You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby – But Not That Far: Real White Work

Content warning: this blog entry centers a white experience and discusses white guilt and fragility. Primarily intended for other white people.

Recently I moved from a very, very white place to a very diverse place. Where I lived before, I didn’t think about how race factored into my community until I started realizing how few black people were in the places I went every day. Shortly after the death of Eric Garner, I saw a black man in the supermarket. I wanted to ask him if he was doing okay or tell him “black lives matter” but couldn’t decide if it was appropriate, so I just smiled at him. I don’t think he noticed me; he was busy grocery shopping and probably just trying to buy some spaghetti or something before a white person tried to ally at him (or worse).

Later on in the fall, a black man started riding his bike to work through my neighborhood. I remember being stunned because that was when I really realized how white my town and my neighborhood was. I couldn’t recall ever seeing a not-white person there before. Shortly after that, I had read an article about white people not asking black friends to come into majority white spaces without a specific set of actions to ensure their safety. I sold some camera equipment to a stranger online, arranged a meetup at the local Trader Joe’s – where again, I later realized I had never seen a person of color – and the stranger turned out to be black. The transaction was smooth and quick; the internal embarrassment I felt at an overwhelmingly white location and my assumption of default whiteness, highlighted by that article I read, has been bumpy and long.

I’m a homebody with social anxiety. I’ve done lots of reading and critical thinking about social justice issues, and feel like I’ve come a long way, baby – I’m proud to have some embarrassing post-racial beliefs firmly in the rearview mirror and of my willingness to accept the responsibility of figuring out my own white guilt, calling friends and family in (or out), putting effort into finding and supporting news and cultural sources that don’t make an echo chamber for my own white experience. I’m pleased as punch to say that I work hard to sit humbly with the discomfort of someone telling me I done fucked up online over something I thought I already knew or haven’t learned about yet (or worse, getting zero reassuring feedback at all – oh, the fragile white anxiety in my brain!).

After the 2016 election here in the US, I started to view other white people with suspicion. How many of them had voted for someone that was obviously racist and with policies that posed a danger to me and my family? It was a tiny, tiny hint at the kind of safety worries that people of color face every day. I realized it was microscopic in comparison and it still felt huge.

All of that was worth almost-bupkis when I moved to my new neighborhood.

My new community is majority not-white. We arrived and stayed in a hotel for a few nights where we were in a racial minority. When I went to the local CVS that first night, which was very busy full of regular people living their lives, I was in the racial minority. I felt super uncomfortable.

In the next several days, I felt excited. I talked to a white friend who went through a similar experience about having to tone that excitement back so as not to be a weirdo or be playing at ally theater. But overwhelmingly, it’s not the excitement that gives me the most pause – it’s my continuing discomfort.

It is pretty in-your-face when you are feeling the uncomfortable effects of recognizing your privilege, latent racism, and ally theatership in actual, real-life spaces. You can learn a lot from good online communities, critical reading, and thoughtful reflection. It’s an important set of tools that is probably required at some level for people to come around to recognizing their privileges and latent racism. However, I’d be very surprised if it worked completely for anyone without being combined with actual time spent being around people and in communities that are Not Like Yourself.

It’s easy to flounder and feel terrible recognizing latent racist feelings you didn’t remember or realize you had – like feeling nervous for your safety around a bunch of black men gathered in front of a corner store. Or the more racially-aware idea that you might be intruding in a community space that doesn’t belong to you by patronizing a particular restaurant. Or getting stuck wondering if you’re playing ally theater or just having a bad social anxiety day when you make an effort to smile and chit chat with someone that’s black. Or getting several kind gestures from PoC in a day and wondering, am I getting this because I am a white person? Are they afraid of me and the terrible impact I could have on their lives if they are not nice to me? And then there’s the question of okay, am I wondering this because it feels weird that non-whites are being nice to me and that’s another latent racist expectation I learned in my life?

It’s suddenly very clear to me why I read so often about white people, striving in asinine good faith to be allies, acting like asswipes at social justice events; it’s probably one of very few experiences they have of actually going and interacting in real spaces where their experience is not centered. If you’re like me, a homebody with social anxiety that doesn’t get out much, you are going to run into this when you actually visit or live in spaces where you are confronted by your own shitty white guilt on a daily basis. Practicing online is excellent but it straight up does not replace the actual experience of being in non-white spaces, talking to non-white people, and stumbling through the intensely uncomfortable experience of being physically and culturally decentered in your local community.

It is a position of extreme privilege to be in; I feel glad to be at least aware that how I react to that anxiety and discomfort could easily reinforce my own ally theatership or just allow me to be more comfortable being uncomfortable. I’ve got zero tips so far on how to handle it other than to dig in and experience it and give yourself time to mull through it (and keep your mouth shut about it to your non-white friends). Maybe in a few months, I’ll have concrete actions to suggest besides just keep on learning and being aware.


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