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.