I read the title of this piece and feel uneasy. I can already hear the voices of my confused friends, my protesting colleagues and the bigots. I’m writing it anyway. More honesty is what’s needed to heal and move forward, and honesty requires courage.
On paper I look like a model “Good White Person.” I’ve been disturbed by racism and trying to fix it since childhood. I used to come home from my multilingual, “majority minority” public school to tell my parents about “the curly-haired [Black] kids.” I struggled to comprehend how my ancestors could enslave and brutalize Africans. Cassie, Pam, Felicia and Keena were among my closest friends from elementary to graduate school, and my first slow dance was with an African American. My many Black teachers from third grade to senior year were my strongest female role models. I’ve had many Black coworkers and two African American female bosses. I was active in the movement to convict the officers who beat Rodney King, and joined hundreds to protest racism and police brutality during the L.A. Riots. In my first full time job, I served families in South Central L.A. and was welcomed into many Black homes. While living in Mexico, I called out Mexican acquaintances for their anti-black bigotry. I’ve been a diversity trainer and consultant for two decades, and one of my dearest mentees is a young Black man.
First confession: despite this résumé, I noticed Black folks weren’t entirely at ease around me, nor always appreciative of my “good” behavior. In school, I constantly butted heads with Black classmate Scott over my (then conservative) solutions to racism, and fellow cheerleaders Tina, Dawn and Danica clearly did not like me. At work, I clashed with both my Black bosses. I’ve been challenged and called out more than once. It seemed many African Americans disliked me, mistrusted me, walked on eggshells around me, or politely tolerated me. This bothered me (second confession), because how could I be a Good White Person or anti-racist if all Black folks didn’t love me?
A few years ago, I noticed a shift. Black folks were suddenly chatting me up – store clerks were friendlier; men greeted me on the street; and women complimented my tennis shoes, asked me for directions and laughed when I was silly. I asked Black friends if they had any insight, and the only feedback was that I was more confident. I started paying attention, and indeed, Black folks weren’t different – I was different. I was looking African Americans in the eye and saying hello. I was making funny offhand comments to strangers. I was owning my space more casually. I felt more relaxed.
It boiled down to this: I was no longer afraid of Black people. I never was the White woman who clutched her purse tighter around Black men or crossed the street when she saw one coming. In fact, I’d trained myself to not do so unless I noticed a man (of any race) exhibiting clearly concerning behavior. My fear wasn’t about being physically assaulted by Black men, but – like many well-intended White people – of offending Black people and being scolded (third confession). I’d never been attacked by a Black man, but I had experienced the shame of not coming across as the Good White Person I believed myself to be, and being berated by Black women. Those were experiences I avoided at all costs.
Such costs are too high when everyone’s avoiding them. They’re barriers to interpersonal intimacy and blocks to collective racial healing that are eating us alive. So I changed. Now I get asked how I’m so comfortable around Black folks.
In truth (fourth confession) I’m not entirely comfortable, but here’s the key – I love myself more. I’m less likely to judge myself for feeling uncomfortable, awkward or downright idiotic around African Americans. I’ve worked on building my resilience so I’m less fearful – no longer suffering from acute white fragility. I take more risks and forgive myself more quickly when I mess up or cross a line. I check in with others about whether or not I have crossed a line, reducing the burden on them to manage our interracial dynamics alone. I’m better able to accept others’ forgiveness, and I’m less bothered by others’ indifference. I’ve released the need to be liked by everyone and I’m better at avoiding toxic people of all hues.
White self-love is a critical element to healing the “racial divide” and making meaningful progress. One obstacle is confusion about what “love” means. I’m not talking about frivolous sentimentality or ignoring bad behavior, but healing shame and fear. “Love” can be defined as an inclusive, moving towards, unifying force – what Adam Kahane described as the reunion of the separated. Self-love includes telling the whole truth about who we are as White people – our strengths, contributions, triumphs and mistakes, sins and shortcomings. Only then can we feel empowered to make different choices. Only then can we “love” others. In a complex society, love doesn’t require that we feel warm fuzzies about all our neighbors but that we appreciate their qualities, celebrate their contributions, respect and defend their rights and practice mutual accountability.
Another obstacle is confusion about what “hate” means, which is why talk of hate groups and accusations of Whites hating Blacks perplexes White people of good will. Hate can be defined as a rejecting, pushing away, annihilating force. We wish the object of our hatred didn’t exist, or we try to literally eliminate it from existence, whether from our lives or everyone’s lives. Fear fuels hatred, and our irrational, extreme fear of each other is the greatest current threat to our democracy and prosperity.
Love is the antidote to fear. For White people—final confession – learning to love Black people doesn’t require us to like them, be like them or like what they like. It requires overcoming our irrational fears. It requires getting to know African Americans as they really are, listening to their whole truth, and believing them. This requires honesty and courage, and we can only do this if we love ourselves first.