Dominant groups have the most narrow or limited view of society because they do not have to understand the experiences of the minoritized group in order to survive; because they control the institutions, they have the means to legitimize their view. (DiAngelo and Sensoy, 48).
White supremacy is blinding. It obfuscates our perception of the world, distorting some truths while burying others. The funds of knowledge I’ve attained over thirty-six years represent only a tiny sliver of what’s out there. Only now am I coming to grips with just how little I know.
I’ve always associated myself with perfectionism. I’ve written about it, read countless self-help books on the topic, and attended out-patient support groups for it. As a result, I’ve bought into the standard explanation that perfectionism stems from an unbalanced combination of nature, nurture, and external factors. I attacked it with therapy and medication. I took my failure to “get rid of it” as just more evidence that I had it. And then I came across White Supremacy Culture by activist, educator, and author Tema Okun
In the article, Okun discusses the various ways white supremacy influences individual personality traits by favoring certain ways of thinking, knowing, and being in the world. The article explores fifteen personality traits including perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, paternalism, individualism, and objectivity.
Okun explains that these characteristics are damaging because “they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group.” She explains how these norms and unexamined traits damage everyone. Certain traits on the list such as individualism, fear of open conflict, and objectivity have all made appearances in various books and essays I’ve read. But I’ve never seen anything that positions perfectionism as an outgrowth of white supremacy culture.
Perfectionism is only one example of my recent unlearning. Every few days seems to bring some new revelation that causes me to reread the world. Consider the recent shooting in Las Vegas. In the past, I’ve responded to similar white-on-white terrorism by calling for stronger gun reform and excoriating the gun lobbies. And then I read this Twitter thread from @Queersocialism. That led me to look into the relationship between the Black Panther Party and modern gun laws. I’ve existed on this planet for three decades without being exposed to this perspective on gun violence and gun control.
My understanding of reproductive rights is another example of how white supremacy breeds ignorance. Growing up in a staunchly pro-choice household, I’ve always considered myself to be informed on the topic of abortion. And then I began researching reproductive justice and Black women for this month’s Safety Pin Box assignments. What I’ve learned about eugenics, the history of violence against pregnant Black women, and women of color’s contribution to family planning does more than offer “another side” to consider. It demolishes everything I took to be true about how the world works. It forces me to see what I’ve been allowed to ignore.
Turning back to perfectionism, when I posted the article on social media, a number of my white colleagues voiced their disagreement. They said that the traits discussed in the article are just that, individual traits. Aspects of someone’s personality uncoupled from larger social and historical factors. Where the article saw ideology, they saw a sort of agnostic and deracinated individualism.
Understanding perfectionism as a component of white supremacy asks many of us to take a theoretical leap of faith. We can’t connect the dots until we’re willing to reconsider everything about the way we’ve been socialized to see the world. For many of us, we’ve come to understand white supremacy as something that happens when bad white people do things like march with torches on Charlottesville. But this limited understanding of white supremacy as local and individual acts of explicit racism misses the point. It lives everywhere and it informs everything. A metanarrative of systematic oppression that’s been able to render itself all but invisible to so many of us white folks.
In Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 film Pi, a tortured mathematician struggles to reconcile genius, the divine, and numbers. Towards the end of the film he comments that “If we’re built from spirals, while living in a giant spiral, then everything we put our hands to is infused with the spiral.” This strikes me as an apt description of white supremacy culture. We were born into it. We live within it. And without relentless and careful introspection, everything we do perpetuates it.
-Image credit: CC0
Women of color have publicly rebuked me three times. I didn’t appreciate it when it was happening but now I’m thankful for these experiences. They helped me begin to remove the space suit of privilege that keeps me hermetically sealed from inequity and oppression. This post is for white folks like me. Learn from my ignorance.
I attended my first step show in college. I was astounded and captivated by the rhythm, the discipline, and the air of celebration in the packed auditorium. A woman of color in front of me noticed some of her friends behind me, prompting a delightful outburst of joy and hand signs. (I would later come to learn that hand signs are a part of sorority culture.)
