There is a difference between nice and kind.
Niceness is appeasing and complacent. Kindness is loving and generous.
Niceness, in IFS terms, can be experienced as a strong protector shielding us from vulnerability and risk by over-accommodating others. True kindness, on the other hand, connects us to our compassion and our values.
We sacrifice our integrity to play nice, to go along to get along. When we lead from niceness, we sugar coat and people please. While this may offer some relief, this posture usually creates more stress and internal dissonance.
To lead with kindness, you need the capacity to receive and navigate the responses of others. Kindness stirs up vulnerability because we do not know how we will be received, how we will be perceived, or how others will respond.
And these fears are especially common when navigating conversations and feedback around race, gender, ability, and so much more.
My guest today helps me dig deep into the intersection of niceness, whiteness, and standing against racism.
Jenny Booth Potter is a creative producer, storyteller, and co-host of The Next Question, a web series about expanding our imagination for racial justice. She has co-led racial justice trainings across the country for churches and organizations, and is a founding partner of HerSelf Media, a company that aims to create stories that empower and bring joy to Black women. Jenny’s first book, Doing Nothing is No Longer An Option:One Woman’s Journey Into Everyday Antiracism will be released October 25, 2022. Jenny and her husband make their home outside of Chicago with their two boys and one wild puppy.
Listen to the full episode to hear:
Learn more about Jenny Booth Potter:
Learn more about Rebecca:
Scroll Down for The Full Episode Transcript:
Jenny Booth Potter: I think niceness has really, really thick walls that keep us pretty small and narrow as opposed to pushing and provoking and challenging and imagining and dreaming and getting messy. If we say something mean but we say it in a nice way, somehow [Laughs] it cancels out, and so, I think choosing niceness is an invisible shield and armor that is to insulate and protect us and, ultimately, to serve and center ourselves.
[Inspirational Intro Music]
Rebecca Ching: There are many cultural idiosyncrasies that I recall fondly from growing up in Minnesota, like when the temperature hits 40 degrees, it’s declared “shorts weather,” and how high school hockey tournament season feels like a state holiday. I love how Minnesotans say “pop” instead of “soda,” and, yes, I still say “you betcha.”
Now, I also grew up with the distinct awareness that people were either nice or mean. [Chuckles] Shoot, I spent my formative years (kindergarten through twelfth grade) in the land of ten thousand lakes which is also known for its own flavor of nice called “Minnesota nice” which, in fact, is not so nice all the time. Now, I can recall how Minnesota nice can sometimes be fairly benign where, for example, you're at a grocery store and an extra cash register opens up after lines have been building, and you’d see two people volley back and forth in debate about going to the open cash register lane saying, “You go!” “Oh, no, no. You go!” “Oh, you go!” “No, seriously, you go on,” and this would go on and on until someone else jumps in line or someone acquiesces.
I also remember a time when I was back home visiting for a friend’s wedding. I’d been out of the state for a while, and it was my late 20s. At the reception, a couple of my high school friends’ moms kind of weirdly cornered me outside of the fancy hotel bathroom.
They were both smiling but kind of like a weird, tight smiling. The vibe was pleasant but distant leaving me feeling awkward 'cause I could not read what the situation was and what was going on, but, you know, I was excited to see them and even more curious on why they’d singled me out to talk. While holding this forced smile and looking me up and down, one of the moms said, “Rebecca… you're… doing so… well.” [Laughs] I’m like, “Yeah, okay,” and after a brief moment of letting them know where I’d been working and how well college went, they went on their merry way.
And as polite and (on-the-surface) flattering this exchange might seem on the outside to someone, it was a classic example of the dark side of Minnesota nice because, if they were really being honest, they’d be like, “Whoa, Rebecca. You were a frickin’ hot mess in high school, and it seemed you could barely keep it together at times, and we’re kinda shocked seeing how well you're doing today,” you know? That may not have felt very nice, but it would have been really honest. It probably would have been more of a fruitful conversation and led to more connection, right?
Now, I see Minnesota tripes abound, but I also remember how this cultural way of communication avoids direct confrontation or conflict with a placating smile or over-the-top politeness. And, as my example that I just shared about my interaction at my friend’s wedding, this kind of nice often serves as a passive-aggressive approach that buries one’s real feelings and beliefs. Now, it took me years to unpack the cost of choosing nice and how nice and kind are distinctly different. For a long time, I thought they were one in the same.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with humans who navigate life’s challenges and lead in their own ways.
Our goal is to learn how they address the burdens they carry, how they heal from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
I continue to rumble with discerning the difference between choosing a nice response or choosing a kind response. My journey started with, first, an intellectual understanding of the difference between nice and kind. I see and experience nice as appeasing and complicit, and I view kind as loving and generous. This breakdown often resonates with those I work with when talking about the difference between the two, but I also find an intellectual understanding of these words can fall flat without a sense of what it feels like to respond from an embodied place of niceness or from an embodied place of kindness. My internal family systems lens helps me see niceness more as a protector that works hard to keep me from feeling vulnerable and to mitigate risk by over-functioning and over-accommodating others. Its job is to protect me from backlash and can often lead to me shrinking from my courage when accountability and transparency are needed instead. Niceness feels like a tightness in my chest and throat and it can feel gross at times. Other times, it feels dissociative and reflexive when fear is high.
