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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7 thoughts on “This white woman’s inner work

  1. Thank you for your insight, Heather. I was writing today about the internal and external work of all this (inspired by Shay saying that) and looking for examples of the internal. And here you are!

    • 🙂 You’re welcome! Thank you for reading and commenting. I’m never very sure about being white and writing about racism. It’s tricky! If you’re interested in Buddhism at all, I recommend Rev. angel Kyodo williams’ “Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation.” It made something “click” inside me in terms of my motivations for doing the inner work; helped me realize how much my own life was small because of my unexamined parts in white supremacy. I stopped wanting to fight racism to “help” others, but to live with integrity within myself and in community with others in a more authentic way.

  2. Thank you, Heather, for sharing so honestly here. I, too, am always having this internal dialogue with myself as I work on reconciling all those things you speak of–recognizing my white privilege, my racialized thoughts, my desire to de-center whiteness–and could relate to alot of the feelings you describe. It is a marathon. I am glad I am not alone running it.

    Thank you again. And of course, thank you to Shay Stewart-Bouley, for all of the important work coming out of BGIM.

    Wendy

    • Thank you! Thanks for commenting and helping to break down the lie that we’re alone. I just replied to another person and am going to copy a comment in case you are interested, “If you’re interested in Buddhism at all, I recommend Rev. angel Kyodo williams’ “Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation.” It made something “click” inside me in terms of my motivations for doing the inner work; helped me realize how much my own life was small because of my unexamined parts in white supremacy. I stopped wanting to fight racism to “help” others, but to live with integrity within myself and in community with others in a more authentic way.”

  3. So it takes a spiritual revolution/ rebirth to change the conscience of melanin deficient folks ? Good grief – can not you realized that even in New England, you would be so much better off if everyone here had the same “privileges” that you are so afraid of giving up !

    • Hi Viola! Thank you for reading and commenting. I believe we’ve exchanged messages before. I’ve thought about you since that time. Having just finished reading Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” I think my messages to you have been very indirect, very careful. I’m going to be blunt, and I suspect you will want to stop talking with me — but my offer to meet for coffee sometime when I’m in Boston still stands! — here’s what I think: What you are saying sounds to me like you have not spent much time examining your own part in white supremacy. As the author (R. DiAngelo) might describe it, it sounds like you don’t understand socialization.

      Being white in the USA means we are a part of white supremacy; we are raised from birth to view people of color as “less than.” We white people are racist, we participate and support white supremacy, no matter how much we don’t want to be. That doesn’t mean we are bad people, it means we are white in the USA. The fact that you hold so tightly to the notion that you are “not racist” at all tells me you are not being honest with yourself.

      The fact that you say “melanin deficient” instead of white suggests to me you want to position yourself as someone who is “woke,” rather than facing the fact that we all are a part of white supremacy, including me (a practicing Quaker) and you.

      Thank you, again, for reading and responding. I value every opportunity I have to talk with other white people about racism.

  4. Frankly Heather, I have no desire to meet with a racist , that is , hopefully, in the process of attempting to overcome their learned pathology. It is your issue and not mine. But I will say that the whole ideology of “white supremacy” is merely a defense mechanism used to hide the inconvenient fact that you … as a cohort …are, were and continuing to hide under the fact that you actually are the inferior one’s here. To obtain your false sense of superiority and continuing to do so, however, you must suppress those more superior to you — that is, those living amidst you with a more recent African heritage. If you want to see where I am coming from… be my guest and review my name and story that the children of Portland’s, King Middle School wrote in their 2010 series on the “Civil Right struggles of the 1960’s” !

    “Small Acts of Courage – King Middle School – Portland Public Schools
    https://king.portlandschools.org/Userfiles/Servers/Server_1097906/…/smallactsv1.pdf
    Anita Talbot’s involvement in civil rights and in helping others in her ….. From the moment Viola Hayhurst walked into the King Middle School library, we knew …”

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