Wanting to join in on the conviviality, and not knowing any better, I locked eyes with some of the women and attempted to replicate the hand gestures. Their faces dropped as they saw what I was trying to do. Stop. This isn’t for you, one of the women behind me said. My face flushed fire engine red as I pinned my hands to my sides and sat down. Mercifully, I was quickly forgotten as the women went back to enjoying the event and each other’s company. My white shame was overwhelming.
The next day I recounted the story to a friend in an attempt to figure out what happened. What had I done that was so offensive? My friend gave me a quick rundown on the Divine Nine. He said that the rituals and knowledge of African American Greek and fraternal organizations were closed off to me because I wasn’t a member. Fascinated, I pressed him for more. But no matter how hard I pleaded, he refused to yield. This isn’t for you, he echoed. As a privileged white male, this was the first time in my life when I was denied access to knowledge. The situation caused me to reflect on the history of slave masters denying African Americans access to education, rightfully compounding my guilt.
Three years ago I created a Twitter account for professional purposes. One morning a lively discussion about racist curricula and school discipline dominated my feed. I found myself nodding along and cosigning on everything that was being said. Without thinking I charged into the conversation, inserting my unsolicited voice into a space it didn’t belong. Even though I thought I was helping out, I had no business butting in.
With all due respect, one of the discussion participants Tweeted to me, please stay on the sidelines for this. I froze. So great was the embarrassment that I raced to delete my comments, unfollow everyone involved in the conversation, and close my laptop. I slunk down into my chair, saturated with the same white fragility I experienced at the step show. I wasn’t upset at anyone but myself, but I still didn’t “get it.” I must have been misunderstood, I thought. After all, I was just trying to help!
Last summer, determined to “get it right,” I barged into another Twitter conversation about the representation of girls of color in the movie Moana. I had just finished the revelatory Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique Morris. The conversation was about the hyper-sexualization of girls of color in popular media, a topic Morris explores throughout her book. Spurred on by the privileged notion that I had an inalienable right to participate in every conversation and speak on every topic, I fired off a few pedantic tweets about the book and how it refers to hyper-sexualization as “age compression.” It did not go well. The discussion leader immediately called me out, rightfully excoriating me and demanding that I get off of their timeline. My privilege stood between their words and my own understanding.
Determined to get to the bottom of what was going on, I sought out people of color on Twitter and followed them. Academics, pop culture critics, authors, organizers, students, it didn’t matter. At the time, my goal was to figure out what was going on in order to be able to join discussions without getting called out. It had nothing to do with critical consciousness; I just didn’t want to get shamed.
But the more I followed and listened, the more I started to “get it.” The discussions I was inserting myself into were not mine. I realized how I was treating conversations among people of color as something to be commandeered and dominated for my own gain. As if every public space was simply another venue for me to broadcast my own beliefs, whatever those beliefs may be.
This blog post is written to white people like me. People who need to talk less and listen more. People who need to remove themselves from the center and elevate others. If you’re interested in improving, here are some quick and easy ways to get started.
- Be mindful of the social media accounts you follow and rebroadcast.
- Read or watch a quick primer on privilege. It will help.
- Talk with the women and people of color in your life. Develop relationships with them and listen to them.
- In case you hadn’t heard, online spaces can be extremely toxic and hateful for women and people of color. When you see white people engaging in inappropriate and disrespectful behavior, engage them. There’s no value in ‘feeding the trolls,’ but there’s value in holding each other accountable and assuming that once we know better, we can do better.
- Stop talking and listen more!
If you find yourself getting rebuked, take the loss. Lick your wounds, dab your white tears, and move on. Head back into the conversation, but this time just listen. As white folks we must keep each other in check and amplify voices of color. It’s not about us.
I experience life through a series of shifting grids. Everything about the way I process information suggests right angles, coordinate planes, and compartments. Anytime I meet someone new, I assault them with a barrage of out of context and somewhat inappropriate questions: What music do you listen to? How was your childhood? What’s your relationship with your family? What were you like in high school? What are your favorite shows? My brain yearns to place everything and everyone into various interconnected frameworks. Everyone’s answers also act as a mirror, allowing me to engage in continuous rounds of self-assessment to make sure I stay within one standard deviation of what I consider to be normal.
