Overwhelm, racism, and where to begin.
Updated: Dec 14, 2022
Yes you’re gonna mess this up, but that’s ok.
I hope you had a great Independence Day weekend… now let’s talk about racism. 😉
I recently began a Foundations for Social Justice course with Dr. Tee Williams, and while it’s not specifically about racism, the liberation framework he teaches is applicable to fighting all systems of oppression, and it’s really helping me find both better language, and a stronger community, around my anti-racism work. (Yay!)
Due to this class, I’ve been thinking a lot about anti-racism education, and the overwhelm and paralysis so many white folks are experiencing right now, as they face the beginning of that journey, given the #BLM material currently flooding social media.
While I long ago stopped doing my anti-racism work and learning on social media, I recognize that it’s an especially stressful and confusing place when it comes to learning the “rules” of how to do allyship, and how white folks are “supposed to” participate
Are we supposed to be speaking up to our racist cousins and followers, or are we supposed to sit down and shut up? Are we supposed to read anti-racism books written by white scholars, or can we only read books written by Black folks? How do we signal that we’re dedicated to anti-racism work without being performative about it?
It’s confusing. I get it.
During countless coaching sessions with white clients over the last few weeks, the constant refrain has been: I just don’t know how to get this right.
My clients, friends, and followers all want to do the right thing and fight for what they believe in. They want to be good people, and not get in trouble or hurt people. They’re terrified to see prominent white “allies” getting called out and attacked for trying their best, and they feel attacked by proxy, as well as paralyzed and overwhelmed.
The thing is, Black people are not a monolith. They don’t all agree on what white people should do, and there are actually some major conflicts among influential Black anti-racism leaders on the best way to be an ally.
This means that as white people, we’re not going to get it right. Trying to get Anti-Racism Work right is just as much of a losing battle as trying to get Conventional Beauty Ideals right. It’s impossible. We could literally devote our lives to following all the rules, and still not even come close.
Interestingly, this kind of perfectionist attitude is rooted in white supremacy. The conditioning that our value comes from being dominant over (and superior to) other people means we must always do everything right, always follow the rules perfectly, always be above error or reproach, and never make mistakes.
This is why so many white people feel paralyzed right now. They know they have to “do something” in order to maintain their status and identity as a “good person,” but they also know that doing something will inevitably lead to them making mistakes, which they’ve been taught to never do.
We have to let go of our attachment to perfection as the gold standard, and instead adopt a standard that centers growth, learning, continuous evolution, and a commitment to our values.
I didn’t always know this though. When I was in my early twenties, I remember talking to my partner about how much I loved fitness, and wanted to become one of the best female trainers in the country. He recommended some books, and I told him “no thanks, I didn’t read non-fiction.”
He asked why, and I said “because it’s not as special if I didn’t think of it myself.”
It feels silly to say now, but at the time I really felt like I needed to have original thoughts about everything. Somehow I got it in my head that having knowledge gaps made me stupid, weak, and shameful; that letting people teach me meant admitting personal failure. (Do you see patriarchal, white supremacist, and colonizer influences at play there? I do.)
I feel sad for my past self now, and beyond grateful that I eventually stopped defining myself by my dominance or superiority. I went on to adopt a mindset of learning, growing, and evolving. Reading non-fiction changed my life, and stepping into the identity of a lifelong learner instead of a know-it-all perfectionist has made my life and business infinitely richer, more successful, and more interesting than I ever could have imagined.
What I know now is that the hardest part of learning a new topic is always the very beginning. This is where we must be completely ok with… well, being beginners.
When I wanted to learn more about business and marketing, I came from a totally blank slate. I knew absolutely nothing, not even where to start. I was ashamed of this; it made me feel stupid, and bad about myself, and paralyzed.
If I had let ego and perfectionism run the show, I would have just decided I’m bad at business and marketing, quit, and not have a fulfilling coaching practice today.
Instead, I dove in. It was confusing. I probably read ten business and marketing books before I could even formulate the right questions to ask a business coach, and it was another several paid marketing programs and coaches later before I could intelligently speak about my specific strengths and weaknesses, goals, or plan as an entrepreneur.
Now when I have a business question or problem, I know where to go (who to hire, what skill to learn about, etc) and what to do to find the answer or solution. The box marked “business and marketing” in my mind is now absolutely overflowing with well-organized and interesting ideas.
I’m not good at business for any intrinsic reason, I’m good at it because I’ve committed myself to consistently learning about it, practicing it, and learning from experience over the last seven years.
The same thing happened with anti-racism work.
At first I felt totally overwhelmed, confused, and defensive about the whole topic. The box marked “racism” in my mind was completely empty, except for a tiny scrap of paper saying “it’s bad, but it’s not my fault.”
“What makes you think racism is still happening?” I asked my friends who had been doing it longer. They gave me book recommendations, and told me to start following and listening to Black people.
Start with education and the rest will follow, they said.
So I dove in.
I remember thinking that none of it made any sense, and none of it was “landing” with me. I was probably on my fourth or fifth book about the history of anti-blackness in the US before I could articulate ways in which racism is still happening, and why. It probably wasn’t until my tenth book (and a complete shift in who I expose myself to on the internet) that I felt any real empathy, or responsibility for my own personal role in upholding the system of white supremacy.
Many people who feel overwhelmed by anti-racism work right now want to do it perfectly but don’t know how, so instead they end up doing nothing. (It’s kind of like if you want to get in shape, but feel like half an hour twice a week isn’t enough time to “see results,” so instead you do nothing whatsoever.)
If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed about what to do in this new #BLM space, I suggest starting fucking anywhere. Seriously, just pick a book and dive in.
It’s only overwhelming in the beginning, while the box marked “anti-racism” in your mind is completely empty, and you’re filled with feelings of overwhelm, shame, confusion, defensiveness, and perfectionism.
Education is the way. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, or expect yourself to be naturally “good at it.” There’s no need to be perfect.
What you do need is to cultivate a learning and growth mentality, and to dive into the deep end and start your education.
Buy and read the books if you’re a book person. Listen to the podcasts and watch the videos if that’s your jam. Pay for the programs and courses, and join the workshops and communities.
It’s ok if it takes time before it “lands,” just keep going. Read and watch and listen and follow and discuss, and eventually that box will fill up, and the concepts and questions and topics will all come into focus for you.
This is life-long work, but the sooner you dive into the learning part, the sooner you’ll be able to articulate the right questions to ask, and strengthen the critical thinking skills required to decide what you want your role to be in all this.
It’s ok if you mess up. You will. I have. It’s all part of it. We’ve got this.
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