During the last podcast episode, Khalilah asked me what’s wrong with White people.
I honestly couldn’t say…(everything???) but I think her theory that White people think they’re all Trump makes sense. In fact, there are plenty of experts that might agree with her.
One that comes to mind is a philosopher named Rene Girard. Girard’s theory of human relationships describes them as mimetic, as in, people mime other people- copy them in learning how to behave and what they should desire. (This kind of desire is called mimetic desire. It basically means that that new rose gold iPhone X you think you like is actually just something you learned you should like because of the world around you).
The theory states that there’s no such thing as an individual, compartmentalized human being; that we just exist in relationships with other people. The good news about mimetic relationship theory is that, at its best, every interaction with another human being is an opportunity serve as a model, which according to Girard means that everything about how you’re interacting with that other person provides them with freedom and possibility.
(Think about the people you truly consider a friend. Do they make you feel free? Do you feel like things are possible when you’re with them? That’s about as close to happiness as we can get, according to Girard).
But the bad news is, the opposite of a relationship that provides freedom is one that encourages rivalry. Just like in model relationships, rivalrous ones are mimetic.
We copy others, think we want what they want, and learn to rival with others to get it.
So, when I took a class on Girardian theory of conflict this November in Ireland, someone from the class asked the professor about mimetic theory and Trump. She wanted to know what happens when people are in mimetic relationship with someone like him. The professor just looked at us and said something like, “what you see happening in the States right now is what happens.”
Everyone tssk’d and shook their heads in sadness and disapproval. I was the only U.S. American in the room.
So maybe as a White person, the more important question for me and my work with other White folks should be, “What isn’t wrong with White people?” Not in a way that looks to sweep the damage of generations of internalized White supremacy under the carpet, but rather to get a fair assessment of what the fuck we’re left to work with as anti-racist White folks working with other White folks.
If Girard is right, the first thing we know we have going for us is playing the role of model in our interactions with other White folks. More than just role-modeling anti-racist behavior, this means being able to identify where there is room in the interaction (or relationship) for the other person to feel free and like things are possible. This is relationship judo. Especially because racist White folks make us all want to rival like it’s our fucking job.
One option for modeling is the values-based entry point into tough conversations about racism with other White folks.
*Note: using the values-based entry point into conversations about race will not satisfy a need for retribution or punishment. If this is your motive in your interaction with the other White person, you likely won’t get what you need here.
Because this is a blog for educators, think about another White teacher or administrator you know who might drop some of the common deficit-based, microaggressive comments about young people of color we’ve all become so familiar with.
Maybe they say something like; “I mean, these kids can’t write in English, so I don’t know how they’re going to pass this English Regents exam.” Maybe you say something like;
“We live in a world that really values bilingualism, so that’s good news. And I know you really care about these young-people passing the exam because you value their education and the impact the Regents’ can have on their futures- how can I support you in thinking about getting them prepared?”
What do you think the other White person will say? Think about everything we know now about mimetic relationships.
There are two options, according to Girard. The first is that you’ve allowed sufficient freedom and possibility for this person to mime you. If this is the case, they’ll probably say something like:
“Oh, of course- I mean, their success is all I care about. I know it’s hard to write in a new language- talk to my high school French teacher! Ha ha… (insert other corny joke here)”.
*This is USUALLY what happens. It’s kind of crazy.
The second is that the person will try and rival with you. That might look something like this:
“Yeah, I don’t think you can even call what these kids are ‘bilingual’, I mean, they’re Spanish is as broken as their English. Nobody’s ever read to them. They’re set up to fail.”
THIS IS A TRAP. Girard says a rivalrous relationship requires two rivals. If you don’t rival, that person isn’t your rival, they’re an obstacle. The model-obstacle relationship is one in which the model doesn’t quit on trying to pull the other person along. So, you might say;
“I wonder what we mean when we say ‘broken’ English or Spanish? I feel like our young people are pretty great communicators! Remember when ____________shared that incredible poem for the talent show? But it sounds like you’re really worried for them. I know ________has had a lot of success with our English language learners. Why don’t we chat with her and see what’s working?”
I know this feels like we’re going super soft on someone who deserves punishment. I get that, which is why I recommend we White folks decide what we want out of a conversation before we go into it and then feel disappointed. If you’re out for blood with someone who might deserve it, these aren’t the right strategies for that moment. And I’m not even saying there isn’t room for retribution.
In Justice theory, we sometimes refer to three types of justice: retributive, distributive and restorative. All three are very real, and in human communities since the beginning of the idea of community, most groups have incorporated combinations of all three. They work something like this:
Retributive Justice: Eye for an eye.
Distributive Justice: Pay me.
Restorative Justice: Fix it.
Being a mimetic model as a White person for other White people in this framework is a kind of restorative justice. You’re trying to give the other person the opportunity to fix themselves by showing them a new way.
I think there is something missing in how we address the constant, ever-present White violence we encounter in our world. When I think, for example, about the recent Starbucks incident, and I know that the White woman who called the cops was likely going to be fired if she hadn’t quit, (retributive) and that Starbucks will likely pay the victims for the crime committed against them (distributive), it still feels like there’s something missing. The police commissioner apologized, and Starbucks apologized. But something STILL feels missing- unresolved.
How does this White woman who called the cops, the actual perpetrator of the crime, make it right with the men she harmed? Is that even possible? I think this is the question that restorative justice asks us, and part of being a model in mimetic relationships with other White folks might involve sharing how we’ve engaged in deep listening to the people we’ve harmed, and sharing how we’ve asked those people how we could make it right with them. Truly asked them what their needs are.
This is imperfect, I realize. There’s so much wrong with the world when everyone is miming Trump. But like Derald Wing Sue says, real anti-racism happens in the small moments, the day to day ways we encounter, disrupt and correct the protocols that uphold White supremacy in our world.
Acting as a model and not a rival to other White folks is a strategy worth trying.