The tendency to fix everything to a grid permeates every aspect of my life. When I was little kid, I told my mom how I enjoyed tracking syllables with my left hand. I would take sentences and count them off into alternating groups of 3, 4, and 5. The goal was to make the final syllable of every sentence end on a particular finger.
Heavy metal, my favorite genre of music, fits seamlessly into the grid. Every band taking up residence in my brain combines jackhammer force with the precision of quartz chronological movement. “Still Echoes” from Virginia metal band Lamb of God is a perfect example. Listening to the drums, guitars, and vocal patterns feels like spiraling out from the center of Fibonacci’s golden ratio pattern.
For this reason, my jogging playlist always contains a single song on repeat. No surprises and no shuffling. Just the same two minute chunk looped. It takes a certain kind of song to stand up to this obsessive level of routine. The song has to be relentless and consistent in beats per minute. Although I try to mix it up every few months, I keep coming back to the staples: Slayer, At the Gates, Lamb of God, In Flames, and Darkest Hour. The one exception here is Usher whose banger Scream enjoyed a couple summers of looping.
I’ve been listening to the first two minutes of Darkest Hour’s The Sadist Nation during every run for the last five years. It never gets old or loses its edge. Every listen is a fresh marching order, a call for muscle and sinew to propel the body forward. 1’s and 0’s, on’s and off’s, starts and finishes. I can’t stand jazz for this reason. The organic ebb and flow of improvisation, the rhythm changes, the fluidity of it all claws at my need for repetition and symmetry and containment.
Schools are perfect for me. In most schools, everything that happens slots nicely into a grid. Bell schedules, assignment schedules, curricular planning, everything is rationalized and consistent. I love it. Every school day is a perfect assemblage of self-contained rituals. I can tackle anything as long as it’s fixed to some sort of repetitive grid.
Ritual and repetition help me manage my ADHD. They place boundaries around everything. During summer and winter break, I keep to the same schedule. Wake up around 5 and play video games until 9. Then, work on writing until around 11 when I do some form of exercise. My afternoon is lunch, nap, reading, then YouTube until my wife gets home. Every day. Without such a setup I drown.
I’ve always been an all or nothing person. I recently had my wisdom teeth removed, an experience that left me swollen on the couch for days. I didn’t brush my teeth. I collapsed on the bed every night in the clothes I had been wearing all day. My diet consisted of slurping down ice cream, apple sauce, and ex lax whenever I felt like it. After a week of being off the grid, I was able to begin inserting modules of routine back into my schedule. Mercifully, my life is once again fully contained within blocks of reading, writing, exercise, and socially acceptable hygiene practices.
My contained existence brings me joy because it allows me to meet life on my terms. Within constraint lies my personal freedom.
My fingers sweat from the effort of forming a basic chord. My right hand holds the plastic pick as if it were made from some alien material. Like I do every year, I spent portions of the summer hunched over my guitar in an attempt to recapture some of my past musical glory. Now that school is back, I have put my guitar back in my closet where it will sleep patiently for the next eleven months. When life calms down, I tell myself, I’ll be able to devote more time to it. This is, of course, not necessarily true. Life is always busy, but carving out regular time is often a matter of discipline and priorities. Doing something other than attending to school simply isn’t a priority. It hasn’t been for at least ten years.
Paul Thomas recently wrote on his blog about his experiences with regret. In the post, Paul explores the rise and fall of his identity as a visual artist. His essay reminded me of one of my own past lives, that of a guitar player. My first memory of the guitar dates back to 6th grade when when a science teacher held a guitar club after school. Although I didn’t join, I would often hang around outside his room to listen to multiple off-kilter renditions of Stairway to Heaven or the Am – G repetition of Nirvana’s About A Girl. Before long, the six-string instrument began showing up in the bedrooms and basements of my friends. It was as if entrance into suburban puberty included a complimentary guitar and Green Day song book. I pleaded with my parents for an electric guitar (acoustic guitars hurt my fingers and just didn’t seem as cool) and was rewarded with a Peavey Predator, a decent intro-level instrument.
