The Painful and Liberating Practice of Facing My Own Racism

Thursday, July 6, 2017 - 4:42 pm

The Painful and Liberating Practice of Facing My Own Racism

I want to get A’s. Even as an adult, over a decade out of any formal schooling, I realize that I sometimes walk through the world looking for a gold star. I subconsciously ask myself: Am I good mother? A good friend? A good collaborator?

A good white person?

That last one might sound strange, but I’ve come to realize as of late that one of the delusions of white (progressive) culture is the assumption that if we stay vigilant enough, if we do enough “work,” that we can achieve some sort of permanent state of goodness; i.e., prove that we are definitively not racist. It’s as if somewhere along the way being labeled “racist” became our biggest fear. My friend Mia Birdsong explains her take:

“An unintended outcome of the Civil Rights Movement is that white (liberal) people developed a binary understanding of racism. Racists are cross burning, hood wearing, hate spewing people. If they are not that, they are not racist.”

So progressive white people frantically read the right books, proclaim adoration of the right thinkers, learn and integrate the right language, buy our kids dolls with varying skin tones, donate to organizations that fight white supremacy, etc.

But you can’t study, consume, or perform your way out of racism.

If you are white, if you’ve been socialized in the United States of America in the 21st century, you are racist. You will be racist until the day you die. There is nothing you can do to escape that fundamental fact.

In some ways, that’s a frightening reality to reckon with. But in another, it’s freeing. If there is no chance of escaping my own internal racism, then I don’t have to work so damn hard all the time to prove just how not-racist I am. Instead, I can spend energy doing things that are much more liberating — particularly building my resilience around confronting my own racism when it surfaces and building relationships with people who will call me out on my racism and support me in confronting it.

This happened recently. A black woman and friend of mine was lamenting how frustrated she is that so much money is still being invested in organizations led by white people when the presidential election (among much else) proved that it is the leadership of women of color that is so direly needed at this moment. In discussing an organization that friends of mine started, with an overwhelmingly white leadership team, I was immediately defensive. I wanted to explain why they were the exception, why they deserved understanding, why they weren’t part of the problem. In retrospect, I was wrong. In that moment, my racism surfaced. After a couple of weeks went by, she sent me an email describing her experience.

It was hard to process. My first instinct was to shame spiral and get defensive. She caught me off guard. I was having a rough day, not to mention month. I didn’t found the organization. All of that was true, but didn’t change the fundamental truth of what she was pointing out. As I let that first emotional wave run its course, there was something after it that felt like accountability, like acceptance, like integrity. I apologized and recommitted to supporting women of color in leadership.

I remembered that interrogating my own internal racism is not a one-time show, but a life-long journey. The only way to keep at it is to build relationships that can surface it and withstand holding it up to the light. It’s painful, but it is liberating because it releases me from thinking I can “win” or that I’m capable of perfection. I can’t and I’m not.

There’s something in me that relaxes when I’m real about that and get on with the work of really living, building interracial relationships, not because they garner me the appearance of being conscious, but because they mean a lot to me, force me to grow, give me opportunities to love while flawed and to love flawed humans (which we all are).

Shame has become such a fundamental part of the way white people, progressives especially, relate to their own whiteness. It’s not an unfounded reaction, of course; there’s a lot to be ashamed of. But as Brené Brown writes:

“Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement.”

When white people dwell in shame, we tend to grow meek and fragile, try to play it safe or perform, get defensive, try to distance ourselves from the “bad white people,” and a whole host of other reactions that don’t actually repair anything — relational or systemic.

Alternatively, when we move beyond shame (or at least don’t let it be the driving emotion), we recognize that while we can never cure ourselves of the culture in which we were raised, we can transform it. It will take generations, but so be it. Now is the time to be on the right side of history, not by purifying yourself of racism, but by grappling with it one humbling, sad, liberating, loving moment at a time. It won’t get you A’s, but it will make you more human.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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  • Amor Fati

    I always wondered why this blog does not have an African American (if this is the correct word) columnist.

