Eyes on the Prize

The social justice movement is rolling forward at what sometimes seems like lightning speed. I am thrilled that concepts that used to be so hard for Whites to swallow – like systemic racism and white privilege – are now rolling off the tongues of politicians, newscasters, academicians and ordinary people. There is an explosion of great books, articles and podcasts on the subject of how to be a good “White ally”…but, as I type the phrase I think I remember reading that “allies” is out. We’re not supposed to say that anymore. I can’t remember what is in, but I know that the words “diversity and inclusion,” which I was so proud to have taken on as a mantra many years ago, are also no longer acceptable either. And just when I had learned to say “D&I” and felt as if I truly belonged in the club.  

For years I have happily co-trained in “Building Intercultural Communities” with my friend and colleague, Roberto Chene, who is Hispanic, oops, I mean Hispano, I mean Latino, I mean Latin-x …. you see the problem. I have a Latina friend who wants to be called Latina, not Latin-x, because the female ending is an important part of her identity. I have another friend, also native New Mexican, who prefers to be called Chicana for its political implications. I am grateful to both of them for making clear what they prefer. In this world of labels it is really helps to know which ones to use. But I have to admit it’s getting really complicated out there in the land of undoing racism.

For instance, POC (People of Color) is now BIPOC, Black Indigenous and People of Color. There are different explanations for pulling out Black and Indigenous from the generic people of color, but it has resulted in confusion, some thinking it means bisexual people of color, or that it is some variation on biopic. More serious, it has caused divisions, pitting group against group. Some Hispanics/Latin-x/Chicanos resent being left in the POC pot with Asians and presumably others who don’t get named specifically. Does this fussing over vocabulary, identifiers and categories really move us forward? Or is it distracting and divisive? I’m not suggesting we do away with distinctions and pretend we are all just human, because I know that difference is important and needs to be recognized, understood and respected in order to move forward… toward the day when maybe we are all just human.

I have spent my career mediating disputes, insuring that all voices are at the table, empowered and respected. I used to be ahead of the White curve in understanding these concepts. I have often been called on by fellow practitioners for advice on working across cultural divides, especially those involving Native Americans. I have always said, “ask them” but also never failed to offer some pithy pointers. It felt good to help move the ball forward. Oops, need to be careful about that word “help,” which got me in trouble just the other day.

A woman colleague who identifies as “White-embodied” called me on the carpet for offering to help a Native American colleague who was struggling. We are part of a group of facilitators for a series of zoom conversations about historical trauma and racial healing. The Native American’s own cultural history of oppression made the work very painful for her. In an effort to be supportive, I said that I would help her however I could. I was told later by my White-embodied colleague that offering help smacks of “White Savior” complex, and that it can be hurtful and a painful reminder of the stark difference in privilege between People of Color and White people.  

I like to think that I am always open to learning about the experiences of others, about my role as a professional and as a human, and about strategies for making things better. And the next day, after the phone call, I reflected and appreciated the conversation. But at the time that noble self was missing in action. While I was polite and expressed appreciation to my White-embodied colleague for the education, my inner self was fuming, “why hadn’t I retired at 65 like many of my colleagues? who needs this grief? The movement has passed me by and I’m too old to learn new tricks.”

And as I whined to myself, I realized that I was committing the ultimate sin — indulging in…dum-ta-dum-dum White Fragility! (Yipes! Don’t go there, Lucy, of all places, don’t go there!) I was devastated that I might not be the most “woke” White person out there, and then slapped myself for being so competitive. Trying to be the best good person — that’s so White, so female, I scold myself, trying to out-do all the other White do-gooder women.

So, how did it all end? After wallowing in fragility, I decided to pick myself up and carry on. The movement might be able to use an old, well-intentioned, semi-woke and sometimes fragile, White woman, eager to help. (OK, so sue me, I used the “h” word). Even with cataracts, I can still keep an eye on the prize and I can still hope that someday we will grasp it. Right now, it’s on the horizon, far away, but maybe not as far away as it used to be.

