Cherish myself? But I’m a white woman…

When I wrote about racism back in the days of my Bangor Daily News column, the comments always included someone telling me I shouldn’t “hate myself” because I’m white. I always thought the readers were missing the point—I had worked through “white guilt” back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I knew all the facts about how I wasn’t a “bad person” necessarily just because I’m white. Learning about the horrors of racism and facing the truth required me to stretch into knowing that I wasn’t personally a bad person and also that because of my social location I have played a part in upholding oppressive and violent racist systems.

About 10 years ago, I lost a friendship with a woman who is Black because I still hadn’t dug into my own skewed way of being in the world. I didn’t understand how whiteness—not “being white” but rather the culture of white supremacy—shaped how I lived. With spiritual practice, lots of reading and workshops and conversations, I’ve been growing in my own racial identity. I thought I didn’t have “white guilt” anymore. The systems aren’t my fault; I just need to work to change them.

Let me add that as I’m writing about my personal experiences as a white woman from a privileged and liberal background, I am not speaking for all white people. I have my own emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physiological life that informs my racial identity growth; my individual experience is unique to me, but there are many aspects of it that I know are common to other white people who have gone before me and who are now on this journey toward collective liberation. And, we white people who want to live in solidarity with people of color need to know ourselves. We need to understand and change the parts we play in upholding white supremacy if we are ever going to be trustworthy.

A week or so ago, a white friend—having white friends who are invested in transformational healing as white people is so important—and I met on Zoom so I could process a cross-racial/cross-class/cross-gender social experience I had where I was stuck in my head, frantically unable to be present in my body. She told me that she was curious about my mentioning that I am working on “shedding whiteness” (something I’ve written about here before a lot). She said, “But you are white, how is that something you can shed?” And I was puzzled, because I know she understands the concept of “whiteness,” so I said, “I’m not trying to shed being white, I’m totally fine with being white.” She said, “I’m going to stop you there…really? Are you sure?”

Cue the big dramatic DUN DUN DUNHHHHHH music.



A lightbulb went off in my head (and because we were using embodied practices in our Zoom call the light flowed through my body)! Holy crap. Wait. Am I okay with being white?

My friend on this call invited me to use a Buddhist practice of breathing in and saying to myself “I cherish myself,” and breathing out, “I cherish all beings.” Cherish myself? When it’s white women who are used as a tool to kill people? See “How White Women Use Themselves as Instruments of Terror” for some examples. Everything Hannah L. Drake writes in “Karen Is You” lines up with my own process of looking in the mirror and finding racism (especially anti-blackness) that initially horrified me and threw me into an identity crisis. I always considered myself “one of the good ones,” before I started digging.

In my heart and in my brain, I know that cherishing myself, holding myself as beloved, will benefit everyone around me. But, the conflict of facing the truth of how horrific white women have been and continue to be has blocked me. There’s shame I’m uncovering. It’s too newly discovered to share understandings about it, yet, but I am sure it isn’t something helpful. A consultant I’ve been working with described a scene from Game of Thrones where a character was walking down a street naked and people were throwing rotten vegetables at her. I have to admit, I think I’ve been doing that to myself. And I’m also blocked because I’m “not supposed to center myself” and I’m also finding out that I need to learn how to love myself as a white woman.

This isn’t linear or tidy or simple. Thankfully, I’m finding the path of excavating the garbage from inside me is also a path of joy and connection with the world around me. One thing I’m sure of: I have a lot to learn.

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How to be a white person who is friends with Black people

Even though I’m a 51-year-old adult, my experience of friendship feels new. Or, rather, it changes and grows as I change and grow. Because I don’t feel like I’m very skilled at friendship, I must admit that writing about it—and adding the dimensions of race and class into the topic—feels presumptuous at best. However, I’ve talked to many people (mostly white, but not all) about cross-racial and cross-class friendships and some things keep coming up that I want to try to share as I’m learning.

I’m going to talk about friendships we white people might have with Black people, though much of what I say might be applied to friendships with Indigenous people or other people of color, too.

