I am a white woman who recently had an opportunity to publicly apologize to a Black man I don’t know for perpetrating racial harm. The whole situation was complex for me in a bunch of ways, but the fact that I’d messed up, hurt this guy, and was now publicly apologizing for that was not the complicated or difficult part. That felt basic.
When I apologized, a lot of people clapped. I felt sad and disappointed. I wasn’t doing a thing that felt, to me, brave or difficult or anything beyond the most basic of human decency. In that moment, I wasn’t even leaning into my learning edge. When a Black woman spoke up and said we shouldn’t let people applaud our apologies, that apologies were basic and applause was inappropriate, I felt grateful for her comment. I spent much of the rest of the day fielding comments from people who approached me to express gratitude for my apology.
That experience got me thinking about ally cookies, and the different cookie-allocation rubrics that were intersecting in that moment.
Pedagogical cookies: cookies for learning and growing at your personal edge
These are the cookies you hand out to someone when your primary objective is their learning.
- Skillful effective praise from a math teacher for a kid who just got a D after a string of F’s.
- Applause for someone who’s been working on finding their voice for taking the mic at all, even if their voice shakes.
- Parental pride when a kid takes their first step.
- Positive self-talk in a hard situation, “Wow, look at me gracefully accepting this critical feedback!”
In these situations, we’re not praising mathematical prowess or outstanding oratorial skills or exemplary ambulation, we’re meeting someone at the edge of their learning and using cookies to help them get from where they are to where they’re going. Since different people are in different places and working on different things, praising people for doing the thing that’s a stretch for them is a great way to help them learn.
To give pedagogical cookies effectively, you need to know something about the person you’re praising. (It’s also helpful to know something about what kind of praise works best. Applying the concept of growth mindset to white people’s race work is at the top of my list of dissertations to write.) Because pedagogical cookies are not so much about the thing you did as about stretching and growing on your learning edge, people need to know what’s edgy for you before they can know when to give you pedagogical cookies.
(Of course, the people you’re praising and the people you’re trying to teach aren’t always the same people. Just ask any teacher who ever praised a student for bringing a notebook and pencil to class.)
If my primary goal is to help a particular white person learn, and they’ve been working through shame and avoidance and denial, and because of their hard work have finally arrived at, “oh no, I did that, I’m so sorry,” then I think pedagogical cookies for that apology are entirely appropriate.
Also? It feels really great to get praise around a thing you’re working hard on. Just make sure it’s attuned because if you’re wrong about where someone is in their learning, your attempt at pedagogical cookies can feel like:
Crap cookies: cookies for exceeding (low) expectations
These are the cookies people hand out when they’re impressed only because they had really low expectations for that person, often because of their membership in a particular group.
- Obama is so articulate!
- Hey, that’s a pretty good throw for a girl.
- Praise from a racist teacher for a Black boy’s B- when he’s fully capable of A+ work
- Wow! A white stranger apologized at all ever! Good job!
These cookies are bullshit, and it feels really crappy to get them when you recognize them for what they are. These are the cookies people are talking about when they say allies shouldn’t get cookies. White people have set very low expectations for ourselves by sucking a lot for a really long time. The expectation when we perpetrate racial harm is that we’ll run away or change the subject or lash out, because mostly that’s what we do. When instead we apologize, even in a really basic just-the-beginning-of-decency sort of way, we have exceeded those low expectations, and then sometimes people start handing out cookies. It’s awkward. When you recognize cookies as crap cookies, they don’t feel good to receive.
Manipulative cookies: cookies to get someone to do something
When someone gives someone a cookie as part of a strategy to get something from them, that’s a manipulative cookie. These kinds of cookies are often disingenuous in some way, but quite effective.
- “All the work your foundation did for those poor kids was really incredible,” as a lead-in to asking a rich person for a donation to my organization.
- “I just want to say that I really appreciate how much you support me in my work,” I say to my wholly unsupportive boss before asking him to allocate budget to send me to a conference I want to attend.
- “Your child is outstanding!” a teacher tells a board member parent of a difficult student.
- “What a beautiful wedding,” says the caterer, who’s been to at least three more beautiful weddings this month.
- Making some sentences about my gratitude for the person I’m in a difficult conversation with in hopes of increasing their stamina for the conversation.
- All the cookies Mr. Incredible gives to Jack-Jack.
Manipulative cookies are a way to butter up someone with power to get what you want from them. Sometimes they’re straight-up lies and sometimes they’re honest bribery, but their intent is more to manipulate than to benefit the person receiving them.
Excellence cookies: cookies for doing something excellent
Excellence cookies are awarded for actually going above and beyond.
- Simone Biles’ Olympic medals
- Literal cookies I baked my roommate to thank her for cleaning our house when it wasn’t her job
- Praise for Colin Kaepernick hanging onto his convictions in the face of massive consequences to his life and career
These cookies are the simplest kind: You rock. Good job.
Trouble often arises when it’s ambiguous which kind of cookies we’re talking about. For example, a white man gets praise for simply showing up to a race workshop. Is that pedagogical cookies from someone who knows that, for him, walking in the door was the next big hard step on his anti-racist journey? Or is it crap cookies from someone who has set the bar for white men somewhere below showing their faces at race workshops? Maybe it’s manipulative cookies from someone who hopes that helping him feel good about himself will somehow improve their experience of the workshop. Or perhaps it’s misguided excellence cookies from someone who really thinks of it as an accomplishment to simply show up. I can see how a person giving out pedagogical or manipulative cookies might wind up in an argument with someone who’s mad about misguided excellence cookies.
At Hogwarts, as in most places that make a grading system on purpose, the bar for “exceeds expectations” is above the bar for “acceptable.” But sometimes, in the real world where things are terrible, reality lowers expectations so far that “exceeds expectations” becomes a lower bar than “acceptable.” When that happens, things get counterintuitive. Like white people get raucous applause for basic apologies, not because a simple apology constitutes the entirety of an acceptable response to having perpetrated racial harm, but simply because white people don’t usually apologize for anything, so people don’t expect it, so it exceeds expectations. Crap cookies.
If you’re a white person in a white supremacist culture, the answer to, “What’s the bare minimum amount of anti-racist work I have to do to just not be an asshole?” might be “a lot more than anyone you know is doing.”