If/When/How is dedicated to supporting and centering people of color — both within our organization and beyond — because we know that the realization of reproductive justice depends on how people of color are centered in the movement. As a part of our efforts, If/When/How held a working group retreat in spring 2017 for students to come together and discuss the work we all must do to achieve racial justice. The time to apply for next year’s Student of Color & White Co-Conspirator Working Groups is right around the corner, so we invite you to join us over the next few weeks as we share reflections from this year’s participants on what they learned and the actions they are committed to taking.
By Devin Troy, chapter leader at University of Pennsylvania Law School
Accepting the truth of that statement is one of the biggest hurdles many people – myself included – face when it comes to taking an active advocacy role. I got to law school by setting my bar high, and as a soon-to-be attorney, I intend to provide my clients with the highest quality service. The life of a lawyer is not filled with “try your bests;” it is filled with “be the best.” Yet, that internal drive toward perfection shifts the focus in a seriously flawed way: when the primary goal is to be a faultless advocate, advocacy stops being about the fight and starts being about you. That is, simply, unacceptable. And this is why we must risk imperfection if we ever want to achieve tangible progress.
Areas of law and society rife with inequality are the spaces that need the fiercest activism, but they are also the spaces where the likelihood of your actions offending someone is the greatest. In the fight for racial justice, white advocates need to do their homework and not rely on people of color to carry the burden of educating them. But there is also an incredible amount to learn, and white privilege has kept many advocates isolated from the dynamic oppressions they aim to fight. This is not an excuse for blissful ignorance, but an acknowledgment that white advocates are practically guaranteed to mess up. As one of these advocates, this is particularly hard to come to terms with for me, because the people I most risk offending are those I am trying to advocate for. But there it is again: self-protection. We can frame it as a concern to not offend people of color, and although not entirely insincere, it is paternalistic and furthers white supremacy.
At the SCPOC Working Group Retreat, we kept coming back to this theme of perfectionism. Particularly eye-opening was an article by Tema Okun on White Supremacy Culture: the very first behavior listed was perfectionism, which hit home in a room filled with future lawyers. The need for control. Power. By dissecting this need for perfection and fear of mistake, we came to terms with how these controls were holding us back from powerful advocacy. Learning how to empower the racial justice movement is going to be just like any other learning process – you try, you practice, you make mistakes, you address those mistakes by learning from someone more knowledgeable than you (here, ideally a person of color), and you grow. I recognize that this unfortunately still puts a weight on people of color to correct white advocates, but hopefully when those advocates are actively and sincerely trying, this feels more like a partnership and less like a privileged request to be taught.
Throughout the SCPOC Retreat, the national staff at If/When/How had clearly anticipated our lawyerly love for perfectionism. One particularly poignant decision was to start the weekend in separate spaces; this was not a time for performance, but one for vulnerability, sincerity, growth, and learning. This was incredibly effective. The first day, my fellow white co-conspirators and I could hang up our problematic “white woman savior” capes and acknowledge all the ways that our actions, our institutions’ actions, and society’s actions – both historic and current – combine to suppress and oppress people of color. We were all so afraid of messing up, yet as the weekend came to a close, I had gained the realization that being paralyzed by fear is just another privilege. People of color don’t get to sit back while others stake their emotional and physical safety to fight for equality; they show up because their lives depend on it. It’s long past due that we show up with them.
As I traveled back to Philadelphia, I was empowered with the knowledge that protecting my perfectionism came at a price: progress. I should not wait for permission to speak up and work for racial justice. If – when – I mess up, members of the communities I am working for will tell me. And hopefully that turns into a dialogue for growth and learning, which I can then use to better inform my activism. I am so grateful to the SCPOC Retreat and the If/When/How national staff for teaching me how to take those risks, to work together, and to be a zealous advocate. I am eager for the 2017-18 school year, and to see my chapter incorporate racial justice into a more active component of its advocacy.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of If/When/How.