Now, I see kindness connected to compassion which is one of the traits IFS calls self or self energy which serves as our true essence and where those parts of us that protect, they experience healing from our inner team, and when I lead with kindness, I feel clear and connected to my values even if there’s a threat to being misunderstood. I’m more focused on the wellbeing of others rather than protecting myself at the expense of others and doing the right thing. You know, I end up sacrificing my integrity by choosing to go along to get along when I choose nice over kind, and I stay silent instead of standing up for the wrongs around me when I choose nice over kind.
I care more about the opinions and needs of others over my own when I choose nice over kind. Niceness is a powerful insidious protector, and when you respond from niceness, your inner system is telling you (consciously or not) to stay safe or protect regardless of the impact it has around you. Sometimes choosing nice to appease and accommodate feels like the only option when the threat of backlash jeopardizes your safety or your job, and if you live and work in a space that requires you to appease at the expense of living authentically, that sure could take a toll on your wellbeing. When I feel the burden of niceness in my body from living outside my values and truth, you know, the nausea in my stomach and the clenching in my jaw remind me when I default to niceness or I’m the recipient of niceness. [Chuckles] These days, I always feel it when it shows up. It’s a powerful trailhead for me to get curious about what’s happening inside of me and around me.
When you try to discern between whether you're leading from kindness or niceness, getting curious about your inner agendas and motivations will definitely bring you clarity, and if you choose an action with an agenda or how you’re perceived, then you're probably defaulting to nice. On the other hand, if you choose an action that’s rooted in kindness, the focus moves from you to care for the other person, you know? Again, kindness is loving and generous, even when not deserved, which makes it hard for me [Laughs] a lot of the times, especially these days. Kindness honors boundaries and cares more about supporting others than being misunderstood. I’ve learned, for me, I move out of kindness when I’m not externally motivated and I’m more fueled by my courage and my values, and I see how kindness requires a lot of confidence and courage to hold my boundaries, speak truth, and disagree with others.
When I default and lead from niceness, I end up sugar-coating and people-pleasing and, while this might offer some relief, it doesn't get me off the hook, and this posture usually creates more stress and internal dissonance. When I reflect on the times I default to niceness, I see how niceness is more than just a cultural response but one connected to my capacity for discomfort. Echoes from the traumas of my story often rear up and bring my niceness protector into action, and when I’m around certain personalities or situations, I can feel activated, and the memories my body and nervous system hold rise up and can overwhelm me. A lot of my own personal work leads me to recognize the pattern of protection through placating and appeasing over the years, and it’s not an excuse, it’s just data. Sometimes it was just to stay safe, right? Keeping the peace meant no harm done with words or fists, other times, niceness protected from feeling ashamed or ridiculed.
Now, I know from my work over the years that I’m not alone in being raised to put my own needs aside for others, furthering the belief that I am automatically mean if I don't choose nice. This is such a problematic binary leaving no room for nuance or context. It still takes a lot of work to help the parts of me that want to choose nice to relax, but this is the work in a part of being deeply human. I see my feelings of overwhelm and activation as just data, not my identity, and I have collected a lot of data around how I default to niceness and what it feels like to receive niceness over the years. When I lead with kindness, I feel grounded in my body. It feels scary but makes room for hard conversations, growth, falls, struggles. This is the space where I feel most alive.
When you lead with kindness, you need the capacity to receive and navigate the responses of others. Kindness stirs up vulnerability because we don't know how we’ll be received, how we’ll be perceived, or how others will respond, and our brains love to dress rehearse potential scenarios and talk us out of staying true to ourselves and others. I believe this is especially common when navigating conversations and feedback around race, gender, ability, and so much more.
Now, my Unburdened Leader guest today helps me dig deep into the intersection of niceness, whiteness, and standing up against racism. Jenny Booth Potter is a creative producer, storyteller, and co-host of The Next Question, a web series about expanding our imagination for racial justice. She has also co-led racial justice trainings across the country for churches and organizations and is a founding partner of HerSelf Media, a company that aims to create stories that empower and bring joy to Black women. Jenny’s first book, Doing Nothing is No Longer an Option: One Woman’s Journey into Everyday Anti-Racism, just released this month (October 2022). Jenny and her husband make their home outside of Chicago with their two boys and one wild puppy.
Now, listen for Jenny’s view on niceness and the role it plays when hard conversations come up. Pay attention to when Jenny shares the pivotal moment when she realizes she can’t do everything but doing nothing was not an option. Notice when Jenny notes the importance and the challenges on getting curious about whether we’re standing with the oppressed or the oppressor. Now, please welcome Jenny Potter to The Unburdened Leader podcast.
