In 2019, we decided to host anti-racism events in white women’s dining rooms for one specific reason: To turn the age-old adage, “it’s rude to talk about politics at the dinner table” on its head.
This is what we’ve learned—if you don’t talk about racism, you can’t dismantle it. But it isn’t just over the dinner table that this “niceness” rules.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, you were eager, frenzied even, to do this work. A mere two years later, not only is that excitement for anti-racism work gone, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, into a verifiable whitelash against anti-racism work.
If white womanhood is a house, your need to be perfect is the foundation.
It is this need for perfection that makes it impossible to engage in antiracism work.
Being perfect is the key to your happiness, to your success, to your very existence.
Perfect hair. Perfect clothes. Perfect grades. Perfect nails. Perfect weddings. Perfect bodies. Perfect adoring and supportive wife and mother. Perfect employee and colleague.
White skin. The foundational principle of perfection in a white supremacist society like ours is rooted in whiteness. Without it, your A’s will never be straight enough, your MVP trophies not shiny enough, your flowery dresses a bit wilted. Of course, white skin alone doesn’t render you perfect, but without it, you have no chance. White skin is a necessary (yet still insufficient) ingredient of perfection. The con, of course, is there is no actual recipe for perfection, as there is no such thing as perfection.
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This makes your endless quest for perfection a trap. You will never be pretty enough. You will never be thin enough. You will never be smart enough or successful enough or rich enough. You will never be enough.
Yet white women will die trying. Especially over dinner.
We call it the “Three Point Plan for Perfectionism.” It goes like this:
White women regularly mention having been “burned” on social media for saying the “wrong thing.” You have been publicly humiliated, often at the hands of a fellow white woman, who is angling to show you how much more perfect she is at antiracism work. Yes, you even compete in the antiracism space.
Getting called out makes you want to stop the work, to stop engaging. If you aren’t already perfect at it, then you don’t want to have anything to do with it. Yet if you stop the work, you can’t make progress. Then there are those situations in which the critique of you is coming from a woman of color. This will hit you in a deeply uncomfortable place. After all, you are not used to having us challenge you—and on a topic we absolutely know more about: being on the receiving end of racism.
This, in particular, infuriates white women.
Us publicly calling you out on your racism. Us publicly telling you that you are not perfect.
Antiracism work depends on your acknowledging your imperfections, namely how you have been born into and nurtured by a white supremacist society. This means acknowledging that you are not the expert on how it feels to be on the receiving end of racism, which means you do not get to decide what is and is not racist. Just like men don’t get to decide what is and is not sexist. It means acknowledging that you will get it wrong, that you will feel embarrassed, and that you will struggle to make progress. In spite of these obstacles and this necessary discomfort, you will have to pick yourself up and get back into the work—work that is messy, not tidy. Work that is tables turned upside down, not neatly set. Work that is imperfect.
So, why show up? Why do this work now?
Because you must.
You’ll do it because not only is it the right thing to do, but you know that your lives, and your kids’ and your grandkids’ lives, depend on your showing up, even when things get hard. You will show up because you understand that white supremacy hurts you too.
You are doing this not to save us, but to free yourselves.
So the next time you think things like, “I didn’t pipe up on Facebook because I don’t want to be attacked,” or “I’m scared I’m going to say the wrong thing,” or “The last time I called someone out at a dinner party, my husband was grumpy with me for a week,” think about this: The only wrong move is remaining silent, sitting on the sidelines, accepting your role in white supremacy. Don’t do nothing out of the fear of doing it imperfectly.
Get in there. Read. Listen. Learn. Speak up. Speak out. Show up. Roll up your sleeves.
And when you receive criticism, consider that maybe it’s just that: a critique, and not an attack. Maybe this disagreement isn’t a fight. Maybe you don’t know more than the Black, Indigenous, or brown woman attempting to set you straight. And isn’t freedom from white supremacy worth some level of conflict? Isn’t it more important to eradicate racism than to be liked by everybody? You’ve never been liked by everybody in the first place!
In the end, you cannot even start the process of extracting white supremacy until you extract the need to be perfect. The need to be perfect is not just harmful to us, it’s harmful to you. Aren’t you tired of never being enough?
From WHITE WOMEN by Regina Jackson and Saira Rao, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Race2Dinner.
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