Grown-Ass White Folk

Alternate title: Growing Up — Well-Meaning White Folk and the American Dream

As I write this, we are in another cycle of processing white people behaving horribly. This time it is a white woman in NYC Central Park invoking police violence and actual police violence in Minneapolis. But it could be a Black man jogging, a Black woman studying, the police in Indianapolis, or any other city. These incidents are no longer going unnoticed, under-reported–at least not in some social media networks.

However, it is not just acts of violence against Black folk, Indigenous folk, and other People of Color that show us where we are as a white supremacist society trying to become the ideal that Black civil rights leaders, in particular, have been pushing us towards.

White folk responding to incidents of anti-Black violence also shed a light on our so-called progress.

The Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, offered an American “Dream” that has often been misappropriated. Rather than a color-blind vision of post-racial society, King preached firmly about “Dream” as a form of Sacred Imagination–referring to what the United States could become. In other words, he pressed not for the destruction of the United States (as well he could have), but for her transformation.

While that “Dream” has been, in some measure, embraced as a part of the sacred canon of the United States, it has been a bumpy road in terms of white folk doing the work it would take to actually be transformed. Indeed, much has been said elsewhere about the backlash of electoral politics, not only from our first African-American president to another white Nationalist-in-chief, but in regards to the many ways that white supremacy has been baked into what it means to be a citizen of the United States.

More on MLK a his “triple threats” (my 5 threats).

However, my concern for now, is about neo-liberal politics and how well-meaning white folk, such as myself, engage in this transformational process. Frankly, most of white liberal society lags far behind Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities in learning to deal with racialized issues with maturity.

We (white folk) need to grow up. We need to become “Grown-Ass white folk.” We literally need to become more mature in how we react to racialized incidents.

When your first response is to individuate and your immediate second is not to deeply consider your implication in the systems that produce, encourage and support the aforementioned individual and your responsibility to dismantle those systems, you are part of the problem.

Louis Mitchell on Facebook, May 27, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/louis.mitchell.10/posts/10220777292296245

Louis’s post on Facebook, quoted above, was in response to this latest (May 2020) round of white people/police behaving horrifically and evokes standard human developmental stages for me. According to Vocabulary.com:

Individuation is the process by which an individual becomes distinct. Individuation distinguishes you from everybody else. The word individual is a good clue to the meaning of individuation, which is how a being becomes an independent, separate entity.

https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/individuation

In a generic conversation about developmental stages, individuation is expected between early puberty and early adulthood. This is the part of “growing up” where we pull away from parental influences and become our own person. Put another way, this is where we come to maturity.

In terms of cultural (re)development, white folk still have a lot of growing up to do, but I think we are actually making some progress. So, I want to try to capture some of what I am observing here, in case it might help us (white folk) all further embrace these essential stages of moral and ethical development–before we throw another temper tantrum of some sort.

What does it mean for well-meaning white folk to “grow up”? Indeed, what does it mean for us to “put away childish things”? What does it mean for us to be “mature” in response to the way our world operates?

Protect the “innocent.” We have been slowly growing beyond the urge to push racialized incidents “under the rug.” At an early stage of emotional development, humans are easily flooded with new information and unprepared to cope. One strategy to deal with being flooded is to hide that reality. Not only the “If we ignore it, maybe it will go away” method, but also the “protect the innocent” method. There is a, perhaps natural, impulse to keep children from seeing or hearing about the bad things in our world.

Still, white folk frequently react to Black Lives Matter protests as “inconvenient,” if not “inappropriate.” Developmentally, we might suggest that coming to terms with the reality of police violence as a mechanism of white supremacy is an early stage of development that white folk need to come to terms with. BIPOC folk should not be required to infantalize white folk, to protect us from ourselves or the world around us, whether to protect our “innocence” or to avoid our reactivity because we are quite simply poorly prepared.

Meanwhile, we need to remember that Black and Brown children are not allowed to be “innocent” or “children” because they are forced to “grow up” early–and mater-of-fact-ly–in order to survive. Protecting the “innocent” is an actual function of privilege– and the violence is not actually hidden from plain view for so many.

