Learning to Live in the Discomfort to be a White Ally

I am comfortable being right and being told I’m kind, nice, and wise. I stay within spaces that I will find that comfortable feeling and get that feedback.

I am uncomfortable with:

  • Being in conflict
  • Being wrong
  • Not being on the “right side”
  • Being called ignorant
  • Being ignorant
  • Not knowing things I should know
  • Not being liked
  • Being brave when doing so threatens any of the above
  • My ideas not being endorsed
  • Finding out I’ve been wrong for a long time
  • Realizing my wrongness has hurt people
  • Being uncomfortable

I’m very uncomfortable right now. I’m sweaty and sad and upset with myself. I feel weak and cowardly and clueless. I am failing as an anti-racism white ally. But I’m not willing to stay in that place just to stay comfortable. Now I have to figure out what to do about it.

When presented with a full-on societal anti-racism call recently, in light of the murders of multiple Black people by police, I was arrogant, as so often I am. I grieved the deaths and our shitty humanity, I sat with it for a while, and then I thought, I got this. I’ve been studying and following minorities’ struggles since college. I’ve spoken openly with actual Black people about racism, I follow anti-racist activists, I’ve actually been a minority on a few occasions in my 39 years.

Yeah, we live in an almost all-white area and my kids attend an almost all-white school, but they have a few Black friends, and we’ve taught them about systemic racism. We’ve read books and shared with them the racial inequities in our society. They know who Ella Fitzgerald is! I post LOTS of anti-racism articles on the socials! #winningatwhitewokeness

And when someone in our circle says something racist I…I…politely change the subject or gently redirect…

Still, I’m way better than a lot of white people I know. I am enlightened- knowing that we’re all racist, I’m racist, too…but you know, probably less than the average white person. I’m pretty confident that I’m one of the good ones. So, I’ll share what I’ve learned, and people will be grateful and they will say, “Isn’t she lovely and enlightened?” Sure, I’ll get around to reading and watching and following more, but, using the teaching of Black leaders, I’ll educate others! Visibly. It is my duty and privilege. Yay! I can put this into a framework that makes me comfortable. I know what I know and it’s enough! What a relief.

You can probably see where this is going. Recently, during an online discussion on racism, I was called exhausting for how much I didn’t get about racism and about my white privilege. WHAT? But I thought I was one of the good ones?! Ack! Spoiler alert (after some soul-searching and checking with my husband about what I’d expressed in the exchange) it’s true. I am exhausting and I don’t get it. Well, shit.

I was being naive and centering myself, staying in the comfortable place, performing for an invisible audience and not doing any of the painful work on myself. I was satisfied with the level of understanding/knowledge that I had, because addressing what I didn’t know was an affront, was overwhelming was…uncomfortable.

When given the opportunity to tell a (white) friend of mine her ideas of racism in this country are wrong and harmful, I instead chose to correct another (Brown) friend of mine about the way he was addressing her. Oh-hoh! I thought, here’s a chance for me to shine as peace-keeper and holy teacher. Pedantically I told him not to call names, to give her the benefit of the doubt, to patiently help her probe and see the errors of her understanding. He responded, with rage, that she’s being deliberately ignorant and hateful, so why not call it what it is, and I asked him not to be mean to her…while allowing her to calmly lay out cruel lies about Black people. But, but, her rhetoric was obviously misdirected and wrong, right? I thought I could leave it there to speak for itself and go after him for being impolite.

He called me on my bullshit and unfriended me.

And all of my comfy comfiness slipped off me and I sat there exposed.

The truth is, I have no idea how to confront anti-Blackness, even though I understand that it results in murder and perpetuation of a savagely unequal society, even though I long to be an ally. I can’t be an ally if I’m not willing to get uncomfortable and do my own work. I’m not brave enough, because of all the things above- I don’t like conflict, I don’t like being wrong, or not being liked, or finding out I’m part of the problem.

Here was a very clear chance to tell her her words were wrong and violent, and I didn’t. Instead I went after the way he was telling her that. It took me being slapped down to realize it didn’t matter how he said it, he wasn’t the problem, his message wasn’t the problem. Hers was.

Her message was something so routine, so commonly expressed, it feels etched in the bedrock of this country (‘Black people can’t be trusted and deserve the crimes against them…or, come on, really, can we even consider them crimes? The police are just responding to Black problems…drugs, black-on-black crime, they’re violent and angry and hostile, why run if you’re not guilty, I can’t be racist because I have black friends’…it was all there). I’ve heard it, and again, and instead of figuring out how to respond firmly and with conviction, I’ve politely turned away, because my comfort was more important than the truth. I sheltered myself, convinced myself that grandma, uncle, friend, dad, whomever… don’t know better or are otherwise really nice people (to me), or I don’t want to cause a scene or fracture our relationship.

Promoting anti-racism work and doing the work are two different things.

I don’t get to talk anymore until I have figured that out. The least I can do is be brave and clear, and right now, I can’t do either because I am still so early in my learning/unlearning.

So…because this blog is mine and about me, I’m still gonna drop a big pile of words on how I’m going to shut up. What we don’t need is another white woman sharing her racism and anti-racism experiences. So why publish this and not just journal it for myself? Because I’m an attention lady of the night, and because I can’t help but wonder if other people, like me, need to get better at being uncomfortable. Also, this movement isn’t about me, but I’m not used to getting out of the way, and centering someone else, so I need to do some work just to be able to do that. I tend to do my inner work out loud, here. Maybe my fuck-ups will help you expose or prevent your own? I gave myself a day of wallowing in self-hatred and identity crisis, and now I’m up and doing the work.

Something I can’t stand about myself: when confronted with things I don’t know, or am bad at, I shut down and flee for somewhere more comfortable, or I sink into a self-loathing hole. Either way, it’s nonproductive. And in the case of racism, what I don’t know is lethal.

I want to walk through life with curiosity, with eyes and hands open to new experiences, new knowledge, but I think my fear keeps me petting the things I already know and suspicious of new information. I’m afraid of being embarrassed, of being caught being ignorant.

BUT there’s only one way out of ignorance; accept that I don’t know things and that I’ve starting my learning today, opening my mind to new info, knowing that it might upset old info I had, even what I used to think of myself or my world, and then once I’ve assimilated the new info, practice using it.

So…in my humility, in my discomfort, getting through my own ego shit to do the actual work, I am finally here to learn. I have a LOT to study, starting with this podcast, this video, this book and this book and this book, and this movie and this movie. Following this person and this person and this person and this person and this page.

As far as how I left the conflict on Facebook yesterday, I apologized to both friends, especially the one who had to un-friend me because I wasn’t being a safe ally. I told him I’m beginning to see what I don’t know, (and it’s not his responsibility to teach me), but I’m doing the work now. To my friend with the anti-Black sentiments, I told her they were unkind and inaccurate, dangerous, and violent, and offered her these videos and article to watch and read, after I watched and read them.

I’m hoping to have better, quicker answers next time I’m facing this conflict, because it will happen, and if I’m going to be a proper white ally to Black people, I need to be knowledgable, brave, and clear about what’s happening, who’s working to fix it, and how we can help. No mincing words. Black lives matter and it’s my job to make that be true.

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Find me on Ravishly, The Belladonna Comedy, Pregnant Chicken, & more. Being a human is hard- maybe the kids can help. bigtroubleblog.com, Twitter: @sarahzimzam

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