Exactly a month ago today a friend from church introduced several of us in our neighborhood group to the work of Meera Mohan-Graham, who describes herself as a QPOC photographer, artist, coach, and writer focusing on “giving voice to complex identities and journeys.” He shared a link to a blog post that Mohan-Graham wrote the week before entitled “Anti-racism work is about humility: a message to the newly ‘awakened’” (https://medium.com/@meeramohangraham/anti-racism-is-about-humility-a-message-to-the-newly-awakened-772f63806fd1). The post has garnered quite a lot of attention and hopefully will become a go-to resource for those of us who’re new to antiracism work, which basically includes virtually all white allies or aspiring-to-be allies since hardly any of us were doing this work as young children (though now, young children are often leading the way) and we all have boatloads to learn.
Like Robin DiAngelo, who I wrote to you about a few days ago, Mohan-Graham speaks to the desire of many whites who are just now waking up to the reality of systemic racism and WANT TO DO SOMETHING NOW — AND IT HAS TO BE BIG – and like DiAngelo, M-G is saying we need to slow down, pause, and basically just stop. She points out how there are legions of people who’ve been doing antiracism work for decades, many of whom did start when they were young children – because they had to, because they and their loved ones were being targeted for who they are. She goes on to caution that clueless would-be “helpers” rushing in to “make a difference” (note: I’m putting all this in my own words and I’m using the quotation marks for emphasis or ironically) will actually hurt people and set things back. She uses a clever analogy involving a random person shopping at the mall, blinking, and suddenly finding themself in the middle of a busy ER and wanting to HELP, but how it would not help to try and start an IV since you’re really a shopper and don’t have the training or experience to start an IV.
I wish this cautionary blog had existed six weeks ago (and that I’d read it and heeded it) before I did the unhelpful white person thing that engendered the feedback that was so challenging for me to take that I told you about earlier this week. I REALLY thought I was HELPING when I REALLY wasn’t. And, realistically, I probably did have to learn the hard way and probably will have to continue learning the hard way since it’s so darn easy to read cautionary tales (or blogs) and think things along the lines of – “geez, I would NEVER do something like that!” Yeah, right. Yes, I would.
Recently I got a small taste of what it’s like to have put a lot (a lot) of time, care, energy, and effort into something meant to increase equity and to improve a cultural climate only to get a little pat on the head “thanks” and have the thing scooped up and handed off to others with no consultation or collaboration with me or the others who contributed to the original work. Hmm, hmm, hmm was I pissed. And, honestly, I’m still furious about it even though I’ve given the person who did it very direct feedback and got an apology. It’s not that I’ve never had my work or contributions taken for granted before, but to have this equity-focused work and the women who did it get done like this, purportedly in the service of equity, is incredibly galling and frankly, alarming. It blatantly indicates that we have a shit-ton of work to do and it also indicates that vigilance and assertiveness are going to have to be the watchwords going forward.
Basically, as Peggy McIntosh shares in her 1989 Invisible Knapsack piece on white privilege (https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack), even very, very nice, well-meaning people can be oppressive and clueless about how they are perpetuating their systems of privilege.
May we, and others, be safe from our cluelessness.
May we be willing to slow down and adopt the practice of radical humility.
May we be strong and healthy enough to do so.
May we accept that we can do real harm in our misguided efforts to do good.