For the rest of middle school and high school the instrument and I were inseparable. After coming home from school I would plop down onto the floor of my bedroom, plug into my amp, and practice my favorite songs by Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer. This is around the time I started taking Ritalin, so I spent hours rooted to the floor, the typewriter-key movement of my left hand the only sign I was conscious. I took full advantage of the private lessons and guitar summer camps my parents wonderfully provided. My guitar could be heard in high school musicals, various talent shows, and the corners of every local guitar store. While I wasn’t going to be the next Steve Vai (one of the most celebrated and accomplished living guitarists), it was clear that I had some facility with the instrument.
Playing guitar provided me with an identity, a way to construct myself and understand how I fit into the world of adolescence. It helped me orient myself by creating a center of gravity. My relationships, values, ideas about the future, and predilections orbited around being a guitar player. I wanted to escape the feeling of never being good enough by committing myself to one thing completely. If only I could play faster, I told myself, if I could just pick the strings more clearly then I might be able to become something that didn’t hurt. The identity of guitarist supported me and protected me until college, when I decided to minor in classical guitar in order to explore my new-found interests in psychology and sociology.
College was my first introduction to what journalist and author Chris Hedges refers to as a life of the mind. I traded in my metronome for highlighters and attacked my studies with feral abandon (Also, the notion of playing the intro riff to Megadeth’s Holy Wars 500 times in a row loses a bit of its luster when you live with roommates). By the time I graduated college in 2004, I had downgraded my guitar from the focal point of my room to a dusty afterthought sleeping underneath my box-spring mattress. My fingers had forgotten how to navigate the terrain of the instrument. Instead I identified as someone who was serious about learning. College and graduate school had primed my mental machinery, but it wasn’t until I began teaching in 2008 that I found a subject robust enough to be my everything. I calibrated every aspect of my identity to the rhythms of classroom life.
This is how it’s been for the last eight years. Education is all I allow myself to be interested in. In some ways my obsession drive to give myself up completely to something is a coping mechanism, a way to ground myself and contain my neuroses. I choose not to have much of a social life beyond the occasional lunch and dinner dates with my wife’s friends, and I’m not interested in finding hobbies or expanding my horizons. I have come to peace with the knowledge that I do not live life to the fullest.Teaching makes this easy. The unreasonable demands placed on teachers create a situation where there is always something to do.
As with any obsession, my monomania works until it doesn’t. I’ve struggled to unhook my self-esteem from the predictably unpredictable rhythms of school life. In the post mentioned above, Paul describes how he lost parts of himself in his quest for a practical adult life. He describes the tension between who he is vs. who he feels he should be. While I have also denied myself the chance to explore alternative aspects of my identity, I have done so in an attempt to outrun feelings of inadequacy.
He concludes his post by saying,
Regret of the kind that is not from hurting another is our inability, our refusal to recognize our thing—and then to embrace it as our happiness. Our thing includes “the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth,” suffering, but it is not ours to seek ways to avoid human suffering, but like Sisyphus, to commit to it with all our body and heart.
I have tried to use commitment to education as a way to construct an identity buttressed against not feeling good enough. I have allowed myself to be carried away by my obsessive belief that I can find relief from my suffering in just one more professional book or article. My attempts to study away the struggles that make me human have prevented me from living fully as an educator and a human being. To be clear, I do not regret my infatuation with school life. Along with pleasures both cerebral and visceral, education provides me with an identity I’m proud of. A self that feels expansive and limited only by time and my ability to understand. Perhaps this post is a way of telling myself that while I’ve committed to education with body and heart, it’s time to find fulfillment from the joys and the frustrations. By isolating one from the other, or attempting to use one to shield myself from the other, I’m doing my commitment a disservice. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Hola, my friends! Time for our last update.
We leave tomorrow morning for a three hour car ride to a 3 hour flight to a 3 hour layover to another three hour flight to a taxi home around 1130pm. At first, Andrea and I were relieved that we wouldn’t have to relive the horror of the anfractuous local flight from here to San Jose. The drive would be a little long, sure, but anything beats being trapped in a claustrophobic biplane piloted by Evel Knievel’s long lost relatives. And then we learned what ‘drive’ means in Costa Rica. Roads here seem to be more of a suggestion, as drivers, pedestrians, and animals compete to see who can move in the most random patterns. Speeds are always excessive. I couldn’t help but think of Mad Max each time we took a taxi somewhere, our off-brand SUV caroming back and forth across gravel paths.
