Alison shook her head toward the floor of the produce aisle.
“You’re turning into your parents,” she said.
It was Saturday morning at the Venice, California Trader Joe’s and I was complaining about the size of their coffee cups. (Very small.)
I looked up, blank-faced, from my tiny coffee to hers. “I can’t believe you just said that.”
She smiled, unmoved. “It’s inevitable. We all do.”
In fact, the more particular accusation was that I’m becoming more difficult, more particular, more high-maintenance.
These characterizations, for those less familiar with my interior life, collide rather aggressively with how I prefer to consider myself: as someone who is easygoing, relaxed, flexible, decidedly low-maintenance.
Traits, apparently, that did not fully align with Alison’s (a best friend for almost fifteen years) experience of me during my visit: as someone with certain inflexible requirements (largely around coffee, exercise, and sleep).
I pleaded my case.
“But I associate high-maintenance with those women at the gym who take hours to do their hair and makeup,” I explained, going on to confess my awareness that, unlike me, these women likely inhabit spaces where they would be judged more harshly for lack of grooming than for grooming, and that I definitely take some smugness (my least favorite trait!) and pride (so not me!) in spending all that time reading in the locker room jacuzzi. Also, I noted, I lucked out with good skin genes and prefer my hair wild.
Alison shook her head. “You’re using a giant term,” she said, “to cover a huge amount of unrelated tendencies.”
She had a point. “You’re right,” I said. “But why, then, am I so attached to seeing myself in that way?”
I’m pretty sure this is the point at which Alison directed me, as she often does, toward a spiritual guru: in this case, Byron Katie, who offers a set of questions to challenge “limiting beliefs” about ourselves.
What would happen, Katie implores us to ask, if we let go of something we’ve always assumed to be true?
In practicing anti-racism work, one can’t help but think a lot about how firmly, and often unconsciously, we attach to identities—to ways we want to see ourselves and to be seen.
There are entire books about the insidious, fragile behavior white-bodied people exhibit when conversations about race—as they are wont to do—threaten our long and close-held perceptions of ourselves: as good, or as liberal, as open-minded, innocent or well-meaning, educated or simply not racist.
Attaching to these beliefs can and often does obstruct our ability to absorb the truth: that white supremacy makes it very, very easy to be a good, liberal, open-minded, educated, not intentionally racist person who is also very ignorant about the history and present reality of systemic racism, capable of inflicting daily harm on people of color, and maintaining the noxious status quo.
One thing about white supremacy culture is that it gets in the way of us holding complexity: we’re taught to think in binaries, so that a person must fall into categories of “good” or “bad.” We get stuck labeling ourselves with certain traits, as though people ought to be consistent—when in truth, there is every reason to believe we’re just the opposite.
We’re also conditioned into perfectionism (if we aren’t perfect, we won’t be loved!), individualism (we have to become perfect all on our own, and if we need help, we’re broken!), and to avoid conflict at all costs (god forbid you should safely express anger or hurt!). All these patterns collude to keep us distant from our genuine, complicated, messy selves and to avoid the vulnerability required to build authentic connection. (Yay!)
As a short-lived Emergent Strategy book club of mine once discussed, this conditioning also creates a tendency for us to feel as though a single flaw or mistake could annihilate our entire sense of self, and of belonging.
Put another way: it’s no wonder we’re afraid to challenge strong ideas about ourselves when we think those ideas are what give us a loose grip on love.
When I say I’m attached to seeing myself as low-maintenance, in other words, what I’m revealing is an (unconscious) belief that I must be low-maintenance in order to be loved.
When white-bodied people cling to ideas of ourselves as liberal and good, it’s rooted (partly, at least) in fear that admitting otherwise will cast us out.
Critiques of capitalism often feature talk of “scarcity mindset:” the tendency to hoard money, and how even (perhaps most often) people with greater access to wealth are most fearful of losing it and cautious about giving it away. This stems from a taught cultural belief that there aren’t enough resources to go around—obscuring the reality that our global community, in fact, has access to an abundance of resources, just a lack of will to spread them around.
That mindset, while often irrational, also, in this moment at least, kind of isn’t: our lack of a strong social safety net means that a large number of Americans are one unfortunate incident away from poverty—if they aren’t one of the millions in poverty already due to widespread lack of a living wage.
bell hooks writes about the scarcity mentality that patriarchy teaches women when it comes to male love: conditioning us to compete with one another for (mostly imaginary) scraps.
My sense is that we have a similar sort of scarcity attitude when it comes to community and connection.
Our culture breeds isolation: outside of nuclear families and the friend groups some are lucky to form and keep through neighborhoods or faith or sports or school, most of us struggle to build and maintain strong, resilient communities.
Without strong communities, it’s hard to feel a secure sense of belonging.
Without a secure sense of belonging, and with a sense that whatever connection we have is delicate, even scarce, it makes sense to fear that being exposed as bad or racist or even imperfect could isolate us even more.
Shortly after spending time with Alison in California, I came home to an email challenging some anti-racism work I’ve been part of this last year. The challenges were fierce and they were, largely, valid: ultimately, I’m thankful this person took the time to write their critique, and I’m clear it will ultimately steer the work on a stronger course.
But that was not my first thought. My first thought, upon standing at my desk before bed at 11 pm, was oh fuck. It was an ache in my belly and tightness in my shoulders and edges prickling my skin. It was oh my god, no one will ever talk to me again and I will be forever ostracized. It was I’m a terrible, ignorant person who doesn’t deserve love.
You get the gist. It was not my best moment.
The pivot, though, came relatively quick—or at least, quicker than it has in the past.
Local leader, author and healer Resmaa Menakem talks about “getting our reps in” when it comes to rooting out the white supremacy held within our bodies: essentially, practicing discomfort.
Often, that means taking risks: risks that expose ourselves to ideas and feedback that might challenge who we think we are.
It’s inevitable that we’re going to fuck up, get things wrong, misspeak, cause some harm. We should try to minimize our missteps, of course, but if we are guided by fear we, too easily become paralyzed and do nothing. And if all of us did that…nothing would change.
I’m still relatively new to this stuff. I have a lifetime of reps ahead. And, I am noticing that, as I set an intention to risk and practice more, the anxiety of critique feels (somewhat) less crippling than it once did.
I’m sure that emails like that one (and, to a far lesser degree, comments like Alison’s) will continue to ignite my nervous system. And, I hope, continual practice will make those moments more manageable.
Because what it’s really about is trusting that being messy, being complicated, heck, even being (sometimes, in some ways!) high-maintenance doesn’t mean I’m not worthy—as all of us are—of belonging, connection or love.