In the early days of the protests, when the murder of George Floyd was fresh, my instagram feed filled up with folks sharing petitions, anti-racism resources, protest photos, and statements of solidarity. Like anything on the internet, it was a mixed bag. The most useful posts were from people who said something about their own journey of recognition alongside a reading list or an infographic about white privilege. One high school classmate shared strategies for inner work: I recommend the Enneagram, she wrote, and then something like: it will help you understand what’s coming up for you as you’re learning more about racism and white supremacy.
The Enneagram, if it has by some miracle not yet reached your corners of the internet, is a model for understanding your personality type. (White Christians LOVE the Enneagram.) There are nine types, referred to by their numbers and often by a short epithet. If it were not already clear to you from, I don’t know, everything about me, I am a One: the Reformer. We like to be right about everything.
Actually, though, it’s more that Ones are afraid of being wrong. An example: as a small child, I refused to speak until I could produce full sentences. I do the same thing with every foreign language I learn. If I can’t get every preposition and suffix and verb tense exactly correct, I don’t say anything at all. I want to get it right so badly I’ll sit there puzzling out the third person singular subjunctive conjugation of saber until the conversation has long since passed me by. But it’s deeper than grammar. According to the Enneagram typing system, a One’s basic fear is of being corrupt, evil, or defective. (It is too on the nose here to make a joke about Calvinism and total depravity, I just want you to know that I know.) Because I want to get it right, and because I’m afraid of being wrong, I love rules. They tell me what I can do. They tell me how to avoid anyone being justifiably angry at me for any reason ever, or even correcting a mistake in my diction. They protect me. If I can follow the rules, and get everything right, I will be safe.
In terms of reckoning with my racial identity, this means that all my defenses are activated when folks suggest to me that I am wrong, or that I have done something wrong: the language I used, or the assumption I made, or the joke or comment I shared were harmful to someone else. I am put on edge by the suggestion—the reality—that my family history and my personal history and my resources and my lifestyle now are bound up in the systems that enslaved and oppress Black folks, indigenous communities, and other people of color. And I especially hate the idea that because I am a white person in America, socialized into a white supremacist society, I am going to be wrong and be in the wrong over and over and over again, even as I work to un-learn a lot of my harmful ideas and assumptions about race.
The very hard thing I am learning right now—about race, and about myself—is that the rules I have been living by are not very good ones. And the rules will not keep me safe.
A few years ago, when I was living by myself in a dusty Cairo apartment and feeling very alone, I wrote about a line from Marilynne Robinson: there is no safety. I think about this phrase almost every day, now. I think what I meant then was something more like things are not as clear cut as you believed. And now I’m realizing that she might mean safety literally. There is no safety from a contagious respiratory virus that has killed 150,000 Americans, and 620,000 people worldwide. There is no safety from a police force that murders Black Americans over a $20 bill. There is no safety under a government that sends secret police to illegally arrest protestors and gets away with it. There has never been safety. There has been the illusion of safety, for some of us, and there have been many stories about danger, and where it comes from, and so many of them are so very, very wrong.
My deeply held, personality-type-defining desire for a secure position on the moral high ground is bound to interfere with pursuing the kind of rightness I know is most important. I am paying attention to that, because in a world without safety, I must be very wary of what makes me feel safe. The rules are not neutral, and they are not holy. They do not make me innocent. And there is a far distance between what is right and what is safe.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.