    • Dear Amor. We take your words seriously here and want you to know that we have two African-American columnists who write for On Being: Broderick Greer and Jennifer Bailey, and contributing editor Miguel Clark Mallet. That said, we are striving to bring more voices from many different perspectives and orientations to our blog; I welcome your suggestions and would gladly have my team research them for inclusion in our digital spaces. Many thanks and warm regards.

      • Amor Fati

        Now I am wondering why these two African-American columnists are not listed above under the heading “columnists”. I also miss a regular Native American columnist. Even the coverage of Standing Rock was presented through the eyes of a white person, if I remember correctly.

        • Voss Jergunn

          Could we just fire all the whites to avoid such a hostile, whitesplaining tone in all these articles?

  • Louis Schmier

    I am not sure I agree or disagree with you. Maybe both. Maybe it is the matter that our differences are rooted in our individual past personal, familial, and social experiences which are ever-present within us in the present, always there whispering in our hearts. Maybe, being Jewish, it is my experience of being a member of a minority, a supposed “privileged minority,” that has always been the overt or subtle outsider, and often not counted by many as “white.” Maybe it is the personal experience of having grown up “unseen” and feeling “unloved” as a “second son” in my family. Maybe it is having had a very, very secretive and very, very dangerous and very, very serious “you just didn’t do” loving relationship with an African-American young lady in high school during the 50s, being in the environs of New York City notwithstanding. Maybe it is that I was in the civil rights movement during the 60s and 70s down here in North Carolina and South Georgia. Maybe all these experiences and so many more have given me both a subconscious and conscious mindfulness–an attentiveness, alertness, and awareness of others–that differences are rooted in varied experiences, both individual and social, but such differences are not to be part of any mix of judgment on the worthiness of ourselves or other. I do agree we cannot take anything for granted. We have to man the battlements against the constant assault from the outside–and maybe the inside as well–and we have to work each moment of each day to insure that we stand strong and live by the loving values of ALM (All Lives Matter). To me Rumi was right: the language of love is not in words. It is only love, along with its partners, faith and hope, in action that transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, the perishable into the “cherishable,” and, what Omid Safi would say, the “awful” into the “awe-full.” And, in so doing, insists that we connect and engage with every person as the sacred, unique, noble human being with untapped potentials that she or he is. That is, as you say, an arduous, sometimes dangerous, but worthwhile and wondrous journey in life.

    • Gabby

      I really appreciated your comment, Louis. As Courtney suggests, each of us is wise to remember frequently the possible narrowness of our lived and felt experience. But as you write, not all people of a given race are actually the same in what they have lived and understand on a fundamental level.
      I have found that the white, affluent “majority” man or woman is typically not the best spokesperson for others of different background and place. As Courtney writes, it is time seriously to value the benefit of letting others be the primary voices and leaders speaking about their own experience. I would add that those of the majority need not just to talk about the value of such leadership but actually to prioritize Making Room for it and Asking for it!
      Everyone has some insight, of course, into other people because of our areas of commonality, but I find it particularly valuable to learn about the various “outside” experiences directly rather than mostly via white affluent translation.

  • RJ Factor

    Thank you, Shalom. You’ve clearly expressed many of the thoughts and feelings that arose for me as I read the piece.

  • Gabby

    Let me add my thanks to RJ’s. I particularly appreciated your putting right out there the way too many privileged white people manage always to make everything about themselves and people like them.
    Shalom, Shalom.

  • Louis Schmier

    Shalom, Gabby, RJFactor, a few quick points. First, as Gandhi said, if we each want to change the world, we have to start with ourselves, to focus on ourselves and become the change we want to occur. Second, the only thing that doesn’t change in life, the only constant in life, is change. That is not a philosophical statement; it’s a factual truth. Nothing is truly in stasis. Third, we human beings, then, are really “human becomings.” That is, we are always in a state of bettering and becoming, for our best today can always be better tomorrow. Fourth, there is a tradition in the Jewish faith that at the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we each go around to others in the congregation apologizing and asking for forgiveness. It is a tradition that recognizes that often we “harm” others without intent and awareness. In this vein, I wouldn’t call the realizations of which Courtney talks in terms of shame, but in terms of recognition, acknowledgement, enlightenment, and opportunity; a strength and bravery that makes her a respectfulness and mindfulness fed daily by senses of awareness, alertness, attentiveness and otherness for both herself and others. And finally, the only control we can exert is a control over ourselves. We cannot control others, even if we wanted to, and we cannot control circumstances. But, we can control how to respond to our inner selves, to others, and to circumstances. And how we respond is both a reflection and determinant of our character.

