Oh, It’s Just Me
Sometime after age twelve, I learned about adding “between the sheets” to the end of a fortune cookie message. “You will soon meet an associate who will help you,” became “You will soon meet an associate who will help you…between the sheets.” “Be careful regarding the advice of strangers…between the sheets.” And so on.
There’s another rider that I’m now learning to tack on not to fortunes, but to my everyday actions as a white person that I had thought of as “just me.” However, this one’s not funny — it’s preventative medicine for racial pain.
I used to think of many of my quirks as “just me.” In the white supremacy mythology (WSM) — based culture of the U.S., those quirks can have unintended impact.
By white supremacy, I don’t mean the most visible fringe groups who burn crosses on lawns or storm government buildings. I mean the ubiquitous system of behaviors, attitudes, images, and so on that disproportionately posit white people as the avatars of achievement, beauty, merit, and all that’s good or worthwhile. I call it mythology because it’s false — I am not superior to others. Yet, my genetic pallor confers unearned advantage. It also allows me the luxury of regarding my clunky quirks as “just me,” without considering their effects on others. So the rider to “That’s just me” is “…in WSM-based culture.”
A number of years ago, I visited the AMASSI center in Los Angeles, a Black health and wellness agency, the brainchild of my old friend Dr. Cleo Manago. During the tour, I walked behind a desk and touched something on the wall that caught my interest. Dr. Manago noted my sense of entitlement in walking into a private area and touching something that didn’t belong to me. I felt embarrassed. I explained that I was “kind of clueless” about boundaries, and not fully oriented to what was where. By framing my behavior as “just me,” I centered myself over the impact of my actions.
By framing my behavior as ‘just me,’ I centered myself over the impact of my actions.
Dr. Manago offered that an action that I consider “just me” in a Black space, could cause harm or discomfort. Another time, a Black woman friend in Philadelphia noted a similar thing — that my tendency to interrupt and take over a conversation in a Black or multicultural environment, could land as painful silencing, oppression, or domination.
This makes sense.
Guilt is Static — Evolution, Dynamic
Repeated historical race-based harms are like a set of sore toes; if I walk along unaware that I’m stepping on them, I’ve done harm regardless of my intention. I might protest, “But this is just me! This is how I walk,” and might be true. However, I need to remember context. “That’s just me…clueless and boundary over-stepping” — not between the sheets I trust — but through a white supremacy myth lens — lands in a way I would rather not be me.
It’s harder to perceive the harm one creates than the harm one receives. Looking at harm I create or even passively benefit from can bring up shame. My white-bodied task of the moment is to practice being with the weight of that historical shame rather than trying to escape, destroy, or deny either my feelings or the reality that gave rise to them. Then, to follow that up with finding ways to dismantle the harmful systems that gave rise to the shame — and harm to others — in the first place. I will continue to stumble forward toward those goals — because that really is me.
If I choose not to do this, I will continue to do harm. So I choose to walk a path of inquiry. Not wallowing in guilt or shame — but reflecting, learning, and growing. Guilt is static — evolution, is dynamic.
Most of us do not, cannot, and probably should not live our lives in constant reflection. We need to eat, sleep, make love, exercise, enjoy friends and family, and so much more. When we do reflect, there’s lots to consider: our own life journeys, relationships, community issues, climate change, and so on.
Still, as white people, this moment in history presents a unique opportunity to not only reflect on our fictional-yet-real whiteness, but also to step up and stop harming others. One way we can do that is to cultivate awareness that those attributes we may have considered “just us,” when experienced through the omnipresent filter of white supremacy mythology, can cause unintended harm.