Distancing Ourselves from Ourselves

By Jenna Chandler-Ward

I think often about the Robert Jones, Jr. (@SonofBaldwin) quote, “We can disagree and still love each other as long as your disagreement is not rooted in my oppression and in the denial of my humanity and right to exist.” I wonder about what that means for a white person who is deeply invested in racial justice. How do we disagree with and yet love another white person who does not see the world that we see, and yet is also a reflection of us?

I was recently at a workshop given by the great Ali Michael. While describing different phases of racial identity development, something I thought I knew a fair amount about, she casually mentioned something that made my hair stand up on the back of my neck. She talked about the Pseudo-Independent Stage when white people are trying to prove that they are not like other white people, and that they are one of the “good” ones. She talked about how white people often want to do “the lean away,” * or distance themselves from other white people when those others say or do something racially problematic. White people, even those deeply involved in anti-racist work, have a tendency to turn away from other white people when they express a racist behavior or belief. Ali asked us to consider that the white people in our lives who cause the biggest racial problems are, perhaps, the people we should be leaning into the most. Even if these people will never be activists, we can continue to ask questions and engage in conversation in hopes that they will do less harm with people of color.

I have been working on anti-racism in myself and in education for quite some time — and all of this seems so obvious. So obvious, but is that the way I had been behaving? I have had to end some relationships in my life because of racism. Sometimes it was because people were sick of my insistence on talking about racism when I saw it. In some cases, I just got tired; our world views were just too different, and we were never going to share an authentic connection. One particular relationship that ended haunts me. A friend and I recently parted ways after twelve years of friendship. A close friend. A call-in-an-emergency friend. A hey-can-you-pick-up-my-kids friend. A laugh-out-loud, text-a-hilarious-thing-I just-saw friend. This relationship ended, and I am devastated.  

I kept thinking that if we just talked more, something would come to light that would explain the two different stories we were telling. I felt that I had asked her to understand and look at some racist behavior. I knew it was unconscious. She would never knowingly hurt anyone. But I felt that as her friend, and someone she trusted, she should hear me and make some changes. That this was simply, as Jay Smooth would say, some racism stuck in your teeth kind of moment. I felt that she should show some humility and vulnerability, not make a big deal and then make some changes. But I felt punished by her. She was defensive, and angry, and wanted the benefit of the doubt. For me to suggest that her actions had a racist impact meant that I wasn’t her friend. But for me, there was no room for interpretation. Her actions were racist.

If you had asked me then why our friendship ended, I would have said that I broke with white solidarity — the implied (mostly unconscious) agreement that we will protect white privilege and not hold each other accountable for our racism. But hearing Ali describe the “lean away” made me uncomfortable. Did I do the right thing? Or did I just lean away from my friend’s racist behavior? Was I in fact judging her for things I know I have done myself? Was it the reflection of my own past behavior that made me so intolerant? Was I afraid that proximity to her racism would make me lose credibility in the work I am trying to do?

When my colleague Elizabeth Denevi and I  do workshops around the country with white teachers, and when we interview white students, we hear again and again that they are afraid to say the wrong thing. Within that admission we also hear white people talk about their fear of exposing their ignorance or that their implicit bias and racism will be evident. As Robin DiAngelo has explained so clearly, this racial discomfort and white fragility stops the conversation. It makes it impossible to talk about racism if we as white people are still defending our intentions or avoiding talking about it at all. I get it. I have been silent when I knew something wasn’t right for fear of making it worse and to avoid conflict. I have leaned away from people so I could stay in racial comfort. It was a relief in a way. It is easier than engaging in a complex conversation that not only involves confronting and supporting another person, but also involves being challenged, and I hate conflict. If there were a way to live a conflict-free life, I would have figured it out by now. Yet, the tendency to lean away from white people who express racist views is partly what keeps most white people from talking about race in the first place. The “lean away” becomes another form of protecting the racist status quo. It’s kind of sad that this is a fairly typical response. But it also partly explains why racism persists.

When we do engage, most of us who are white tend to respond to racist behavior with biting, isolating criticism or one-line retorts designed to hurt and dismiss. It’s a common instinct in our culture at the moment — to try to win a few points at the expense of another person. A teacher says something racist, and we say, “What the hell is wrong with you?” (Or something worse.) Then turn away. Or we say it and prepare for the unproductive fight to ensue. What we don’t do is find a way to slow things down, ask for an explanation, offer a different perspective, start a dialogue. I think the answer may be that the former reaction is easier. It’s also a form of self-protection, defensiveness. Engaging in an open, respectful conversation on racism is not only hard, it might also expose our ignorance and our own implicit bias. I know I can find myself getting flustered when challenged about my views on race. I question what I think I know and worry that I am not smart enough or articulate enough to change anyone’s mind. It’s all quite messy. So it’s easier to pull back, dismiss, lean away, go talk with someone who shares my perspective.