The cars combine the old with the new. No matter how junky the auto, every car seems to come equipped with NSA level GPS features. Cars also still have those miniature coin-purse ash trays jutting out from each side. Drivers always drape a discolored rag over the stick shift. At first I thought this was to mop up the occasional barf from unaccustomed tourists. Then I realized they use them to swat at flies. It’s pretty neat to watch a driver navigate a monkey and pothole littered path while laughing into a black market cell phone with one hand and towel-snapping horse flies with the other. Don’t even worry about the steering.
So Wednesday was our trip to Ecotermales, one of the many natural hot springs in the area. Andrea and I had previously visited hot springs somewhere in the bowels of Virginia. Although the Virginia pamphlet beckoned us with the majesty of the Earth’s waters, what we found was a ragged hole more suited to mass graves than family fun. So imagine our surprise when we discovered the hot springs at Ecotermales. I say ‘discovered’ because, like pretty much everything here, you must navigate through a gorgeous maze of neon green to arrive at your destination. The trees had some serious Lord of the Rings vibes going on, roots and branches twisting into Escher-like spirals. The place was wonderful. 102 degree natural water cascading down perfectly imperfect rock formations. We soaked, watched infinite trails of ants carrying gnawed off sections of leaf three times their size, and commiserated with the other tourists. Besides the two of us, only five other people were visited the hot springs that day.
We dried off and headed to the Ecotermales restaurant for a late lunch. Like most places here, everything seems to be everything. A house is never a house. It’s also a local attraction, a cattle ranch, and an official site for spelunking, kayaking, and/or insect farm. We were alone in the massive restaurant until a collection of elderly locals came hobbling in on walkers and wheel chairs. They sported the universal uniform of the infirm: massive cataract glasses, high-waisted slacks, trucker hats with intelligible logos, and slightly stained polo shirts. Always tucked. Although we had finished eating by the time they rounded the bend and sat down at a table, we stayed for a while to listen to them play the harmonica and glare at each other menacingly.
A sea of tourists greeted us on our return to the hotel. For whatever reason, (close enough to the end of the week perhaps?), tourists have now descended like locusts upon Nayara. We left our room and walked right into a large family taking pictures of a two-foot iguana. One of the kids tried to grab it, leaving us without a picture of the glorious lizard. We were, however, able to get slightly decent photos of Tony the sloth (a giant tuft of fur perfectly balanced against a single tree branch) and Pedro the macaw.
We ended the night with a five course meal complete with wine pairing. Each time the wine expert came out to discuss the particulars of why an oaken Chardonnay went well with capers, he ended with an, “Oh, yea! And it really brings out the flavors of the fruit punch, amigo!” Haha.
Today we hit La Fortuna, the small tourist town built after the 1960s volcano explosion decimated the previous town. I can’t wait to go to the drugstore. Which also functions as a Catholic Church, a papusa restaurant, and maybe a place to herd goats.
Tuesday proved to surpass Monday in terms of excitability. This one is a long one, so apologies in advance. This is all pretty much stream of consciousness.
The day began with the usual. I sat and read among the local insects while the lone employee (330 their time, after all) hummed unrecognizable melodies and shuffled a ream of receipts into various patterns. Giant crickets and cicadas congregated happily until 5, when The Sweepers arrived. Within minutes, coffee was out, insects were shooed, and receipts were filed.
Andrea and I ate breakfast and went to yoga, snapping pictures of pretty much anything that moved. There are SO many insects and birds and frogs. At any given moment, the noises you hear range from standard hoots and howls to what sounds like cranky wind-up toys. Oh yea, and the unnervingly human sqwaking of the parrot(s). I’ve been trying to hunt him down ever since catching a glimpse of him our first morning here. I’m not alone in this Mellvillesque drama. I’ve seen a number of tourists chasing him around the resort with cameras fixed to the sky. As luck would have it, we stumbled upon him later in the afternoon while crossing a bridge to a restaurant. We did not have our camera, of course. But there he was, perched a foot away from us. I said, ‘hello,’ and he responded in kind. The bird mimics some human speech pretty well. So Andrea and I stood there in front of him, repeating words and phrases to see which ones worked. Crazy.
