Goodness as Practice

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Video blogger and hip-hop radio host Jay Smooth makes an eloquent case for understanding that being good does not require us to be perfect, and that learning to live with our imperfections is a way forward in contemporary race discourse. I’d share a few of his comments, hoping this will inspire you to find the time to listen to the whole talk.

“Are you saying that I am racist? How can you say that. I am a good person! Why would you say I am a racist?”

And you try to respond “I’m talking about a particular thing you said.”

“No, I am not a racist.”

And what started out as a “what you said” conversation turns into a “what you are conversation,” which is a dead end that produces nothing but mutual frustration and you never end up seeing eye to eye or finding any common ground…


“We tend to deal with this conversation about race in the all or nothing binary, either you are or you are not racist. … We’re striving to meet an impossible standard. If anything less than perfection means that you are a racist, that means any suggestion that you’ve made a mistake, any suggestion that you’ve been less than perfect is a suggestion that you are a bad person. And so we become averse to any suggestion that we should consider our thoughts and actions. And it makes it harder for us to work on our imperfections. When you believe that you must be perfect in order to be good, it makes you averse to recognizing you own inevitable imperfections and that lets them stagnate and grow. So, the belief that you must be perfect in order to be good is an obstacle to being as good as you can be… It would make us better at being good if we could recognize that we’re not perfect and embrace that…

Race is “a social construct that was not designed to make sense… it was designed to justify indefensible acts, so when we grapple with race issues, we’re grappling with something that was designed for centuries to make us circumvent our best instincts. It’s a dance partner that’s designed to trip us up! Based on that alone, you’ll never bat a thousand when it comes to race issues…

“As we are all imperfect humans… we all have unconscious thought processes and psychosocial mechanisms that pop up, there are many things in our day to day lives that lead to developing little pockets of prejudice or to be unkind to others without any conscious intention to do so…just like plaque develops up on our teeth… We need to move away from the tonsils paradigm of race discourse [we’ve had it removed once and for all] to the dental hygiene paradigm of race discourse.

“And in general, I think we need to move away from the premise that being a good person is a fix, immutable characteristic, and shift towards seeing being good as a practice. It is a practice that we carry out by engaging with our imperfections. We need to shift towards thinking of being a good person the way we think of being a clean person. Being a clean person is something you maintain and work on every day. We don’t assume that because I’m a clean person I don’t need to brush my teeth. And when someone suggests to us that we’ve got something stuck in my teeth we don’t say “What do you mean, ‘I’ve got something stuck I my teeth.’ I’m a clean person!…”

“Beyond the persistent conversational awkwardness of race, there are persistent systemic and institutional issues around race that are not caused by conversations and they can’t be entirely solved by conversation—you can’t talk them away—but we need people to work together and coordinate and communicate to find strategies to work on these systemic issues… there are so many disparities … that is worthwhile to iron out these conversational issues, if for nothing else so that we can get a little bit closer to working together on those issues…

“If I could have one wish, it would be that we would reconsider how we conceptualize being a good person. And, keep in mind that we are not good despite our imperfections. It is the connection we maintain with our imperfections that allows us to be good. Our connection with our personal and collective imperfections—being mindful of those personal and common imperfections—is what allows us to be good to each other and be good to ourselves.”

“This is no easy task and race may be the most difficult place to apply this … I’m hoping we can shift away from taking it as an indictment of our goodness, and move towards taking it as a gesture of respect and an act of kindness, when someone tells us we’ve got something racist stuck in our teeth!

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  • Gibrán says:

    Thanks for posting this Cynthia, I have a growing respect for Jay Smooth and I really appreciated this talk.

    I have a question for you – how does his message correlate with one of the key tenets of “anti-racist dogma,” the idea that “all white people are racist?”

    Being racist is definitely being bad! But it seems like Jay Smooth is wanting to move the conversation into a different space.

  • Jen Willsea says:

    Great question, Gibran. I really love this talk by Jay Smooth. He reminds us that we have to be compassionate towards ourselves. Acknowledging that I am racist at some level, due to no fault of my own, but of the systems I live in does not mean I am a bad person. Jay Smooth says “it is the connection we maintain with our imperfections that allows us to be good.” As a white person who could easily not think about racism, I actually have to remind myself that I have internalized some elements of white superiority, just like people of color have internalized some elements of inferiority. Doing the work on myself of HEALING from that requires that I acknowledge the realities of what it means to be a white person in this country at this time, and that I constantly work to do better, despite my imperfections.

    What do others think?

  • Gibrán says:

    Thanks for your thoughtfulness Jen, I always appreciate your passion for racial justice. Certainly we are socially conditioned by a racist society. This conditioning leads to practices and individual choices that themselves add up to significant structural oppression. Our conscious and unconscious racism is a very real problem – with very real outcomes.

    The question remains, specially in light of the approach that Jay Smooth is taking – does it make sense to say “all white people are racist.” Doesn’t “being” something so bad actually make you bad?

    I’m interested in looking more closely at some of the key premises of anti-racist dogma.

