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.

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 is “difficult, if not impossible, to open the door to other cultural norms and standards,” according to Tema Okun, the author of The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race and Racism to People Who Don’t Want to Know.

Fortunately, there is some good in seeing this connection. It allows us to understand that perfectionism is a problem that cannot wait for when we have “the bandwidth” to improve ourselves. Black writer Catherine Pugh puts the responsibility bluntly: “Because racism is not mine, it is yours. What you do is not called ‘help’ when it is your mess we are cleaning.”

When you notice perfectionism, you can borrow a technique from mindfulness practices and cognitive behavior therapy and name it. But instead of saying, “That’s perfectionism,” you can say the truth: “That’s White supremacy culture.” The moment you do, you’ll be able to examine racial injustice — and fight against it.

Writer with a master’s degree in psychology. Helpful, science-backed writing about mental health, mindfulness, and motherhood.

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