As most readers of this blog know, white people tend to mostly only know other white people. Most of us white people only know a handful of Black people. And, of those people we do know, usually we don’t know them well. Or, perhaps we think we’re “friends” but if the Black person were asked they’d give a different answer.

Because so many white people want to be anti-racist and want to “fix” the problem of living in “silos” a lot of us really wish we had Black friends. Even as we know this is a gross way of looking at friendship (the statement alone dehumanizes Black people, as if they are a commodity, just an object to attain and display). At first, though, as our racial identity begins developing, I’ve found this is a common response. I talk with white people who have become even less comfortable talking to Black people they already know because there’s now a worry that it’ll seem like we’re just looking for “a Black friend.” Whether or not there are shared interests, common values, or other interpersonal groove-points that might make a friendship develop aren’t even a part of the picture because we white people are so hung up.

So, before you even think about trying to be a better friend to Black people in your life, or, god forbid, go out looking for Black people to befriend (DO NOT DO THIS), take a step back.

Realize that it’s quite possible to be an anti-racist and a good person while not having any friends who are Black. In fact, trying to expand your social circles in your antiracism work shouldn’t be one of the first steps you take.

Know yourself. Have you really and truly dug into your own racism, your own implicit biases, and your own racial identity?

I take an “if I built it, they will come” attitude about friendships in general. What I mean is, I work on becoming someone who deserves trust before I ask someone to trust me. Friendships aren’t necessarily linear, of course, but when I was still mired in the shame of white guilt and hadn’t learned how to even be in the same physical space with Black people, there was just no way I was going to deserve people’s trust if they were Black. I would have flung microaggressions their way without realizing it, for example. I might’ve asked them to explain racism, or only talked about race and racism, or… there are so many things I’ve done in the past that I (mostly and hopefully) wouldn’t do now.

Don’t assume you are entitled to friendship with Black people. This is a phrasing I got from a friend (who is Black woman) who gave me feedback about this post. Part of whiteness is the assumption that we deserve all the good things in life, including assumptions about friendships. Broad strokes here, of course, but lots of us have insecurities and low self worth, etc. For white people, though, no matter our complicated emotional or psychological makeups, we often move in the world assuming we should get what we want. And for reasons that may have well-meaning and good-hearted aspects but also—at the same time—racist and self-centered aspects we want to “win” at being antiracist. We want to show ourselves and the world that we aren’t racist and “having Black friends” can feel like the ultimate prize.

Again, I’m calling on feedback from my editor friend (who is a Black woman), here, in framing anti-racism work as something we white people so often think we can or should win or complete. No. Being human with other humans isn’t something we can win.

My best advice about being a white person who is friends with Black people is to start out by not trying to make it happen. Work on yourself, on your own racism, and your own sense of entitlement. Understand that this is okay. It doesn’t inherently make you a bad person. Practice being a friend to your current friends in deeper ways. Include anti-racism in friendships you have with white people. Get involved in anti-racism work wherever you are now instead of seeking out multiracial groups if that would be just for the chance to build friendships with Black people. Recognize that the urge to “have Black friends” likely has a lot of racism inside it. Unpack that, understand it, and practice doing it differently. Antiracism isn’t something we can win or graduate from. It’s got to be a part of our life as we are living it now.

[An evergreen reminder: I am a white woman writing about racism so I might share with other white people what I learn—mostly what I learn from Black, Indigenous, and other people of color—so we can all work toward societal transformation; our collective liberation.]

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Calling All White People, Part 46: You already know the answer

Calling All White People, Part 46

TODAY’S EPISODE: Stop asking other people (especially POC) what you should do   

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

BGIM recently posed a question online—I think it was on Facebook but it really doesn’t matter—asking people what “Black Lives Matter” means to them beyond just putting up signs or sharing memes. To ask them what they are doing to actually show that Black lives really do matter and to support those lives.

Predictably, it didn’t take long for someone to ask, “What would you suggest that I do?”

BGIM noted that it seemed she shouldn’t have to offer suggestions—that people should have some sense of what Black lives mattering mean to them and what they are willing to do. And yet the ask was re-asked: But as an anti-racism expert, what do you think I should do?

