"I like to look at the positives," a friend once told me while glancing over her coffee with a Cheshire grin. "I see the good in almost everything, " she continued, "I believe the world is so full of good. I think if we work hard and keep a good attitude we can accomplish pretty much anything." I left that coffee date and turned on Kellis and scream/sang "I hate you so much right now!" You need Kellis in your life because Kellis knows how to through a good fit. I also vowed that I needed to stop accepting coffee dates with white ladies who wanted to tell me about how beautiful their world is. Oh to be the person who believes that if you work hard you will prosper, and to have the evidence to back that up. Oh to be a nice white lady! I left that coffee date with the nice white lady feeling a little gas-lighted. Was I just being "too negative"? What was the line between seeing the world as it is versus how I hope it to be? It took a moment to shake off her accusations that I was just cranky and jaded. The facts show a different story. The facts show that Black people and other people of color have a bias applied to them as early as age three. The facts show that a majority of white folks report that America doesn't have a race issue while a majority of Black folks report having a threatening experience based on their race on a regular basis. White folks experience immunity from oppression from birth, even the poorest of white folks, and so developing a sense of optimism is pretty reasonable. Of course a person whose work is counted as valued will feel that they can "keep a good attitude" and "accomplish pretty much anything."
Can you imagine if a Black person was "optimistic" with a police officer? Oh. This is just a routine traffic stop. If I act calm, be myself, and abide by the law... I'll be fine. Black folks aren't afforded the privilege of blind optimism because we live in a very different world than our peers. Black mothers have to mother much differently than their white peers. Mothers of children of color welcome their children home from school who've had much different experiences than their peers. Blind optimism could cost us our lives, and so we carry a much different emotional posture through the world.
So how do you know if your optimism is covert privilege being exercised? First it is critical to understand that there is a difference between healthy optimism and ignore-reality-rose-colored-glasses optimism. Blind optimism is not only a symptom of privilege. Blind optimism is also a coping mechanism of white fragility. This coping mechanism is a way in which white folks are literally so unable to cope with a world that might, say, kill a Black person for just being Black. To avoid facing a real world in which they've benefited from white supremacy, blindly optimistic white folks see only the good in the world. They think that the mico-aggression was just a moment of poor judgment and not a result of deeply pathological white supremacy. They think you might just be jaded or pessimistic and that could be why life is so hard for you. Exercising optimism this way is victim blaming. If you are an
ally co-conpirator you need to check yourself when you feel the urge to be optimistic.
Your optimism is actually privilege/fragility in disguise if:
- You find yourself telling people to be optimistic in the face of tragedy (especially recent tragedy)
- Your calls to be optimistic require harmed person to deny their lived experiences in favor of your viewpoint
- You are using optimism as a way of shutting down the emotional experience of another
- You point out reasons to be optimistic but those reason aren't accessible to everyone
- example: Telling a trans woman "just keep showing up to work and do your work and you'll totally get a raise" is harmful because the reality is that trans women are the most harmed population in the workplace and do not have the same opportunities as others
So let's be optimistic that the Pollyanna optimists among us will start doing their work. We DO need a world filled with hope for the future, but that can't happen until we make peace with the changes we need in the present. Know that you have a right to your experience. Know that you have a right to express your grief and suffering. Know that you have a right to not be optimistic about a world that continues to roll full steam ahead into harming people.