“Internalized Racial Superiority;” the other IRS

Dear President Trump,

Yesterday I mentioned my penchant for getting persnickety about people’s word choices and I need to add here that I’m also fond of picking apart other’s arguments. I do this with everyone, but definitely find myself doing it more with people of color and with other white women. Essentially, I’m more critical of people who aren’t in cultural power positions, which often means that white men get passes from me (and from loads of others). I know it probably doesn’t seem like it to you since I point out problems with what you say and do constantly, but too often I behave in socially sanctioned/reinforced ways that end up giving white men far too much unearned benefit of the doubt. In my defense (and really in defense of others who aren’t white men), it’s important to note that wrangling with white men is often soundly punished, which effectively extinguishes the behavior for many of us.

In processing all this, I’m realizing that I need to be more thoughtful about when, how, about what, and towards whom I am critical both because it will be a growth edge for me and because it is a necessary part of undoing racism (and sexism) in my own day-to-day interactions.

On day 2 of the People’s Institute’s Undoing Racism workshop we were given a label for selective, over-the-top, critical behavior: internalized racial superiority, or IRS. It’s one half of the stunted sibling pair along with internalized racial inferiority. Everyone was already quite familiar with the latter, but the white people in the room hadn’t previously given much thought to the former. It was a heavy hour as we unpacked and untangled IRS. We talked about how IRS makes whiteness normal, the standard, and how it holds whiteness up as better than everyone and everything else. Sigh.

To drill this home we came up with another collective list characterizing the ills of IRS. I don’t remember how we did it – I think it was just popcorn style since I don’t remember either having to go first or waiting until it was my turn – but however we did it, the list is long and depressing, which is just the perfect thing to share with you:

intellectualizing * problematizing * spending the whole time criticizing the instrument (assessment tool) * exceptionalism * special * arrogance * white distancing * entitlement * disrespect * controlling * sense of expertness * credibility * authoritative * defensiveness (of the white variety) * able to make assumptions * comfortable being the expert * manipulation * dismissive of others’ views – if I can’t see it… * individualism * rationalization * racial slurs and jokes * comfortable with cultural appropriation * guilt * cognitive dissonance * anger * indignation * fear * win/lose view

We then talked about what aspects of IRS we might bring to our organizing and came up with another depressing, if not quite as long, list:

like to have the answer(s) * controlling who is there, who is heard, who sets the narrative * need to fix the issue quickly * rush to easy, obvious fixes * ahistorical * can ignore the weight of history * indifference to what is real and needed * center of the universe * want to make rules * want to dictate how it plays out

One of the facilitators then posed the rhetorical question, ‘why don’t white people have skin in the game?’ and then he provided the answer that we (white people) are basically not willing to be in the mess. I would add that like the social justice tourist, we might be willing to visit the mess, but we almost always aren’t willing to stay in it.

We then did some untangling, asking why there is this deep dysfunction in how we are with one another – why do we act in such ways and how can we change them? All I have in my notes is that we act in such ways in reaction to constructs, which is pretty general and not all that helpful but I think if we study the lists above, we can see how self-reinforcing all this stuff is and how it can get balled up into a force that can easily take well meaning, but ill-equipped, myopic white people over and leave communities of color very tired of us and wary of the great white gods who want to swoop in and save them.

And then one of the other facilitators gave us a gift. She spoke of healing circles and pointed out that we had made one together. She said that in finding the courage to ask how and why this dysfunction arose, how and why it’s maintained, and agreeing to move in close and stay present with it, we can start to see and understand it, and critically, we can begin to forgive ourselves, and others.

May we be safe to do the deep looking and seeing we need to do.
May we be willing to step back and look hard at our own ways of being.
May we be healthy and strong and gentle and kind as we do this work.
May we make peace with the need to stay the long course.

Tracy Simpson

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