Thinking about leadership in terms of white leaders, I notice that I’ve more often clarified the race of a leader if they are not white and that is part of my white supremacist conditioning to assume that leaders are white unless otherwise specified.
The impact that white, often male, leaders have had on my life is that I’ve felt conditioned to respect, obey and please them, and not to question them, for fear that they won’t praise me or choose me for special roles and tasks. I’ve too easily endowed intelligence on white leaders and assumed their worthiness to be in a leadership role by the simple fact that they are in that role. I haven’t often enough questioned or researched their legitimacy to be there or what they might have done to get in this role. It seems we are much more suspicious people of color and how they come to be in leadership roles when just the opposite should be the case.
When I’ve aspired to take a leadership role, it hasn’t been a priority for me to look around and see if there is a woman of color that could better serve instead of me. I’ve been focused on the inner strength that I’d have to pull out of myself to take on that role and the imagined hurdles I’d have to overcome to get there without realizing or acknowledging the extreme level of privilege that buoys me due to my skin color. When I aim to speak to “everyone,” I haven’t worked hard enough (or sometimes at all) to research and attempt to widen my view and understanding of how BIPOC relate to or experience whatever topic I am trying to write or speak about.
I see, hear and experience white leaders not owning their white privilege and, more often than not, reinforcing white supremacist systems even in their attempts to be all-inclusive or cater to BIPOC. As I am tuned to this behavior more and more, I notice it everywhere. I do struggle to call out white leaders who I may see as being helpful, loved and respected people in the eyes of many other (often white) people. I spend too much time trying to create a case with research, examples, offer solutions and try to craft my words in such a perfect way that I could impart the truth of their racist bias without causing a scene or hurting anyone. This is the biggest load of bullshit and such a strong instinct in me to protect patriarchy and white supremacy. I often don’t see when I am doing it because I am still so focused on trying to be or appear, likable, respected and honorable myself. I worry that I’m not smart enough to call someone out, that my words won’t hold power and will be belittled, downplayed and made to seem crazy, unstable, rude, offensive, decisive or simply dis-proven with all their examples of why they are a good leader and not racist.
It takes all my guts to stand up against a leader, and if I’m honest, I haven’t very often confronted a white leader directly or face to face. The way that I employ most often is to leave, walk away, stop paying them or buying their products and find something or someone else that I can be more aligned with.
I’m practicing calling people in (or out) more often. I started more with people or organizations that I honestly don’t have a lot invested in. I’ve written letters and emails, sent books to read, and sometimes had face to face conversations. Still in these instances I notice how careful I am not to offend and how much effort I put in to make myself heard in a firm, but loving way. I seem to have a preference to confront people about white supremacy in the most loving way possible and I don’t know if this is still serving white supremacy. I fear it is and I’m also deeply uncomfortable with confrontation or worrying that people will be angry with me. And I’m still doing it anyway because I continually am reminded that protecting the way things are and have been is not kind, loving or humane. It’s going to be painful, there will be lots of feelings involved and that’s the only way that change can happen. I’m still finding a better way to be authentic, brave and fierce in my conviction when calling white leaders in or out.
Asking white leaders to do better is something, but giving examples and ideas of what would be better action, better speech, and better acknowledgement of the reality of their allegiance to white supremacy is more helpful. I think many white businesses and white leaders try to get by without taking a stance or having a public opinion so that they do not offend anyone, but what that says to me is that they are protecting white supremacy and catering to those that would be offended by a stance against white supremacy. I see the desire to not be against anything and only be for good things, but that feels like gaslighting and saying that there is no problem, no inequity and that we all just need to get along and be positive. That is oversimplified, but the level of denial is deep when simple acknowledgement and right action could be so much more powerful in saying “That’s enough. We refuse to participate in this any longer.” to those protecting the status quo or only efforting for optical anti-racism instead of truly understanding and working against white supremacy. Staying out of politics is personal choice to remain complicit when people are dying because of their skin color all the time and their white killers are not being held accountable as laws are bent around to accommodate white supremacy.
When a leader is publicly called out, I can find parts of me that look to defend all that they have done with integrity or all the good they have been part of. This again is my instinct to go easy on those who look like me and move the line in the sand accordingly when it comes to those that I’ve followed, respected or learned from. I think knowing for myself ways that I am part of the racist system and have upheld white supremacy so often both knowingly and unconsciously and still being able to sleep at night and love myself helps me reconcile the need to protect those that are called out publicly. I will sooner call myself out than others to avoid inflicting unwanted pain or attention, and that instinct is privileged and racist. I see for myself that letting go of the idea that anyone escapes racism and white supremacy and being willing to acknowledge, recognize and talk about it is more effective that creating such shock, shaming, scapegoating and crucifying of those found to be racist, yet who may deny it fervently. I don’t really want to be seen as racist, but I’m willing to be because I am in spite of every effort I make to learn and heal. I know that I have so many years of being conditioned by white supremacy that I will very likely be unable to stay aware all the time of checking myself, my privilege and my whiteness. That’s why it’s a daily, and even moment to moment, practice and awareness that I will fail at over and over, but I will also make progress with and find clarity, hope and more love in and I do this because it’s the only decent way to be a white person with our legacy of colonization, exploitation and extermination of people of color.
