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INFINITE BECKITUDE

I am Becky. Becky c'est moi. 

There is no way to un-Becky myself. 

I can't pile up my traumas and marginalized identities on one side of the scales and put my Beckitude on the other side and un-Becky myself that way. No matter how much energy I spend calling out other Beckys, declaring them problematic, shaming them, I don't get an inch away from being the Becky that I am. If I tell people that Get Out was my favorite movie of the year, I'm still Becky. If I'm quoting KimberlĂ© Crenshaw and Facebook sharing Kiese Laymon and visibly reading Citizen in public (gimme cookies!), this does nothing to un-Becky myself. No matter how many hours I spend canvassing for Black women running for school board and state rep and on in my district, I do not even begin to pay off the balance of my Beckitude. Who claps the loudest at the Roxane Gay reading? Come on, you know Becky is on it. To the contrary, the more I curate public displays of wokeness, the more I reinforce the Beckitude, because being Becky means obsessing over being good, and being good means looking good in public, in my imagined version of what other people think about me. Beckitude is a void principle. It can swallow, invert, or grow within and split the husk of anything I do, even if it's good and, fuck, especially if I mean well. 

#YesAllBeckys

I say this because I've been thinking about a moment recently, a moment in which I did some very subtly Becky shit. A few weeks ago, I was invited to read at the Chautauqua Institution as one of the writers included in Challenges to the Dream, an anthology of winning entries from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards. The contest is run by my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon, and open to Pittsburgh-area high school and college students, and it's been around for almost 20 years. And I appreciate its existence, because CMU made it clear that writing about race is a moral obligation, and the concept of "race" does not belong to people of color while whiteness is a removed, neutral default. And that we can do something fruitful for each other when we hold space for a kind of uncertainty in poems and essays about race. 

Chautauqua, if you've never heard of it, is sort of a physical embodiment of what Jess Row calls "white dreamtime." It started as a summer camp for Sunday school teachers, flourished as an unaccredited but nevertheless rigorous public education program which mostly benefitted wealthy white women in the time before higher ed opportunities were available to them. And it continues, more or less, as a place where wealthy white people can soak in the atmosphere of humanitarian learning across many disciplines, attending lectures and watching ballet and discoursing on truth & beauty. And goodness. (White goodness, implied but not voiced.) It is a locus of Beckitude (although properly speaking, it usually serves Becky's parents). There is an almost foundational sense in institutions like this that there is such a thing as white goodness, and that such a thing could exist in this world. That's how I understand the "dream" part of "white dreamtime," anyway. And Chautauqua is it. (P.S. we can sub "supremacy" for "dreamtime." They are the same.) 

Anyway. I was jumping out of my skin the whole time I was there. All around me, blithe white people riding bikes by the lake, having conversations at that slightly performative volume so others can know that they know about, I don't know, Candide or whatever. My mind was spinning out the whole time. I was going around with my mental clipboard, issuing demerits for clueless whiteness left and right. I succumbed to the delusion that I can un-Becky myself if I put distance between myself and this big glittering playland of white dreamtime. I was a fucking mess. I was up to my neck in shame and trying to thrash and flail away from it, because it is also a truth of Beckitude that I didn't ask for it, and because I didn't ask for it, I sometimes get caught up in the errorful idea that I can undo it, unfeel it, hide.

Also, it's worth saying that I was there at least partially by the invitation of one of my very dearest and most beloved friends, who has taken on directorship of the literary programming there, and who is standing in this difficult position, driving open a space for writers and work that shows white dreamtime what's happening in the unsleeping world. And I was being kind of an asshole about the difficulties of this place, sniping away incessantly. But like, THEY KNOW ALL THIS. And I was acting out my supremely self-centered Becky psychodrama instead of being present with my friend and supporting them the way I could have. Because guess what? People in deep white dreamtime are not fucking happy about it when you try to wake them up. 

There's another layer to this instance of Beckitude I wish to unpack, and this is the subtlest of all. I didn't even register it until I was driving home, and it's been chiming around since then. After the reading, when we took questions from the crowd, one older white man asked something I'll paraphrase as "How do I begin to talk about whiteness without offending anybody?" I'm pretty sure he was directing this question at me because the speaker in my poem invokes dog whistle phrases and subjects of racial stress. My answer was something along the lines of: "Conversations, even well-meaning ones, can do violence to people of color, so it's important to consider educating myself as a white person my first obligation. And this means other things beyond reading books. It means noticing who is in the space you're in, who is not, who is comfortable around you, who are you comfortable around, who is in the grocery store? Who is in the newspaper? Where do the bus lines go in your home? Where do they not go? And it also means cultivating the capacity to listen more than we speak." 

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I said all of that, and I think as extemporaneous public speaking goes, it was a pretty decent answer. But I did leave something out, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. I should have said: "It's hard. It's humbling. It requires fucking up and bearing awareness through the discomforts of fucking up. And I'm in it with you." I should have said: "I don't know how to dismantle white supremacy without causing more harm, but I know that ignoring it is infinitely more harmful." I should have said: "Shame is the enemy, and purity is the enemy, and the idea of 'getting it right' is the enemy."

Or I might have shared some of my own sources of shame. If I were really, really brave, I would have done this. Maybe I would have said that I've noticed within myself a kind of hypervigilance in public places around people of color. I've noticed a microscopic internal flinch, sometimes, when I'm sharing public space with a Black man, and then a manipulative, overly friendly ("friendly") engagement that I imagine might cover that. And then a wave of shame, because I don't want to be this way. And a wave of shame because this flinch, I think, cannot be so different from the thing that pulls the trigger when a white cop reads a dangerous situation where there is just a teenage boy running away. I'm not trying to be dramatic here, but I know these things are related. I see it in myself, and sometimes the best thing I can do is witness it and hope that everyone around me is safer when I am able to be awake to it at least. 

But I chose to answer this question differently. Ever so subtly, my answer adopted the tone of a scold: I know this, and you don't, and you should. Shame on you, Becky. I'm not like you. I know better.

Well, fuck that. I am Becky, and Becky-shaming is possibly the most canonical Becky-type shit. 

& there is no end to this essay.

***indebted to the work of Rachel Ricketts’ course Spiritual Activism 101***

Sarah Smith