I was recently asked to share my personal racial narrative in an interracial space. Everyone was given five minutes to write and two minutes to share.
As a white woman who wasn’t aware until about a dozen years ago that being a white woman meant something, I have come to understand my racial narrative is one of learning, mess-ups, and grace. It has been about finding a truer, freer version of myself and about reclaiming lost humanity. I knew that authentically sharing my racial narrative would mean leaning into imperfection, letting go of the need to prove myself as a “good person”, and speaking honestly.
I decided on a story of when I first was forced to examine my own race and racism after hurting a friend of color with an “upsetting comment” (aka racist comment) that I made. I decided to share it for two reasons. One, because it was the story that made me most uncomfortable and I believed this was the space to be vulnerable and push myself. Two, because it illuminates for me the importance of white people doing work to figure out what it means to be white.
It came time to share. The stories that people shared were raw, authentic, and real. I am was humbled by the humanity in the space. When it came to me, I started and explained what I do—I’m a racial equity coach—and why I chose to share my story—I feel like this is a space I can be vulnerable. At work, I ask teachers to share and I need to go to the discomfort… –and I shared the context of my story – after my first semester of college…
And then my two minutes were up.
It moved on to the next person and all I did was talk about my job and why I picked my story but I didn’t share my story.
At the end, we had ten minutes to reflect and discuss what the process was like. A mentor of mine, who was a part of our group, spoke to the power of starting with the personal before the professional. It struck me. That was the exact opposite of what I had done. I had gotten in my own way. Why? It is not because I don’t believe this work matters at a deeply personal level. It was because there was safety, identity in the professional that I wanted to claim. I wanted to make sure my innocence was established before I shared.
Innocence by association is not new to the history of white people in this work. Statements that start with “my best friend is black,” “I have a Latino neighbor,” “we talk about racial equity at school,” stop us from going to the personal of our own actions, our own beliefs. Joan Olsson speaks specifically to this pattern and how it “wrongly equates personal interactions with people of color, no matter how intimate they may be, with anti-racism.” It assumes our associations—professions, friends, other relationships—free us magically from our racist conditioning. This is not to say jobs or relationships with people of color are wrong (CLEARLY). But when I rely on other things– not my own actions, my own work, my personal–I lose my true self. I can get a title of “anti-racist” and then stop doing any of the work.
Also, trying to claim titles of innocence plays into the faulty idea that there is a good/bad binary for people and racism. The more understanding I gain into the social construction of race in the United States, the more deeply embedded I see racism in our history, our institutions, and our worldview. I have lived in the U.S. for all the years of my life and so the effects of such certainly must show up in me, even without my intent, awareness, or agreement. Robin DiAngelo offers “entering the conversation with this understanding is incredibly liberating because it allows us to focus on how –rather than if—our racism is manifesting.”
In my narrative sharing experience, I went to the professional before the personal as means to establish myself free of any current racism before I told them about my past racism. Dr. DiAngelo’s alternative to this pattern of denying the inevitability of racist patterns, is where we actually are eager to identify racist patterns and thank people for identifying them. With such a perspective, “stopping our racist patterns becomes more important than working to convince others that we don’t have them.”
To me, embracing this alternative offers freedom and growth. A day later I had an opportunity to share my narrative again with a new group. This time, I stripped the disclaimers and qualifications. In my two minutes I recounted the facts and the pain. I finished knowing this vulnerability gave me freedom. It allowed me to stand with compassion, empathy, and conviction–not only with others in racial equity work, but also with myself.
Reflection: // When might you have been tempted to claim innocence by association? What stopped you from going personal instead? If you were to embrace DiAngelo’s alternative and talk about racist patterns instead of denying them, what might show up for you? // Have a racial equity journal? Take 5 minutes to write your response.