When I think about the ways I was trained into whiteness, perfectionism has been a pretty big one. What I mean is that in the mostly-white communities I grew up in and saw on TV, perfectionism was such a normalized way of being in the world that I’ve often struggled to even recognize it when I see it. Over the past number of years I’ve started to be able to identify some of the many sneaky manifestations of perfectionism: in particular, emphasis on product over process (if it looks good from the outside at the end, it doesn’t matter what happened along the way to get there), and endless anxiety, time, and resources going into something, long beyond the point of meaningfully making it better and entering the realm of obsessing about how it will appear.
Perfectionism is a value based on white, upper class, Christian norms. Since those are my people, I’m at a particularly high risk for it, but because those are the dominant norms of the society we live in, folks of color and white working class people are also often sucked into and rewarded for perfectionism. Hegemony, right? The process where ruling class values–values that both reflect the norms and serve the interests of the ruling class–becoming “common sense” to most everyone.
The thing about perfectionism is that it’s almost impossible to untangle it from ego and individualism. When I think about the times that I’ve been my most perfectionist self, it’s almost always about creating or maintaining some aspect of my image or what other people will think about me. School definitely encouraged me to be a perfectionist, because almost everything I did centered around how my individual performance would be assessed: I was pretty rarely contributing to something bigger than myself, and the focus was perpetually on my grades, college prospects, career, whatever. Often in classes, workshops, or meetings, I notice my own perfectionism in terms of offering ideas or making comments: especially in contexts where I feel shy or like I have something to prove, I’ll hold back until I feel like I have a wildly brilliant comment to make, or a perfectly-crafted idea to offer. That’s about ego because I don’t want to be associated with an idea that feels less than perfect, and it’s about individualism because I’m acting like no one else will be able to build on my incomplete/flawed idea to create something better, something that will advance the work we’re trying to do together.
There are, obviously, a lot of big problems with perfectionism. One of them is that it’s pretty merciless to live with. It doesn’t help me have a lot of love for myself, or a lot of compassion for other people, or a lot of patience or curiosity or imagination. One of the main reasons I decided to do the Braden program is that I was starting to recognize how perfectionism was getting in my way and keeping me from taking risks politically: too often I saw myself identifying a need or having an idea and not acting on it because of my fears of making a mistake. I started recognizing that for many white people, the obsession with “getting it right” keeps us from taking (caring, intentional, well-thought out, but always imperfect) steps to combat white supremacy.
I think that I envisioned that I’d get past some of my perfectionism by building my own confidence and self-worth: it’s easier to make mistakes and be okay with it if I know, in a deep way, that my mistakes aren’t all that I am. And I definitely feel like the Braden program has helped my self-worth, and that’s serious business. But actually I think it’s been understanding the kind of political moment we’re in that’s helped me shift some of my perfectionism, more than anything.
One of the amazing gifts of the Braden program has been getting to learn from some of my elders–now in their 60s, 70s, or 80s–who have been in Left, anti-racist movements for their whole lives. There’s one theme that many folks have spoken to, that Max Elbaum summed up really helpfully. Very early in the Braden program he spoke with our group, and he drove home something that’s pretty obvious: the anti-racist Left is not winning right now, and we are not on the offensive. This is not a revolutionary moment, like it was in the 1860s or the 1960s. Because of that, the question to ask is: how do we advance into another stage, where our movements are better positioned to make gains, to be on the offensive to build what we actually want to see? He went on to explain that in a moment like this one, it’s very common that we have to make decisions in isolation, choosing among bad options. He emphasized that this won’t always be true: in moments where our numbers are bigger and our momentum has picked up, the process of making decisions (about what kind of work to do, when to compromise, who to work with, etc.) is qualitatively different than when we’re in retreat like we are now. We can’t belabor or beat ourselves up too much for the kinds of decisions we need to make in this particular moment. We need to be ready to experiment, and have the humility to let our experiments fall flat sometimes, if we hope to cycle into a more promising historical moment.
Letting this lesson slowly seep in has started to be an antidote to perfectionism, for me. The question that cycles through my mind is less often “What is the right thing to do?” and more often “What could I/we do that might help us move into another stage with more potential?” And then I feel my emotions shift from the tight rigidity and fear that come with perfectionism into feeling like I’m this one tiny, important part of something bigger–a fish in a school, or a cell in an organism–and my role is to help that bigger thing move, even if I don’t look that impressive doing it. It helps me understand that the crises we’re facing are too urgent for me to mess around with perfectionism, and that I should probably just start to try more boldly and more creatively.
As usual, Tema Okun’s piece “White Supremacy Culture” is really useful in working through this stuff.