I’ve been very slowly working my way through Layla F. Saad’s Instagram challenge You & White Supremacy. I’m sharing my reflections here and on Instagram as outlined in her guidelines on YouTube. If you want to read other folks writing check out the hashtag, or sign up to her newsletter to find out when the workbook will be available. Some of this writing may be triggering if you are a BIPOC please prioritize your self care if reading.
Day 15: Me & White Apathy
I have been apathetic towards my role in racism by not beginning this challenge when I first came across it on day 3 or 4 back in June. I thought that I was too busy and that by following others doing the work that was enough until I had more time. Not having time is such a slippery method of white apathy. We all dont have the time to do everything we would like to do, yet we make decisions that effect what our priorities are – family, work, education, volunteering, etc. I realized that if I didn’t make time for this important work there would never be time. However I am forgetting it again already. 15 days into the challenge and my white apathy is creeping back in. The last 7 prompts were a lot of ugly work. They made me feel physically and emotionally sick. And sure enough when the work got hard, and the social rewards of sharing my writing went away, that apathy crept back in. Maybe it would be ok to just leave the work. I’ve done enough for now. I can pick it up again later when I “have more time”.
My white apathy also disguises itself as self care. I dont have time/energy to do the writing today because I need to rest to prepare for X. Yet I continue to avoid the root problems of my over scheduling complex and instead throw BIPOC under the bus in order to “rest”. The other word for this behaviour is laziness. Rest is radical, but there is nothing radical about laziness. Laziness is undermining my will power to address the root problems that allow racism to flourish in my life.
I have been apathetic towards racism when talking to my family. Because their racism is so blatant to me, and yet they are frequently kind and generous towards me, then they must just be putting on a show. Something they learned on Fox News. How dangerous can they actually be? Is a dangerous apathetic thought I have had.
I also see white apathy in my creative communities when there is little interest in learning about a social issue or another culture until we are working on a piece related to it. Our attention is only as long as our contract is paying us to care, or as long as we can take credit for “learning” from others work while repeating it into our own voice. “All artists steal from each other” but I observe that not all artists are rewarded equally for their theft.
I also see white apathy in my yoga communities that are only interested in how these poses or these chants can serve to simplify beautify our own life without paying mind to where these teachings came from, how we got here, or who is benefiting from the “teachings” we are consuming. The apathy here results in lazy uses of bite sized teachings that loose a more nuanced understanding of the human condition, and work as a shield against anyone that would ask us to reflect deeper.
I see this kind of white apathy in my white feminist circles. That are all for diversity as long as you agree with me, hate the same men I hate, and promise to reassure me I am one of the good ones. The apathy to talk about the issues that aren’t most pressing to you personally. The apathy to learn about the intersections of issues that do not personally effect us.
I practice white apathy when I block a racist friend, or skip the comment section, or ignore a white centering thing my friend says in conversation “because it’s just not worth it”. Its not worth it to me because I can choose to look away from the impacts of racism, and I can protect my own sense of white superiority while doing it.
Day 16: Me & White Centering
My whiteness has been centered in almost every play I have read, most media I consume from magazines to movies, in the history that is taught and celebrated, in beauty standards and depictions of goodness and saintliness. I have centered my whiteness when choosing what social justice issues to advocate for. Although I make more of an effort in the last couple of years to be informed on intersectional issues I often treat them as garnish issues to the main concerns. I have centered my whiteness when choosing what jobs to apply for by prioritizing working in hip atmospheres often directly related to gentrefication and displacement. I have centered my whiteness when asking for help or free education from BIPOC because “they are just better at this stuff”. I have learnt to center my feelings on racism over the lives of BIPOC which shows up as white fragility. I have centered my whiteness by not questioning what I have learnt (white apathy). Accepting the safety bubble that white supremacy has afforded me I have actively chosen to maintain that bubble. I have centered my whiteness when reporting crimes because I know my victimhood will be taken seriously and protected by institutionalized racism. I have centered my whiteness when I care more about how a perceived threat to my “good white person” status makes me feel rather than the actual harm I am causing. I centre my whiteness when I write, never having to think of my voice and experiences as anything but normal. I centre my whiteness when I audition never feeling like I will be a casting risk because of the colour of my skin. I centre my whiteness when I lead because it fits with how I have been taught to expect to get ahead and be at the head. I centre my whiteness mostly because I have rarely had to be in a space that sidelines it, and when I have I can reassure my ego that it is only temporary (white saviourism). Putting whiteness at the centre of my life has been the subconscious driving force behind many of my decisions and actions. Preserving that centre felt like preserving safety although I have not experienced real danger because of the colour of my skin.