Jenny Booth Potter: Thank you! Thank you so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to this conversation.
Rebecca Ching: I want to kick off by talking about a topic that I can rant about a lot, and I’d like for you to tell me what is choosing nice and how can it lead to more harm?
Jenny Booth Potter: Ooh! [Laughs] So we’re just taking it real easy. [Laughs] Easy first --
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Jenny Booth Potter: Not what we had for breakfast, yeah, no. Choosing nice -- oh. I mean, the first thing that comes to mind is you’re choosing nice over a lot of other things that matter a lot more. You're prioritizing social norms as opposed to imagination for how things could be. I think niceness has really, really thick walls that keep us pretty small and narrow as opposed to pushing and provoking and challenging and imagining and dreaming and getting messy. There is so much safety and comfort in niceness because it’s often what we point to. We say, “Well, I know this terrible thing -- I know I said or did or thought or acted in this terrible way, but people that know me know that I’m really a nice person.” It’s almost this catch-all for any bad behavior if we say something mean but we say it in a nice way somehow [Laughs] it cancels out. So I think choosing niceness is choosing -- you know, Brené Brown talks all the time about this armor, right? And so, I think choosing niceness is an invisible shield and armor that is to insulate and protect us and, ultimately, to serve and center ourselves.
Rebecca Ching: So how does choosing niceness, then, lead to more harm? We’re protecting ourselves, but how does that lead to more harm around us?
Jenny Booth Potter: I mean, when people are on the defensive, I just don't know how we progress, right?
If we’re constantly trying to dig ourselves out of a trench, how do we ever build anything? How do we ever grow? How do we ever let anything take root? I just don't think it’s sustainable. I don't think it’s a sustainable way. If you actually are in a space where you want to grow, it will halt all growing from occurring.
Rebecca Ching: It will halt all growing from occurring. Yes, you know, it’s interesting. Anyone who knows me or works with me knows that I will say niceness is appeasing and complicit, and kindness is loving and generous where the messy, the hard, but the true and the aligned happens, it’s complicated. But niceness is often violence, being appeasing and complicit. So I’m curious. Can you give me a personal example of when you chose nice over kind?
Jenny Booth Potter: [Laughs] Sorry, I’m like which to choose from.
Rebecca Ching: Right?
Jenny Booth Potter: I have a lot, but I’m gonna go with actually how I open up my book which is I’m being interviewed for a racial justice journey at my college, and in the interview, they ask me, “So, why do you want to go on this? Why do you want to have this experience?” I remember really struggling with that question of, like, why do I want to do this, and what ended up coming out was I said, “I really want to do something beyond just smiling at Black people that I see in the street. I find myself doing this. I find myself smiling and noticing and being extra friendly, but I feel like that isn’t actually doing anything as I read the news and I’m learning in different classes about the disparity in income and disparity in -- just all these things. I don't think my smiling is doing enough.”
So they let me go on this trip, and I think there was, out of that -- I don't know if it was so much niceness. It was a I get this now, so people will need to listen to me, and so, if I ask you something, if I ask you about this, I’m gonna do it in my nice way but also in the way that says, “Don't you get that I get this,” kind of approach.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Jenny Booth Potter: And I think that’s a layer to it, too, of this, “Aren’t you so lucky that I’m here? Aren’t you so lucky that I’m doing this work? I don’t have to be doing this work. I could be doing other things. I could be ignorant like all these other white people, but aren’t you so lucky that I don’t just smile anymore,” you know? And so, there was this really --
Rebecca Ching: Like a self-righteousness almost that came in there.
Jenny Booth Potter: Yeah, and I think it was --
Rebecca Ching: I can't relate at all. [Laughs]
Jenny Booth Potter: [Laughs] And I think there’s a lot of roots in nice. I mean, 'cause I love your definitions of niceness versus kindness. There’s nothing courageous about being nice. It’s a little eye for an eye. There’s, like, an exchange happening where I think kindness fights through that in a totally different way, and I wasn’t being kind. I kept going back to that defensive layer, that, like, “But, wait! I’m being nice,” or, “Wait! I get this. Why don't you see?” Yeah, it’s self-righteous and it’s, ultimately, incredibly self-centered. When we are choosing niceness, I think that we are keeping -- it’s all about how I was perceived or how I behaved or how I felt about myself as opposed to how it’s experienced by anyone else.
Rebecca Ching: Exactly, and I feel like, for me, when I have those moments where I protect with niceness and it hits me later, I want to go take a shower because I realize I’m so grossed out by the whole situation, but I’m also aware, too, of how quickly I default that because I’m trying to protect myself from harm, but then I am not protecting others from harm.
Jenny Booth Potter: Well, and it’s not just harm. It is our belief about who we are.
Rebecca Ching: Tell me more.