“Not my fault.” At a still early stage of development, children begin to be able to have the discussion about do’s and don’t’s–and then about whose “fault” it is. This typically begins with very binary thinking about “right” and “wrong” which is developmentally appropriate at a young age. We have to “grow up” into understanding there are more nuances to mature moral and ethical thinking. We have to “grow up” into thinking about systems of power and how we are complicit in (and benefit from) so many things that are morally “wrong”–even when we are not obviously adjacent to the “wrong” activity.

The problem is that well-meaning white folk often get perpetually stuck in this stage of thinking about a binary kinds of “right” and “wrong,” “They started it,” or “It’s not my fault.” To be clear, we live in a culture that indoctrinates us into thinking about “individual rights” rather than community responsibility. So, this is not just an individual failure, but an immaturity that is based in and reinforced by the culture we live in.

From “My ancestors didn’t own slaves” to “I have nothing to do with the police in {location} who caused that harm” to the ever-present “I am NOT a racist” and “I would never do THAT,” there are a plethora of ways that we distance ourselves from how we are in relationship with what is going on in the world. Such distancing stunts both the conversation about reality and also our ability to adapt to reality like mature adults.

See also “White Bull Shit” (and “More White Bull Shit” which I apparently never finished).

I’m a “good” one. Virtue-signalling starts at an early age. We demonstrate that we are “good” in order to reap the benefits of being in favor. BIPOC children may grow up pursuing “respectability politics,” but are more than likely going to run into some kind of wall where they can finally realize that being “good” is not enough. Many white children do not “grow up” with that kind of reality check early in life.

Now that social media and Black Lives Matters and other conversations not subject to the rules of white supremacy have pushed these conversations further into the open, white folk are more likely to outrage-post and virtue-signal in ways that posture ourselves as the “good” ones. This is especially convenient in these times of political backlash when there is so much white nationalism in plain view.

However, virtue-signaling is still more self-absorbed than pragmatic. It is not a mature or productive approach. It reinforces the binary idea that there are “good” ones and “bad” ones instead of a system in which we are all complicit. And, we are hearing from our Black and Brown siblings that outrage posts often have the impact of re-traumatizing the people we claim to be outraged on behalf of.

Accountability. It is no small thing to reach a level of maturity where a child can say, “I was wrong” without falling apart in a puddle of “I am bad.” It is no small thing to get beyond the culture of shame that is built up about being “right” and “wrong” to allow ourselves to be imperfect, but worthy, correctable, and accountable.

The conversation about “Cancel Culture” shows more signs of immaturity. There is nothing wrong with holding leaders and cultural figures and one another accountable for their/our actions! In fact, that is one important kind of maturity. Yet, those who derail “Cancel Culture” wholesale are often making excuses for somebody with some kind of privilege.

Still, we are all human. Developing more mature ways to talk about accountability is vital–moving from punishment models to reparative models, from shame-based models to growth-oriented models, and from casting weaponized blame to the recognition that all of us make mistakes for which we must be held accountable.

Questioning Authority. Part of individuating is our ability to question authority. First and foremost, we interrogate our parents. But growing up also means questioning teachers and political leaders and anyone in authority. Indeed, we might or might not even learn to question our own authority. This is where some of our more systemic thinking should also be kicking in about whose perspective is being privileged.

So far, all of these developmental stages for resisting white supremacy are grounded in conversations about who is or isn’t “innocent.” I would actually argue that this is one of the key places where Christian supremacy links arms with white supremacy. Instead of finding a more mature approach, we cling to ideas of “right” and “wrong” that frame us all as “guilty” or “innocent,” “civilized” or “savage.” When we get to “civilized” or “savage,” it becomes easier to see how these binary ideas are the bedrock of white supremacy. Fixing these systems is not just about sorting out a few “bad apples” (evoking “cancel culture” again).

Well-meaning white folk, in particular, need to “grow up” to question the systems that have been raised up to “protect” us. Not only police and prison systems, but the economy and the stock market and educational systems and credentialing systems are all designed to benefit some and exclude others, in ways that land solidly along racial lines (though not exclusively along those lines). We need to question our own authority and how our sense of self-worth may actually be a narcotic of white privilege and the systems that protect us.

