There is a common refrain amongst progressively-minded White people that has grown from a hushed murmur to a steady chant in the wake of Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Harris, Terrence Kellom, and more:
“I want to help. But I’m afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.”
This can definitely be a self-serving fear, housed in wanting to protect one’s image, reputation, and paycheck. But the optimist in me hopes that, for the majority of those in this growing choir, this fear is rooted in a concern for others, an anxiety about our own abilities and knowledge, or both. And while it can feel like a potent fear, it is definitely not an uncommon one. Sabnani, Ponterotto, and Borodovsky (1991) highlight “feelings of guilt and depression or anger” in the Conflict stage of their White Racial Identity development model (p. 90); Helms and Cook write of the feelings of “confusion, stress, and anxiety” felt by white people caught between their desire for a more just society and the pressures to maintain the norms of White society (Schmidt, 2006, p. 75).
I want to clearly state that these negative feelings are valid and, in the proper place and context, worth discussing. Working through these feelings is important on a multitude of levels, including one’s emotional health, personal growth, and professional development. They are uniquely shaped by each individual’s background, experiences, and beliefs. However, this fear also serves as a clear example of the overwhelming amount of privilege that well-meaning white professionals can unknowingly wear like armor when engaging in discussions and programming around race.
As white people, we have the luxury to use this fear and anxiety as a reason to pull back and disengage from issues surrounding race. We can decide that this week’s #SAChat topic isn’t for us, or that the best way for us to learn from a professional development seminar on race is to listen and be more of a passive participant than an active one. While it is important for white allies to not make their voices the primary ones in a discussion on race, there is a huge gulf between making your voice secondary (or using your voice to boost the voices of others) and being silent. Silence hurts – it may protect you, but it also insulates the power structures that are hurting others. You have to make it a point to find spaces to ask questions and open yourself up to the possibility of “stepping in it,” as it were – I know that, personally, I learned the most from the moments that I screwed up the worst and was forced to own my words or actions.
It is important for you to understand this unavoidable truth – as a white ally, you will mess up. This is not an indictment on you, your ability as a professional, or the moral measure of you as a person. You will say, or do, something that is insensitive, unaware, couched in privilege, and oblivious; this is how privilege works. It pulls wool over our eyes and makes us believe that we are the norm, our experiences and ideas the most vital and true. Own these mistakes – apologize, learn from them, and push forward. To retreat at the moment you feel uncomfortable for being held accountable is nothing more than an intellectual exercise in social justice tourism, and does no good for anyone. You need to remain active, engaged, and visible, because there is never a magical point that we as white people reach where we are suddenly race conscious. In our current society, we are never forced to feel race the way that people of color are, and so we will always have more to learn about how we can best position ourselves as allies.
Committing to doing this work is committing to making yourself vulnerable, making mistakes, and allowing others to hold you accountable on their terms, not yours. It is a distinctly uncomfortable and anxious existence to choose – but you can choose. Unlike our colleagues and students of color, we, as white people, have to choose to take on this distinctly uncomfortable and anxious existence. And because of that, we should choose to do so – it is decent, it is right, and it is our job.