Booting Myself from the Stage
Note to readers: I am a white woman writing this piece for a primarily white audience.
I never thought of myself as a performer until I examined my words and actions pertaining to racism over the course of my lifetime. I am an introvert, and a shy one at that. I have always thought of myself as a progressive and a person who values diversity, yet it was very difficult for me to find real-life examples of me valuing diversity in my daily life. Sure, I felt outraged by police brutality toward Black people, especially unarmed Black men, and the economic and educational inequities that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) people face, but I wasn't really doing anything about these issues. What I was doing was performing. Performing as a so-called racial ally by reposting news stories about racial injustice on social media so I could put my outrage on display, both for others and myself. This act made me feel good about myself and enabled me to see myself as someone outside of the problem of white supremacy; someone who was actually fighting to dismantle it. This is not to say that every white person who posts about racism is performing, but for me it often was.
I let guilt guide my actions and I acted in ways to assuage my guilt, rather than acting out of the pure intention of dismantling systemic racism. To alleviate my white guilt, I would throw money at causes that supported anti racism work. I chose these causes randomly, whichever one happened to give me relief from my white guilt at that moment. What I didn't realize until I examined my own inner biases, is that reacting out of guilt wasn't helping end racism at all. I was sidestepping my own complicity in white supremacy and with each act of false support, my white guilt only grew and I became more a part of the problem than the solution. Not until I started to examine my intentions and biases in depth, could I recognize the true motivation behind my actions; I wanted to be seen as a white ally without really doing any of the work.
In anti-racism educator Catrice M. Jackson's book Antagonists, Advocates & Allies, I learned that I was an Advocate, a person who was aware of her white privilege, genuinely interested in social and racial justice, yet often took a neutral stance when racism reared its ugly head. I was taking minimal action to fight racism; I was passive and this passivity only enabled me to cause more harm to BIPOC. I was leaving BIPOC to do the real work of dismantling racism on their own. I realized that my anti-racism work was not only performative, but also contingent on convenience; the convenience of my schedule, my location and my mood. These contingencies meant I could easily find an excuse to not show up for BIPOC, while at the same time feeling that even considering to show up was enough of an effort on my part. This is the epitome of white privilege and white entitlement, having the option to sit out the battle, an option that BIPOC never have. I was not only performing for others, but myself as well. I could make just enough of an effort to feel like I was doing something, easing my own white guilt.
I realized I needed to move out of performance mode if I wanted to ever become an ally. This is another area that my work with Leesa Renee Hall was profoundly helpful. In working through Leesa's writing prompts, I realized the way forward for me was to become conscious of my intentions. Before I act, I try to remember to ask myself: Why am I doing this? Is my intention pure? Who am I doing this for? Do I expect a "cookie" for my act? Performance is easy for all of us to fall into. I recall on one episode of Oprah's SuperSoul Conversations, she told the story of how she once received a call from Stevie Wonder asking her to donate to his charity. Oprah said she really wanted to say yes, but when she questioned herself further, she realized the only reason she would be saying yes is so that Stevie Wonder would like her. She then realized her donation would not be coming from a place of pure intent and so she told him she could not make the donation, a response that Stevie Wonder graciously accepted. If acting with intention is good enough for Oprah, it's definitely good enough for me.
Doing anti-racism work requires us white people to get far out of our comfort zones lest we become the moderate white person that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about in his Letter from Birmingham Jail; the white person more concerned with order than justice. King called out passive, moderate white people as the greatest obstacle to the Black person's freedom, even more so than the Ku Klux Klan, because "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will." To be aware of racism, yet only dip your toe into anti-racism work when it's convenient for you or when you get "cookies" for your performative work, is perpetuating violence on to BIPOC. It's time we all got off the stage and started looking at our intentions and motivations. BIPOC lives are at stake.
Stepping out of performance mode is still an ongoing effort for me and may always be, but I can see progress and that motivates me to continue to question my intentions. Acting out of pure intent feels so much better and I never go back and question myself if I made the right decision when my intent is pure. When I've acted out of performance, I keep revisiting my act and know that it doesn't sit well in my body.
This year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, many white people will be tempted to perform for others by posting quotes from Dr. King showing how woke we are. I hope we can honor Dr. King by moving beyond performance and examine our own intentions and how they may be harming the very people we claim to support.