Another white friend of mine involved in anti-racism work was recently called out publicly by a black woman at a conference for what was perceived to be a racist act. Though I felt the pain of that moment, knowing it could easily happen to me, that is not what troubled me. For the rest of that conference, not one white person spoke to her. No one wanted to be seen talking to her, I assume, because they were afraid that the racist moniker might rub off on them. I could see myself doing the same thing; staying away from someone for fear it might reflect that I am not trustworthy, or not anti-racist enough, or unfixable.

In this “cancel culture,” I see it happen all of the time. Often, it is white liberals who are on the attack. I recognize this in myself. I have tried to show that I am the different kind, a “good” white person, who “gets it.” White liberals have called out, and questioned, and shamed people so that most white people do not want to take the risk of being punished in this way. This needs to stop. If we treat white people this way and don’t lean in, it makes the whole idea of “it’s ok to be white,” a common right-wing refrain, even more appealing. When white people lean away, shun and shame other white people for not understanding the ways they have internalized a racist culture, we essentially offer incentive and a space for the creation of more white supremacists.

But this dynamic between white people mostly comes at a cost, once again, to people of color. When a white person is spurned and feels called out, or even understands that they may have actually hurt someone, it is in direct conflict with how they want to view themselves. As a result, most white people in this situation lash out, not just to the person who has called them out, but at people of color in general. White people who feel shamed about racist behavior or attitudes either double down on why people of color are the problem or they refuse to engage with topics that could be disruptive to their self perception — but either way, it amounts to another white person opting out of the conversation.

Sometimes an us-vs-them ideology is necessary in social justice. We cannot work alongside people who willingly harm and dehumanize other people. But more often than not, for white people in racial equity work, the “them” is also us. It is me. Yes, we need to break with white solidarity. White people need to hold other white people accountable and interrupt and not be complicit with racism. But we also need to lean in to our white friends and family in a way that keeps people in the conversation and wanting to understand more. We need more white people to be willing and able to wade into the conversation and to work toward making it better.

As a teacher, I know that when I have difficulty with a particular student it is often because I see some part of myself in that student. The same has been true when working with adults. Becoming more racially conscious has meant a lot of self-reflection and facing uncomfortable things about myself. When I recognize the same wounds in other people, it can be difficult for me to act out of love and compassion. I often feel aggravated and impatient. When working with other white people doing racial equity work, I have learned to ask myself some questions when I notice I that I am feeling annoyed or angry with another person and feel compelled to let them know. Before calling something into question, I ask myself:  Have I done or said the same thing that I am annoyed about? Does offering this feedback give me satisfaction and/or make me feel better than? How would I react if someone said this to me? What is motivating my urge to say this?

There is also a flip side of this. I need to be brave when I am afraid to break with white solidarity, when I am afraid that speaking up will cost me being liked, and in some cases being trusted. I try to answer: What is at stake and for whom if I do not interrupt this moment? How would silence in this moment be colluding with oppression? What would a successful communication in this moment look like and what could it lead to?

This process isn’t perfect. Some days when I am feeling centered, I can trust my instincts enough not to slow down these moments with self-questioning, and some days I don’t. My motives are not always known to me or pure. I do not want to coddle or protect whiteness. And I cannot afford to alienate potential allies or dear friends because I cannot forgive that imperfect part of myself.

The forgiveness I offer myself and others is sometimes flimsy and easily gives way to fear. I have heard people talk about the need for radical self-love when doing racial justice work, and I never fully understood why. As a white person, how can I love my racism? Radical self-love can feel like a dangerous ideology that lets white people off the hook. But I think, in fact, it is the opposite. It requires us to forgive, and to love the parts of ourselves that we are afraid to look at. I know that, for me, radical love will mean that once I am able to love the broken parts and wounds in myself, I will be able to stand unafraid in my compassion for others. 

Jenna Chandler-Ward is the co-founder of Teaching While White and co-director the Multicultural Teaching Institute. She consults with schools nationally on developing more inclusive communities and curricula.

*This term term was coined by Sarah Halley.