    • Gabby

      Is the apology only to people in ones own congregation? I thought the tradition was broader than that. It would be consistent, I think, to apologize to anyone one has perhaps wronged or hurt – to someone, for example, one might have defended or stood up for and didn’t. One might start close to home but shouldn’t taper off too quickly after that.

      • Louis Schmier

        Gabby, in answer to your question, the tradition is exercised in the synagogue just before the changing of Kol Nidre that marks the beginning of Yom Kippur. But, you’re right, it does have broader meaning than that. Apology doesn’t getting off the hook; it means setting things right–on a personal level, and it cannot be perfunctory. So, it’s not about words or performance, but about intent, sincere intent. It means we have to set aside our own comforts and needs, and consider the impact we have had on those whom we have wronged. It means striving for goodness while accepting fallibility. And that’s tough, for we often get stuck at that first step of asking for forgiveness. Our tradition says that a true apology is not one of regret but one of having done wrong. The formula is, “I was wrong to do such and such to you. Please forgive me.” No, sorries, for saying “I am sorry” is about you, not about the wrong. When done “properly,” it forges a connection. Somewhere I read that it demands complete acceptance of the humanity of both yourself and the other. Only when you accept your own fallibility as well as the full worthiness and humanity of the other, can you be in equal community with that someone. That is all part of the other Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam: healing the world through acts of kindness through self-care and social action. So, the tradition within the walls of the synagogue on that one day is am annual reminder of what we must feel, think, and do outside in society for the other 364 days.

        • Gabby

          Thank you. While I did not grow up with that tradition, my elderly parents lived in a building in which everyone else was Observant. I remember the landlord apologizing to my parents one year for something he was sorry to have done as a landlord.

  • Crista Lebens

    This is a good article to read which explains how white people benefit from past and present institutional racism. It ain’t over.

  • Grace McNamee Decker

    It seems to me that there is a vast difference between “preferring” one’s own group, because it is one’s own, vs advocating for one’s own group, because it has been disenfranchised and underrepresented and disempowered and cut out of societal power for hundreds, thousands of years. In the second case, the group itself should so advocate– and so should anyone else who acknowledges the injustices that need addressing.

    • Tomas Paul

      ok, so poor white west virginian’s should start advocating for leaders based solely on their race and gender as well? Is this not the end game? where all races / genders retreat to our fox holes? I guess you can count me out of the race wars

      • Grace McNamee Decker

        Poor white west Virginian’s aren’t having a hard time BECAUSE of their race or gender, but because of economic policies and class issues. By all means, poor west Virginians should organize and advocate around THOSE things.

  • Grace McNamee Decker

    Systemic racism is an entirely different thing than “noticing that someone is different.” I can’t tell if your comment is purposely missing the point.

    • Tomas Paul

      can you name one law that openly states discrimination against a specific race except for the ones related to affirmative action?

      • Grace McNamee Decker

        Not a law that is currently on the books; I’m not an expert. But it was within one lifetime that there were many, many such laws.

  • JSJ

    I appreciate you for writing this article. I write, too, and it is really hard to put a piece out in the world that can be met with such a backlash of awful comments, and trolls that will come out from under all sorts of bridges to try to rip your heart out with their comments. I agree with you, and have found that the more my life turns towards realizing that I will never reach a non-racist state, the more I can get down and comfy with learning how to deal with my socialized brain as it is. This has been the thing that has opened more doors for me than anything else. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Peter Knezevich

    ron buford of the UCC has developed a Racist Anonymous program that recognizes the inherent racism in all of us.