Jenny Booth Potter: If your whole identity or you just think about -- I was about to say grooming which maybe -- [Laughs] grooming, rearing, how you were raised, and especially as a white, Christian, cisgendered woman, what do we have if we don't have our niceness? If we aren’t nice and beautiful and thin, what else is there? So now you’re taking away one of these core markers of my identity, and when that threat starts to unravel, where will it end? Who am I really? ‘Cause we are not unsafe when we’re -- when we’re being nice, are we actually at risk of harm, actual physical harm? Now, I would argue that, yes, ‘cause we’re choosing things that keep us maintaining status quo, maintaining power structures. We’re not at any sort of healing journey. So there is harm happening, but I don’t think it’s the harm that we’re worried about. We’re worried about who we are being called into question and having to grapple with that. That is terrifying for people when it’s been one of your pillars.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, ‘cause it’s, like -- again, so many of those that identify as female work so hard to not be the recipient of being identified as a bitch, right?
Jenny Booth Potter: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Totally, but, you know, it’s interesting ‘cause, for me, I’ve got trauma in my story, and so, I’ve noticed even in my own waking-up journey I’ve had to work through my niceness to know I know how to keep the peace. I mean, shoot, I went to become a psychotherapist. I mean, come on.
Jenny Booth Potter: You got some skills.
Rebecca Ching: I got some skills! But I’m noticing then I’m doing the nod or I’m not being authentic, and I’m just kind of deescalating things that I think -- so the more that I’ve done my own work, the more I can help my inner system know this isn’t back in our story 30-40 years ago. We’re okay now. We got this, and I feel like it’s almost this dance of identity like you're talking about, and for those who have to do their own trauma work to sit with the discomfort of not appeasing, of not going along to get along, right?
Jenny Booth Potter: Yes, one of my kind of mentors -- I write about her a little bit in the book. She’s a white woman, and she said to me, “Jenny, the most dangerous people are those who hold harm and privilege in each hand,” (who have been held down by systems and who also uphold those systems) because, at any point, we get to choose if we’re the victim or the victor, right?
Rebecca Ching: We get to choose it.
Jenny Booth Potter: We get to choose it!
Rebecca Ching: We have a choice, yeah.
Jenny Booth Potter: We get to say -- and I don't know your story so I want to be very sensitive, but we get to say, “Oh, I feel like I’m being called out for disparity,” and white people being like, “Well, you know what? I had it hard, too. I had this thing in my past. My life wasn't all easy just because I’m white.”
So we get to go into that mode of, “No, I’m a victim, too,” and that language is very problematic. Then, we also have this alliance with others that do hold power, and so, we do get to say -- and even beauty standards or affirmative action actually benefits white women more than it does any person of color. It is a dance, like you were talking about, and it’s really -- you're in constant check mode of, yes, I’m on my own healing journey, and, yes, my story matters, and, yes, there are parts that I’m working through, and also, this experience by this other person or this institution that’s harming other people -- to be able to hold that ‘yes and’ space, right? That takes so much grace for yourself, I think.
Rebecca Ching: Well, it was a bit of a brain explosion --
Jenny Booth Potter: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: -- because it’s the intersection of healing and transforming and then realizing how much I still lean on systems that can protect or how much I was supporting systems that were just as violent, and it’s this weird mind F in trying to detangle and deconstruct it all, and it’s not tidy. Nice likes tidy.
Jenny Booth Potter: There are social norms on this that are so engrained, and you're right. It does not like nuance, and what we are talking about is incredibly nuanced.
Rebecca Ching: And to hold nuance means holding an immense amount of discomfort and the gray which you write a lot about in your book. Before we move off of niceness, I’m wondering if you can articulate any real or potential consequences for you and others when you choose nice?
Jenny Booth Potter: I think what niceness does is it gives us something to point to other than pointing and looking in the mirror and reflecting on our self.
Rebecca Ching: So true. Oh.
Jenny Booth Potter: The consequences of that are incredibly broad. [Chuckles] You know, I worked in an organization where they talked a lot about people’s blind spots, right? Like, “Oh, you need other people to be able to point out what you’re missing on seeing,” and I would argue that the consequence for choosing niceness is it’s not just like we’re not seeing our blind spots, but we’re not even seeing ourselves accurately, and if we aren't seeing ourselves accurately, how are we looking at the world accurately? How are we looking at the institutions that we’re a part of accurately? We are literally blinded, right? We’re blinded by whiteness. We’re blinded by niceness, and we’re driving cars and piloting airplanes. We’re doing really harmful, dangerous things thinking that we can see or thinking that we can see enough, and niceness shields us from seeing fully.
Rebecca Ching: I’m just thinking of niceness is violence is the archetype of the Karen. And we want to know ourselves, so maybe we’ll take a little quiz or we’ll read a little Brené Brown and watch a video and go, “Yes!” I mean, I’m someone who worked with Brené and her team for ten years, though, so I’m not mocking it at all, but I know there are people that will dive in and speak the language, but to live it, it means that YOU-turn of looking within, and, dear lord, it’s horrible to really see and you can't unsee, and then if your worth is tied up to niceness it’s -- but that needs to be shattered. It’s painful, but it needs to be shattered, yes?