What I’ve learned is that singling out and scapegoating leaders is helpful and necessary to highlight to those who follow them what is happening in a public way. As a follower becoming polarized, defensive or reactionary is unhelpful to finding ways to shift, change, bring light to and acknowledge the failures of white leadership and to transform into a leadership reflective of and alongside BIPOC. The only response to being called out or called in by a person of color is, “Thank you. I will work much harder to become more aware and make the necessary changes.” And then fucking do it. Defense against being called out only reinforces white supremacy. I see that it can be very damaging on a personal or professional level and that is good because why should anyone gain wealth and popularity from white supremacy? There must be a constant stream of casualties (just look at the casualties of white supremacy…to many to even fathom) for these systems to be dismantled. And if you do not want to be a casualty, then get off your ass and do your anti-racism work like it’s your job, because it is. Do not expect your reputation (or your silence) to protect you.
Something else I have learned as I’ve started to call out people and organizations is that there are very sophisticated systems already in place to deal with being called out. Whole departments and teams create carefully crafted spin for exactly this type of accusation or circumstance. Never underestimate how much white leaders have invested in staying in power. I can’t simply write a letter to a school about a racist song they are singing and then take their carefully crafted response as to why they are doing all the right things in all the right ways to be the end of the inquiry. It’s the point where the inquiry requires me to put more skin in the game, do my own research, find my own facts and respond again going deeper and deciding who else could get involved to make more of an impact. Were I to simply take them at their word that what they are doing is in fact not racist and that I was confused, that would be action in support of upholding white supremacy, even as I think I’m taking action against it.
I’ve seen some white leaders respond to those that call them out in ways that seem humble and right. I also notice such an outpouring of praise and love for this kind of response when doing the right thing by making an “I’m sorry, I’ll do better.” type of response should be the norm not the most amazing thing that a person has ever done and used as a way to shore up their white leader pedestal even more. We are so willing to praise the slightest respectable behavior in white leaders as we jockey for their attention, praise and recognition when we should be more concerned with holding them accountable and waiting, watching to see if they put into action what they say they will do.
I know that on a very deep level, perhaps even cellular, I have instincts to not rock the boat, to protect my position of white privilege and to uphold white supremacy. It’s a toxic sickness that feels rotten, infected and spreads like cancer if I don’t look at it, acknowledge it and work to heal it every day. Just having this awareness doesn’t guarantee it won’t grow or get worse at any time. If knowledge was all that was needed to combat white supremacy then things would be different, but they aren’t even close to being acceptable of equitable, and those that say how change takes time can save that type of unhelpful, placating response, please. The pull to sink back in to complacency, illusion and accept the toxicity as the norm is strong and literally a conspiracy of almost all of our systems.
I have the idea of doing an anti-racism movement practice, maybe yoga daily, to breath in to these toxic places and find clarity towards expressing the ways I can live in alignment with the universal force that is not white supremacy and doesn’t fuel racism. I know that movement has to be involved. I’ll let you know how it goes.
This is in response to Layla Saad‘s 28 Day #MeAndWhiteSupremacy Instagram Challenge. @wildmysticwoman
Day 23: “Over the last 22 days, you have dug deep exploring white supremacist thoughts, beliefs, behaviours and motivations within yourself. For the next few days of the challenge we are examining how these behaviours play out in relationship between you and other white people in your life, and those who have an impact on your life. Please do not use this as an excuse to call anyone out by name here – that is not what this work is about. This work is about telling the truth about YOU & White Supremacy.
Today we are looking at You & White Leaders. Specifically, white people in positions of leadership, authority and power who you come into contact with. This includes for examples: teachers, coaches, mentors, authors, speakers, management at your work or other institutions, worship leaders, community leaders, project leaders, politicians, etc. It also includes yourself if you are in a leadership position, and your peers who are in leadership positions too. Knowing what you now know about white supremacist behaviours across days 1-22, how do you respond when you witness white leaders behaving in these white supremacist ways? Do you call them in/out on it? Do you ask them to do better? Do you project your own white fragility on to them and fear calling them in/out, because you yourself fear being called in/out? Do you act like it didn’t happen and keep buying their products/services or following their leadership regardless? Do you challenge them, or do you silently seethe inside while hoping someone else will do it? Do you allow them to do the bare minimum and give them a cookie when they do (whether through speech or in your mind)? Had you even noticed before this work that your white leaders have been showing up in these ways? And if you now realise they have, how do you plan to respond (if at all)? If it’s you that’s in the leadership position, how do you plan to respond to your own behaviours going forward? Do you understand that holding yourself accountable to do better also includes holding your leaders accountable to doing better too? Does your fear of loss of privilege and comfort hold you back from asking your leaders to do better?” – Layla Saad