  • Linda says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this as well – and here’s the rub – it depends on what your definition of racist is (which, I hate to say, reminds me of Bill Clinton saying it depends on what the definition of is is.) If talking about racist means “being” versus “doing”, these are very different conversations. As I’ve been reading more, though, about Claude Steele’s (and others’ ) work on stereotype threat, I’m more convinced that the formulation works against what we’re trying to do, rather than for it. Personally, I don’t have a problem at all with accepting the ways I’ve had racism transmitted to me – and the ways I unconsciously act out of that conditioning. And I am more and more aware that others do. The bigger question I have these days is how do we actually do the work (and not just step away from it) while learning and shifting on these formulations? Not spin – but the real work. What’s a better way?

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Hi all
    Better late to the conversation than never! I agree with all of you. To say white have internalized racial superiority and have benefitted from systems that have advantaged whites and disadvantaged people of color is true AND does not make them ” bad people.” I do think that a lot of people have trouble parsing that. I agree that the specific formulation “all white people are racist,” while technically true if you take what I said above as a definition of racism, can really get in the way of building understanding about the multiple levels of racism, racialized structural advantages/disadvantages, and strategies that move in the direction of justice and transformation. I’m not wedded to particular words but I am very wedded to certain ideas and understand

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    understandings. And I’m also about not building hills in front of us as we go.

  • Gibrán says:

    Appreciating all of you, your commitment and your openness! I specially like the phrase: not building hills in front of us as we go. I’ll keep that one in heart and mind!

  • Jen Willsea says:

    Here’s another thought. I recently learned to say that a person HAS bipolar, rather than IS bipolar. Perhaps this is similar to what you’re getting at, Gibran? And I appreciate you questioning some of these tenets of the anti-racist dogma!

    Racism is not inherent to our beings, just as bipolar does not define a person who suffers from it; it’s not their fault that they have it and it doesn’t make them a bad person. Likewise, bipolar isn’t something you can completely get rid of if you have it, and neither is racism. Living with it and being a productive member of society with love and compassion for yourself and others requires careful attention, being really self aware, and rigorous about healthy habits. Maybe it’s not that we ARE racist, but that we HAVE racism??

    There are ways to self-medicate if you have bipolar that can be detrimental – like binge drinking – that are ways to avoid the real problem at hand. There are also ways to self-medicate if you have racism that can keep you in denial that you have it and that you need to keep working on it.

    So, if all white people have racism then, it just doesn’t let us off the hook. Which is my main concern with this whole idea that all white people are racist in the first place. Not to say we should be torturing ourselves or wallowing around feeling bad and paralyzed. Just to say that we need to remember we got it (racism), it’s not our fault, and to contribute to the liberation of all of us, we gotta do a lifetime of learning and growing.

  • Gibrán says:

    This is very insightful Jen, I think we are getting somewhere with this conversation. I like the way you are framing it.

    While racism and its pervasiveness is indeed part of our social conditioning, it does make sense to consider what are the points at which we do become responsible.

  • Chris Toppin says:

    Thank you for the post, Cynthia, and thank you ALL for the conversation. I’ve been struggling with this very issue and the “stone wall” that goes up whenever we get to the “all white people are racist” part of the conversation, doing white privilege and anti-racism work. We seem willing to recognize racial disparities and systemic issues plaguing this country. We even seem to be willing to recognize our own white skin privilege. However, the term “racist” has a deep and emotional meaning for many of us. While I can intellectually agree that if I’m white and happily living in the US and not doing anything to change the status quo, I’m benefiting, and contributing by my non-action, and therefore part of the racist movement. Yet, emotionally I have a very hard time taking on the “racist” label. I grew up with people who had real fear and hatred for the “other”, and I don’t feel connected to them or that hatred in any way, and yet I’m expected to take on the same label. Even if I’m willing to accept this in order to be an anti-racist ally, I have some co-workers, friends and family who are not ready to do so. Hence the stone wall, and now the conversation is either over or at a standstill. What next? Do we only have the conversation with those few willing to accept this label, or do we agree to continue with the conversation, allowing for different perspectives? I think Jay is challenging us to do the latter and I agree. I’d love to hear what others think.

  • Linda says:

    Sounds like we’re mostly in agreement. Here’s a blog post I just read that talks a little bit about why the “all white people are racist” (AWPAR) statement shuts people down so much: http://blog.soros.org/2011/12/implicit-bias-and-social-justice/

    I’m also intrigued because I hear the AWPAR statement in the same way Jen talks about “having” racism – interesting! And there seems to be more and more alignment about the “being” racist statements not working to advance the work. Can’t wait to help discover some new ways…

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Linda and Chris for the latest thoughts. I hear you Chris about the reluctance to accept the label of “racist” even if it’s in a “nothing personal, strictly definitional” sort of way. I think the work around stereotype threat is a great way to think about this. Relates to Tema Okun’s book The Emperor Has No Clothes. It does seem that we’re converging on a few important ideas to carry the work forward. Looking forward to keeping it going.

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