Idealized Self-Image

From Good White Person To Effective DEI Champion: Letting Go of Perfection and Stepping Into Power

As a white diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioner, do you feel deeply committed to furthering equity in your workplace and a deep fear of making mistakes that might have a negative impact on your Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)  colleagues? 

You are not alone. 

Here’s what you need to know about where those fears are coming from, why they’re holding you back, and how you can step more powerfully into your role as a DEI champion. 

Why am I so afraid of messing up?

Our fear of messing up in our DEI efforts is a side effect of being overly identified with our Idealized Self Image (ISI). Our ISI is the projection of the person we think we are supposed to be–this perfect person who did all the right things all the time. 

It is the standard to which we are constantly comparing ourselves to as if to determine whether or not we’re a good person. In the context of DEI work, it can be rooted in our desire to be seen as “the good white”.

Where does the ISI come from?

It’s important to ask ourselves, “why does being seen as good matter to me so much?” We need to take a step back to answer that. 

Inside of white supremacy culture, we have been conditioned to believe that our belonging is contingent on our worthiness, and in order to be worthy of belonging, we must be perfect. We must always do the right things the right way. We must not make mistakes. 

Part of this is biologically normal. We desperately want to be good because, as mammals, we have a deep yearning to belong. This allows a lot of social and emotional needs to be met and creates a sense of safety in our bodies. 

When we are operating from our fear of disconnection, and thus a loss of safety, we are operating from shame. Brené Brown describes it as: 

“Shame is the fear of disconnection. Given that we’re physically, emotionally, cognitively, and for many of us, spiritually, hard-wired for connection, love, and belonging, and [connection is] why we’re here, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives - think about how powerful shame is, because it’s the fear of disconnection, it’s the fear that we’ve done something or failed to do something. We haven’t lived up to an ideal, or we haven’t accomplished a goal that makes us worthy of connection.”

If we are good, then we get to belong and experience that connection and safety. If we are bad, we don’t.

This is why we often lean into our ISI in hopes of preserving those feelings of belonging, connection, and safety. 

How does the ISI show up in our DEI initiatives and hold us back from transformation?

For very different reasons based on our personal experiences, identities, and points of view, engaging in DEI work can be deeply uncomfortable for us all. Discomfort is unavoidable because of the racialized trauma that lives inside of each of our bodies born from centuries of violence produced by racial capitalism.

For people racialized as white, many of us experience deep discomfort during DEI work because of our fear of getting it wrong–saying or doing the wrong thing and subsequently feeling embarrassed or ashamed. This fear leads us to prioritize the maintenance of our ISI and proving our goodness, rather than focusing our efforts on the actual work, which is to reduce the harm and violence experienced by people who have historically been marginalized and oppressed. It can manifest to look like defensiveness, fragility, gaslighting, shutting down, and avoidance.

In part, the fear of getting it wrong is born from the fact that well-meaning white people have been taught explicitly and implicitly that to be racist is the worst thing we can possibly be. Yet, in DEI work, we are coming face-to-face with the reality that racism has thoroughly shaped us and lives inside all of us. To champion DEI, we are required to face the racism that we unconsciously and regretfully perpetuate. 

This is painful! We are showing up to do the right thing, and then we learn that we can’t do the right thing perfectly, that we will cause harm, and that we will make mistakes. 

Becoming effective DEI champions requires that we change our beliefs, thoughts, hearts, minds, and behaviors. It is big, deep, and uncomfortable work. If we, as white people, are going to meaningfully participate in reducing harm and creating more equity, then we have to be willing to let go of who we think we are supposed to be. 

Instead, we must face who we are in our full complexity and courageously try on new ways of being, doing, thinking, and relating. When faced with painful and uncomfortable truths, we have the choice to prioritize the protection of our ISI, or we can increase our capacity for discomfort and thus, our capacity for transformation. 

In his book Love and Rage: The Path of a Liberation Through Anger, Lama Rod Owens says it best: 

“Sometimes being a good person or my attachment to being a good person actually gets in the way of me looking at all the rough spots, at all the shadows that I’m working with. I don’t even go there anymore. I don’t care about being good. I care about actually being in relationship to the shadow, to the hurt, to the woundedness, to the rage, and to the ways in which I’m really addicted and attached to power.” 

How do we loosen our grip on our ISI, increase our capacity for discomfort, and transform? 

Change is always possible, but for true DEI change to take place, we must find ways to let go of our sense of perfection and ISI in order to truly partake in furthering equity and transforming to be DEI champions. 

Here are three ways to do that:

  1. Develop Self Acceptance.
    We are all imperfect humans. We all have strengths and weaknesses, assets and liabilities, light and shadow. Yet, white supremacy culture has thoroughly conditioned us to believe that our worthiness is contingent on our perfection, thus setting us up to fail at an impossible task. Accepting that we will make mistakes can be very liberating. Instead of laboring under the delusion that a performance of perfection will allow us to move through life without experiencing or causing pain, we can instead walk in the reality that everyone will cause and experience harm. It is inevitable. And, we all have the capacity to clean up our messes, take responsibility for our actions, and make amends. Learning to give a genuine apology requires so much less energy than carrying around the heavy burden of perfectionism.
  2. Practice Both / And Thinking. Another trick of white supremacy culture is to convince us that everything we experience is either “this” or “that”. All or nothing. Black or white. Dualism and absolutism are traps that block us from a more expansive, open, and curious orientation to the world. Our ISI is built on this trick, convincing us that we are either good or bad, without leaving any room for the nuance that we embody multiple, simultaneous truths. With both/and thinking, we are increasing our capacity for the gray areas of life that we inevitably encounter. It is a practice that chips away at the foundation of our ISI. It’s liberating to ask ourselves not, “Am I showing up from white supremacy?” But, “How much of how I’m showing up is rooted in white supremacy, and how much is rooted in my true, core self?”
  3. Participate in White Racial Affinity Groups. These groups create space for white people to work on dismantling white supremacy inside of ourselves. They also allow us to support our peers to identify and disrupt the thought, speech, and behavior patterns that perpetuate white supremacy. We do this work in all-white spaces not only not to avoid harming our BIPOC colleagues, but also because white people experience a settledness in our bodies in all-white spaces that allows for taking bigger risks in honesty and vulnerability. White Racial Affinity Groups reduce the pressure to “get it right” by lessening the debilitating fear of “getting it wrong” and causing harm. By taking some of the heat out from under our self-imposed pressure to be perfect and our shame-induced fear, more space is created for white people to express uncomfortable and messy thoughts, feelings, and questions that we must explore in order to increase our capacity for discomfort and transformation.

Reducing harm, furthering equity, and building cultures of belonging & inclusion is hard work. Loosening the grip that we as white DEI practitioners have on our Idealized Self Image, or that it has on us, is critically important if we are to show up as effective DEI champions. 

The good news is that you’re not alone. Learning to accept yourself, building the muscles of both/and thinking, and disrupting the thought, speech, and behavior patterns that perpetuate white supremacy is all work that requires community, support, and accountability. If you’re ready to let go of perfectionism and move powerfully forward as an effective DEI champion, we’re here to help. 

By Rachael Reichenbach

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