Day 17: Me & Tokenism
I have tokenized collaborators by hiring to check diversity boxes on a grant application without thinking more deeply about what my motivation was to find “diverse” voices or what those people might want to say beyond my master vision. I have tokenized black people by using black reaction gifs and adopting online black face and slang. I have tokenized the anti-racism work of BIPOC by sharing it or quoting it without doing the deeper work myself in order to appear “woke”. I dressed up as Flavour Flav for a costume party when I was 16. Although not wearing black face paint I failed to understand how the costume was still offensive and tokenism. I grew up playing cowboys and Indians, and did not understand how pretending to be Pocahontas was offensive and tokenism. Even after learning about the actual Pocahontas I continued to play based on the character version “because it was more fun”. I grew up surrounded by sage burning hippies who “passed on” this sacred medicine that they had appropriated and then I appropriated. I have sage on my alter right now. I bought it in a trendy store that I believe is white owned. I have it juxtaposed with a statue of the Buddha that I got in a garage sale. These are literal tokens of cultures and peoples my white lady spiritualism has collected. When I started reflecting on how much white cis male media I have consumed in my lifetime I started collecting BIPOC (particularly WOC) to read, listen to, watch, and generally consume in a tokenized way to appear to have “diverse” taste. I learnt to associate “diverse” taste whether for kim chi or Taoism or rap music as being seen as more “worldly” and part of being accepted as a “good white person” by other progressive white people always looking for “authentic” and “unusual” tokens to appropriate.
Day 18: White Saviourism
I have expressed white saviourism as an artistic producer seeing myself as the one that is securing paid positions for BIWOC to create, learn, and express themselves. As if they would not be able to do this for themselves and are in fact doing me a favour taking part in my primarily white project/event/festival. I have leaned into white saviourism post Charlottesville and Gerard Stanley trial looking for a way to re-brand my whiteness as “helpful” rather than “dangerous”. In spite of whatever good intentions may have guided me to seek helpful ways of speaking out about my growing concern over the prevalence of white supremacy it was ultimately pointless and toxic as I either spoke over BIPOC or co-opted their words and their struggle. I only felt empowered to speak to blatantly racist white friends about their harassment rather than unpack all the ways my progressive friends and myself have upheld white supremacy. By engaging with the more violent comments in my circles I could feel like I was defending the helpless or being a voice for the voiceless without having to give up any of my own privilege in the conversation including intersecting privileges of class and education. Engaging in this kind of extremism “debates” may be emotionally satisfying, but rarely create real lasting changes. And may in fact work to add fuel to the fire further inciting violence against those I think need my “help” or “protection”. The more work I put into “white knighting” through these conversations on racism the less time I spend actually dismantling my prejudices.
Other ways I have expressed white saviourism that did not originally come to mind… when I advocate for better social security nets as an expectation for my government to be able to legislate out racism. As if that racism is not deeply in grained in the very letter of the law and policy they govern by. When I promote BIWOC by emphasizing how smart or well spoken they are while silently implying for their race. Volunteering to serve meals with my white colleagues at an establishment that mainly serves indigenous people. Calling it community building even though we don’t speak to each other and my presence is actively displacing them in the neighborhood.