Jenny Booth Potter: A thousand percent. A thousand percent.
Rebecca Ching: I just really believe that it’s violent. It serves a purpose, but at a big, big expense, like you said, to self and to others and to the systems that we’re in.
Jenny Booth Potter: Yeah, I don't think we can talk about it enough.
Rebecca Ching: I don't think so either, and people getting their brains around it, too. It’s disorienting for those that show up in the world like you and I.
So we’ve referenced your book. You wrote a book called Doing Nothing is No Longer an Option, and I’d love for you to take me back to your decision to write this book. Was there a particular moment or experience that catalyzed the idea behind the book?
Jenny Booth Potter: I think it was 2018. I had been working at a church for about seven years at that point, and this is the church that I grew up at and believed in with every ounce of my body that what we were doing was good, important work, and in that spring, our senior pastor was found to be power abusive, sexual harassment charges, just years and years of horrible behavior, and left the church, and I was in the middle of that storm. Then, I’m watching the #MeToo movement, the #ChurchToo movement happening. I’m also watching the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and I have a -- and Trump is in office. [Chuckles] It’s just like, oh, my gosh, and I’m looking at my family, and I am raising two white boys, and I remember having a moment after one Kavanaugh hearing where I just said to a couple of white male friends, I was like, “Do they all give you a handbook or how am I hearing the same thing over and over again?”
And so, I started working on what I thought was gonna be a blog post, and then that really turned into, wait a second. I want to widen beyond what we’re just seeing with white, male patriarchy and power abuse and sexual harassment and rape culture. I need to widen this, and I actually really want to take my reader starting in my origin story and kind of go through and really lessen the focus on white men and really actually this is about me. You know, it was really fun to point the finger for a while out there at the world, and I think pretty quickly as I started working on the book proposal, I realized this is a story about me.
And so, the title comes from (I mentioned this) in college, I went on this racial justice journey, and they took us to different locations throughout the South. It was a three-day, exhausting bus journey. We slept on the bus. You're already kinda worn down, and they have about 40 students, and 20 of the students are Black and 20 are not Black. And so, you're partnered up.
So, I’m partnered up with this girl, Katrina, and it was so interesting because I think what our partnership did for me was it let me see the experiences, not through my eyes, but through hers as much as I possibly could.
Obviously, it wasn't like I became Katrina and I could experience it the way she did, but I was seeing things that I think, in the past, I would have made excuses for, and I couldn't because I was watching her experience a working plantation that talked about the niceness of the slave owners that had owned other people. I was witnessing looking at a lynching museum and her and other people recounting that they were searching for family names, that they were terrified that they would find names of people that they were related to that they didn't know about this part of their family history.
And so, at one point, we got back on the bus after we had left the lynching museum where actually someone did find a name of someone in their family and was, I mean, just -- I feel like the words -- it was indescribable to witness someone find out something about such deep pain in real time. We got back on the bus, and white people started coming towards the front of the bus and sharing what they thought were probably helpful things to say like the holocaust was hard, too, and that they weren’t actually there when these people were lynched. Their ancestors were in Europe, and so, they weren't -- just so much distancing, so much negotiating of who’s to blame and “please, God, say it’s not me.”
And so, I had this moment where Katrina is, like, looking at me as we’re hearing just excuse after excuse tumbling out of white mouths, and she just said, “Jenny, go say something.” And so, I got up there, and, I mean, I write about this in the book, but I felt like I just started word-vomiting, almost, of just like, “I cannot take the pain away from what I’ve seen today, but I can work to make a difference,” and then I said, “Doing nothing is no longer an option.”
And that really became almost like my vow, my commitment to the work or those words that, when in doubt, I don't need to do everything, but what I can’t do is nothing.
Then, I kind of take my reader through these lived-out attempts at, okay, so I’m not doing nothing, but am I doing everything right? Absolutely not. I think there’s this idea that growth is a light switch. Maybe people in your circle don't actually think that, but I do think there is this -- I come from Evangelical, white, America where we love a good before and after testimonial, right? So it was like, “I once was blind, but now I see!” I had one of those moments, and guess what? I still messed up so many times after that, and that doesn't mean that my commitment wasn't real. It doesn't mean that my transformation starting point wasn't real. It means that I was unpracticed in the work, and so, what I’m trying to do is take the reader though this is what practicing this work looks like, and I really am hoping that you learn from my mistakes so that you don’t repeat them or so that you don't repeat them as frequently because the pursuit of perfection in this work is not the goal, but if we can reduce harm in this work, and if we can reduce harm by how we live our lives, I think that is something worth striving for.
