[Before you do anything else, if you can, send some money to one or more of the organizations listed in this New Yorker article. I did not hit a paywall when I visited the page, but if that changes, I’d appreciate you letting me know.]
There’s nothing worse than a nice, white person trying desperately to be right. I know from personal experience, and while I would contend that I am not consistently nice, I am persistently white and I think being right is not terribly bad. When pressed, I would say that being happy is better than being right; that being inclusive and accommodating is better than being right; that toning down your natural antagonism is better than being right. These are things that I feel to be true when I am thinking about them consciously, on the top level of my brain, with intention.
In reality, that persistently white part of me has a lot of internal structures to dismantle. Patriarchy, white supremacy, sexism, you name it, this is the secret scaffolding that I inherited with my language and culture and in ignorance, convenience, and apathy, continue to build upon. The more I read and listen and learn, the more these internal structures come into focus and that’s when the real work starts. It is terribly hard to deconstruct and dismantle a foundation that is invisible to you. A good way to discover some of the most insidious i-beams is to, simply, fuck up.
White people hate fucking up. Oh, we hate it so much. We hate being wrong, feeling bad, being embarrassed, oh, deary me. In a world where everything is taken from others and repackaged for us, we hate it when someone says, “No.” Our insecurity at our own default-is-bland culture, our desperation to appropriate symbolism and meaning from the spirits of those colonized and exploited, our fear at knowing that there should be retribution, there should be anger, that everyone demanding to be heard has a valid fucking point and it’s scary. Because we are the historical perpetrators of violence writ large, we know what some chickens do. (CW for the violence that white people do.)
In an effort to address the protesting of police violence against Black people, in hopes of claiming solidarity to the movement that has energized people all over the world, some of my colleagues brought us together to demand change in our department and a statement to be made. The demand was initiated by a white colleague. That’s doing the work. And after that work was done and we were discussing logistics and whether faculty would be available to discuss this over the summer, I commented in a way that sided with prioritizing faculty getting paid.
I fucked up.
I missed the point.
I derailed the conversation.
I put already privileged people’s problems in front of those who are marginalized.
I neglected to situate my comment in the context of the larger conversation.
I forgot the experiences of my colleagues.
I never considered how my poorly chosen words could be hurtful.
I forgot the audience, the genre, the medium.
I wrote poorly.
I fucked up.
And in the interim of my comment being in chat, life outside happened and all the things I just listed hadn’t occurred to me, because I was speaking as I normally do, playing a bit of the antagonist, thinking about uncompensated labor in academia, wanting to make sure we thought pragmatically as well as… blah blah blah …well. None of that was needed. None of that was important. I missed the urgency of the mission. I missed the desperation of centuries of being dehumanized, exploited, raped, murdered, annihilated. I thought people should get paid for their work.
Yes, Heather, Nice White Lady, they damn well fucking should.
And the worst part, was that the person that reminded me of all the unpaid labor that build the privilege I currently enjoy, the person that did the labor, the person that told me I fucked up, the person who exposed more pillars of racism and white supremacy within my own head, was one of my BIPOC colleagues.
Not one other white person called me out.
Not one other white person did the work that we were all saying we had to do.
Y’all fucked up as well.
And I hope, like me, you take that opportunity of realizing you fucked up and reflect. Look at yourself in the mirror, mouth closed, mind open and focus not on your feelings, but the revealed structures that you carry, like the ones that made me tone deaf and privileged in a space where people are exhaustively screaming to be heard.
I apologized and got out of the way in that public space. Here, on my blog, I can make this about me. But this should also be about you, dear white person, and the hidden structures we all carry inside. Everyday we need to assess whether what we do is performative or productive. We need to worry less about being seen as socially aware and more at recognizing our shortcomings. We need to point out each and every beam of unconscious racism, sexism, white supremacy, that bubbles up in our conversations. Laser focus on that shit like a weed in a garden, like a tie-fighter in your targeting system – I don’t know. Pick a damn metaphor. But embrace fucking up as a path to getting better and getting right. And call out your persistently white friends when they fuck up. We’re the ones that need to do that work.
Look at all those chickens. Look at them. Look at me. Look at yourself.