I was unfamiliar with Rachel Ricketts before I picked up her book Do Better: Spiritual Activism for Fighting and Healing White Supremacy. I moved the book up on my TBR shelf because I so appreciated the title’s allusion to the Maya Angelou quote: “Do the best that you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Along with the Pirkei Avot wisdom “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither may you desist from it,” this pithy offering from Angelou has been a guiding principle of my racial justice journey.
When I started reading, I was immediately taken by her conversational/vernacular writing style and her full honesty. Though I have to admit it took me a little while to acclimate to her alternate spelling of humanity/human, humxnity/humxn. The replacement of the a with an x removes the word ‘man’ “to specifically connote humxns and humxnity inclusive of all genders.” Twenty years ago, I experimented with writing ‘women’ as ‘womyn’ for similar (though not admittedly not as broad) reasons, but now, I found it a distraction as I read. At least at first.
It seems clear to me, my initial resistance to her alternate spelling speaks more to my stodginess than to her choices. And Ricketts rightly reminded me that her project and her voice are not written for my comfort, when, in the introduction, she let me know that as a white woman, this book was written to but not for me. I deeply appreciate that framing.
Additionally, this book was finished and published during the pandemic. Ricketts comments on the current state of affairs, including the murder of George Floyd and the disproportionate effect the crisis has had on Black and Indigenous communities. I didn’t realize how deeply that was missing – at least in a physical book of paper and board – until I was reading this one. For me, at least, there is something significant and meaningful about the contemporaneous commentary.
Overall, Do Better, to me, reads like a combination of Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race and Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy. It reminds me of the Oluo insofar as the author’s personality and heart really shine through the prose, and it reminds me of the Saad because each chapter has a series of prompts for journaling and/or reflection.
Some of the reflection prompts are similar to Saad’s deep cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul) while others are profoundly different. Notably, Ricketts’ invitations tend to be more fully embodied than are Saad’s. Where Saad has her readers think, reflect, and write, Ricketts invites them to think, reflect, write, dance, and meditate. She also suggests bigger actions for folks to take (e.g. “address harm when it arises, whether it originated from you or not.” and “divest your money and support from brands, celebrities, and influencers who do not actively support racial justice and anti-oppression and support Black and Indigenous folx and brands.”
In one post-chapter activity, Ricketts invites the reader to participate in an “ancestral meditation” (p111+) For me, this exercise was interesting and challenging. I often focus only on my maternal grandmother’s line when I think about my ancestors. This Jewish family is the one I know the most about among my four grandparent branches. Ricketts invites the reader to “bring your ancestors to your mind’s eye. Ask them to come forth and present themselves to you.” (111) I tried to do this with all of the four grandparent branches, not just the one I usually think of. It was a fascinating experience to imagine the white folks from the hills of Kentucky in the presence of this urban, Jewish descendant of theirs.
(Interestingly, while I was reading Do Better and not long after I practiced the ancestor meditation, I studied a text attributed to Rabbi Yonah of Gerondi (d. 13th century Spain) from The Gates of Spiritual Service: “The first opening [for spiritual growth] is that a person knows their own worth and recognizes their strengths and the strengths of their ancestors, including their greatness and significance to the Blessed Creator. One should always make an effort to strengthen their ability to behave according to this attribute. If a person doesn’t recognize their significance and the significance of their ancestors, it will be easier for them to walk in a path of those who follow their base desires…”)
Many chapters of Do Better hit home and resonated deeply with me, and some just didn’t relate to my experience. For instance, Ricketts spends more than a chapter talking about what she calls the “wealth and hellness” industry. Though I occasionally practice yoga, I’m otherwise not a big consumer of health and wellness materials, and so when in the reflection section of that chapter Ricketts asks her reader “Who are the biggest names in health and wellness right now?” I didn’t have an answer. I genuinely don’t know.
When Ricketts suggested I “pop over to the instagram or web page of your favorite wellness brands and leaders” and asked about that person’s race and ethnicity and what they’re doing to promote racial justice, I landed on Jessamyn Stanley’s Insta. Stanley is the only such person I follow and she is a fat-bodied cis-gender Black woman. Stanley is a successful and influential yoga instructor, but she isn’t the yoga instructor Ricketts was imagining when she suggested the prompt. Nevertheless, Ricketts’ point about the appropriative nature of some health and wellness offerings is well taken. Whether my occasional yoga or my (more) frequent meditation practice, I rarely, if ever, have heard or participated in an acknowledgement of the communities and cultures from which the practice originated. That is an omission I will seek to remedy.
Throughout the book, instead of (sometimes in addition to) defining a term in line the first time she uses it, Ricketts uses an asterisk to indicate that word is in the glossary at the end of the text. This is a useful convention, because it aggregates all of the terms in a single spot in the text. At the same time, I found that I sometimes didn’t bother to look up her definition because I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of reading, even on terms that were new or new-ish to me.
One of the terms that Ricketts coins is defined both in the text and in the glossary. H.A.R.M., stands for Heartbreaking Acts of RacisM. H.A.R.M. refers to the behavior often called “microaggressions.” Ricketts’ new term is intended to better reflect the real harm that such actions cause. Ricketts also adopts “White Wildness” in place of “White Fragility.” I see and accept the ways in which “fragility” does not sufficiently convey the damage the patterns of behavior and abuse it describes. I, personally, find “wildness” similarly insufficient, since wildness and wilderness can connote something natural and free.
When I wrote about White Fragility in the past I noted how similar it seems to DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Oppressor), the pattern of behavior that abusers often display when confronted with abuse they perpetrated. I would like to suggest we use White DARVO to describe the patterns of behavior whose consequences are anything but fragile.
This is a remarkable book, and an important addition to the field, and I’m excited to see what comes next from Rachel Ricketts.