Guest Bloggers Camilla Greene and Jo Brownson share in an ongoing dialogue below about the concept of perfection. Camilla Greene co-founded the Center for Urban Excellence as Senior Associate with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, and currently serves as a National Facilitator for SF-CESS. Jo Brownson joined SF-CESS in 2013 from the public high school math classrooms of Philadelphia and Oakland, and currently serves as the Operations Manager and Equity Facilitator.
In the skin you are in, how do you experience the concept of perfection?
An Ongoing Conversation
As a visibly brown skinned African American girl with natural hair and the only African American student in my kindergarten class at Brooklyn Friends School in the 40s, I learned from a white kindergarten student that I was “dirty.” So If brown skin is dirty, then white skin must be clean…perpetually clean. Perfection lesson number 1. In the same kindergarten class, later on I learned that my hair was a “Bird’s nest” from another white kindergarten student-actually it might have been the same kindergarten student who made both comments. My black hair was shoulder length and natural then. My mother neatly plaited my hair in 3 braids with a ribbon at the end of each braid. My hair did not lay flat on my scalp the way other white children’s hair did. My hair was puffy before it was confined in its braids. So flat hair is preferable to puffy hair. White people have flat hair therefore that is the world standard. And in my young mind there were sooooo many white people around me at school who had the preferred hair, I with brown skin, puffy hair, larger body frame must be different and not the preferred norm. Perfection lesson number 2.
I was about 11 when my mother took me to a Black owned hair salon in Bedford-Stuyvesant to have a Lye chemical placed in my hair so that my hair could lay flat against my scalp and so that my hair would not become kinky, wavy, and wild when wet. Having been the first African American student to graduate from Brooklyn Friends School; having attended the white run, white controlled school of learning for 13 years, I received an excellent European education where the domination of whiteness was a clear and consistent message. Today, at the age of 76, I still have an overpowering urge to see whiteness as the standard of perfection. Intellectually and emotionally I know that white is not perfect; however, I have to fight stereo-type threat and the notion of the normalcy of whiteness every minute of every day. I am very conscious of my conditioning into the normalcy of whiteness in Amerikkka and I have to consciously push against further normalizing whiteness with every breath I take.
In my experience a majority of white women I encounter give off the vibe of being polite and perfect. Fortunately to counter balance being in the white world to be formally educated, I grew up in a solid, middle class Black family and I was part of a middle class Black community in NYC that exuded Black excellence at all levels. Hence today I describe myself as a conscious, unapologetically Black elder who knows how to interrupt the white supremacy narrative in real time. I am still on my journey to fully regain my full humanity and to help others of all colors regain their full humanity. My question to white women is: How hard is it to be fully human when you are deemed to be the pillar of perfection all day long?
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As a pastor’s daughter in a white, protestant church, I would sing about Jesus’ perfection; how he was the only person who ever lived without the stain of sin. That was how he was able to “wash my sins away” and make me clean. Jesus’ perfection was heavily emphasized in my community growing up – much more than his humanity. I think, then translated through the prism of white supremacist thinking, this idea that I was born into sin, but that I could become perfect, and that it was all or nothing – like salvation – was deeply ingrained in me from my community. It also meant that “achieving perfection” is what morality is rather than ethical behavior towards other people (after all, Jesus didn’t do anything to become perfect, he was born that way). Very subtly in ways I am still trying to figure out, I was made to believe that perfection was a state of being that I could attain if I just tried hard enough, had the right belief system, and had enough people who approved of me.
I feel that for white women like me, the mythology that perfection is a possibility that is attainable for us (but not for other women) is reinforced in every direction. Our bodies have been the object of “perfect beauty” since the concept of race was being constructed by racial scientists. It is the other side of the coin from what you are saying you get from every direction, Camilla – that for women with your skin, your hair and your build, it is an impossibility but for me, I should be that, could be that and if I don’t, it is because there is something wrong with me. It is an everyday battle for me to not translate this perfectionist thinking into other areas of my life: that there is such a thing as a “perfect partner”, “perfect friend”, or a “perfect life” and I should be or have already or be actively working to achieve. So because I battle with this notion that perfection is something I should “be” when I do mess up, get called out, commit myself to take action against white supremacy in my life and then fall short, it is incredibly difficult for me to separate my behavior from something essential about me, bad about me, an “original sin”. As a result, I don’t have a very good practice of self-forgiveness or self-worth that comes from somewhere other than how well I measure up to this myth of perfection. When your self-worth is given to you by society and is rooted in capitalism and white supremacy, it is very fragile. So the potential to lash out in resentment when my identity is called into question or when I fail to meet society’s expectations of me is ever present. I know I always have the option to exploit the system’s willingness to protect me and my “innocence” when it is challenged, even if I know taking advantage of it will directly harm people of color (and my own sense of self).
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Camilla – I’m wondering if you’re feeling or thinking anything differently now? I’m thinking about your last question to white women about how hard it is to be fully human when you are seen as the pillar of perfection. I think in our work it makes white women approach facilitation very differently than women of color. As we know, the best balance in facilitation is between structure and responsive constructivist learning – it’s not an either or. But I notice constantly that what white women (myself included) tend to emphasize or pay attention to disproportionately is structure. And for all of us, what we pay attention to grows. So, I think this is about the way we internalize perfection. We pay so close attention to whether we stack up to an ideal that it blocks our ability to “see” other pathways to humanity. If we can control our environment, no one will know we aren’t perfect.
