I am a white guy who talks about racism.
I teach mostly students of color in a western Pennsylvania public school. I write a blog about education and issues of prejudice. And I participate in social justice campaigns to try and redress the inequality all around me.
But in my quest to be an anti-racist, one of the most common criticisms people hurl my way is to call me smug:
You think you’re so perfect!
You’re just suffering from white guilt.
You love black people more than your own people.
Things like that.
Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret.
I make mistakes.
All. The. Time.
I am just like every other white person out there. But I have recognized certain facts about my world and I’m trying to do something about them.
America is built on the genocide of over 110 million indigenous Americans and the enslavement of 30 million Africans. The idea of concentration camps didn’t originate with the Nazis. Hitler got the idea from U.S. treatment of Native Americans. Racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. It just changed shape and was hidden in the way we practiced health care, education, and policing all the way to mass incarceration.
And it’s getting worse. Hate crimes have jumped from about 70 incidents a year in the 1990s to more than 300 a year since 2001. And after Trump was elected, 900 bias-related incidents were reported against minorities within the first 10 days.
It does not make me special that I am trying to do what little I can about that. It just makes me human.
I am not perfect.
I am no better than anyone else.
But I am trying to do the right thing.
When I first became a teacher, I had the chance to go to the rich white schools and work with the wealthy white kids. I hated it.
I found that I had a real affinity for the struggling students, the poor and minorities.
Why? Probably because I have more in common with them than the kids who drove to school in better cars than me, wore more expensive clothes and partied with designer drugs.
Does that make me better than a teacher who stayed in the suburbs? No. But hopefully it gives me the chance to make a greater difference against white supremacy.
When I saw how unjust our school system is, I could have gotten out. Law school was definitely an option. So was becoming a technical writer or a job as a pharmaceutical ad rep.
But I dug in and spoke out.
I could have left, but who would be there to speak for my students? Who would speak truth to power about high stakes standardized tests, unaccountable charter and voucher schools, inequitable funding and the boondoggle of Common Core Standards?
Does that make me better than teachers who kept plugging away at their jobs but didn’t rock the boat? No way. But hopefully I have a better chance at helping change things for the better.
When I saw that politicians in my state wanted to stop the parents of my students from voting by trampling their civil rights with a voter ID law, I started a campaign asking the officials that were tasked with enacting the law to ignore it.
It was a hard battle that made me do things I was not at all comfortable doing. You try asking a public servant on camera to break the law and go to jail for what he knew was right.
Strangely enough, it worked. Along with several other campaigns throughout the state, we got the voter ID law declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.
Some people look at that and other accomplishments and think I’m conceited.
They say I’m a white savior hogging the spotlight for myself and keeping the very people I’m trying to help in my shadow.
That’s not my intention at all.
I wouldn’t be anywhere without the help and support of people of color.
Everything I’ve done in this fight has been with their help and encouragement.
Does that mean I’m impervious to making a racist comment? Does it mean I’ve never participated in a microaggression? Does it mean I see every racist impact of my society and my place in it?
I screw up every day.
But that’s the point. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to try.
One of the books that has helped guide me on this journey is Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun.
The chapter on “White Supremacy Culture” should be required reading for every activist organization or budding civil rights warrior.
The authors offer a list of characteristics that stem from white supremacy that can affect even the best intentioned of groups and individuals. These norms are difficult to name or identify but can lead to major dysfunction:
“They are damaging to both people of color and to white people. Organizations that are people of color led or a majority people of color can also demonstrate many damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture.”
And the number one characteristic is Perfectionism.
This involves the following bullet points:
“little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing; appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway
more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate
or even more common, to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them
mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are – mistakes
making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong
little time, energy, or money put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice, in other words little or no learning from mistakes
tendency to identify what is wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate what is right”
Solutions offered to this problem are:
“Develop a culture of appreciation, where the organization takes time to make sure that people’s work and efforts are appreciated;
develop a learning organization, where it is expected that everyone will make mistakes and those mistakes offer opportunities for learning;
create an environment where people can recognize that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results;
separate the person from the mistake;
when offering feedback, always speak to the things that went well before offering criticism;
ask people to offer specific suggestions for how to do things differently when offering criticism.”
These are things we should keep in mind as we try to move forward in this fight.
Certainly white people can be resistant to criticism and see any and every comment or appraisal as personal or demeaning – especially if that remark is made by a person of color.
Frankly, white people need to get a thicker skin about it. We need to realize that this impulse to personalize analysis is often a psychological attempt to avoid looking at oneself and what unconscious aspects of the social order one has internalized.
However, those offering criticism must realize that context is everything. We must create an environment where such remarks are constructive. Otherwise, they’ll do more harm than good.
None of this is easy.
But if we want to be anti-racists, that’s not the job we signed up to do.