I am devoted to creating a more loving and equitable world.
Navigating this commitment can be challenging. The purpose of this post is to share some things I am learning as a White, middle-class, cis-gendered, able-bodied woman saying yes to the challenges, staying committed to running this marathon, and making every effort to keep my heart open and to keep learning.
Staying involved amidst the challenges means I am willing to face the realities of injustice and violence that folks who have been marginalized face daily and for centuries. It means recognizing when my actions play into those patterns of behavior and being humble when I make mistakes, growing beyond my sheltered life experiences, learning from my mis-steps and from others, showing up to the best of my capacity even when it’s hard and uncomfortable, bearing the emotional weight of keeping my eyes and heart open, staying active, listening deeply for what is being called of me, and remembering that the challenges I feel are nothing compared to what people of color and other marginalized folks face all the time. Lately I’ve been called out and called in for my mistakes, I’ve been mucking through the messiness of equity and justice work in a small community, and I’ve been struggling to get clear about where is ‘my place’ as a White woman committed to racial equity.
As Glenn Singleton said, “We have never lived a day without White supremacy. This will not come easily.” None of us know for sure how to create a more equitable and just world. Some have more relevant experience than others. And, as Marisol Jimenez said in a recent conversation (something to the effect of), at some level, we’re all bumbling around trying to figure this out.
Lessons I’m learning/ things becoming clearer:
- It will get personal. Don’t stop because it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes I mess up and that sucks. People are mad or upset or frustrated with me. Relationships get strained. Some folks want to address the conflict. Some folks don’t want to address the tension and the issues don’t have closure. Sometimes I see a mistake I made and feel remorse. Sometimes I feel that I am being misunderstood. And yet, to be in the work I must accept that it will get personal, it will be uncomfortable and don’t give up when that happens.
- All levels all the time. My mentor and friend, Tuesday Ryan-Hart, stresses that when working together across differences, we must pay attention to and recognize that “all levels all the time” are operating and influencing one another — the personal, interpersonal, organizational, systemic, and structural. Sometimes people are upset about something that I, Ashley, did. Sometimes they are upset that I did something that “White people often do.” If I am part of a group or in a relationship with someone, I might think we are interacting strictly as people who are friends or colleagues with history to our relationship (personal/interpersonal) and I lose sight that my Whiteness is playing into the interaction (systemic or structural). As a White woman, I can forget that systemic oppression, a long history of discrimination, ignorance, defensiveness and denial can be effecting my interactions with people of color. It’s not just the intentions that I, Ashley, have when I do something. My actions also carry the baggage that comes from a long legacy of systemic ways that White people have been given access and ease, have used and abused our power, have taken advantage of other people, and the list goes on. And I am seeped in the socialization and point of view afforded me by my White skin and so there are things that I do that are hurtful and I am unaware. Sometimes I act in ways that are hurtful or harmful to another person or larger equity goals. Sometimes I take action and another person sees my actions as what White women do. The lines between what is personal and what is systemic can get blurred. And… The systemic is personal. The personal is systemic.
What I have learned through many of these experiences is that when this happens, the primary thing I need to do is sit with the discomfort and keep listening. Allow it to be personal – to be about Ashley. Listen for where there is something for me to learn, where perhaps there is something that I am missing, where I am perpetuating patterns of inequity. And also to recognize in my core (and not necessarily out loud) and discern when it is about “White women” or “White people” and not necessarily just about Ashley.
- History matters, whether it’s history from centuries ago or from a few days ago.
I can’t run away from the fact that the ways my skinfolk acted in the past deeply influences the way someone perceives my actions in the present. Even if I have a relationship or friendship with someone, that will not necessarily be at the forefront when I take actions that are similar to or actually are ways of oppressing other people. It is extremely unhelpful to my longterm goals if I am defensive or surprised when I am called out because my actions resemble the actions of other people with light skin who made efforts to keep power and maintain dominance. Part of being in this work is that I want to short circuit some of the entrenched historical patterns of power, money, and influence remaining in the hands of people of European descent. This means I must be keenly aware of how history is playing into the present.
- My view of social change is becoming clearer. I believe it will take all of us.
My perspective is that for humans to experience freedom from oppressive systems and biased beliefs that tare apart the heart and soul of humanity, change must involve liberation for those most oppressed. And the process of getting there involves all of us working together. I am devoted to doing all that I can to cultivate a world that works for all, to bring about societies/communities/groups that operate with more equity, justice, love and compassion. When it comes to changing the dominating and destructive systems that society is currently built upon, I believe that those who have been the most marginalized and have found ways to survive and even thrive — those people are the leaders to follow. They have had to navigate outside of the dominant culture and thus their wisdom is tested and proven. Often these are folks of color. My path forward is deeply guided by the wisdom of these people. That said, I also feel that I have gifts to contribute. I am called and trust the calling that there is a place for me in liberation work.
