What’s wrong with distancing ourselves from other white people when they’re behaving badly?
When I see another white person do something racist, my first seventeen impulses are to distance myself from them. I don’t want to be implicated by their behavior. I don’t want to think of myself in the same category as them. I want to speak out clearly and publicly about how I know what they did was wrong so that everyone will know that I would never do such a thing. I want to shun them to make it not socially acceptable for them to do what they did, and I hope that if I do a good enough job then maybe the hole of shame they crawl into will prevent them from ever doing it again. I want to call them out.
All of this is understandable. It’s also ineffective.
As white people aspiring to anti-racism, why is it important to steer past our distancing instincts and reach for other white people in the moments when they’ve perpetrated racial harm?
It makes learning possible
White supremacy minimizes and invisibilizes the impact of racism on people of color. In a white supremacist world, it’s always possible for a white person who just stepped in it to find someone to collude with them in a story about how whatever they just did wasn’t a big deal and they really didn’t do anything wrong, and it’s hard to steer away from this exoneration. Exoneration feels good. A compassionate caring person stepping forward with, “Yeah, you really messed that up. I mess up sometimes too. Come on, we can get through this together.” can help us to engage with the harm we cause instead of running from it.
It’s part of being a whole person
White supremacy is in all of us. Whatever racist thing that person just did is coming from a place in them that also exists in us. In distancing ourselves from them we cut ourselves off from the part of ourselves that, even if we wouldn’t do that thing in that context, might think it, or secretly believe it, or know that it’s not ok but wonder why, exactly. Denied and dismissed, that part of us can’t learn, grow or heal, and as long as it’s unhealed it will continue to come out in our own racist behavior.
It takes the burden of care off of people of color
A white person who just did a racist thing can be very dangerous to people of color. The more freaked out they get the more dangerous they can be in the moment. If we don’t step up to help care for and disarm them, the burden of care will fall on the people of color who were just harmed. That sucks. It doesn’t count as collecting your people if you shame and scare them into violently perpetrating more harm or leave it to the people they’re hurting to manage their hurt feelings.
Competition is dumb when winning sucks
Part of why I want to distance myself from white people who are behaving badly is a competitive impulse to try to be the most anti-racist white person around. But the prize for being the least racist white person is you get to live in a horribly white supremacist culture that continues to hurt everyone. The prize for contributing to an anti-racist culture of learning and growth for all white people is you get to live in a better world. Competition is dumb when winning sucks.
Of course, it’s important that caring for the perpetrators of racial harm doesn’t happen instead of caring for the people who were harmed, and doesn’t erase or invisibilize the harm. Obviously (though not at all usually), the people who were harmed need care first. I’m just arguing for compassionately supporting the perpetrators of racial harm as part of and in addition to caring for the people who were harmed, and for doing so in a way that supports white folks’ growth and learning.
Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable by Ngọc Loan Trần
Calling In: A Quick Guide on When and How by Sian Ferguson