“I’m sad they don’t know my heart. I’m a good person.”
My friend Anna said this after being criticized for one of her Facebook posts. It was the third day of the recent Black Lives Matter uprisings, and she posted a meme about Labrador Retrievers. (Maybe you saw one like it, too. There were a few). This meme said that labs come in all colors, why can’t we get along like labs?
Some people told Anna that her post was insensitive and reflected her privilege: only a white lady could think racism was as innocent as dog behavior. It hurt her feelings to be called out for harm when she meant none.
I so get it.
And we white people need to do better.
In order to do better, we must first get clear about how we as individuals perpetuate racism. Speaking for myself, what beliefs and concepts have enabled me to be complicit in the status quo? Once I identify the concepts that facilitate harm, I can dismantle them and replace them with better concepts.
When Anna told me her story, I identified one such concept: that good intentions trump actual results. It sounds like this:
- “But I’m a good person”
- “I didn’t mean to.”
It means that my good intentions cancel out any harm I inadvertently cause, and you’re mean if you hold me accountable.
It was easy to identify the concept in her because I have it, too. It was in action just yesterday, and investigating it was immensely clarifying. If you also have this concept, do The Work along with me.
Yesterday, on Facebook, I came across something my friend Chris posted. I disagreed with his post, and I said so – gently and amiably, I thought – in the comments. In response, Chris lashed out at me.
I totally froze. I recognized that this was an overreaction, which prompted me to ask, “How old do you feel?” (For more on this clarifying question, see “Triggered.”)
The answer was a vision of myself as a very young girl. My dad was lambasting me for something that seemed to me like nothing. Like all children, I was too young to see things from his perspective. I simply knew my own, and mine was that I was a good girl. Why could he not remember that in this moment and treat me with more kindness? That feeling of being wronged, rather than wrong, closed my ears against any criticism he leveled at me. It protected me.
I realized it was still protecting me in this moment with Chris.
Time to do The Work.
In this moment, is it true that Chris “lashed out” at me?
I re-read his comment. I copy it out sentence-for-sentence. It turns out that the first thing he says acknowledges that I’m entitled to my own opinion. The rest of his reply is basically to ask me to acknowledge his perspective.
So, no, it isn’t true that Chris lashed out at me.
How do you react when you believe the thought? I feel like a frightened, indignant child, and I stop listening in an effort to protect myself.
Who would you be without the thought? I would feel calm. I would be an adult. I could just listen.
With this clarity, I return to the bigger concept that good intentions trump actual results. Is that true? Well, I see that my intentions were not wholly good. I thought I was smarter than Chris and could teach him something. The result was that I did not really listen to his point of view and offended him.
Please, read that paragraph and the preceding Work again within the context of racism. Black Americans (and Indigenous and People of Color) are telling white Americans that racism exists, that police brutality is systemic, that statues of Confederate heroes are demoralizing, and that we need to take it seriously and do something. And many of us are telling them it can’t be because we’re good people. They must be imagining it or too sensitive, and they need to calm down. And they’re beyond offended.
Who would we be without the thought that our good intentions are more important than our results – where our results are their lived experience? We would drop our defenses. We would listen.
Here’s my new concept: Good people listen.