A Checklist to Curb your Progressive White Sanctimony
In 2016, after attending a panel featuring two men and one woman, I came to the premature conclusion that the men had “taken up too much space” as a result of their sexism (what else!). In doing so, I was certain they had “oppressed” the female speaker they had been sharing the stage with. I appointed myself the righteous truth teller and drafted an irate email to fire off to the men and come to the rescue of this woman who had been “victimized” by their toxic masculinity.
Only after a little bit of digging, did I come to understand the woman on the panel was the boss and mentor to both men. The panel was an opportunity she had helped facilitate to give them an opportunity to practice public speaking and to set an example of men comfortably learning from a female authority figure.
I have written more extensively on this experience here. Bottom line, in my rush to stroke my own ego and virtue signal, I almost missed what was actually a sign of progress.
Sadly, I see this tendency among progressives all too frequently. In an effort to put the brakes on our own social-warrior-sanctimony, my colleagues and I developed a checklist for ourselves. It’s for us and anyone else when we find ourselves in the role of arguing for “progress.” The list can be applied to anyone speaking from the perspective of the “oppressed,” whether representative, ally, or activist.
Here’s the thing, even “virtue” has its moral pitfalls. As my friends in Alcoholics Anonymous tell me all the time, “being right with the wrong attitude is still not helpful.” We progressives give movements a disservice when we climb up on Mt. Pious and start waving the flag of our own “righteous” indignation. We’ve all done it. It’s human to hide selfish motivations beneath a veneer of selfless ones.
But that doesn’t do the movement any good. Actually, that makes it about people and personalities, not principles, not progress.
So here is the checklist, which my colleagues and I also refer to as an antidote for self-righteousness. Some of it might sound like tough medicine, but arguing on the side of justice doesn’t inoculate us against being critiqued. After all, a constructive critique makes our case stronger.
So, to the list:
1. Just because something might resemble past injustices, doesn’t mean it is. This was the case with the panel I mentioned above. Sure, I saw a woman and two men on stage and yes the males were talking more . . . but that was by design, and, unbeknownst to me, the female was the one holding the power (it shows my own bias that I didn’t assume sooner that she could be in charge). Instead, I was primed to see one narrative. Even if it wasn’t there! But I sure was ready to project it — especially if it gave me an opportunity to play the role of morality police (woo-hoo look at me, so woke!). But none of that was the reality of what was happening. For someone committed to the “truth,” I missed it, big time. The reality was, even if on the surface this might have resembled past oppression, a more thoughtful examination revealed it was progress. In my rush to self-promote, I had missed it and had been ready to attack people whom I should have recognized as allies.
2. Just because someone looks like “the man,” doesn’t mean he is. In my role as a consultant with organizations trying to address racial equity in the workplace, I often see people of privilege (frequently white) sincerely open up a dialogue for discussion with staff members of color. This can be positive, but sometimes the person of privilege becomes a stand-in for a truckload of resentments, some of which they deserve, some they don’t.
I recall a company meeting where the staff of color had come together and were berating a senior HR director for his failures. It didn’t help that he was a straight white male — sort of a stereotypical stand in for “the man.” They accused him of “being part of the problem.” They also accused him of “white-splaining” and of “gaslighting” them. As the consultant and arbitrator, I was privy to the work this HR director had been doing behind closed doors with senior management. Take my word for it, he had done his personal work; he was a great advocate for these very staff of color who were now attacking him. He looked like the man, but he really wasn’t. The staff didn’t have the full picture of how he had tirelessly gone to bat for them to C-suite leadership — at great personal and professional expense I might add.
Sadly, these public attacks only slowed progress and hurt the director personally. To his credit, he never complained (like I said, he was doing his own work). But in my position, I could see how these public attacks, while serving the purpose of venting for the junior staff, also came at the risk of alienating a key ally. While airing grievances can be valuable, some of the attacks bordered on grandstanding.
3. We must be careful not to displace our frustration with institutions onto the individuals who open themselves, with sincerity, to feedback. This is a corollary to the previous item. Contributing to the dynamic in that meeting was that some of the pent-up anger and frustration these staff members held towards institutions was coming out at this individual. But institutions and individuals are not the same. Sure, there were issues with company policy that the director had responsibility to dismantle, however, when he opened the floor for discussion, the floodgates burst and he got a barrage of emotions that, honestly, he wasn’t responsible for. He handled it with grace, but that came at an emotional cost. The emotional energy he used to withstand that onslaught might have been better used to sustain his continued advocacy with the C-suite executives whom he was actively lobbying on the part of the staff of color.
4. Critique the injustice without attacking the tribe. I used to think coming in and dropping “truth bombs” on white folks was effective. It didn’t take long for me to realize it wasn’t. So instead of coming in “hard” in these discussions, I appeal to what is good already. If I can find what is “good” in their communities right now and build on that, even better.
People have a basic need to belong. When we point out flaws or moral transgressions on the part of their social group (i.e., their tribe, their community) there is an immediate resistance. Even if they recognize the injustice! This comes from a fear that if they admit and confront the transgressions on the part of their community, they might be forced to leave it — without anywhere else to go. So, they cling to it and defend it, no matter what.
In the case of white audiences, I like to appeal to the history of how the white community has embraced change, diversity, and inclusion. I find the preexisting virtue in their community and build on it (see next item). I highlight examples of how it has changed history for the better. Implicit in this is that (1) their social group does not have to be dismantled and (2) the virtues we’re looking to in racial justice work are ones they already have.
5. Share positive memories. Highlight a preexisting history of virtue. This is an example of the above tactic in action. During workshops with white folks, I share stories of how in WWII, the Nazis actually were counting on social divisions to weaken the US’s resolve to fight on the front lines and the home front. To their surprise, the US raised a coalition of soldiers and civilians from all backgrounds and walks of life to come together to defeat the Third Reich. Our diversity was a strength, not a weakness, in the face of real evil.