Empathy. A significant sign of maturity is a well-developed sense of empathy. It is a notable and important step when children start to articulate their understanding of the feelings of others. There are all kinds of anecdotes shared both by white folk and by people of color about how our (white) feelings of empathy for Black and Brown folk are interrupted, shamed, and devalued from an early age.

White supremacy functions in a variety of ways to disfigure and destroy our empathy for Black and Brown folk. This happens everywhere from the distance we keep from (Black and Brown) front-line retail workers and janitorial staff to history-telling about the slave trade without trigger warnings, from the way we are taught to protect the feelings of some people and not the feelings of others to the particular scripts provided in movies and other visual media where we learn what is “normal.” It is quite simply everywhere.

It is apparent in some of our reactions to news-worthy events that many white folk have more empathy for theoretical Black and Brown folk than for actual Black and Brown folk. How easily we allow the conversations to shift from murder to whether or not the deceased “deserved” it for some reason of poor character or up-bringing. Our moral compass is not color-blind. We need to figure out what that is all about and get over ourselves!

Coming of Age. For Black and Brown folk, these kinds of racialized coming of age conversations are about survival. For white folk, these kinds of conversations tend to be more esoteric because we have so often been sheltered from the storm. Some of us confront these dynamics because of other marginalizations (e.g. gender, sexuality, poverty, etc). But, one way or another, well-meaning white folk need to “grow up” if we are to join with our Black and Brown siblings in building a better world for all of us.

  • We need to move past binary thinking about “right” and “wrong,” while developing a strong sense of moral authority that is not based on caricatures.
  • We need to get over our pursuit of “innocence” and “comfort” to be able to hold the knowledge that we are complicit in systems of oppression that cause horrendous harm.
  • We need to repair and develop a powerful sense of cross-racial empathy while asking ourselves why it may be easier to feel for animal rights than Black or Brown civil rights
  • We need to feel our feelings about the things that are happening and let our grief break us open.
  • We need to shift from “virtue-signalling” and “outrage posting” to more pragmatic actions that actually support our Black and Brown siblings where they struggle.

I’m not sure if that is the end of the list of things we need to do to grow up as well-meaning white folk. I am admittedly still a work in progress and, if the topic were simple, we would have “fixed” it a long time ago. But, I am seeing conversations among white folk on social media that make me think that we are, collectively, starting to grow up. I want to lean into that moment.

Meanwhile, this post is only about getting to “being grown.” The work of the resistance requires “grown-ass” white folk to join skillfully in support of Black and Brown leadership. That is a whole other kind of growth and skill development. Yet, when we try to “do the work” without this basic “grown up” maturity, we often cause harm.

Black and Brown folk — not only Dr King, but also his forebearers and those who have come after him –have given us (white people) so many gifts — and, admittedly, much of what they have given was actually stolen. But this American Dream is one of the gifts — this Sacred Imagining that the United States could grow up to be more than just one more manipulative, evil empire, like all the rest.

Not just that, but this Sacred Imaging that well-meaning white folk could “grow up” to be siblings on the journey.

Such an Dream is no small imagining given the world around us. Dreaming can be exhausting. We need to quite literally become more mature, to “grow up” and join them in this sacred work of transformation. We owe it to them to do our own sacred work .

Side note: I actually think a model of pathological grief is also quite useful for thinking about well-meaning white people needing to shift our emotional life, but that is a whole other conversation for another day.

Gratitudes: While my parents and others raised me to value integrity, most of what I know about white supremacy, I have learned from queer and trans BIPOC and/or broader BIPOC communities. If anything here is useful, then it is because of so many BIPOC who have invested in me. For all of the emotional labor that represents, I give thanks.

I also highly recommend the Doing Our Own Work program led by Melanie Morrison for white folk who want to do some of this work in community with some useful scaffolding to support you.

I am also forever returning to this White Supremacy Culture resource by Tema Okun (see Dismantling Racism), which is one specific influence around this knot of innocence, individualism, comfort, perfectionism, paternalism, and binary either/or thinking.

See also:

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