Find Your Voice. Talk About Race.

Perfectionism and Talking About Race

Blog post title - perfectionism


Do you want to talk about racism but are afraid of saying something wrong or offending someone? Are you ashamed of what you don’t know about race? Have you wanted to talk about race and racism but stopped yourself because you were afraid of being judged? Is your fear of making a mistake preventing any discussions of race in your life?

I have thought and studied about race and racism since I was in college. And I can tell you I have had all the same thoughts and concerns. I have been in many trainings and workshops where I have wanted to speak and instead just frozen while thoughts raced in my mind. Even in developing this blog, I’ve taken much longer than I really need to because I’m kinda afraid. I deeply want to make an impact on racism, but I don’t wanna mess up. Talking about race is intimidating for most white people, including me. I didn’t learn how to do it in school or from my parents. (We will get to why that is later on). I’ve started this space so we can learn this together and overcome our fears and shortcomings to make a difference in our communities. I am a clinical social worker by training and an anti-racist organizer. I feel profoundly called to talk about race and to work to create just and equitable communities and to connect with others who have the same values and desires. Getting over the need to be perfect in this work (and in life, in general) is necessary and possible. Let’s talk about some tips on how to let go of being perfect and tap into the power of transformation.

I always think when addressing a problem, it’s important to “pull it out from its root.” Where did this idea of perfectionism come from? Why are we so compelled to present an image to the world that we are free of any mistakes? As human beings, is it even possible to exist without error? The media we consume is filled with images of supposedly flawless celebrities with photo shopped everything. And there are often stories on the news that shame people for their mistakes. It seems especially popular lately with the re-emergence of a movement for racial justice that the media quickly is shaming and blaming anyone who speaks about race and does it “wrong.” To be clear, there are plenty of white people who are not yet open to the reality of racism and the power their words and actions have to hurt people of color. But yet, it is often other white people who are ready to shun those who have made an error in order to prove their own lack of racism to others by capitalizing on the flaws of someone else. Scholars, organizers and many others say that perfectionism is a symptom of White American culture. You can check out links here and here for more extensive information on the manifestations of white culture. In looking at cultures around the world, the fear of making a mistake doesn’t seem to be a consistent throughout all. It seems to have especially been promoted by our own American society that also is willing to sell us a million products to help us fix all of our deficits. So by knowing that “being perfect” is just a human impossibility, it liberates us from the idea that we need to be perfect and that we will have perfect conversations on race and perfectly understand the experience of people of color. The fact is we are all gonna mess up. But yet and still, racism will not end unless white people join the movement to rid our nation and ourselves of this legacy. So there’s more important things to be doing that worrying about making a mistake. Take some time to think about what areas of your life have been impacted perfectionism has and how has this stopped progress for you and your community? How has perfectionism specifically prevented your from talking about race?

While we need to get to the root cause of perfectionism, we also just need to let go and act. Accept we are going to make mistakes. That’s what I am doing with this blog. I am gonna put it out there so we can learn together. I facilitated a monthly group discussion today on racism and I had to say “I don’t know” a few times. And, lemme tell you – it was scary but is also kinda felt good – because I really didn’t know and that was just honest. I may find out later that some of the things I said weren’t the best thing to say. But, I put myself out there in order to push progress within my community. Making a mistake will not be the end of me. This issue is far too important to be put on hold for my fears and my ego. We will all make mistakes in these conversations, yet we are still needed to do the work – imperfections and all.

Another step that is important for white people, especially when you are learning about racism is to listen to the experiences of people of color when they talk about racism – and believe what they are telling you. There are many times that people of color are treated like they are invisible and their experiences of race are dismissed by individuals and by our nation, collectively. You don’t always need to know what to say. You can listen and develop empathy towards those who experience the harsh reality of racism. You can’t possibly know what you don’t know and there is much to learn about racism for white people. But listening, doesn’t take knowing or saying anything and in a society where people of color very often do not have a voice, listening and believing their experiences is revolutionary.

If you are like most of us, at some point in the conversation, listening will involving talking. Focusing on a subject with such an emotional, complex and not widely understood history still can seem like an immensely difficult task for those of us conditioned to never be wrong. Let’s just get it out-of-the-way then. We will absolutely make a mistake when it comes to talking about race. To prepare for the inevitable, think about what you will say to someone when you find out you have said something that hurt them. I was recently listening to a podcast titled “Our National Conversation about Conversations About Race” where one of the cohosts, Raquel Cepeda, receives a letter about using a word that offended a listener who is a mother. Listen here to episode 9b to hear the full letter and the response. The take away is that the letter writer first took the time to see the redeemable and many positive attributes of the show’s cohost and shared those thoughts in the letter. She also assumed the positive intention of the cohost and shared why what was said was so hurtful. In her response, Raquel, does not get defensive and instead acknowledges the mistake, empathized with the experience of the listener, and thanks the her for the opportunity to grow. It was really a beautiful exchange and a gracious and humble response to being told you have hurt someone. This truly models the types of interactions that are healing and transformative. As Maya Angelou had said about mistakes, “When you know better, you do better.”

I encourage you to challenge yourself – to push your growing edge – and to learn to take more risks in your conversations. The worst that happens in you make a mistake and apologize. But the risk of silence is allowing your ego to be valued more than the lives and experiences of people of color. Let me know in the comments below, how perfectionism gets your way of talking about race and one risk you will take to have a conversation about race you haven’t had in the past.


  1. Penny J. Novack
    October 8, 2015    

    I apologise for not thanking you for creating this space. Thank you.

  2. Penny J. Novack
    October 8, 2015    

    I am 74 years old and was a kind of follower-activist in Community Organising and Civil Rights in the 60s. I remember the things we were taught then, I remember the beginning of a massive attempt to change U.S. society by a project of education and de-racism (hopefully) tactics which morphed into things like Black History Month in the schools and nationwide Martin Luther King Day observations among other things.

    Obviously just learning about Blacks (that community were called Negros if you wanted to sound respectful “back in the day”) and Black culture wasn’t the same as unpacking the baggage our culture tucked into our subconscious understanding of the paradigm we live in. I found that attitudes adults expressed around me as a child kept popping up in my head as I went about my life. I tried to immediately choose a hopefully better response but it’s always a shock. It’s always a problem when I realise some verbal response I learned long ago without questioning it has a bigoted slant to it. These things are from our non-rational and often pre-intellect learning centers and don’t just go away because you have a positive adult understanding. They sit there and try to trip you up. Getting it right all the time is a great effort and I admit I don’t.

    This last year I’ve been being hit with something I consider highly unjust. The idea that White people who were educated all their lives by the program instituted at the bequest of the Negro leaders of the early Civil Rights Movement are now imperialist “appropriators” because they have ingrained habits and preferences they gained in learning to admire Black culture. Somebody has to unpack their political baggage on this one. We spent at least 50 years educating our kids to admire Black (then “Negro”) people and Black culture. So… was it “look but do not touch”? How were the kids to know that?

    • October 12, 2015    

      Hi Penny! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I think it is so helpful to remember as you put it “the baggage our culture tucked into our subconscious.” It is so crucial to continue our journey to unpack this conditioning and not beat ourselves up when it manifests itself as long as we are committed to working on changing it. Keep up the awesome work! I would encourage your to do some more reading on cultural appropriation related to your last thoughts. I think it is something to struggle with for white people and I will try to address this in future posts. So glad to connect with you here! -Heather

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