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When I was 22 years old, I spent an academic year working as a substitute teacher. One day, I was assigned to a second grade classroom. Most experiences from the day were rather typical, but I became intrigued by one student’s behavior. Throughout the day, he issued a constant, verbal refrain to remind me that he was not like the rest of the children. Unlike them, he never needed to be corrected.
To the entire group of students, I would say things like,
“Okay, class, I need you to lower your voices.”
And he would respond with, “I wasn’t talking.”
“We need to stand in line as we walk down the hallway.”
And he would pipe up with, “I’m in line.”
“Eyes up here please.”
And he would declare, “I’m looking at you.”
This went on all day. The first time, it was kind of cute. Then it became increasingly annoying. Finally, it brought me to a place of curiosity, wondering what is going on in this child’s world. All day long, this refrain continued, even if I shared that he didn’t need to respond. His tone was never a huff of defensiveness. These verbal comments were spoken calmly as reminders that he made no mistakes, as if some intense form of perfectionism was already forming in his young life. When he said these comments aloud, he was reminding himself as much as he was reminding me. He needed this to be true. He needed to feel exempt from all forms of correction. His pattern was likely a defense to keep other feelings at bay. Perfectionism is frequently rooted in shame.
I have not thought of this memory in many years, but it came into my mind last night as some folks from my community were talking about racism. Specifically, we were discussing how white folks will frequently do just about anything to duck out of a conversation about race. If we* do enter, we have tendencies to remind ourselves and others that racism is real and wrong, but we’re not the ones who do or say racist things.
This is white fragility, a dangerous defense which works to keep certain feelings at bay. We don’t want to feel guilt and shame, so we remind ourselves and others that we aren’t racist.
Sure, most of us do not intend to hurt others through overt forms of racism. Yet we do make harmful mistakes, and we let stereotypes and fears go unquestioned. Most of all, we participate in systems of white supremacy which are designed to benefit and privilege white people at the expense of people of color. We inherited these systems, and collectively, we need to dismantle them.
But we can’t even begin to do that if we won’t enter honest conversations about race. We can’t even make a dent — in fact, we can create much more harm — if white folks do no internal work to recognize the internalized, racist ideas and instincts we carry within ourselves. We all have them. We were socialized to have them by virtue of the systems that surround us.
We want to feel enlightened as though we are above the fray. We are like that 2nd grade student.
The solution is not ultimately to get mired in feelings of guilt and shame. Those feelings may need to arise, but they’re not ultimately what’s at stake here.
What is at stake are the lives of people of color — lives which are subject to the violence and disadvantage of the systems of white supremacy we refuse to acknowledge. We need to question and dismantle the ways those systems operate.
An example is on my mind this morning. I encountered an important news story today: Five students who went to some of the least resourced and thus lowest performing schools in Detroit are now suing the state of Michigan, saying their constitutional right to literacy is being violated. The story discusses the perspective of one of these students: “He says he can’t even seem to get a teacher in every class. He is sick of being sent to the gym to play basketball during Spanish class because he has no Spanish teacher.” The conditions of Detroit Public Schools are inexcusable, harming the lives of young, students of color and their communities. This happens while nearby school districts with more white students flourish.
If we can’t reflect internally about racism’s role in our lives, how will we recognize that we participate in the continuation of these realities?
If we can’t talk to one another about race, how will we build partnerships to actually change these realities?
If we can’t move beyond our feelings and our “Not me!” denials, how will we ever see racism as the sinister reality it is?
*I’m white and am addressing white people most directly in this post. For that reason, when I say “we,” I am referring most specifically to white people.