Facing my Whiteness and its implications is a mandatory first – and never ending – step in this work. Showing up with humility is a close second step. This is the pre-work required for me to be part of inter-racial, equity and justice work that has any depth and hope for developing trusting working relationships. (What else is necessary pre-work?) Sometimes it will be essential for people to gather in closed groups like all Black folks together and all White folks together or queer folks together and straight folks together. Other times it is most valuable for us to work together across our differences. In order for us to work across differences and not replicate patterns of White Supremacy and Whiteness, there is a lot of experimenting that we must do — trying out different ways of being in meetings, getting work done, making progress, listening to one another, addressing conflict, being in relationship and so much more. We haven’t done this before and it will not be easy. Marisol Jimenez caught my heart when she said “Where does mercy meet accountability meet grace meet growth?” I feel that we are all in this together and it will take all of us to see change. I am drawn to grow and build with other people who are devoted to finding those places where mercy meets accountability, meets grace, meets growth… the places where we might actually experience living as Beloved Community.
So… in this time of learning lots of lessons, I am also seeing some reactive patterns that I’m not proud of but are real. I have to learn how to navigate these urges inside of me. I’m not proud of them because I feel weak and fragile. I look at the constant onslaught of discrimination, racism, threat to personal safety, and injustice that people of color face all the time and I feel the contrast of my daily privilege. It illuminates for me how fragile I can be when things get hard. And, I have to be real that I am a sensitive human being, these are some responses that come up for me, and it is my journey to learn ways to navigate these responses.
- Sometimes I feel paralyzed by overwhelm. I am flooded by emotional responses and reactions – both personal and systemic. I feel overwhelmed by too much stimulation from staying attuned to all that is happening for individual people and society at large. The weight of the grief and loss is crushing. I feel intimidated by the height of the mountain we are trying to climb, shook at my core by anger and sadness for the unjust and cruel systems that have so much power and control and impact on people’s lives. And I feel discouraged when I make mistakes, folks are angered by my actions, or when I can’t discern where to invest my energy and efforts.
- Sometimes I want to shut off. Go back to my White, middle-class, the-world-generally-works-for-me bubble. I want to reconnect with my (White) friends who I feel estranged from that seem to be living such happy and joyful lives. I want to find a way to pretend, for even a moment, that the horrors and traumas aren’t happening. I want to pretend to be in a place where I don’t know how bad it really is.
- Sometimes it just hurts and I have to sit with the discomfort. Embarrassment. Regret. Confusion. I make mistakes. My actions or presence causes pain, mistrust, agitation, or anger for someone else. My intention was ultimately to create a more loving and equitable world, but I act in ways that cause others to feel harmed or triggered. It pains me to know that I am the cause for another person’s suffering or anger. I don’t like getting it “wrong”. Perfectionism. Saving face. Being seen in a positive light. My ego gets hurt. My feelings get hurt. And I can loop in my mind. Worry.
Here’s the thing. All of this is worth it to me, because I believe that another world is possible.
I believe that we have the power to see one another as humans and create a world that works for all of us — or at least more of us. And, I know that in order for us to get there, it will take facing these dark realities, allowing our minds and cells to be unsettled and disturbed, and being bold enough to try new things and genuinely connect across our differences. In order for us to actually embody new ways of being with each other, seeing each other, and creating social systems that are rooted in love, equity and fairness — we must see and walk away from the cultural and behavioral patterns of White Supremacy (patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism, etc.). We must be unsettled by the challenges in order to truly shake off these vicious and deceptive ways of acting and perceiving. And then we must be vulnerable and courageous to experiment with new ways of showing up, interacting, and taking action.
As I continue to take steps forward, I am currently wondering — Where do my gifts fit? Some feel there is no place for White folks in racial justice work. I know that I am called to contribute to seeing change in this unjust and inequitable local community and world I am living in. In addition to continuing to work on myself, I wonder —
- Should I focus on working with other White folks, creating spaces for education, learning, practice?
- Should I focus on using my light skin advantage to navigate the systems of power and influence, to encourage change in institutions through working with local government, business owners, people in positions of power in our local institutions?
- Should I focus on trying to create more economical opportunities for people of color? More equitable and fair learning opportunities for youth of color?
- Should I be more of a worker bee, following the leadership of people of color in organizations and efforts they are leading?
- Do I keep trying to find and build with others who are also committed to living the vision of Beloved Community, learning and practicing together, discovering what can translate into other environments?
- Where do my skills fit? Where are my contributions valuable and where are they harmful because they are delivered through my White skin?
- How can there be more financial support for this work, particularly for people of color, and also for folks like myself who would make this their full time job if it also covered costs of living?
- What combination of all of the above is sustainable for me and allows me to live in ways that are healthy for my body, heart, nervous system, and quality of life?
Thank you for reading my reflections and thus being on this journey with me. Putting the content of my inner world and the complexity of what I’m learning and experiencing into words has been a task. I am sure my words are imperfect, but they offer a taste. As always I welcome your feedback, insight, curiosities and stories of your own about what you are learning these days. May more and more of us with pale skin find the courage and strength to be with the discomfort, commit ourselves to learning and changing, and find the strength and grace to be even more courageous and effective for the marathon that we are running together.