Yesterday, I guest-hosted a session of #radlibchat on my article about whiteness in the library profession. It was a fabulous discussion.
One of the more common threads that came out of the chat were the fears many white people have about screwing up when getting involved in race work. Several people expressed apprehension about doing the work and making a mess of things. So, I thought I’d take a moment to address some of those fears.
Fair warning: I’m going to say some encouraging things here. But I’m also going to share some hard truths. And it is vitally important that you absorb both if you’re serious about doing this work.
Another note: I’m going to focus on race work and the ways white allies get involved. But the fact is that all of this applies intersectionally, as well. I—as an ally to LGBTQ folks, to poor folks, to disabled folks, etc.—am learning and practicing these lessons.
Truth #1: You are gonna screw up. I guarantee it. No matter who you are, no matter how good your intentions, no matter how careful you are, YOU WILL MAKE A MISTAKE. YOU WILL MAKE MANY MISTAKES. It’s simply a given. You’re going to say the wrong thing and do the wrong thing and make some or many people of color very angry and disappointed and frustrated with you.
Truth #2: This is okay. Just breathe. It’s okay
if you when you mess up. It’s okay if you when you anger the people to whom you are trying to be a good ally. This will happen and you will survive.
Truth #3: You will be hurt. No one likes having someone angry at them. Especially if they’re trying to do something good and right. When you screw up with the people of color around you, you will be very hurt when they get frustrated with you. You will feel defensive and sad and very, very hurt. This is also okay. Because you will be smart and go away to a safe place and share your #whitefeelings and shed your #whitetears with fellow white people who are also doing this work and who can mentor you in your process. You will not unburden your feelings on the people of color to whom you are allied. You will process your feelings in a separate space.
Truth #4: You will deserve this anger/hurt/frustration/wrath of the people of color you’ve offended. You messed up. You did something wrong. Even if you didn’t intend to. Even if you have no idea what you did. You did it, and they felt it. Just as your hurt feelings will be perfectly valid because they are yours and they are real, their frustration will be just as valid, just as much theirs, just as real. So even in the midst of your hurt and bewilderment, you will be careful not to dismiss the reality of the people you’ve offended. You will resist the urge to defend yourself, shut your mouth, and listen.
Truth #5: You will learn from your mistakes…if you are serious about this work. Many white people pretend to be serious about antiracism yet ghost the minute things get tough. (And they do get tough. See Truth #7.) But if you’re really serious about doing this work, you will take the initiative and learn from your mistakes. It is YOUR responsibility to learn what you did wrong and what you need to change. Maybe the people of color you offended will be willing to tell you. But don’t assume that is the case. This will be another great opportunity for you to connect with those fellow white folks who are mentoring you through your antiracist process. They can help guide you.
Truth #6: You will experience extraordinary joy and fulfillment. Race work is not easy. The history of racial oppression is ugly and the present is not much better. But the work we all do is vital to the future of our society, and despite whatever mistakes you may make, your contribution as an ally is absolutely crucial. Plus, you will learn and grow in ways you never dreamed possible. You will interact and bond with people whom you, in your lily white life to this point, never imagined. You will help to build a more just society, and you will never be the same because of it.
Truth #7: But as you can see, this work is not for the faint of heart. To borrow a scene from the Christian Bible: When Jesus gathered together the disciples, Jesus said (April paraphrase), “Hey, if you wanna be down, you have to take up your cross and follow me. This is NOT gonna be easy.” It’s the same for race work. In order to experience that growth and fulfillment, you’re going to have to get down and dirty. You are going to be challenged beyond what you think you can bear. You are going to have the comfy warmth of your white privilege and ignorance stripped away and laid bare in all its ugly truth. You’re going to be made really uncomfortable, and yes, you’re going to get your feelings hurt. (Remember Truth #3?)
So, knowing all this, are you still up for the challenge? I sincerely hope so. Because the Struggle is real out there and we need you.