The Worst Mindset to Have When Fighting Racism
How perfectionism can undermine the work of dismantling White supremacy culture
In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in my neighborhood, I wrote about my experience as a White mother talking to my White children about race, justice, and how we can do what’s right. I shared how I was worried about getting these conversations wrong, but that I knew I had to start them anyway.
Many fellow parents reached out to me, all saying some version of the same thing: They, too, had been so worried about fumbling, and saying the wrong thing, and not being able to answer hard questions that they’ve avoided this conversation with their kids altogether. Seeing my own anxieties reflected back to me, I understood an important connection: perfectionism and White supremacy culture are inextricably linked.
‘Mom, Why Don’t You Have Any Black Friends?’
Before you talk to you kids about race, answer this question
This connection, of course, isn’t a brand-new one. In her 1997 landmark book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations about Race, Beverly Daniel Tatum warned: “If we wait for perfection, we will never break the silence. The cycle of racism will continue uninterrupted.” However, it isn’t always this cut and dry. Perfectionism doesn’t only breed White supremacy by preventing people from disrupting racism when they wish to. Perfectionism constrains all behavior. It demands that we show only the flawless versions of ourselves and so the parts that don’t conform to the dominant culture’s norms are kept hidden. In the United States, as we know, the dominant culture is infused with White supremacy. Perfectionism functions like respectability politics, which Hood Feminism author Mikki Kendall defines as “an attempt by marginalized groups to internally police members so that they fall in line with the dominant culture’s norms.”
In this way, perfectionism in individuals causes the same problems that it does in organizations. Perfectionism and other characteristics of White supremacy culture constrain behavior to the point that it…