Monday, August 8, 2016

Feedback Over Fear

Elisa Gall
We are thrilled to welcome another member to the Reading While White team. Elisa Gall, an  insightful reviewer and reflective critical thinker, works as a school librarian in Chicago.  Her first post is below. Welcome, Elisa!

I was participating in a diversity workshop a few months ago when a person of color shared with our small learning group how most of his White friends consider themselves allies, but if you ask him which of those friends he thinks act as allies, it would be maybe one or two of them—and not all the time. The moral of the story (from his perspective) was for me to learn to do the best anti-racism work I can. Let others decide how I do in each moment—and focus my time on productive action. I won’t always be an ally to everyone. I will make mistakes. It’s not an either/or. I can even do important work and mess up at the same time. What matters is how I listen and learn in these instances, and how I keep going after I experience them.

When I was first asked to join the bloggers at Reading While White, my first reaction was deep feelings of inadequacy. Who am I to do this writing? I am still learning. I’m going to be exposed for my implicit bias and embarrass the hell out of myself!

As much as I do to work towards awareness for myself and other White people like me, I know that I have unconscious biases of which I am not yet aware. I sometimes feel frozen by shock or fear. I hesitate to chime in because I don’t want to be silent in the presence of injustice, but I also want to amplify voices instead of taking up space or speaking over someone else. I have to constantly check myself: WHY am I doing this? Writing this? Saying this? Feeling this? This is not about hating White people or having a negative racial identity. It is about working to interrupt racism and being open to giving and receiving all kinds of feedback. At times, I have seen myself unfortunately uphold what Robin DiAngelo refers to as the “White Rules of Engagement.” The idea of learning and sharing so publicly on this blog does make me uncomfortable, but I acknowledge that private conversations and indirect feedback only work to keep the structure of racism alive and invisible.

At the White Privilege Conference in Philadelphia last spring, speaker Vernā Myers said to the crowd, “This is not the time to be afraid to say the wrong thing. We can’t afford to be stuck in shame, blame, and guilt.” She challenged the audience to reflect: Will I believe what others say about their experiences? Do I know when I am wrong? When I don’t know, do I pretend I know? Do I use my mistakes as an excuse to not engage? She added, “This isn’t about perfection. It is about connection.” Embracing imperfection leads to more gains than losses. In Promoting Diversity and Social Justice, Diane Goodman wrote about all the upsides when people share this mindset: more knowledge, new information, better understandings, heightened awareness of self and others, and authenticity—for people are less guarded, more spontaneous in interactions, and can find greater compassion for each other.

I believe that if I am not trying to combat a system of injustice, I am perpetuating it.  But I must remember (to again paraphrase DiAngelo) that I am colluding with racism when I try to be a perfect White anti-racist. I needn’t try to be perfect. I need to be humble. I need to be growth-mindset oriented. I need to be strong, and compassionate, and reflective, and a good listener. Feedback is difficult, but it is vital. I am going to embrace it on both the giving and receiving ends. I appreciate the opportunity to be involved in all of the learning that happens here through this blog. I look forward to working towards increased accountability, for others and myself.


Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Thank you for this evocation of the tightrope walk that is navigating authentic white identity in a multiracial community. I so recognize myself in your description. Again and again, I catch myself seeking or taking refuge in the false comfort of getting it "right," of being an awake, aware "ally." Of needing to be a Good White Person. Again and again, I must remember — sometimes relearn — that the most effective, useful, forward-moving outlook is one of humility, of listening, of active exploration of all the places I have it *wrong.*

As you note, this is not motivated by guilt or being ashamed of being white. Rather, it's getting my self — my full, whole, human self — back, extricated bit by bit from all the patterns that would deny me full connection with the rest of my human family.

I've observed that often the most authentic work is in falling off that tightrope: losing my balance, making mistakes, cleaning them up and climbing back up to try again and do better. That is the work of whiteness. Especially when I can remember my own fundamental goodness as just one human being, I find it to be a joyful and fruitful journey.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thank you, Elisa, for being so vulnerable here and showing us (in miniature) your journey and your reflections. I'm new to this blog and look forward to learning here.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Elisa (and Anne), for your comments. You've come very close to describing how I've been feeling as I learn more. Do you mind if I share your column publicly? I know others who would appreciate reading it. If you'd rather it stay here, that's fine, too!

Elisa Gall said...

Share away!

Heidi Rabinowitz said...

Thank you for this post, it articulates my own fears as well. It is good advice to prioritize engaging over perfection.