30 thoughts on “Eyes on the Prize”

  1. So refreshing, honest, and insightful. If any offense is taken by a reader, it will be to the reader’s loss. In the end, the battle over words will become less tricky when we rid ourselves of bigotry and racism. Who you are then will be very different than who we are now.

  2. I think the most important thing that we can remember as white people trying to be anti-racist is that sometimes we’ll get it wrong. We can only be honest with ourselves. I know you, Lucy, and you are always willing to listen to what people say to you, about you, and honestly examine it and make changes when it makes sense and when you can. That’s all you can do. If we all do that, we’ll get out of this mess of racism and move forward together.

    1. I totally agree that mistakes are our best teachers…not our most popular, but the ones that we remember. And if we’re not out there getting it wrong, we won’t be part of the solution.

  3. Lucy, I wanted to thank you for your honesty and humility on these issues. It helps me remember that living with other people in community ( large or small) goes more smoothly if we at least strive to understand each other. Honesty and humility are in too short a supply in most of our public discourse these days. It is a difficult time indeed. As others have said, it is easy to feel our country and our community spirit is unraveling. Let us hope it is still possible to recover. Thank you for your efforts.

    1. Thank you, Reed. I appreciate your thoughts and I have a hunch that you are wise in honesty and humility. I like that combination — honesty and humility. They enhance each other.

  4. Lucy, I really appreciate your writing and a great post. Had me chuckling in recognition of some of my own inner conversations. Made me think about…. In 1996, when I took the position of Environmental Justice Coordinator for one of USEPA’s regional offices, several of my BIPOC friends sat me down to give me a tutorial on which words to use and not use depending upon the circumstances. I credit those conversations with 1) helping my facilitation work, i.e., recognizing that each and every word matters and a side benefit 2) helping me slow down my speaking such that my lifelong stuttering patterns were interrupted. Of course, as you point out, many of those terms are now on the don’t use list. During that time period, I was facilitating a community meeting where there were lots of BIPOC attendees. One of the federal agency presenters, a young white guy, several times used terms that had me cringe a bit. They weren’t insulting, just not always on the ‘okay to use’ list. Afterwards I asked a community member I knew if they found it insulting. She said ‘no’ and I have always remembered this –that the young guy spoke from the heart, they knew his intentions were good, they had benefited from his actions and would continue to share with him their feelings and thoughts. So in this daily language changing time, I’ve been trying to remember to … check my own intentions, make no assumptions, listen to understand and less words may be better. The last is sometimes the hardest…. 😉

    1. Many thanks, Lori, for sharing your journey on this same path. So interesting that the tutorial on which words to use actually helped get rid of an unwanted speech pattern. You were actually listening to the words coming out of your mouth — something we don’t do unless we have to. And your point about good intent and a good heart matches my experience. If we speak with those two things, we can be forgiven for a lot of less-than-perfect words.

  5. Oh, my. Where I grew up, it was WERE YOU SAVED? This could happen any day any time. My grandmother wept because I was going to burn in hell because I’d been baptized with a rose rather then immersed. Now we all seem to be burning in hell trying to find the right words to navigate through life. You said it well. And really, we are just people. Remember Harold and Maud? She said “oh yes, I love people: they’re my species!” In the end (which it seems we are not far from) can’t we just build on that? I don’t quite know where else to start………

    1. Hi, Goose, my fellow human! It’s a great place to start, and to end for that matter. And speaking of ends, no way are you destined to burn in hell. If I’m wrong, I’ll be right next to you.

  6. Thank you for reminding us of how powerful language is.
    So thoughtful and well written. I am currently reading White Fragility, the current best seller in the Boston area.
    I just got used to everyone idenitifying themselves/herself/himself with gender pronouns.

    1. Thanks, Judith. You inspire me! Maybe someday she/her will roll off my tongue…the other day I tried to make it flow and it came out “he/she/it”…a throwback to Latin grammar class I guess. People looked confused and a little impressed, as if I had gone above and beyond. I laughed a lot.