You know, my wedding anniversary is coming up, and those two almost, like, commitment times of my life feel almost equal in their weight of how much they have anchored me to daily choices that I try to make and daily ways I try to grow and live out these commitments and these beliefs and these values.
Rebecca Ching: Thank you for sharing that. What was your thought process as you were working through this book idea and writing about your waking-up story as a white woman - why you, as a white woman, write this book? Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Jenny Booth Potter: Yeah, so I’ve wrestled with whether I should write this book a ton. I mean, I waffled a lot up until the point that I literally sent my first draft manuscript in. I was like, “Okay, we’re really sure?” I tell the story of doing nothing is no longer an option on this bus trip. One of my very closest friends is also an author and her name is Austin Channing Brown, and she wrote about this same bus trip, and she quotes that same line in her book, I’m Still Here. And she would tell me after speaking engagements or people would put in their reviews or just send her emails, that the most frequently-quoted thing that she heard from white people was, “Doing nothing is no longer an option.” She would always say to me, “When people ask me, ‘what should I do as a white person,’ I sometimes don't know what to tell them because I’m not white.”
And so, what I really tried to lean into with occupying what I found to be (kind of what we talked about at the beginning) this really nuanced, messy circle of I’ve faced oppression and I’ve also been the oppressor, right?
So, like, what tone am I gonna strike as a white woman, but specifically on the topic of antiracism, then I need to be talking about how I have oppressed and how oppressors heal because if oppressors don't heal, they're gonna keep oppressing, and if oppressors don't face themselves, they’re gonna keep going without recourse.
And so, what I really became clear with was a couple of things. One, I wanted my reader (who most likely will be a white person) to not feel like Jenny received grace and then she turned around and is just smacking all of our hands. I mean, I think any white person would say this who is in spaces with people of color where you are trying to work for liberation and flourishing of all people, that the even fact that we get to be in those spaces co-creating together is an example of grace and healing. So I really wanted to make sure that my reader felt convicted and challenged. I was not trying to impress my reader. In fact, I was like, “I’m gonna tell you lots of horrible things that I’ve done to set you free from this illusion that there is a way to do this showing up to this work as a blank slate.” No one does. No one shows up to this neutral, right? We all have baggage and past that we can point to, small and big. We have all these things that keep us from actually changing the world, and I think part of it is admitting that we have to look back at our past if we want to move forward. I think, so many times, we stay so in the future. “Well, we’ve got to build, we’ve got to create, we’ve got to innovate.”
It’s like, well, let’s look where we’ve been to see where we’re going, and then to see where we want to go. I think that’s the trajectory and muscle we need to build up.
So that was part of it, and then I was really clear that I was trying to do and tell stories that could only be told from a white perspective as much as I could. This book is not filled with definitions or research. It really is lived experience. It’s scary to talk about your worst, most racist incidents in your life. It’s scary to put that in print, and I wasn't seeing that in enough spaces, and I think we need to shatter that, right? And so, I wanted to say, “Hey, actually, that time that a white coworker told me that she hates how Black girls’ hair smells, and I didn't say anything? That was me being racist. She was being racist. I was being racist ‘cause I didn't say anything.” A three-second interaction, right? It’s not these alarm-bell, KKK, proud boy rallies. It is everyday moments that we get to choose which side we’re on - the side of the oppressed, and not us being oppressed but standing with the oppressed or are we standing with the oppressor and maintaining their ability to say, “I get to say these types of things, and it’s not gonna get challenged.”
Rebecca Ching: I remember reading that exchange and had to pause where the woman made the derogatory and racist statement about Black women's hair and your response was silence. I had to pause, and I sat back, and I had a flash of all of those moments, and it was a moment of -- it was a parts party of anger, some self-loathing, and then I had to go to compassion but also I was asking forgiveness for those people in my mind.
I’m just going back to the people I knew and didn't know where those things happened and continue to happen. There was this part of me that’s like, “Never again! Never again!”
Jenny Booth Potter: Right.
Rebecca Ching: You know, and so, I think that’s my protector of perfectionism. “We’re gonna do anti-racism perfectly.”
Jenny Booth Potter: A+++++. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: I mean, hello, 'cause that’s how we roll.
Jenny Booth Potter: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: We don't do something halfway. I really valued the stories and how you really modeled practice over perfectionism but also named in a way that was powerfully convicting. Shame was lurking 'cause it always does around this issue.
Jenny Booth Potter: Sure. Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: But it was to say, “Are you doing this for optics or because it’s aligned with your true values? Are you doing this to be nice or to say you're the A+ anti-racist white person?” You spent a good chunk of time talking about perfectionism, and there really is a big intersection with perfectionism in women, but white women in particular. I just want to name that. You wrote in your book you even identify as an Enneagram 1 which is known as the perfectionist, and it longs for the ideal. I’m wondering if you can tell me about a time when the protector of perfectionism -- you talked about one time. Are there any other times? You talked about one of the times it kept you quiet. Are there any other times where the protector of perfectionism kept you quiet instead of speaking up, and what was going through your head at the time?