On a personal level, I feel frustrated that so many of the avenues towards self love available to me emphasize curating an appearance of loving myself when in reality I am just competing with other white women to live up to perfection – particularly in how we look. Being healthy, doing “self care”, yoga, etc. which we should be healthy and take care of ourselves. But I am rarely in deep healing spaces with other white women. Often it feels like there is too much self consciousness to go there – so much attachment to doing it right that we do nothing or do harm. In our work with teachers it worries me because I think that translate into not knowing how to hold healing spaces in our classrooms. That anxiety gets mapped on to our students in different ways based on the skin they are in. What an addiction to perfectionism gets us is guilt, shame and self hatred which, if we live there, we know we make it impossible to be in solidarity with other white people and people across difference. Not to mention those are not the energies I want to be putting out in the world and infecting my children with.
What do you think and feel?
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Jo- Your deep reflection; the humility with which you reflect; and your willingness to be vulnerable…in a heart place…in your heart place, is healing. Because in my mind always is the perfection standard of white women and to have that white woman perfection held up under a microscope; explained, examined and deconstructed from your perspective is healing. In my heart I know white women are not perfect however our society and in my world white space all is done to epitomize white women. For me to deconstruct white women perfection moment to moment is extremely exhausting and I more often than not choose not to go into white spaces because of how physically, intellectually and emotionally exhausting that space is for me.
In reading Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming,” I am struck by how often she asks herself “Am I good enough” As a conscious woman in dark skin identity living in racist Amerikkka where I am bombarded with the perfection of whiteness, I would be insane if I did not ask myself the question: Am I good enough? As a descendent of enslaved people who endured the middle passage where each of my ancestors were stripped of their humanity; where- since we did not speak a common language, all we could do was moan, and wail in unison. Because of the dehumanizing aspects of enslavement, I feel we grew humble, we grew vulnerable and we grew into our creative expression of our pain in every creative venue we could imagine. I believe that most of us have maintained, nurtured and grew up in our humility, our vulnerability and our collective creative expressions.
There are two powerful songs “I know who I am” and “Something Inside So Strong” Both songs were written in opposition to what Toni Morrison refers to as the white gaze. I am strong and I do know who I am and I need to fortify myself every minute of every day to maintain my humanity, my sanity, my full self in racist, white supremacy driven Amerikkka.
The intergenerational accumulation of shared experiences among conscious formerly enslaved African Americans, keep us focused on the heart and our humility and the humility and heart of others. In my facilitation, while I appreciate our agenda, I prioritize the feelings of the group over the structure of the agenda. I also sense the emotions of the participants and the emotions of the other facilitators and prioritize recalibration of the emotional needs of the group over getting to the next item on the agenda. We need each other across the racial divide because we need to model what it looks like and sounds like as we balance the head and the heart in our work. And we need to be in authentic relationship with each other in order to do our transformational race work. The ultimate beauty in our work is that we have developed over time both our intellectual capacity to do this work and we have maintained, nurtured and sustained the humanity in each of us to do this work. I am grateful for every opportunity I get to work with you.
Peace and Love, Camilla
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I wanted to continue this conversation in light of some reflecting I have been doing over the past two weeks.
Camilla, your last response has been resonating with me deeply; your words often stay with me long after they are said. That is a gift you offer to the world and to me specifically that I seek to not ever take for granted. The particular words this time that have stayed with me are these: “Because of the dehumanizing aspects of enslavement, I feel we grew humble, we grew vulnerable and we grew into our creative expression of our pain in every creative venue we could imagine. I believe that most of us have maintained, nurtured and grew up in our humility, our vulnerability and our collective creative expressions.” The idea of “growing humility, vulnerability and creative expression” is the opposite of perfectionism, which is stagnate, fragile, and arrogant.
I spent a lot of the past two weeks with white family members and perfectionism was on full display, particularly from my white female elders. It took the form of micromanagement of other people’s time, bodies and ways of being (i.e. “Are you going to do it that way?”, “You look like you lost weight…good for you”, “Let me show you the right way to do it”, “Ugh, I hate my body”, “Aren’t you worried you will spoil your dinner by eating that?” “Take another picture, so-and-so looks bad in this one.”) All of these small actions and comments are so deeply rooted in the standard of whiteness you are talking about that, let’s be honest, individual white people can never attain either. But we are so addicted to the illusion that we can (and society keeps feeding it to us) if we just work hard enough. Or if we can’t really attain it, then we better curate the appearance of it so that we won’t be exposed to criticism and punishment from other white people (most often our family members and immediate community). Keeping up that farce is exhausting and takes constant vigilance and policing of ourselves and others to ensure we are not exposed. That is what my white aunties and mothers have been practicing their whole lives – policing of the norms of whiteness inside their homes. It brings me back to what you said about growing into vulnerability, humility and creative expression. I believe that spending so much time policing ourselves and others (“Am I doing this right?”; “We should do it another way”; “Are you sure this is the best way?”; “I’m so bad at this; I’ll never be good at it”; “I don’t want to try until I know how to do it perfectly”) is part of what stunts white folks’ ability to grow into vulnerability, humility and creative expression. Which is also why theft and exploitation of those things when we find them in people of color is such a characteristic of white, dominant culture.
Curious about any of your thoughts…
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