The ultimate goal in highlighting this history of virtue is to activate those values of loyalty, trust, solidarity in the “tribe,” and expand the borders of that tribe to include “the other.” By coming in hard, dropping truth bombs, I automatically put myself on the outside, as an attacker. Hunkering down is almost inevitable. But a gentler approach, focusing on examples of what has already been done right, disarms listeners. They don’t see me as an outsider attacking, and they don’t see change as such a steep hill to climb. Instead they see it as something they’ve done before. They already stand for the virtues I’m presenting and promoting.
They might come to this conclusion on their own. Even better, they might recognize, without goading, instances where they (or their community) are falling short. Suddenly, they’re already halfway to course correcting.
6. If you can. . .try to have fun. This can be hard to do when things feel so heavy. Reaching for humor when lives are on the line can come across as insensitive and downright mean. But as any comic can tell you, timing is everything. There are times when this is just the kind of psychological jujitsu needed to disarm people’s defenses. Injecting a dose of levity can help a message break through. Nothing is more inviting than laughter. It can’t hurt to demonstrate that you can fight racism and have fun doing it.
One of the best examples I’ve seen of this was the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. In the years immediately after 9/11 when anti-Muslim sentiment was at a height, comedians Ahmed Ahmed, Maz Jobrani, Aron Kader, and Dean Obeidallah set out on a wildly successful comedy tour in the US and Middle East. Their purpose: to “combat racism,” with jokes. None of us need to be professional comedians like Ahmed, Jobrani, Kader, and Obeidallah. But it never hurts to include a bit of humor in our tool kit. One way to keep from falling on your face here is to make sure the jokes you share are self-effacing and about your own foibles. It makes you relatable.
7. Don’t be a predatory listener. There are two contributing forces to predatory listening: (1) starting out from the beginning with the conclusion already in mind, e.g., “I already know what these racist jerks are going to say”; and (2) our own need for recognition and social status, which manifests when we deputize ourselves as morality police and we roll down from Mt. Pious on our chariot of righteous indignation and wield our wokeness like a flag (or a club).
You’ve likely seen this. It’s the person who sits in a workshop, arms crossed, not speaking, not contributing much except scowls, until they hear someone utter an insensitive term, or commit some microaggression. Then, their suspicions validated, they spring into action. They grab the microphone, declare their outrage, and proceed to correct, condemn, and generally berate their peers.
Have you met this person? Have you ever been this person? I have.
By contrast to this moral grandstanding, a friend of mine, Margaret, who uses a wheelchair, pointed out to me that if she just listened and waited to hear allies use exclusionary ableist terms then correct them, she wouldn’t have any allies left. It would also blind her to the fact that even if they might not use the correct language, or occasionally say something insensitive, on the whole, a lot of these people who might be using dated language were still completely on her side.
As I said above, to hide a bad intention beneath a good one is something we all do sometimes. It’s what the predatory listener does. But the opposite happens too. We shouldn’t let an unintentional microaggression or insensitive comment completely obscure the value of the speaker and their sincere intention. Margaret, to her credit, realizes this.
8. If we’re waiting for the prefect allies to come along, we’ll never have any. Like Margaret pointed out to me, if she were to only work with folks with a spotless record of using the right terms, posting to the right hashtags, who were not blinded by whatever type of privilege they are plagued by, she’d never have any allies.
9. Who is my real audience, am I posturing? Virtue signaling is definitely a thing. It’s made worse by the way we advertise so many of our opinions and quips on social media as we seek affirmation and approval. The antidote requires some serious introspection, honest self-assessment, and knowledge of your motives.
In-person responses can be even trickier. Part of the key is knowing which audience you are responding to. In workshops I have had participants say some pretty insensitive, even racist, things, often without realizing it. Just as often, my initial reaction is to immediately school them — after all, if my BIPOC friends were there, I’d want them to see that I had put this racist jerk in their place, right?
But if my friends are not there, what does a vitriolic scolding do? Whom am I even doing it for? We can check ourselves by returning to the questions: “Who is really served by my (re)action? Is it me or others? Am I seeking a boost to my own self-esteem, or social approval from a certain group of people by performing a strong reaction, or am I truly remaining focused in order to facilitate learning and change?
Like I said before, coming in hard almost never works. If the object is to change hearts and minds, I have to consider the actual audience, the actual speaker, right in front of me. I might have to swallow the bile of my initial reaction. I might have to hide my disgust. I might even have to ask a “racist jerk” to “tell me more,” and I’ll have to mean it! This likely requires listening to some real racist drivel before I can take my turn to try to engage and, perhaps, influence. If I want Joe racist to listen to me, I need to model listening to him first. He’s my audience, not my absent friends — even if I’m there on their behalf.
So that is my checklist for tough discussions when you’re approaching from the “progressive” side of things. I’ll follow this with two more, one specifically for times when you are speaking from a place of privilege and another list of tips for these tough conversations, no matter which “side” you’re coming from. Stay tuned.
 One key to remember: no one (including me!) follows these with perfect adherence. As they say in the recovery community (and what is racism but a disease to recover from!), we aim for “progress, not perfection.”
 In the case of racism and its harmful effects, lives ARE on the line, every day.
Ted Neill, MPH, is a writer based in Seattle. He has written extensively on HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Greatest Generation. His recent novel, Reaper Moon, examines the intersection of faith, politics, and racism during a global viral pandemic. His YA novel, Zombies, Frat Boys, Monster Flash Mobs does the same . . . except with zombies, frat boys, nerds, and ninjas — something for everyone, right?