Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),
I am a socially awkward, queer fat white woman working at a government agency in Canada. I would like some advice about what to do as a bystander when my white colleagues of any gender are engaging in subtle (or not so subtle) racist behaviour against my women of color colleagues. I especially need help because we’ve all worked together for years and years, and this stuff has been going on the whole time, and I’ve been too socially awkward and/or chicken to say anything.
Part of my hesitation is that I’m aware that “white saviours” and “nice white ladies” are super not-helpful, and also that sticking your nose into other people’s business is considered super-rude in Canadian culture, and the stereotype is true—we are pretty uptight about politeness.
—Conflicted in Canada
What you are describing will sound familiar to a lot of people. You have been relentlessly trained to “be nice” your entire life, but you also want to fight injustice. Now you realize that fighting injustice sometimes means rebelling against your training to “be nice,” but when you try to do that, you end up frozen in inaction and fear. “Be nice—OR ELSE BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN TO YOU” is so thoroughly engraved into your brain that you would rather support racism at work than not “be nice.”
If you want to reverse the lifelong training that is paralyzing you, you will need help. Since this advice blog is aimed at people with more privilege and power than average, I’m going to suggest things that cost money and take lots of time. Starting with: therapy!
My first recommendation is to find a therapist (Canadian version) (US version) and tell them you want to work on building your assertiveness and getting more comfortable with conflict. You deserve a queer-friendly and fat-friendly therapist who will not hassle you about your own marginalized identities, so ask any potential therapist about their approach to these two areas up front, before you schedule your first meeting. View this as your first assertiveness practice—it’s with someone you will never have to talk to again, so it is perfect. Be willing to pay a little more money to get the therapist that is right for you, if that is necessary.
More than likely you’ll need to work through some unpleasant personal history that carved the “be nice—OR ELSE” grooves so deeply into your brain. You may find that you start to stand up for yourself more often as you learn to stand up against racism. Or you may find that you have less power in your workplace than you think and that your fears are well-justified, in which case your therapist can help you find other ways to act as an ally in your life. In any case, you should come out of the other side of therapy a happier and less conflicted person who is acting more in concert with their values.
Another option is attending assertiveness training of some kind. I’m certain that some assertiveness training is misogynist racist authoritarian trash, so do your due diligence first. You may even want to push (more assertiveness practice!) for your employer to offer assertiveness training for you and your colleagues as a group. You’ll get less pushback on your changed behavior if everyone has just gone to a class on assertiveness and recognizes that you’re doing the thing everyone watched the video on last week.
Books and blogs on assertiveness can be helpful but probably won’t be enough on their own. The Captain Awkward blog has lots of posts with scripts on how to be more assertive, but you’ll probably need another human poking and prodding you to try some of these scripts in real life. You can look for a group for people to practice assertiveness skills with; e.g., Meetup has a lot of results for “assertiveness.” Or you can find friends or colleagues who would also like to practice assertiveness, or are already assertive and would enjoy helping you practice.
All of these options are difficult and scary for most people in your situation. My advice is that when you’re waffling on making that phone call to a new therapist or procrastinating on leaving for your meetup, remember your values and your motivation: you believe in racial justice, and you want to be a force for fighting against racism, not another person silently reinforcing and benefiting from racism. This is about who you are and what you stand for, and that’s worth experiencing some discomfort and fear. And remember, whatever you are going through, it probably isn’t as bad as being the target of racism.
“White saviors” and “nice white ladies”
The impression I get from your letter is that you are unlikely to be either a “white savior” or a “nice white lady.” It seems more likely that focusing on those fears is a method of avoiding your deeper fear of not being nice. Can you make mistakes when trying to fight racism? Yes. Does your letter suggest that you have the narcissistic or authoritarian tendencies that underpin these specific mistakes? Not as far as I can tell. I’ll go ahead and explain what these concepts are, because they are important and real problems, but I suggest talking to your new therapist about these fears to get a better idea of how reasonable they are for you specifically.
“White savior” refers to a white person who wants to “save” or “rescue” people of color whom they look down on as too foolish, child-like, or uneducated to know what to do for themselves. The reality, of course, is almost always that white people have systematically oppressed the people of color in question and have taken away the power and resources they were using to take care of themselves. Rather than seeking to transfer power and resources back to the control of people of color, a white savior wants to keep ownership of those resources to control and manipulate people of color in ways that feed the ego of the white savior. “Nice white lady” is a gendered form of white saviorism where white women take on traditional low-conflict “helper” roles such as teacher, social worker, or volunteer, but otherwise preserve the sense of superiority and other aspects of white saviorism.
Here is the main question to keep asking yourself: do your actions start from the base assumption that people of color are autonomous individuals worthy of respect, or are your actions based on the underlying idea that they are ignorant, childish, self-destructive, or otherwise lesser-than? Or you can look at your actions themselves: You are unlikely to be a white savior if you are following leaders of color, listening to what people of color say, taking on less rewarding and riskier work, redirecting credit to the people of color who taught you what to do, giving money and support to people of color without trying to control what they do with it, and apologizing when you learn you have made a mistake.
Ally skill: Invest in professional help
When internal barriers are blocking you from taking action to fight oppression, and you aren’t making progress on your own, consider paying a professional to help you identify and overcome your internal barriers. This includes therapists, career counselors, many kinds of coaches, and similar professionals. You can also attend formal training, read books, join support groups, and otherwise find support and help for overcoming internal barriers to fighting oppression. If paying for these things feels like a financial stretch, think carefully about what your priorities are and see if you are willing to re-allocate your money and time to help you fight oppression better. When you bump up against barriers, you’re allowed to ask for (and pay for) professional help.
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