Living My Questions: What does it mean to “do the work on yourself” first, as a White, Privileged Female in a Racist World?

Microagression image

The Day the protests began, I’d already felt helpless. I didn’t know enough about the Black Lives Matter movement. I didn’t know how to help. I didn’t even know how to talk about it. And, if I’m honest, I had very few people in my racially insulated northern Minnesota pillowed life to talk to about it with a listening ear. Most people are ready to defend their views. Much of what I was reading on social media urged White people to “do the work” themselves to make a difference in racial injustice advocacy.

But, what does, “Do the work?” actually mean?

As always, I reach for books first – books about racial injustice, racism, and the history of white supremacy in our country. The first read was a book by Beverly Daniel Tatum called, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race.

With a pen, book and notebook in hand, I carried two chairs and a small table out into my yard by the flowering crab apple tree. A perfect location to bask in the aroma of the tree blossoms and soak in the sun. I needed one chair to sit on, the other to rest my feet upon with knees bent to use as a table for my notebook. This is an important part of the story. Pay attention. The chairs were kinda heavy. I had to make two trips. After I was set up, I made a third trip and balanced my coffee on a small table, bringing it out to set beside my chairs. I could stretch this part of the story out, but this is just a blog post, not a book and this is enough to give you a picture of my effort in this matter of setting up to read.

Each chapter in this book, demands a close read. There is so much to digest, unpack, and make sense of: systemic racism, microaggressions, Real Estate Laws, redlining, the New Jim Crow, Government Policies, incarceration statistics, discriminatory voting laws, intersectionality, overt white nationalism and internalized oppression. These are only some of the factors that contribute to a society of racism. I’d read for a bit, then write a few sentences in my notebook, connecting the ideas to prior knowledge or experiences.

My only issue was:

I didn’t have enough experiences.

My husband eventually ventured out to the yard with his coffee cup.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Reading – writing,” I replied. He must tire of this response and wonder if I ever get anywhere with the reading and writing that I do.

He set his coffee mug on my table and with both hands on the sides of the chair I had my feet on, began to move it.

“What are you doing?” I asked, jolted.

“I’m going to sit in this chair,” he said.

“But I’m using that chair for my feet,” I said. (I know. This sounds so selfish. But, don’t forget how much work it took me to get set up!)

“Do you really need two chairs?” he asked.

“Yes, I do,” I replied. “There are more chairs up by the house if you want to bring one out.”

He was calm and not upset. Rolled his eyes inside his head, I’m sure. He took his coffee cup and decided to go sit up by the porch.

Now, you may be thinking I am an inconsiderate wife. Or, you may be thinking my husband is inconsiderate. Whatever you are thinking, park that thought for a moment, because it’s beside the point I want to make with this episode. Just play along with me here.

Instead, imagine you are a Black college student, male or female, it does not matter,  sitting in the Union studying alone. You pulled a heavy chair from against the wall over to rest your feet upon to set your laptop on.

Then imagine, a White male comes and attempts to grab the chair your feet are resting on to bring over to sit at another section of the Union with his buddies. He does not ask. There are other chairs available. He wants this one.

How do you feel?

Imagine it. Maybe it’s actually happened to you – or something like it.

That’s how I felt.

I happened to be reading Tatum’s chapter on microaggressions.

Tatum uses psychologist, Derald Wing Sue’s definition of racial microaggressions as “the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.”

I imagined the act of taking my chair as a behavioral, unintentional indignity. Indignity is a sharp word that encompasses shame, embarrassment and insult. I didn’t have shame or embarrassment, nor was I insulted, but had I been surrounded by others? maybe. . .

After my husband went back to the porch, I presumed he was perfectly content, drinking his coffee and reading. He doesn’t dwell on these kinds of things. He respects my solitude and I respect his. I can rationalize this.

However, I was left, energetically, in a different place, than when he arrived. I internalized the small act of inconsideration towards me and I could feel it in my body. It had to go somewhere. I blew this up in my mind, for “the experience” of “the micro-aggression”.

Keep playing with me here. . .

Did he feel entitled to the chair? Did he feel he had power over me? He was not emotionally effected. I was. What was that???? Call me crazy.

Back to being the imaginary Black student in the union. Do you say something? If you do, what do you risk? Is it worth it? Who would be the one to start the argument? What authorities get called over? Whose voice would get heard? Certainly, no one NEEDS two chairs.

Now imagine 10 – 20 microaggressions a week. These – just the “smallest” acts of racism.

Beverly Daniel Tatum writes, “Social science research has demonstrated that the cumulative effect of microaggressions ‘assail the self-esteem of recipients, produce anger and frustration, deplete psychic energy, lower feelings of subjective well-being and worthiness, produce physical health problems, and shorten life expectancy. . .'”   Psychologist Derald Wing Sue “the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.”

It’s a constant perpetual drip of stress.

I imagined a life time of these acts towards me – in which I had no power to reject or stand up against, for fear of what might happen. Then, I imagined generations of these acts – for hundreds of years. How much gets stored in the body with nowhere to go? Passed down from generation to generation. At some point, you don’t even know why you are angry – you can’t name it. It lives in you.

But then. Something happens.

Like a Black man being killed on video for the world to see.

And, you are cracked open.

I made these discoveries in my notebook as I documented what was happening, my emotions, connections to ideas from the book and my imagination.  I needed the “chair stealing” experience with my husband as the missing piece to “the work” I needed to do.

Gratefully, our relationships can prompt for experiences that can be starting points to imagine racial injustice. It is here that we gain understanding and develop empathy for those who are oppressed.

I’m not sure how others do “the work”, but this is where I’m starting until I learn more. I know I still have “work” to do on my own unconscious racist ways of being, thinking and behaving. I know that I’m not sure if I will do this “work” right. But, I’m willing to just start, lean into the discomfort, get messy trying figure it out.

“The work” continues . . .

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Living My Questions: What does it mean to “do the work on yourself” first, as a White, Privileged Female in a Racist World?

  1. What an incredible journey you shared. I’m working through my own process from where I stand, looking face to face with those many micro aggressions that I’ve had to turn my the other way from, in order to move forward. Also realizing that they do stay with you, becoming a part of your fabric. We all have much work to do. Thank you for sharing a piece of your process with us.

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  2. “But, I’m willing to just start, lean into the discomfort, get messy trying to figure it out.” And this is why I am so proud to know you, Shari. You have a deep care for those around you and an embedded responsibility to “lean into the discomfort.” Thank you for inspiring me to start digging in myself.

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  3. I appreciate this post sooo much! I’ve actually been meaning to find out where “do the work” comes from. One of my many commitments over the past couple of years has been to start citing my sources and giving credit to those who have taught me. I use “do the work” all the time–and I have no idea where it originated. I think reading and reflecting is actually a big part of doing of the work. There is A LOT to unlearn. One of my current favorite resources that I’ve been sharing is a paper published at DismantlingRacism.org called “From White Racist to White Anti-Racist.” It provides a good layout of the different stages of racial awareness and includes plenty of examples of what it might mean to “do the work.” It also quotes Tatum a ton!

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