Day 19: Me & Optical Allyship
I think the only kind of ally I am is an optical one. I never considered myself an activist, but at some point I got labeled one because I share so many SJW posts online. Layla taught me that there is a name for that – virtue signaling. “Look at me, I am a good white person, no need to talk to me about anti-racism work, I’m already part of the choir”. I never consciously intended to cultivate an image as a socially engaged person, but I definitely continue to do so because of the emotional and social pay off. I get to feel good about “staying informed” and “speaking up” while changing nothing in the world or more importantly myself. I have never put my neck on the line for someone else, or sought out anti-racism resources that were not made readily available to me for free usually by BIWOC. And even then sometimes I pass it over either tokenizing their work or succumbing to white apathy. I experienced how hard it is to get away from only being interested in doing the work when it is in view in this challenge. The mixed feelings of satisfaction, disgust, self loathing, and smugness when someone comments on these posts to validate what I’m doing. I can repeat that I’m here doing this work because it is mine to do, but it’s hard to escape those feelings that want to be the center of attention all the time. It’s hard to imagine what comes after this when the challenge ends. Without Layla’s posts to give me guidance on how to do this work will it fade into the background again? How can I go back to just absently sharing anything that sparks those old righteous feelings? How can I go deeper without reverting to white saviourism? Optical allyship to me is about safety. Wanting everyone to feel safe, but not wanting to risk my own to get there. Assuming that it is possible to feel safe while dismantling violent oppressive systems. Dismantling violent oppressive beliefs in myself. That my idea of safety would feel safe to everyone. That my idea of safe is not a threat to someone else’s safety.
Day 20: Me & Being Called Out
I am not regularly called out (or in) which after completing this many days of the challenge is obvious to me that it is not because I’m “good” but because I’m dangerous, and I’m not likely to take it well. Even if I’m not violently dangerous if I’m not looking at the white supremacist violence that lives through me then I cant expect to be held accountable by other people doing their work. Last week I was listening to Sarah Jones on Oh Boy by Man Repeller. I was trying to explain how amazing it is to watch her perform as all of these characters transitioning right before your eyes like magic to Aron, and he asked “but is she Latina” and I said “no I don’t think so” and he said “that’s racist”. And it wasn’t even a direct call out about my actions but I still felt angry like it was a direct attack. I watched myself respond in my head, wanting to defend her on grounds of the artistry involved (exceptionalism), and grounds of we are all one people in the human condition (denial), on that it wasnt intended to be racist (fragility), on the fact Obama had her perform at the white house (tokenizing), on the grounds that there were different rules for theatre than other art forms (exceptionalism), on the grounds that she is black so it’s fine (tokenizing/denial). He was just pointing out a fairly obvious fact about her performance, but his comments directly challenged my sense of self as someone that supports representation on stage. As a “good white person”. And as is to be expected I responded with anger. Actually I responded with silence because I knew my anger was misplaced, but anger was still present. We did talk about it later and each conceded on some points, but I never apologized for my response. To my own partner. So you can certainly imagine that I have never apologized to anyone else for my toxic whiteness.
Day 21: Me & White Supremacy
I am feeling consumed by hopelessness. There are so many ways I have participated in upholding white supremacy that I was not aware of. Even to try to unlearn one behavior related to that could take years, and obviously this is what is meant by a lifetime of work, but how do I even begin in one lifetime? I feel on edge when I notice patterns I have named in daily interactions, but i haven’t found anything to replace them with other than new self conciousness and renewed self loathing. These feelings are not productive either slipping into white fragility, centering, apathy. Hyper focus without a clear goal. I know that I have to change the criteria I use to make decisions about what is good and correct and safe, but to say how I’m going to achieve that feels impossible right now. Impossible is such a lazy answer. Throw up my hands in despair. If I cant deny my role in white supremacy then I can accept that this is just how things are, they are too hard to change. That’s garbage. I’ve changed things that felt impossible repeatedly, and accepting that uncomfortable feeling is the first part. I need to find what the second part is. Today I’m just tired.