Now, this may seem perfectly fine—there’s an professional in a field there, and you ask them their opinion. But it isn’t fine, because it’s actually deflection. It’s what we white people so often do: Express that we care about something, do little or nothing about it…and then when called on our horsecrap say, “Well, what can we possibly do to move the needle?”

Here’s why asking BGIM what to do was wrong, and why it’s just as wrong to ask other Black people or, depending on the situation, other people or color or other marginalized people, what you should do. (And there are better questions to ask—a better way to ask—but we’ll leave that for the end).

The reason is that most of us know what we should do. We white people are not ignorant of what to do. We may not know the best things. We may not know all the things. But we do know what we can do. And to ask someone else what we can do—or should do—is to pretend to be helpless because often what we really want to do is nothing but offer platitudes from our sofas and easy chairs.

Let me give you an example that isn’t about racism or other forms of bigotry: The environment.

Instead of a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard, you have bumper stickers on your car that say things like “Save the Whales” or “We Don’t Have a Backup Planet.” And someone asks you what protecting the environment means to you—and what you are doing beyond rocking some bumper stickers.

Can you really tell me that in that moment you couldn’t express even an awkward statement of what the environment and its preservation mean to you? Are you really telling me that you couldn’t mention anything you’ve done, however small, to protect the environment? Are you telling me you couldn’t think of other things that maybe you could (or should) do to be even more environmentally conscious?

If you can answer yes to any of those three questions, chances are you’re a damn liar and just don’t want to accept that BGIM’s pushback on the social media response to her question was entirely appropriate and that my assessment it’s deflection is largely accurate.

We all know basic environmental things we can do: Drive less, recycle more, buy gently used items instead of new ones, don’t purchase and consume so many non-biodegradable products.

Those are just the easy ones—the tip of the iceberg. People have been talking about them for years, and finding more things you could do if you were so inclined is as easy as a Google search. Or, you know, actually listening to the people talking about what to do when they talk about fighting racism. Like challenging fellow white people when they are being racist, or supporting anti-racism organizations, or supporting Black people’s work with money, etc.

Black people and Indigenous people and other people of color have been talking about racism for a long time. Telling us what we shouldn’t be doing and suggesting what we should. Black people in particular. The information is out there. If you don’t know what to do, you are ignoring them and refusing to put any work into looking up all the information they’ve already put out there. And more likely you know what to do but aren’t doing it, and you’re asking the nearest Black person (especially if they’re an expert) to tell you what to do so that you can either:

  • Make it seem like you care more, instead of just answering the question or silently going about doing what you should be doing to fight racism
  • Declare how the thing(s) they’ve suggested are beyond your ability, so that you can do nothing while telling yourself you did all you could do

We can’t all be the ones who put our bodies between police and Black people at protests. We can’t all be the ones with endlessly deep pockets to support numerous Black causes, Black artists, Black businesses. We can’t all be the ones to boldly confront—or sometimes punch out—racists in public. But some of us need to be—more of us need to be—and often we simply choose not to be. As for the rest who really can’t do those things, there are other things within your ability other than just posting a Black Lives Matter sign.

And you know it. So stop pretending you don’t.

Now, for future reference, the better kinds of questions to ask BGIM or someone else on this topic:

  • Hey, I’m doing [this thing or that other thing] but do you have any thoughts on how I can push that to the next level?
  • I’m doing [whatever] but wondering if this way of doing it is wrong and/or if the entire activity is a misuse of my time and energy—what do you think?
  • Well, I’m looking to support [XYZ kinds of activities] but I don’t want to choose unwisely. Do you have suggestions about the most reputable or effective ones to give to?

I mean, I’m sure there are other valid questions, too, but those are the biggies. Point is: Do something other than just put up a sign. And when you’re asked to do more, don’t just ask what to do like some passive observer. Don’t act like you’re powerless. Moving the needle anywhere is valuable, even if you don’t move the bigger societal needle in any noticeable way. And the more of use moving the needle in small ways as well as big ones, the quicker we’ll get past the worst of anti-Black racism and others of the ugliest forms of bigotry we have on tap in this country.

(As always, this column is my periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm. – Average White Guy)

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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