White Folks Facing Race: Perfectionism is Silencing Me
I apologize for my long absence. The first few months of the school year have been more demanding than in the past (something about having kids in two different schools in two different districts…). I’ve been thinking about all of you, especially as we crash headlong into another election cycle, but also every time I struggle with something because I imagine you may be struggling, too.
And I have been struggling, which is why I haven’t been writing to you.
I have been devoting more time and energy in understanding my own barriers and challenges in anti-racism work, particularly perfectionism. Perhaps it’s because I’m starting from almost zero in building local relationships here in Denver, and perhaps partially because so many opportunities to connect are still virtual, but it has been more challenging than I had hoped to start building multicultural, multiracial relationships of solidarity with my community members.
And my struggles here have undermined my belief that my words and actions make a difference to anyone else because the voice in my head tells me that I am not enough.
Part of the challenge in building solidarity is unsurprising — our communities are segregated, even in more integrated school settings, so my neighbors and the people who I interact with on a daily basis are mostly like me, at least on the surface. I am not organically pulled into relationship with people who have a very different lived experience than mine. And yes, I choose sometimes to place myself in different spaces in hopes of creating these opportunities, and that’s when perfectionism undermines me.
I am acutely aware of how I show up in majority BIPOC spaces. I am aware that my mere presence might pose a potential threat. Even with my significant work to learn antiracist behavior, I can still harm others with a careless/ignorant word or action. To be clear, without exception, whether known or a stranger, I have been welcomed into these spaces, sometimes joyously so, and it has always been a humbling and affirming experience. Even so, my fear of causing harm can be petrifying and prevents me from showing up authentically, limiting my ability to build relationships.
In October, I volunteered to help set up an NAACP Halloween party with the local Denver chapter. I had joined the chapter right away after we moved and I had been watching for an opportunity to participate. It was so energizing to be in a majority BIPOC space again and I appreciated the opportunity to work alongside chapter members and create a fun event for local kids. I paid attention to how I was showing up, following rather than leading, engaging in conversation and trying to be thoughtful and present.
Throughout, I understood the underlying fact that in order to be in solidarity with people, showing up at one event is not enough. Building relationships moves “at the speed of trust” (adrienne marie brown in Emergent Strategy) and that takes time, showing up consistently and often. And, perhaps equally importantly, it is not the job of other people to validate me or tell me that I’m a “good white person” so that I feel like I’m doing the right thing. Showing up and building trust never end.
I am both furious about and grieving for what white supremacy has taken from me, taken from each and every one of us. The barriers and challenges lie like so many landmines and broken glass between us, interfering in our efforts to build true community with each other.
It is also deeply personal. The persistent undermining voice in my head points out all of the mistakes I have made, the time and energy I am not investing, the urgency and sense of futility that creeps in, the knowledge that any single significant shift is unlikely in my lifetime. The voice reminds me constantly that I am a potential danger to people around me because I haven’t read all of the books or articles, I haven’t listened to all of the podcasts, I haven’t talked to enough people yet or listened to enough activists. The voice says that I have nothing to contribute, no experience or perspective to offer, no ability to change the world around me.
I have been listening to that voice for too long, allowing it to silence me.
So, with each of you as a witness, I am fighting back. I have never truly wavered from antiracism work since I committed to changing my life and my community in 2014. It has become too much a part of me, every decision, every interaction, every hope and dream. I have been so grateful to have found an inclusive and welcoming new school community for my youngest two children and I hope to find a similar community for my eldest next year. They do exist and they give me hope that our work does make a difference.
I will continue to reach out to education equity connections locally and more widely, as that is still where my passion is strongest. I will breathe and be patient with the pace of change, even as I push myself to keep things moving forward. I will also remember that raising my children to be more antiracist than I am is more impactful than I give myself credit for.
I will also allow grace and gentleness with myself, especially when I struggle. I will reach for solidarity rather than perfection, relationship rather than loneliness. I will allow myself to be the messy person I am and reserve judgment when people around me are also messy and imperfect. I will listen to understand, not to convince, and work to find common ground in every conversation.
Will you join me? I would love to feel your hand on my back (thank you Christine D’Ercole) as we move forward into whatever the future has in store for us.
Listen. Amplify. Follow. In Solidarity.
PS. Apparently I should have listened more to my pre-pandemic voice from February 2020: “Do Not Let The Perfect Be The Enemy of The Good”