Jenny Booth Potter: Ah, okay, well, when I started working at this church that I write about a lot, we all received this book called Orbiting the Giant Hairball.
I have never thought of it this way, but I think a lot of people -- racism, sexism, you know, these isms that we have in our everyday institutions and lives are this giant, messy hairball. I think for so many people -- and I did this for so long. I orbited to prove how not close to the thing I was, to prove how I was one of the good ones, I was now one of the good white people who gets it. White girl that gets it! White girl that’s down for the cause, right?
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Oh, jeez!
Jenny Booth Potter: I’m not, again, in my mind thinking that that’s what I’m doing, right? But there was a supremacy that was happening that I was now better than all these other white people that didn't care, that weren't doing things, that didn't have a story about being on a bus. They didn't have friends that they could do this work with. What I found was when I started trying to protect that part of my identity, that that is when I would be quiet because I was so afraid of doing something that would poke a hole, that actually maybe I wasn't just this good white person. Maybe I still struggled with racism, maybe I still struggle with stereotypes, you know, that I was still working on those things, that I wasn't actually just a completed A+ perfect project, but that I was still in growth, that I was still moving and growing and evolving, right?
And so, I write about this story in my book too. I got asked by my friend, Austin -- I just keep saying her name, but if you have not read her book, please do. For anyone listening, please do. It’s so amazing.
She had written her book and then wanted to do a video web series about anti-racism and kind of going beyond the 101 level of conversation that we were having. Something will happen in the news, and then we’re all talking about -- this was 2018 that we did this -- “Should white people say the N-word,” you know? Then everyone kind of -- there are articles written about it. “Can we say --?” “No, white people should not use the N-word. Can we have a conversation beyond that?”
And so, she invited me and another woman to co-host this with her, and we invited -- we had incredible guests. Brené was on. We had Nikole Hannah Jones, Andre Henry, Jasmine Guillory, Maya Schenwar. So we had all these amazing guests (that’s not even all of them), but the majority of the guests were Black. So, oftentimes, I would be the only white person sitting in this room having these conversations, and I remember being terrified that I was gonna say the wrong thing. Just terrified. I’m gonna ask something that’s so stupid. I’m gonna say something that hints that I don't know all this stuff.
And so, I remember having two conversations before we started filming. I remember having one conversation where I said, “I just don't think I’m gonna say anything.” [Laughs] And I said this out loud. These weren't just conversations with myself. So I’m saying to my co-hosts, “I just think I’m not gonna say anything, and you two can take this.” They were like, “Honey, if you're on camera, we’re gonna need for you to say something.” I was like, “Shit. Oh-okay.” Then, I remember saying, “I feel like I’m cramming.” I feel like I’m trying to cram before these conversions so that not an ounce of imperfection comes out, not an ounce of I-don't-know-things comes out.
You know, just not an ounce of mistake or wrong comes out of me because -- and this is where it clicked for me that it was about my identity -- because I thought I was concerned about the white audience watching, and I wanted them to have me as a model to look to. Blah! Blah! That’s so gross-sounding now. Like, ugh! I remember thinking that and thinking that so earnestly that I wanted to show white people how to show up in these spaces, how to not center themselves, that in doing so, Rebecca, who was I centering? It was all about me! It wasn't about, “Hey, this might be a hard part of the conversation for my co-hosts to be talking about.” We’re talking about really terrible things that are not just theory for them, that are parts of their family and fears about their children and I’m gonna make them carry that all by themselves, as opposed to trying to do something that would create a tiny bit of reprieve for them by me taking on some of that labor?
So I just can’t beat the you're-not-gonna-do-this-perfectly drum hard enough. I mean, that’s -- and this is three years ago. That’s part of the fear of putting this book out in the world, and I write about this in my introduction of like, okay, so in order for you to hold this book in your hands, I need to let go which means there’s gonna be things in this that tomorrow I’m going to learn and not be able to come back and correct, right? That this book is actually not perfect.
Rebecca Ching: Okay, you have a bunch of quotes about perfectionism, and I want to get a little deeper, too, because I’m thinking about practice and presence over perfectionism, right?
Being present with your colleagues, your cohosts, your friends, your community members, that presence. The fear of saying the wrong thing, I don't think that’s dissipated in me or anybody I know. What’s, for me, slightly shifting is that I know how to take care of myself a little better so I don't do harm to self or others when I don't say the right thing. I think that’s the work. I mean, it’s like how do I convalesce and take care of the parts of me that are freaking out and not burden people who are already burdened or -- and I still do that imperfectly, too. It is awkward -- that’s probably a nicer way -- at minimum.
Jenny Booth Potter: Yeah, it is!
Rebecca Ching: And it’s uncomfortable, and the perfectionist protector is like, “Oh, no. We want certainty. Give me a plan.”
Jenny Booth Potter: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: This stood out to me, when you said -- around this, and I was like okay, now, I actually have this as part of my mantra: “There’s no such thing as a perfect response, but there is such thing as a just one.”
