I had some uncomfortable moments today. I think it makes sense to write about them here.
I follow Awesomely Luvvie on facebook. I’ve mentioned that before. The other day, she wrote a post critical of some other Black people for the ways in which they do activism. Specifically, she mentioned people who ask for “reparations” via PayPal and people of mixed race who are extra-loud, or something like that. The whole post can be found on her page and is also embedded in this article on BlackandBlewish.
That article is a cogent analysis of Luvvie’s original post and the many reasons many commenters hated it. If you have a few minutes, I recommend reading it.
Early in the process on facebook, when I first saw Luvvie’s post and when I hadn’t read any criticisms of it yet, I commented something like I appreciated hearing her perspective; I was “still mostly listening to Black people;” and I thought her post would help me listen more intelligently. Then I went to work. During the day, I started to see responses to my comment, and I just felt my stomach knot up. People did not like it. They were actually not as harsh as they could have been, which I appreciate, but for sure they did not like it. Several people said I should be listening more and to people other than just Luvvie, and pointed out that much of the rest of the comment thread was Black people telling Luvvie she was wrong.
While I think some of the responses were based on a misunderstanding– when I said I was still “mostly listening” to Black people, I meant that I am trying to listen more than talk, not that I think I only have to listen to Black people some of the time– that isn’t the point. It is 100% possible that my comment was offensive even the way I meant it. It’s possible that what I meant doesn’t matter as much as what I said. And it’s also possible that just the fact that I, a white person, was comforted by the post, is evidence that Luvvie was writing it more for me than for Black people.
I’m trying to give that I-might-be-wrongness space to sink in.
Here is white fragility:
When I began to get the feedback that I had messed up, I was flooded with fear and embarrassment. I instantly wanted to jump in and explain myself, give my credentials as a person who listens, really, honest, I swear! I wanted to figure out what the perfect thing would be to say that would make everyone happy with me.
I don’t have much of what my friend Deborah calls “racial stamina,” but I have more than I had a year ago. The things I think I did well today are: I did not delete my comment. I only replied once. I thanked the people who had replied for their perspectives and for pointing me toward other voices. I clarified what I had meant by “mostly listening” in case that had just been a misunderstanding. And then I started reading all the rest of the comments, and then the articles those comments led me to. (Including that one from BlackandBlewish.)
I am hoping I have the strength of character to leave it alone now no matter what else anyone says. The challenge for me, I think, is to separate how much I want everyone to like me from what I actually need to learn. The urge to protect my ego is so strong. I want to get in there and do whatever combination of apologizing and saying the right thing will make everyone agree that I’m a good person, and that’s just not the point. To be liked in a comment thread is not the point. The point is to actually listen, not just perform listening.
I might be wrong about that too.
This is white fragility, y’all. This whole episode of wanting to hide under the bed until no one remembers who I am was prompted by, like, five comments on a facebook thread. If that.
The good news is: this is better than I used to be. I didn’t get mega-defensive in my reply. I’m not tempted to send private messages to anyone to explain myself further or extract a promise from them that they aren’t really mad. I was embarrassed, and I don’t like how I think my comment made me look, but I’m not trying to fix it at the expense of integrity. If I fucked up, then I fucked up. Meanwhile, I’ve found some new people to follow on facebook and I’m going to have a broader perspective for the next time some of these topics come up.
And I’m going to try to stay open to criticism. It’s way harder for me than it probably should be. I’ve said before that when I started teaching, I was the thinnest-skinned person in the universe, and there’s just no way to go from there to competent third-year teacher without some discomfort. There’s no shortcut through that emotional process. I rather suspect the same thing applies here.
I’m grateful for the people in my world who remind me that any degree of toughening-up has painful moments, and that it’s okay not to be perfect.