A white colleague is enrolled in a racism awareness course. His program features conversation with other white people about their experience of race and racism. He is frustrated that he is not learning about his whiteness from people of color. The conversations with his white colleagues are not rich enough for him. He wants to learn how he comes across to people of color. Though he says white people should not expect to be educated by people of color, he is at a loss to see his racialized self without people of color as the source of his learning.
“How instrumentalist,” I say. He looks puzzled.
I object not to his desire to learn but to his expected, wished for use of people of color as a tool for his benefit. He has not wondered about a friendship he is trying to build nor a work relationship gone shaky. Rather, he wants to be the object of attention, the focus of the engagement, and the recipient of whatever the people of color have to offer. There is not a projected reciprocity to his insistent Tell me how I come across. Why would someone answer?
The field of engagement is uneven. By asking How do I come across as a white person? he is asking about himself as an individual with a group or social identity (white). But he wants answers from unnamed, generic people of color, who he casts as members of their group first, not as individuals. In addition, the question focuses on performance more than being. He is not interrogating deeply held, if shrouded, beliefs. He seems to wonder if he can be seen. Are the thoughts and feelings he fears he has recognizable to people of color? And if they are,…?
He has information in common with other white people who can explore their direct experience as members of a racialized group. I suspect that was the purpose of the program’s design—to probe the otherwise politely hidden (or not) beliefs and behaviors that belie racialized mind states and ways of being. This is the anti-racism “work” of do your work.
Still, there is the ostensible “right reason” for the wanted engagement—a desire to do right and be seen to do right. This is not the same as being in meaningful relationship that includes tension and negotiated ways of being in this relationship, that are informed by our racialized locations but is not prescribed by them. Whatever we decide is “right” will change between us and with the next person. He wants to be served, albeit in the name of racial justice, as he centers himself and his whiteness.
The dynamics of power that have seeped into all the ways we do all of what we do are being interrogated and challenged now. The process and answers can be uncomfortable. Yet, rather than seek reprieve from discomfort we learn when we use unease, frustration, dissatisfaction as the door to inquiry. For example,
- What story am I telling myself about how it should be? What do I really want?
- What am I expecting of myself? The other person/people? How does my racial background shape my expectations?
- What is the story the discomfort is telling? Where do I know it in my body?