I am still thinking and processing the racism training I went to last month, which is good because that means I’m still sitting with the unknown and I’m not falling into the trap that there must be a quick conclusion and solution. My socialization as a white girl has the quick-fix impulse ingrained in me. So instead of coming up with answers, I’m sifting through what I learned as well as my initial impressions and expanding upon them.
One of the biggest pieces I took away from the training is what it really means to be white in the US. Typically, I’d think it means getting unearned privileges. And when I say unearned I don’t mean to say that I haven’t worked hard or that white people never work hard. I have worked hard. But. My hard work isn’t the only thing that got me to where I am today. Because I’m white, I got certain privileges automatically. I would think about all the ways my quality of life is pretty high because I am white. I thought it was BS that I got these privileges and others didn’t. That was about as far as I got when I thought about what my whiteness means.
In the training, we talked about the privileges white people get. The facilitators encouraged us to see the privileges as something good and something everyone should have access to. And the facilitators had us explore White American culture. It’s a funny thing to think about. People of color in the room spoke about their culture and discussed food, poetry and music. None of them spoke of their ancestral cultures, they were speaking as Black Americans or Latino Americans., etc. And then the white people talked about their culture and other than being privileged, none of us had much to say. I mean sure all white people in this country have European ancestries. My own is British, Norwegian and Austrian (yup, pretty damn WASP-y!) and while I see traces of those heritages in my family’s and my own traits/personality, they’re really only a small fraction of who I am, my ancestry is not really my current racial and cultural identity. Like I said, the people of color spoke of their experiences as Black Americans, etc. I am White American and what does that mean?
As we explored this, the facilitators talked about what it means to be White American. They explained how white supremacy is dehumanizing to people of color (of course!) as well as to white people. They explained how white supremacy/racism were deliberately constructed and in order for them to be maintained, White Americans had to be a certain way. They talked about how European groups had to shed much of their culture to become white so they could get white privilege (here’s a good literary example). Much of their cultural heritage was replaced with White Americans’ traits, which included/includes rigidity, perfectionism and dogmatism. In reality, life and being human are fluid, nonlinear experiences and it’s not healthy or natural for people to be rigid perfectionists. And so when we, as white people, are taught and conditioned to be this way (and we are!), we lose ourselves, we lose the ability to not be perfect, to be real, to be truly human.
I am not discussing this part of the training to say, oh us poor white people, what a lot we have in life. That’s BS because people of color are dehumanized so much more and they do not get any privileges from it. But I wonder, and perhaps this is why it was so highlighted in the training, if white people may be more encouraged to fight racism if they realize how harmful it is to them too. I mean, I think that white people should recognize their privilege and work to end racism because it’s the responsible thing to do in this white supremacist, racist culture. But well, I will admit I am not always a responsible White American but thinking of white privilege in this way does make it harder for me to ignore. I wish that weren’t true but it is.
Anyways back to the traits, the trait of perfectionism was one that really stuck out to me. Because over the past year, I’ve come to associate perfectionism as a gendered issue and a trait that is strongly connected to trauma. So my mind went all out of whack, as I thought, ‘but how can perfectionism be a symptom of trauma but also a trait associated with power and privilege?’ I racked my brain trying to make sense of it.
And then I decided to just chill. I remembered the overarching idea I took away from this training, which is that things often don’t fall into neat categories. That things that seem to be mutually exclusive may not actually be that way. And that even though white is power, there also many toxic aspects to White American culture. Like the fact that we try to create simple, categorized solutions for a reality and an existence that is anything but. Or that we live largely in isolation and competition rather than in connection and collaboration. I don’t believe humans were meant to live the way we do in the US. And because we are socialized to think and act in an unrealistic way, this too may be traumatic and so then we may act traumatized. And perhaps women do this more because they (even white women) are subjected to so many double standards and so much abuse. I don’t seem to be the only one who has picked up on this. Sadly though unsurprisingly, both those articles seem to focus largely on white women’s experiences so my guess is that in these articles, the experiences of women of color are largely ignored. Still what I take away from the fact that perfectionism is more salient to women is that perfectionism may be as much a control tactic as it is a way of surviving in a traumatic and toxic culture.
If this speaks to you in any way, I encourage you just to sit with it. Don’t try to come up with a PowerPoint presentation on what it all means and how to solve it. These are complex issues and life is complicated. And I think we will get much closer to eradicating institutional oppressions if we learn to unlearn our white-influenced impulses to fix things and instead sit with uncertainties and ambiguities and allow ourselves to learn.