Erin Monahan

How I am Working on Shifting Out of My Punitive Mindset

Erin Monahan
How I am Working on Shifting Out of My Punitive Mindset

Being a finger-wagging White is dangerous as all hell because it usually comes from a reckless place of standing staunchly in the commitment to Whiteness.

I would know because I am a finger-wagging White. This finger-wagging comes from a place that lacks self-awareness, and a desperate avoidance of one’s own accountability of causing harm. In my experience of calling other White people out for their “bad” and “politically incorrect” behavior, I have usually caused more harm and further alienated myself from my community. Which is exactly how the well-oiled machine of supremacy functions. It thrives on the desire to set oneself a part, to position oneself as “better than,” and it keeps us in isolation of one another. Often in this conscious act of isolation, we also infuse a distaste for our own people – other White people. It’s a bizarre and contradictory phenomenon, but it is one that I struggle and fight against every single day: The desire to prove that I am the “good” White to other White people, as well as to non-White people.

            Whiteness that goes completely unchecked causes harm. The elite and righteous feeling that bubbles up when I witness another White person mess up for being politically incorrect, or commit a grammar crime by not capitalizing, “Black,” or “Indigenous” in their social media posts, is a terrifyingly overwhelming sense of superiority. It’s feeling like, “Tag you’re it! I got you, punk!” In reality it’s like, “Hey, I’m desperately trying to obtain my ‘Good White Wokeness’ badge and you, my politically-incorrect White cousin, are collateral in my mission.”

            This tendency to reprimand goes deep. It’s not just an innocent attempt to point out someone else’s mess-up. It’s a dangerous incapacity to resist a punitive punishment-based mindset. It’s walking around in anticipation of blaming someone outside yourself. It’s feeling emboldened as if you are the chosen one to show this person the error of their ways. Of course as White people we need to hold each other accountable, but there is a blurry space between holding ourselves accountable, and embodying the very systems we say we are committed to tearing down. Instead of tearing the systems down we find ourselves slipping into collusion with them. It’s too easy because it’s our default. We turn on each other, and in that way we are only tearing ourselves down.

            Isolationism, binary thinking, a sense of urgency, and perfectionism are at the heart of this impulse to “tsk tsk” each other. We have built our lives around following the rules and getting pissed when somebody doesn’t. I remember feeling irate when something wasn’t “fair” growing up. Sure, I’m a Libra and had an obsessive desire to seek justice and fairness -- but according to my definition of those things. Mix that with growing up conditioned to think of myself as “White” and you have someone who thinks they know what is best and fair for everyone, and even the neighbors need to listen. I felt powerful when I tattled on my siblings to my parents. I knew there was something icky about that feeling of satisfaction I got, but I repressed this feeling. I never thought twice about it until now. Tattling followed up by a punishment was my idea of justice, and it makes sense because this is how our society is set up: punitively.

            At the airport you’ll see signs that say “If you see something, say something.” This is also the motto of the Department of Homeland Security. Their website reads:

            It's easy to overlook these routine moments, but as you’re going about your day if you see something that doesn't seem quite right, say something. By being alert and reporting suspicious activity to your local law enforcement you can protect your family, neighbors, and             community.

            "If You See Something, Say Something®" engages the public in protecting our homeland through awareness-building, partnerships, and other outreach.

Who are they asking to “be alert”? And who gets to decide what’s “suspicious activity”? We know from Permit Patty and BBQ Becky that White women are the leading enforcers always on alert, and ready to call the cops when they see “suspicious” activity. We know that people who look like me, BBQ Becky, and Permit Patty are the ones who the cops will believe when they express their suspicions. We see implicit bias embedded in our punitive systems of law enforcement through the never-ending bombardment of videos going viral of police officers pulling over innocent and unarmed Black people who seem “suspicious.” This “suspicious activity” refers to anyone who isn’t White. As individuals we are asked to take up the task of being law enforcers. We are encouraged to report and press charges, often as a knee-jerk reaction to our own racist perceptions and fears.

            Neal Brennan, a comedian, discusses White people’s love of lambasting others in a skit for comedy central. Brennan says, “My Black friends can relax in a way that my White friends can’t. We’re not very good at relaxing. You know why? Because I’ve figured it out. Because we’re always worrying about the rules, and who’s breaking the rules. The other thing about being White, you gotta admit it, we got tattle tale in our DNA. We got snitch in our blood, White people. I’ll be in a night club with my Black friends, it will be packed, everybody’s drinking, dancing, and laughing, having a great time, and I’m trying to fit in, ‘there must be 300 people in here right now…I wonder what the fire marshal would have to say about that?!’”

            Brennan is absolutely right. It is in our DNA. Our ancestors have pumped that bloodlust for incrimination, and that “holier than thou” attitude into us since slave patrols. Slave patrols were established to catch runaway slaves and bring them back to their masters. In an essay published in Time, “How the U.S. Got It’s Police Force,” Olivia B. Waxman writes that “policing in colonial America had been very informal, based on a for-profit, privately funded system that employed people part-time.” They were created to not only chase down runaways in the antebellum South, but also to report colonists who engaged in prostitution or gambling. “But that system wasn’t very efficient,” continues Waxman, “because the watchmen often slept and drank while on duty, and there were people who were put on watch duty as a form of punishment.”

            There are complex layers to this phenomenon of finger-wagging in social justice communities. Policing has evolved and become ingrained in White people’s habits in everyday life. The contradiction of being “on watch” as slave patrollers was that the officers were guilty of the same crimes that they were punishing people for. The same thing is happening today.

            I have seen this impulse in my own behavior. I am quick to point out the flaws in others, and even quicker to gloss over and dismiss those flaws in myself. If we are going to truly fight to work against supremacy, and adopt an equity-first mindset, we have to remember that we are all inherently valuable, even when we have fallen and are at our lowest points. Today, I was on the phone with Sally Eck, a teaching faculty member at Portland State University, and a social justice advocate and trainer based in Portland, Oregon, and she reminded me that while we do this work of holding ourselves and each other accountable we cannot get it twisted up in expendability. She said it is about a way to be accountable, and being able to let go, and forgive. At the same time, we cannot expect or demand to be forgiven by those we harm. Sometimes forgiveness is about forgiving yourself and moving on. We need to shift out of this mindset of punishment in perpetuity. Together we can create strategies for how to share space, hold each other accountable, and maintain deep respect, care, and compassion for one another.

Erin Monahan is the founder of Terra Incognita Media. She’s a writer, facilitator, and rock climber based in Portland, Oregon. Her writing focuses on detaching from the commitment to the construct of Whiteness. You can follow her on Instagram @erin.k.monahan