between books: first, do no harm

A thought I’d only halfway had my head around suddenly dropped into place this afternoon. I’ve tried to answer when white friends of mine have complained about feeling like they can’t ask Black people how to be better at combating racism, and I don’t believe I’ve had a good response until now.

Was that language salad? Let me try again:

One of the early steps in waking up to racism, at least in my personal experience, is realizing I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. It is deeply disorienting to look around all of a sudden and be like … wait. I thought I was doing it right. I thought we weren’t supposed to see color and we weren’t supposed to say the n-word and we were supposed to read “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and I did! And you’re telling me that …


Racism isn’t over. Okay, I get that, but I thought that meant there are still people in the United States who DO say the n-word. There are. I’ve seen stories about them. But you’re saying something different. You’re saying … I mean, you’re saying … you’re saying it’s everywhere, even now? It’s in my own life? I’m participating in it?

But I didn’t know.

The first task, I think, is to sit with that urge to be defensive and just … not. Much has been written about why that’s hard. I read this article just yesterday, in which John Metta says: “Black people, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system. White people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about ‘I, racist’ and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness. In doing so, they reject the existence of racism.”

My own experience suggests that it’s hard to look at the idea of “I, racist” because we’ve been told racists are bad people and we just don’t want to be bad. Still, more and more white people I know are doing that part of the work. Not enough, but more than before, we are listening when people tell us we’re wrong about racism: it’s here and now, and we’re complicit.

The next task is the one I actually sat down to write about. Once one has gotten used to the idea that one is wrong about racism and that it is time to change, the natural next question is: how? Okay, okay! Shit! There is a lot I don’t know! The people I thought I could trust, who told me everything would be fine if I was just really serious on MLK Day, were wrong! I can’t trust my teachers or my textbooks (I kind of knew that from Howard Zinn) and apparently I especially can’t trust the well-meaning white liberal relatives who’ve been assuring me I’m Doing It Right for years. (That last one was the one that really left me shaken.)

So what am I supposed to do know? Whom can I trust?

And the thing is: it’s very natural to want to turn toward Black people who are writing about how white people should be combating racism. When a newly-hatched little anti-racist chick who can’t yet feed herself first looks around and sees, oh, there’s a super bright and strong adult bird who has clearly thought about this a lot and has opinions about what I should do next, it’s tempting to just ask the bird. Hi. I’m new here. How do I get out of this nest?

The thought that finally dropped into place for me today was:

first, do no harm.

My metaphor fails because there is a difference between a Black bird who is living racism as well as fighting it and a white bird who hatched a little earlier and already knows how to fly. The hatchling doesn’t know it, perhaps. The hatchling just looks around and is like, “Oooh, anti-racist teachers for me!” The hatchling might even think it is better to ask a Black bird than a white one, since Black birds are the ones who know. Meanwhile, the Black bird has other shit to do. Survive white supremacy, for example. Maybe write at her own pace on topics of her choosing. It is not her job to deliver individualized instructions to every half-blind thin-skinned chick who demands them. It is also not her job to babysit that chick through the completely predictable but emotionally exhausting process of developing wings.

Do no harm.

That bird is not your mother.

My metaphor also fails because it doesn’t take into account that hatchlings can read. If there were no way to learn about racism other than asking people of color, then while we could think about minimizing harm, we would still have to ask. But y’all, it’s 2017. Google is a thing. People have been writing about racism for a long time. They’re writing about it now. Hell, that grown bird you wish would just parent you already has probably written ten articles about how chicks should behave. A responsible chick would keep quiet, find the articles, and start doing the work without ever making demands of the birds she admires.

I might be wrong about this. I’m half-grown myself and making mistakes all the time. Here’s the information I’m putting together:

  1. It’s a common complaint in anti-racist spaces that people of privilege, especially white people, have a tendency to center ourselves in every conversation.
  2. Entering a conversation between people of color to ask how I, a white person, can be a better ally to them is centering myself.
  3. I’m still tempted to do it.
  4. I think that’s because I’m so afraid of making a mistake that I want to be instructed in every little detail.
  5. It’s also, honestly, way easier to be coached than to do research.

My conclusion is that, while it is always a gift when a thoughtful person who has experienced racism is willing to give me specific advice about how I should combat it, I have no right to expect that. At the macro level, I should be learning from people of color– but I should be doing that by seeking out their work without bothering them individually.

Do no harm.

Self-control among hatchlings is in short supply, but it’s worth cultivating. I’ve come to believe that my job as a white person includes going out of my way when possible to learn what I need to learn without making Black people’s lives harder.

What’s your experience with this? Do you agree?


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