“This is hard, humbling work.” This is a sentence from 12 Tiny Things (a book that’s due out in early 2021), and it’s in reference to doing the work of tending to the self and embracing intentional, simple living. The sort of “intentional living” that we advocate for includes social justice, and committing to a life of anti-racism is also hard, humbling work- in fact, you could say it’s one of the hardest aspects of true intentional living. Being anti-racist isn’t just one piece of personal development (especially for white people, who – due to systems that uphold whiteness as the ideal – generally have the privilege of choosing whether or not to think about racism at all). Anti-racism is a deconstruction of the systems of oppression in which we live, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the education and experiences we provide our children, the entertainment and media we consume, the books and art we enjoy. It requires us to turn a critical eye to how we live and make adjustments.
For a white person, which I am, an anti-racist life requires a continuous willingness to live with discomfort, to be wrong, to have hard conversations, and to discern when to listen, when to pass the mic, and when to speak up. It requires internal struggle. It requires looking for and taking opportunities to pass power held to those who need to be heard. Taking care of the self – by whatever means work for each of us – is essential when it comes to embarking on this path. We can’t do the necessary work when we are depleted and burnt out. We can’t do the necessary work when we get stuck in guilt and fragility. And when you live steeped in privilege, like I do, it’s easy to stop if you aren’t feeling good: if you need a break; if things start feeling out of control; if you don’t know what to do next. So part of self care must be rest and replenishment, but it must be the sort that readies you for action, not the sort that lures you away from hard questions and truth. True intentional living requires hard, humbling work.
In the weeks since George Floyd was killed by police, a great swath of white folks have “woken up” to the realities of systemic oppression – a horrible catalyst, but there are more people than ever before questioning the status quo. I’m certainly no expert on systemic oppression and white supremacy- I still have a great deal to learn (and unlearn). I often worry my own bias will become glaringly apparent when I take on the task of writing about racial justice, but I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned so far on my anti-racism path.
1 – A persistent effort to be anti-racist makes life harder- but it also makes life more full of aliveness and offers more opportunity for true joy and belonging.
2 – It gets easier to talk to others about racism if you’ve taken a hard look at your own bias, own it, accept that you will be called out on something at some point along the way, and continually open yourself to evolve, learn, and lay down harmful ideas.
3 – Calling someone who is steeped in racist thought and action a racist doesn’t leave as much room for change as calling out someone’s statement, ideas, or actions as racist. This doesn’t mean you are condoning their racist ways – but I’m starting to think that there is more opportunity for a person to change their way of thinking if they aren’t assigned an identity label. It’s like the difference between shame and guilt. Shame says, “I am a bad person” while guilt says, “I did a bad thing.” I am still getting my head wrapped around this one. Have a listen to this episode of “The Next Question” – Brene Brown, in conversation with hosts Austin, Chi Chi and Jenny, will explain.
4 – The journey of anti-racism isn’t one that ends. It’s a path walked daily.
5 – Many people want to be thought of as “a good ally.” I do, too. I’ve learned that just like you don’t arrive at your anti-racism destination, ally status isn’t something you earn and get to keep on your shelf. It’s something you earn over and over again, day after day after day.
6 – No child is too young to learn about racism. Start at home (The Brown Bookshelf is a great spot for book ideas) and advocate for anti-racism dialogue in schools as well as for an on-going age appropriate curriculum for all grade levels. (All kids should be learning the actual history of the United States, not just the white washed version that is in many history textbooks.)
7 – It’s important to support Black owned businesses (as well as business owned by other BIPOC, and to avoid Amazon).
8 – If you are talking specifically about Black people say Black. Save POC (people of color) for when you truly are referring to a very diverse group of non white folks.
9 – Don’t use air quotes around “white people” especially if you don’t use them around black people – this insinuates that white is the default and everything else is other.
10 – Don’t try to unlearn 40 years (or whatever number fits) of white washing in a few weeks, or by reading one book about racism. Pace yourself and continually return to the path when you lose focus.
11 – Read a lot of books, and not just books that are specifically about racism – read books on all sorts of topics (fiction, too!) by a diverse array of non-white authors.
12 – It’s really easy to slip back into what’s called “white centering” after a time of being really fired up about a specific issue or incident. This is where pacing yourself comes in, as does all the reading and listening. Challenge yourself to widen your gaze, your circle, and your way of thinking about the world over and over again. All of those little shifts away from your own bubble expand your center so it can hold more than just you.
So, hard and humbling work. Essential work, but hard and humbling. I fail at it a lot, as do all the other white folks I know who are committed to doing it. I often find myself wanting to be seen as doing the right thing, to be on the ‘right side of history’ and that very desire is problematic because it puts me in the center. It puts making myself look or feel better as the motivation, instead of justice and peace for all. That desire gets momentum going but it doesn’t have the legs for the long haul. Fortunately, with practice and a critical but self-compassionate eye, I can keep my own bias and selfish motivations in the spotlight where they dissolve little by little. I can keep coming back to the path, and resolve to fail better every time. As Ijeoma Oluo writes, “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.”
I plan to continue to prioritize the practices that give me life, the things that bring joy and peacefulness. To rest when I need to. But to also keep my eyes open to the wider world, acknowledge my complicity, and act in ways that embody the truth that black lives matter.
Peace, joy and aliveness are only truly possible when everyone can experience them.
In 12 Tiny Things, we write, “Improving the self will not automatically improve the world; yet, living from a place of evolving inner peace and sense of wholeness will alter our work and relationships.
Tending to the self is part of the work. But it can’t be all of the work. There is more tending and learning that must go on. There is more work to do.