The big event of the day was the zip line. I’ve done a zip line before, but it was at an APA team building retreat. Although it was pretty scary, I figured I could handle it. This was before we took a sky tram high above the tree line of the rain forest. Reread that last sentence. A fearless group of locals (with nicknames like ‘Spicey Nacho’ etched into their helmets) led the six of us (three American couples ranging in age) down a series of eight zip lines. Imagine zipping across a wire hundreds of feet in the air and hundreds of feet across. Again, this is happening above the tree line. They strapped you in, cracked a few jokes about falling, then told you to Go with God and shoved you on your way. It was terrifying. The others were hooting, twisting and turning and gazing at the forest floor above them. I on the other hand managed to survive by keeping my eyes focused on a single fixed position directly in front of me and refusing to deviate from that point. By the last couple, your brain is pretty worn out from pumping adrenaline non-stop through your system.
That brings me to my next point: friendliness. Every single person we’ve met here, from the wait staff to the zip line guys to the naturalist to the locals in the street has been unnervingly friendly. Not just friendly, jocular. Pretty much everyone jokes around. Normally you might say they’re just reading the customer and following their lead. But here, even a first conversation is filled with playful banter. For instance, when I tell the wait staff, “no alcohol in the fruit punch, please,” they always bring my drink and say something like, “here you go, my friend! Extra rum, just the way you like it!” They also shout out, “Pura Vida!” all the time. They do this so often I looked it up in Wikipedia. Sure enough, it’s some sort of Costa Rican catch phrase meaning good health, congratulations, celebrate life, etc. But they recite this bromide with such enthusiasm. Today I’m going to ask around and see if they say it when tourists aren’t around.
We ended the day with a meal at one of the many restaurants at the resort. Resort doesn’t seem like the right word, though, but I guess it is. This is a highly rated Eco-resort. Everything is recycled, natural, from the land, etc. Barriers and partitions are made from local flora and fauna, not concrete made to look like local flora and fauna. Since today is Earth Day, the entire resort is switching over to candles and natural light. The respect for nature is amazing.
Today we’re going to visit one of the many hot springs and then go to a wine pairing dinner.
Here you go amigo, a double shot, just like you asked, right?
The day started out with a breakfast of delicious fruit, local eggs, and pretty much anything else you could ever want. The staff have permanent rictus smiles plastered on their faces, and are pretty much willing to do whatever you want. I probably could have asked for a dodo egg cooked of the still-smoking volcano and they would have replied, ‘perfecto!’, given me a thumbs up, and strapped on their hiking boots. Everyone seems to content. I’m constantly looking for cracks in the facade. Trying to figure out just how happy they really are. This is a habit I should probably not indulge.
After breakfast, we headed to our morning yoga session, where a crunchy yogini took us through some introductory poses. Conversation was kept to a minimum, as I suspect most of the participants were still waking up. In order to fend off jet lag, I’ve been keeping to my sleep schedule despite the two hour time difference (I got up at 3 am here, 5 back in the states). From yoga we went to the spa for our couples massage. Andrea had the hot stones; I had whatever sounded the most painful. In this case that meant having a diminutive woman use her equally diminutive elbow to balance her entire weight onto my back. It was intense.
Next up was a quick lunch of ceviche by the pool. We took more pictures of the flora and fauna (CR has a stunning amount of biodiversity) and hopped on our tour bus for a hanging bridges tour. Oscar, our jocular guide, displayed a surprisingly deft hand at sarcasm and dry wit. We tromped through the rain forest (the first rule is don’t touch anything unless you know what it is), walked over giant suspension bridges, and got all agog over the insects and creatures inhabiting the place (the second rule is don’t stick your finger in a hole). We saw tarantulas, three different types of monkeys, birds, snakes, and more.
We returned home exhausted. Despite this, we changed and ate a delicious dinner while a guitarist played flamenco versions of 1980s hair metal ballads.
Everything here is so clean and friendly. They appear to hire multiple people whose only job is to sweep. I confirmed that this morning while drinking coffee and reading in the lobby. Bugs, lizards, cicadas, beetles, and birds must occupy the open lobby every evening, only to be swept away when the workers arrive via shuttle at 530.
Signing off for now.