The Danger of My Fragile White Ego
This is me, right after attending a virtual International Women’s Day event, processing through an experience that has forced me to examine parts of myself that I resist looking at (and therefore need to look at with increased intention and scrutiny).
This is how the moment that played out that I will then process through with you:
A Black woman was speaking about misogynoir and the ways in which Black women are at the “bottom of the totem pole” of society.
An Indigenous woman dropped in the chat to say that this terminology was inherently racist.
I watched this Black woman in real time process this, call attention to her mistake, and working to reconcile it.
This incident deserves space in and of itself, but I’m here to work through what came up for me, and the problematic nature of my internal response to it.
At first I was confused, unaware as to what had gone wrong (so ignorant to the racism of the phrase “bottom of the totem pole” that I initially didn’t even notice it).
And then I found myself sympathizing with the Black woman who had made the mistake, which brought me to the dangerous territory my fragile white ego thrives in: defensiveness.
I felt my reaction evolve from confusion to frustration to defensiveness. I was internally defending against what I felt was a harsh reaction to an “innocent mistake.” And then I found myself frustrated that her initial acknowledgment and apology wasn’t enough to warrant immediate absolution.
So I then had to take a step back to figure out where and why this defensiveness was coming up so strongly.
Let’s put this in perspective: I wasn’t even the one being called out, and yet my ego was still reacting from a place of feeling threatened, because I knew if that was me, I’d be debilitated by it.
And then I proceeded to internally police how the hurt party reacted and responded (hellooooo, white supremacy).
So I then had to parse out what exactly was at play inside me that was bringing up the layered reaction I was having, which thanks to Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy, I have much more robust language for.
Firstly, as I’ve already mentioned: white fragility — I’m so fearful of doing things “wrong” or being perceived as “bad” that even someone else being called out puts me on edge and in a state of defensiveness.
Which then brings me to the next layer: white centering — I made this harmful misstep about me. In an interaction between a Black woman and an Indigenous woman, I internally shifted the lens of focus to how I would react, instead of staying present for the reconciliation. I lost sight of the fact that causing harm isn’t about me, it’s about learning and evolving in order to be better for/towards others as I walk this path of life.
And then there was: white entitlement and supremacy —the sense that I had the answers to how conflict should be handled, that I knew better, even in this situation in which I couldn’t fathom the experiences and identities of either party. I believed I had the right to dictate how “civilized” conversations should be handled, which, as white people, we’re extremely accustomed to. We’re habituated to being given the benefit of the doubt, to being coddled and forgiven with little to no consequence or accountability.
The way I saw this transgression handled was with accountability but not with coddling, and this is new territory to me. The woman in question was not belittled but was also spoken to with clarity and intention.
And then I learned a new term: calling up, which was used to refer to this incidence of bringing heightened clarity, awareness, and accountability. And I was grateful for it, because it allowed me to reframe how I was relating to this moment.
It became empowering to both parties — the one being called out and the one doing the calling.
As white people, we have an extraordinary amount of work to do to check our egos on a daily basis to stop causing harm. And we’ve been given very few tools in this white supremacist society to mitigate our egoic response to having out attention called to the harm we cause.
So as I walk this path, committed to causing less harm, I recognize so much of the work is putting my ego aside, taking a deep breath, allowing the feelings of shame to wash over me and setting them aside to be processed later in an appropriate setting.
Because what is most important in moments when I have been called up is to show up for the party who is taking time and spending their energy to course correct me.
I have a history of falling apart when being called up, so I know I have a lot of work here. And look, we will need to process the ego blow that comes with recognizing we are part of the problem. But that is not in the same space in which we have just caused harm.
And I am learning to appreciate not being coddled, although it at first feels unfair. There will be moments when my ego will react in a way that I cannot trust or listen to. This practice is not easy, but it is vital and necessary for the liberation of those who suffer under a system that benefits me at their expense.
If I’m being honest, making mistakes scares the shit out of me. My knee-jerk reaction is to stop trying, speaking up, or using my voice. And let’s be clear: as a white woman, oftentimes the work I am being called to do is to sit back, listen, follow. But remaining silent on injustice due to the fear of looking bad is incredibly destructive and serves the systems I claim to work to dismantle.
So here’s to the practice of checking our white egos. Of letting of coddling each other. Of holding ourselves accountable in order to call each other up to a place that better serves ALL humanity. ❤