Episode 273: White Supremacy Culture – “Perfectionism.”

What makes you feel good about yourself? I remember how much I used to dread performance evaluations. I remember so often feeling anxious, my palms would sweat, I’d feel restless, and have this sick feeling in my stomach in the hour before I’d have my yearly performance review. I hated it. It like I was always going to be evaluated based on some invisible criteria of someone who may not actually know what I did all day. There were times when negative writeups would end up in my file. I always wondered if there was an actual file. Regardless, the threat that my performance reviews would taint me was something that often kept me feeling tense at work.

But I wasn’t always the person being evaluated. Later in life I became a person who evaluated others. One of these times was when I was working as an educator. During that period I would give weekly evaluations to people who were trying to learn how to do something difficult for the very first time. It was not uncommon for people to cry or feel sick because of the stress. I remember people deciding to quit or drop out, often people who were very talented, and I would try to take those people aside and tell them what I saw in them and how it is normal to experience strong emotions and have doubts on the way to learning how to do difficult things.

The thing I was trying to convey to them is that they were not bad for being imperfect, feeling embarrassment or running out of ideas. In fact, it was quite the opposite – this is what it feels like to learn something difficult. In fact, if they stuck with it, they likely would discover novel ways to overcome the problems they were running into. I recall one of these tearful conversations once with a student who thought about dropping out of their program because they were struggling in my class. After the conversation they decided to stay in the program, passed the class, and eventually went on to earn a PhD in the same field where they now are doing cutting edge research.
Perfectionism smothers and kills so much passion in life. I have heard it said, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” and that might be the perfect way to think about the standards we so often hold ourselves to.

Our team of Christian antiracism educators and friends talk about perfectionism this week as one of the characteristics of white supremacy culture – characteristics born out of our colonial past that divide us from one another and even ourselves.