  7. I find myself sometimes meaning well, but saying the wrong thing, the wrong way. I was bragging about my pioneer ancestery and how hard working they were, while a NA was talking about the oppression and abuse of her ancestors by (not mine) the pioneer people. I regret that people did that, that they are still doing that, and now we all are trying to repair all that damage. But we are kind of at a loss, we dont want it to continue, but what to do? I like the way you say you listen to all the voices, but they have to tell their story so the rest of us will know it too. It is not enough to say they were, are, oppressed, but tell me how, how to mend it, how to “help”, just being woke is apparently not enough. I am with you. Hear me. I love you.

    1. Bless, you, Linda. You are on the front line, asking all the right questions, struggling with how to play a useful role, how to get educated. My guess is that people will see your good heart and forgive any missteps. Thanks for being such a loyal reader.

  8. Lucy, thank you SO much for writing about this–and with your trademark humility, humor and candor!
    I have been pondering this issue a lot lately, and feeling as baffled as you are. I remember when I first moved to New Mexico (in 1979) and wasn’t sure what to call people of Mexican, Spanish, or Latin American origin: Latino? Hispanic? Chicano? After complimenting a friend on her Halloween costume one year, saying she looked like an Aztec princess, which completely, unwittingly offended her (she was from Espanola and of Spanish and Eastern European descent), I decided to avoid ethnic nomenclature of all kinds. When I did PR work for the IAIA one year I produced a newsletter for them where we had to append their tribal affiliation for everyone mentioned, (except me), I started wondering if perhaps we weren’t carrying this tribal/ethnicity thing too far. But that of course is an offensive view from a member of the oppressor–eg White–ethnic group. And of course we have been the oppressors for far too long, even though some of our ancestors (my father’s Irish family and friends’ Italian forbears, among others come to mind), have had to suffer prejudice, although not as pronounced or intractable as that which people of color have. (Is that okay to say, I wonder?)
    One would hope that all this attention to and compassion for the struggles that other groups have had to go through to be accorded dignity and opportunity in this country would have gotten us to a less fractious place rather than one where we are simply afraid to talk to and name one another. It’s getting to the point where the labels are creating more problems than they are solving. And don’t even get me started on LGBTQ and the various permutations of preferences in that community!
    I’d love to see your piece published as an editorial somewhere–but you might have to then put yourself in the cultural politics equivalent of the witness protection program!

    1. Love it, Joanna. So happy to know that you are companion on this rocky journey with all the same parentheticals and toe-stubbings. Thanks so much for writing.

  9. Lucy, If we are to make any progress communicating across the embittered divisions that are among the barriers to progress toward social justice, humor and honesty will be essential. Thank you for modeling both so beautifully.

    1. Howard, thank you so much. It’s about all I have to offer at this point –humor and honesty — so I’m glad they hit the spot with you. And I must add that you are a master with both as well.

  10. Thanks for sharing these evolving challenges and for being willing to engage, learn, and teach others – despite the frustrating moments! Always a good read!

  11. Thanks for expressing this so well. We are all trying to do the right thing, but find it hard to satisfy everyone, including ourselves.

    But we are trying, and that is important. And we are evolving in the correct direction

  12. Wonderful and as always inwardly inquisitive. It’s been a long time Lucy and I’m so glad that you are still involved in the practice.

  13. Thank you for sharing Lucy! I really appreciate the bit about “helping” and how that can be perceived as condescending.

    1. so much to learn, huh? and the tricky thing is that whatever we learn is not going to be appropriate in every situation. Just do the best we can.

  14. It’s really sad and infuriating to watch and hear all this appellating (naming) nonsense when you fought fight in the 1960s and 70s for civil rights and the environment and by all legal and societal measures won– and now as a grandparent see it atrociously cast away like an overchewed piece of gum.
    It takes hardening of both the brain cells and the human heart on a massive scale
    One time in VISTA Legal Services in Detroit right after the riots I was brought to an all-Black country club for the weekend by two colleagues. Well into the night, a certified senior like me today turned and said “You are the sweetest white boy I’ve ever met.”

    It certainly wasn’t difficult to get there

    I was just myself and vice versa

    I like “sweet white boy”

    It’s real

    MLK said the rest

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