I left my hometown of Chicago for perfection. No, actually I should say, I left my hometown (is it perfect yet?) for perfectionism (the religious kind). Dad’s. Afterall, what better time to go to California, it was the Sixties Cultural Revolution, and freedom from dad’s perfectionism felt like a trashing of all the conventional norms in pursuit of myself; I guess you could say, the pressure and coercion was off my neck and shoulders. Real freedom came with being a “free bird” by an emotional cut-off from dad’s perfectionism with me as his target.
Recently, I’ve been thinking of the dance that White Privilege (WP) and Perfectionism seem to do, then how we get hung up and stuck in it. There are no experts who know the steps. I think the correlation between these two elements fits nicely into the framework of WP and Perfectionism. There are many of the same causal factors and succeeding results in relation to WP and Perfectionism.
When the letters “ism” are added to a word, there’s an implicit sense of something operating badly, out-of-sync, or unhealthily, and producing unhealthy outcomes. More in line with reality, it’s basically a neutral trait; if I’m training as a professional athlete, I set certain standards for work-outs, nutrition needs, rest, or I may set training goals in sequence, such as, “I expect to be able to do all my training exercises consecutively, at a certain rate of speed & time, by May, 2017.” Or it may be a broader, more over-arching goal such as, “I expect to compete in the next Olympics or Special Olympics.”
Often the difference in whether goals come from external stimuli, or internal catalysts is a key to whether something is seen as a driving the need for perfection; external motivators may be viewed as manifesting in anxiety. If these stimuli are coming from both people in authoritative roles like coaches, and those we usually highly value their judgments about us, such as parents, friends, and other relatives, they’re more impactful on us.
It will probably be a far more effective action to work towards internalizing-motivation-to-achieve-certain-goals we desire, rather than relying on external stimuli.
Unrealistic expectations and our array of “need for perfections” are often more the kinds of behaviors that “we beat ourselves up for.” If our expectations are “highly valued” (meaning “I have to get a perfect score to be a success in life” or “If I miss just one answer, I’ll know that I’m a failure”) then my life might be less stressful.
Unrealistic goals or expectations, as well, set us up for failure repeatedly again and again; perhaps the biggest unhealthy consequence is negative and highly-critical self-talk and self-judgment; in this vicious circle dynamic, self-judgment channels into behaviors-then, if we shift moods to despairing or discouraged, then the tributary runs into more negative and hyper-critical self-talk-judgments, etc. magnifying more behaviors.
There may be culturally-assimilated values, and for many whites this is first and foremost a “performance-orientation” towards life; Capitalism intersects here by the performance-orientation with the competitive-nature of our American culture-perform more, excel in your field, burn the competition, do it right, goddammit! work harder and smarter, downsize so eventually you can rise-up; look, we’re competing in a Global Market. Nothing’s the same except you have to perform it well and get it done right!
From my experience in life (an Anthropological one), and working with myself and other folks about what racial healing and justice can look like, one of the myths I’ve observed clusters among whites who think, feel and act as if they’ve got to be over-achievers for the good of others. We whites, especially white males, have got to set the pace, the lead, and the role-modeling. We’re the “instrumental” and action-oriented gender, so that’s our role!
Another way to look at how society manifests our white need for perfection is the White Is Right philosophy; we’ve conditioned and embedded into our culture the “truth” that whiteness is the norm for culture, beauty, art, ethics, government, social institutions, and just about any other dimension you can think of.
From this place of understanding flows the idea that there are many people (generally persons-of-color) who need our help and assistance to learn the “how-to’s,” of life, or to learn the system, etc.
There are situations in life that demand “fixing.” We whites have been self-designated as the real “fixers” of humanity’s problems and deficiencies. After all, we fled religious persecution and we made ourselves the “emperors in the same old clothes, didn’t we?” No, no, we’re no pansy-asses! We did that because we’re good at what we do-like genocide, slavery, declaring Africans as sub-human, use of oppression and “divide and conquer” tactics to keep all the non-whites in check, to keep us (whites) up and them (the ones we’re oppressing) down, so we can keep enriching ourselves in our WP system.
In so many words, whites are set up to be the “perfect” people, right? We may even intellectually and academically recognize what perfection entails, but in terms of our worldview, often we get demanding of it for ourselves and others.
European, White, Western civilization has been caught in the bear trap of scientific thinking and measurement. None of these are somehow “bad” by themselves. Whites, as a general rule (there are of course exceptions), let’s call it our European-American cultural-thinking mode, is a literalistic one, a linear one. If I’m a perfectionist, I usually see a process as a series of events, unrelated to one another, “This, That, next after That, next after This and That, etc.”
Many indigenous cultures use a more organic, moveable, constantly changing, natural and cyclical way of looking at life; the non-linear mind allows a very creative and intuitive way to perceive the surrounding, empirical environment. Instead of employing a systemic schedule, for instance, of planting and harvesting crops, Indigenous culture observes the seasons, habits of animal and other life-forms in the ecosphere, and look for other signs from Mama Earth and Daddy Sky.
In so many unique ways our life-perceptions line-up to a general difference (and not one based on a duality scale) between them. This isn’t to suggest that combinations or hybrids forms may not evolve into other life configurations.
One day, while going to grade school, someone, a teacher or some other official school authority, announced to our school that a certain, male student had hung himself at home. A somber pall and shock settled like dull, electrified dust particles over our whole community. Later, we found out that the student had written a “suicide note.” In the note, he said that one of the reasons he wanted to kill himself was due to the fact that his grades in school were low, and nothing he tried seemed to bring them up. His choice in what was an unsolvable dilemma was to take his own life.
I have some vague memories about how I felt about his death in my own young mind; I found myself taking on the stress, anxiety and sadness that would lead a person, my age, feeling such despair as to take his own life. I also had to group some of my own feelings in this other boys’s ante. Could suicide happen to me, if it could happen to anyone? If it could happen to him?
It seems probable to me that parental demands for perfection may have sent this young boy over the edge-and so it relates to our culturally-wide stigma of imperfection. We unconsciously think to ourselves, ‘if we don’t do it, who will?’ We think that all brands of perfection motivate us to set high standards for ourselves; the problem here, appears to be when others set the standards, and when we feel there’s no way we can meet them. There are no clear alternatives seen, and so discouragement and demoralization get a foot hold in our heads.
Putting this all in the framework of WP, it definitely seems as though privilege reinforces perfection, and perfection reinforces privilege, an endless, almost mindless, cycles. In our journey in anti-racism, we can see that now there are two factors on which to focus.
Is there anyway out of this “stuckness?”
Of course there is, but it will take hard work and determination to unlearn perfectionism as it relates to WP! Learning our own kind of imperfection may help us.
Copyright: Christopher Bear-Beam December 15, 2017 (STAY TUNED FOR PART II)