This post builds on concepts from my previous posts “Racial development: a proposal for white people” and “Antiracist white identity”.

In my post on antiracist white identity, I emphasized that we must learn from history to develop our own vision of ourselves, mapping our personal journeys toward racial justice. To take an active role in making that journey, one needs a sense of agency, defined in the research report Foundations for Young Adult Success as “taking an active and intentional role in making choices and shaping and managing the course of one’s life rather than being at the mercy of external forces.” To move toward racial justice, we specifically need a sense of racial agency — the ability to manage racial interactions and affect racial systems. If one sees oneself as without race or believes that one is color-blind and sees their friends and family in the same way, one is, by definition, incapable of racial agency. We must see how race affects our lives and the lives of those around us to have an impact on race, and we must start to examine how race operates in ways that were initially invisible to us.

As a child and young adult, I first and foremost wanted other people to think of me as “nice”. I wanted everyone to say, “Oh, Jim, he’s such a nice guy.” I was terrified of the moment when someone would look at me and say or even think, “Oh, he’s actually a jerk!” Becoming a teacher at the age of 26 forced me to consider what my identity as a “nice guy” meant. I had to learn to work with young people, leading then collectively toward learning, and leadership inevitably means that you cannot always be seen as “nice”. Because I was a teacher at a school with an almost completely African-American student body, I encountered a world where my own experience as a white man was no longer the overriding experience of those around me, and my “niceness” meant something different than it had in the all-white context where I grew up.

Both aspects of this role — as a leader and as a white man who was outside the numeric majority in this particular space — helped me start to decenter the priority and value I placed on “niceness”. My obsession with being a “nice guy” really meant that I wanted to make others comfortable. What truly consumed me was saying what others wanted to hear, or doing what others wanted me to do. Prioritizing others’ comfort is a tricky thing, because often such comfort in our society is a zero-sum game. White people have ensured their own comfort at the expense of people of color. Men have ensured their comfort at the expense of women. The wealthy have ensured their comfort at the expense of the poor. And when those who have been marginalized try to claim a little more for themselves, the powerful react to that perceived lessening of their comfort as an all-out attack. So really, the question is not how to make others comfortable, it is: Who has been allowed to be comfortable?

When my overriding goal was to make others comfortable, I acted to comfort those close to me who, because of racial segregation, were almost entirely white people. I could not claim racial agency for myself, because I did not see that I existed in a racialized world, and so I had no sense of myself as a racial actor. Once I started to see how I had a particular view of and way of moving through the world based on my cultural and racial upbringing, I could see how, with or without my intention, my actions privileged others who looked and grew up like me. With this, I started to learn more about myself and the history of white people, gradually reshaping my own racial identity into an antiracist white identity and building my sense of racial agency.

Agency is the link between our identities — who we are and want to be — and our competencies — what we do. It is the belief that we can be and act differently than we have in the past, that we can change ourselves and affect those around us. Specifically, racial agency connects my antiracist white identity to the antiracist competencies I must employ in my work towards racial justice. I continue to build my antiracist competencies of noticing racial harms that I and others cause, and speaking up about those harms in one-on-one conversations and in larger groups. And I continue to struggle with speaking up because, even though I am aware of the implications of the “niceness” I valued in my childhood, it is still deeply ingrained in me. This struggle to connect what I do around race — my racial competencies — to what I believe about race — my antiracist white identity — through my sense of racial agency is a life-long one.

In my next essay, I will turn toward those antiracist competencies, completing the picture of how we as white people must move through the process of racial development if we truly want to create a world imbued with racial justice.

Please check out my coming post on building antiracist competencies.

Please check out my following post on antiracist competencies.

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