Becky? Who, ME?

Catherine Wilson on Apr 07, 2019

I am a therapist, and a white woman. I’ve always considered and thought of myself as against racism, and absolutely not a racist. I was secure in that, and therapists are supposed to have a handle on things like this, you know. We are supposed to be non-judgmental, we are supposed to be self-aware, and we are supposed to be accepting of all.

However, about a year ago, after noticing an interesting Facebook post, I experienced a harsh dose of reality.

The post was about a person’s recent encounter with a “Becky.” If you are white, you might say, “What’s a Becky?” I said the same thing, so I went to my usual source for definitions of what I suspected was slang – my kids.

According to my daughter, a Becky is, “a white woman who has no idea she is a racist.” As we explored this topic, a commenter on the Facebook post dropped in a link to an article titled The 5 Types of ‘Becky’ by Michael Harriot.

With a fair amount of contempt, because of course I am not a racist so I cannot be a Becky, I proceeded to read Michael Harriot’s article. He states early on, “Not all white women are Beckys, but all Beckys are white women.” That’s right, Michael, thank you, I thought, because I am not a Becky.

Right here is when it got uncomfortable. I read the article. To my horror, I saw at least a little of myself in every damn Becky he wrote about. That couldn’t be right, so I went back to Michael’s line, “Not all white women are Beckys, but all Beckys are white women.” I have to say though, at that moment, it felt like that might not be true.

For a few weeks, I tried very hard to convince myself I am not really a Becky. I called up memories to prove it.

The most significant of these memories was when I was about 11 years old. I was already aware of and against racism in any form, at least as much as an eleven-year-old can be. But then there was that day that my father told me that if I ever “brought a black boy home,” he would disown me. And he was dead serious.

I made up my mind right then, and forever after, that this was so Wrong. That moment has fueled a strong aversion to racism in any form throughout my life. I’ve asked people “not to talk like that” when racist talk made me uncomfortable. But I didn’t do that every time because I was too scared of the reaction I might get. I mean, just by asking my father, “Really?” in response to what he said about disowning me made him angry. Who knows what someone else might do or say? Yep. A Becky.

In graduate school, I learned about biases and I worked hard to stay aware of my biases and counteract them. I took the diversity and cultural awareness material very seriously because showing how un-racist I am has always been very important. It has been an important part of my identity for a long time. I was proud of this.

And yet, many years later, now I can see how white privilege, biases, and white fragility have influenced my behavior and my thinking in shameful ways. For example:

  • I used to say I didn’t “see color.” I treated everyone the same. This was naïve, of course. No human can actually do that! I was only soothing that inner fragility.
  • I used to get offended when people talked about white privilege, and I didn’t like the guilt, or shame, that came up. To feel better, I would remember all the reasons I am not racist. (Kinda sounds like how I responded to Michael Harriot’s article, doesn’t it?)
  • I have argued that women have had it just as bad or maybe even worse than minorities – and by saying this I diluted and diverted the conversation away from what made me uncomfortable. Although I thought this allied me with people of color, it only demonstrated how uncomfortable I was.
  • I couldn’t tolerate the hopeless feeling when you realize you can’t escape being descended from people who behaved in deplorable ways, and that today you are associated with people who behave in deplorable ways. And in that state of being, I didn’t even realize I was a poster child for white fragility.

This has sparked an identity crisis of sorts for me. I have been presented with evidence that I am racist. Me! This goes against a part of myself that is one of the strongest convictions and values I hold. It is also, perhaps, an identity change. I now have had to accept that I have been influenced by white privilege, biases, and white fragility, and also that I have exhibited racist behavior.

What does a person DO with this?

Over the past year, I have opened my eyes and tried to understand as much as I can about subtle forms of racism. I never have and never will want to cause anyone harm.

The phrase “not all white women are Beckys” goes through my head a lot, and it makes me want to resist my responsibility here. And yet, the responsibility exists.

I feel this responsibility as a white woman, as a therapist, and also as a member of a culture that continues to allow white people to keep being racist, and to benefit from privilege.

For real change to happen, all white people are responsible for:

  • Educating yourself
  • Speaking up
  • Knowing your biases
  • Listening to feedback from people of color
  • Raising awareness
  • Acknowledging privilege
  • Facing fragility
  • Refusing to tolerate racism in any form

Best intentions are not good enough. Being aware of the problem is not enough. It’s time to step it up, Becky.

As a white woman, I have underestimated the power of the biases I carry, and my white privilege. It can be very subtle, and this makes it very easy for me and other white people to underestimate. Or deny! It gets uncomfortable to think that I am part of such a destructive problem. My perception of what being anti-racist entails has changed dramatically. If you are white, maybe thinking about this has become uncomfortable for you as well, and if that is you, I hope this sparks a change in you as it did for me.

As a therapist, this issue is very poignant for me. The cultural awareness and diversity coursework I had in graduate school was woefully inadequate and I think this is more the norm than otherwise. I think, as therapists, we must strive to fully understand these issues in ourselves and in others. I firmly believe that if a therapist doesn’t, the possibility of causing harm to another person becomes too great.

How does one learn about this, though? For one thing, there are several anti-racism programs out there. April Harter’s program is growing in popularity and you can find several articles and other resources of hers that will give you a sense of the important work she is doing. Following her work and reflecting deeply on the ideas she presents has been tremendously important in my own personal growth in this area over the past year.

You can also learn quite a bit if you truly shut up and listen to what people of color are trying to get us to understand and notice.

Until white people acknowledge that none of us can escape our color (i.e. privilege) any more than a person of color can escape theirs (i.e. oppression), and acknowledge that whether we want it or not, we are in these roles…then nothing changes.

You have to see the problem before you can solve the problem.

White people must also realize that racism isn’t just when there is openly and obviously hateful behavior towards people of color. Unfortunately, that still exists in our society, but you can still be racist, even if you aren’t mean about it. The most prevalent forms of racism in today’s American society sneak around in subtle ways, and white people are the ones that need to change. This goes right back to those responsibilities I listed above.

I hope that the more people begin to actually see what is happening, awareness grows, and change happens. For me, sometimes it still feels impossible to escape being a Becky, but I’m going to try. I know my own work needs to continue for the rest of my life. I will act on my responsibilities, and sincerely hope that Michael is right.

Catherine Wilson, LPC, is a counselor and director of a group mental health practice called LifePaths Counseling Center in Littleton, Colorado. She and her colleagues help people deal with mental health issues such as addictions, relationship problems, life transitions, and trauma.

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