Reckoning with racist conditioning

Dear President Biden,

Things have been full on both at work and with volunteer activities so it’s tempting to skip writing to you today, but given what’s been gnawing at me, I figure I better go ahead and tell you about it.

You see, I started realizing several months ago that I have a very shitty habit of describing arguments put forth by Black women as “articulate.” Unfortunately I wasn’t actively working on addressing this and I did it again last week. Although I caught myself mid-sentence and saw what I was doing, it was still done – I’d said it out loud, again. Compounding this microaggression was that even as I was cringing at my own behavior, I was (mentally) defending myself with idiotic stuff like “well, it was well said.” Basically, in the moment I wasn’t able to think any better or any clearer than my usual default even though I knew it was off. No one called me out or indicated that I’d said anything problematic, but I had and I was forced to recognize that I couldn’t just wish that behavior away.

However, it wasn’t until I challenged myself a couple of days later to think through what I would say to a White man about a meritorious argument that I finally had a break through. Basically, I couldn’t imagine myself ever, in life, referring to an argument made by such a person as “articulate” – it just wouldn’t occur to me. Instead, I would say that the argument was “compelling” or “strong” or “well reasoned” or “brilliant” (the list goes on). I know this will sound over the top, but it really felt like a eureka moment when I realized how fine (and much more accurate and all around better) it felt to replace the racist “articulate” framing with “strong and compelling” or simply “brilliant” when referring to great arguments made by Black women.

Because my conditioning regarding the “articulate” slant (slight) is way strong and my insight around it clearly hasn’t stopped my automatic behavior, I’ve begun mentally rehearsing using accurate language that doesn’t diminish the speaker or put me in a false/obnoxious position as a White woman acting like she can arbitrate about someone else’s language skills. I’ve been recalling conversations with Black women and picturing myself responding with accurate affirmations to try and re-work my neural net and jettison the old, racist, auto-pilot, conditioning.

And still, I’m 99% certain that I’ll screw up again – this is how these things go (this being human thing sometimes sucks). Plus, chances are that once I have retrained myself on this, I’ll see other things that I’ve been doing/assuming/thinking/feeling/etc. that need work – again, this is how these things go.

In addition to regular behavioral practice, one of the strongest ways people can solidify their change efforts is to push back against the shame the target behavior engenders by going public with the change plan and since you are my main public, I thank you for listening. Going public also helps with accountability as few of us relish continually screwing up on something we’ve identified is a problem in full view of others.

Ok, enough of Behavior Change 101 – I’m just intellectualizing now and that’s not helpful.

May we all be safe to recognize our shortcomings.
May we all be willing to take stock and work at changing our problematic, hurtful behaviors.
May we all have the strength to reckon with our conditioning.
May we all have compassion for our clay feet while still holding ourselves accountable.

Tracy Simpson

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