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  • The simple, not easy perhaps, way for you and others, who identify and define yourselves as white, to at least begin to resolve feelings of racism is to stop identifying yourselves as white based on the although widely accepted yet outmoded false social construction that there are racial distinctions that categorically distinguish one person for another. That is racist in and of itself.

    • AnotherThinkerWhoCares

      Oscar, thank you for articulating this point, so simply and so well. It is crucial to this discussion and, unfortunately, more often than not, utterly overlooked in our personal and national conversations. While I appreciate Ms. Martin’s article, it also pained me that her thinking didn’t seem to extend into understanding her embrace and perpetuation of “the widely accepted yet outmoded false social construction that there are racial distinctions that categorically distinguish one person for another.” To my mind and heart, this is the core of the issue.

  • Tomas Paul

    The DNC didn’t ignore the Black voters of the South. The black democratic voters voted for Hilary and the DNC gave them Hilary (which she should have won without the DNC collaboration). Fighting for people to be judged based primarily on their race and gender is a zero sum game that is always petty. The petty people of all races will feel left out and join in, we can’t just separate black americans and say they get to be racist in the promotion of “black power” and “black spaces” and think that other races are not going to copy, paste, and swap the race… but hey people at universities thought this stuff up so they must be smarter than me

  • Chuck Black

    I am so sorry to hear that you will leave your church. Any way to look at this as part of your journey?

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  • Dugald McC

    I am a 64 year old white man living in Northern Ireland, still learning how to think accurately about the emotional and cognitive confusion caused by the systems of oppression and discrimination that we all live within.

    Can I make a modest suggestion? It is ‘on being’, so I hope it will be seen as relevant here. Please avoid talking about anyone, including oneself, as being ‘a racist’. This makes racism an existential quality of person’s being. No-one’s being is racist. It is not a function of their fundamental nature, whether you see that in terms of their biology and bio-chemistry, or of their soul and spirituality. And if you do not consider humans to have a ‘fundamental nature’ then you really have no business to use such a phrase at all!

    We all know human beings internalise racist ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving due to the fact that racism is institutionalised in the norms of the culture, and in the economic and political structures, of the ‘taken-for-granted-world’ that we imbibe with our mother’s milk. Since racism is clearly learned, can I suggest we give up the term ‘racist’ as applied to individuals, and use it to describe those human actions, thoughts and feelings which treat people of colour with less than complete respect. That would be more accurate.

    By the way, how can someone change their racist behaviour and thinking if they get the message that they are, in themselves, essentially, and thus irredeemably, ‘a’ racist? My modest suggestion points to the idea that we can give each other a hand to identify how the racism we have internalised limits our own and others lives, and it begins with not talking about the subject in terms which exclude the people whose need a bit of a hand to get clear of the nonsense is just more obvious.

  • ButterscotchKrimpet

    “If you are white, if you’ve been socialized in the United States of America in the 21st century, you are racist. You will be racist until the day you die. There is nothing you can do to escape that fundamental fact.” Or you could stop projecting your own racism on everyone else to justify it.

  • jaydeee

    “Non-whites” lack the power (and power structure) to be oppressively racist to whites, yes. As Jim Quay pointed out above, the language around this is evolving.

  • jaydeee

    I don’t, but I sincerely applaud your efforts and wish you success with them.

  • cyberqat

    This walks very close to the idea of “colorblindness”. The problem is that to be colorblind today is to deny and ignore something that is a very real part of the experiences and daily lives of people of color.

    Just ignoring it wont make it go away.

    • John McGovern

      My point was strictly in response to Oscar’s comment that Caucasians …”stop identifying yourselves as white….That is racist in and of itself.”
      That thought process tells me Oscar identifies himself as black. Why then am l racist if l identify as white but he not since he obviously sees himself as black. I identify as white because l am, not because l am in any way racist.

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  • yoopergirl

    It’s okay to ask for suggestions, but why not do some research on your own? There are plenty of resources out there and it doesn’t take much to find them–as you probably would do if you wanted information on any other issue.