad apples. It isn’t isolated incidents with incident-specific explanations. The mistreatment of people of color—and all people who don’t fit whiteness’ defined default—is, as they say, not a “bug” in the design. It’s a feature. It is part of what makes our systems work. It helps to recognize each of these incidents as parts of a larger system when we consider what we might do to work for change.

We want to believe if we saw Rosa Parks (or Claudette Colvin) being told to move to the back of the bus we would’ve stood up and told the racists to leave her alone. But, moving from being a bystander to someone who intervenes when you are a witness to injustice requires preparation. It requires education and practice.

Understanding and correcting our own implicit biases honestly and deeply is an essential step in being of service if you are a witness to injustice. If at any level of your being you think “they must’ve done something wrong if they are being treated badly” because of how someone presents themselves, you will be less likely to get involved. How do you understand and rid yourself of implicit bias? There are many, many resources available online (some to connect you to offline resources). Here are a few: 4 Things We Can Do to Minimize Implicit Bias; Four Tools for Interrupting Implicit Bias; or, How to Fight Your Own Implicit Biases.

Learn about the “bystander effect.” Know that being in a larger group of people will make it less comfortable to get involved if you are a witness. There are tools online and in your community to learn how to overcome this and other obstacles. Googling “bystander intervention” is a good start. Hollaback! offers webinars and their website has excellent, practical resources.

Talking to my friends from marginalized backgrounds confirms what I’ve learned online: one of the most important steps to actively and visibly take a stand against harassment or mistreatment of others in public settings is to make contact with the person who is the target. Follow their lead. Do they want your involvement? Perhaps your involvement might make things worse for them. But making contact, human to human, can make a difference.

Find opportunities to practice intervening. Again, Google and other search engines are our friends. Local nonprofit organizations certainly offer trainings that can help. It’s been my experience that until we risk saying something stupid and actually say something, we will remain silent—and ineffectual. We can’t let our fear of making mistakes prevent us from trying to affect change in ourselves or the wider world. We will make mistakes. But if you see someone being treated badly, don’t be the person who tries to ignore it. If you do not let the person being mistreated know you are on their side, you will be on the side of the perpetrator.


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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