Jenny Booth Potter: Mm.
Rebecca Ching: And so, I want to hear you talk more about that, but what I loved is it gets me out of me, and it’s like, “What’s just?” ‘Cause if I’m thinking about what’s just for me, then I know I just need to just step back.
Jenny Booth Potter: Right.
Rebecca Ching: I need to not be speaking is kind of one of the boundaries I put on myself. It doesn't always work, but that what’s just, and then if I’m not clear on that, I need to ask more questions, I need to get curious, I need to be listening, I need to -- whatever it may be, but what is just? Just is not keeping my reputation, my image up. It’s what’s right, what’s true, what’s aligned with the values that I have.
Jenny Booth Potter: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: And so, I’m still massaging that, but I’d love for you to talk about how you rumble with that mantra: “There’s no such thing as a perfect response but there is such thing as a just one.” How do you live that? What does that look like for you in action?
Jenny Booth Potter: So my publisher is a Christian publisher, so I feel like I leaned on the bible maybe a little bit more than if it would have been not a Christian publisher. So what I’m gonna do is do one of the rare things that I did in my book which was actually quote scripture. And so, one of my -- I forget what they're even called, but somewhere in my book I write (this is from Proverbs) that, “Without a vision, the people perish,” and I think so many people are doing this work without a vision of what justice looks like, without a vision of what it could look like any other way than serving themselves, right? I think you really need to stop and pause. It’s literally everything that you just described. It’s do I know enough about what justice would be in this space? If I do, then how do I respond? If I don't, then I go back until I know better, and then I can do better the next time.
I have an eight-year-old and a five-year-old, and one of the things that we are trying to repeat in our house is the question, “Would you like to try that again?”
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] I like that.
Jenny Booth Potter: And so, I love saying that because so often I want to say, “Why would you do that thing? Why would you say it this way? Why would you --,” and I’m flipping between white people and myself and my children.
It’s all tangled in my brain, but when I’m talking to my kids, it’s often I am trying to lecture them in my response, right? There is a need to say I’m dealing with what is happening as opposed to they might know more than I think they do, and they might need just a moment to try it again. And so, I think what I’m trying to do is invite myself into that space again. “Hey, Jenny, would you like to try that again? You didn't respond the way that you wanted to. Would you like to try that again?”
I was meeting a new friend recently, a Black woman that I follow on Instagram that I’m, like, mildly obsessed with, and we were having lunch, and I said something, and in my head I was like, [Whispers]. And so, I kept talking for, like, five more seconds, then I was just like, “Hey, can I just go back to that thing that I said?” and I did it, and her response to me was not, “I can't believe you said that. I was gonna hold it against you.” She said, “Oh, I know. I’m working on pronoun usage too,” and we moved on with the conversation, and it was a point of connection and a point of modeling that it’s not that big of a deal to go back and try something again when you’re modeling, “Hey, I’m practicing this work.” And so, I’m not overly like, “I can’t believe I just said that thing the way that I did. Can you believe it? I’m the worst person ever,” and now this person is comforting me as opposed to we’re having a conversation just about the thing that happened, and, oh, yeah, mistakes happen, and we’re both in practice mode.
I just think perfection doesn't want you to practice. It doesn't want you to practice anything, and I think there is so much wrapped up in perfectionism and white work culture of axioms like “fake it ‘til you make it,” right?
Rebecca Ching: Yep.
Jenny Booth Potter: Arrive and show up, and if you're working on things, don't let anybody know. Don't let them into the fact that you don't know things and that it’s not all figured out for you.
Rebecca Ching: One of the other quotes that stood out to me is you wrote, “The pursuit of perfection paralyzes movement while the pursuit of progress energizes and empowers.” I remember you, in your book, writing about a meeting you were pulled into last minute at your church. This was earlier on before the scandal that was going on became public, and there was another horrible act of violence against a Black man, and everyone was trying to figure out how to handle it, and there was this sense of I need more information, how are other people going to do this? And so, what do you say to leaders who conflate, who are thinking they're trying to get it right but they're really conflating that, and it’s really perfectionism, instead of speaking up and speaking out?
Jenny Booth Potter: Yeah, I don't remember if I write about this at this point in the book, but I would say getting it right for whom because that story that I share, this wasn't an example of, “Oh, I didn't have people around my table that could tell me, that would push me, that would challenge me. Shoot, I need to invite more people of color or women or whatever demographic you failed that day with your actions.
Those people were around the table begging this pastor to say something, begging, saying, “I am terrified for my children.” This was after George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin. And so, I’m sitting next to a Black man who has a 12-year-old son who is terrified as a father, terrified as a Black man, and the white pastor’s response (exactly what you said -- “We don't have enough information. We have to see what other churchers are gonna say.” Whose information are you missing? Because you have many people around this circle giving you information. It’s just not information that’s validating the choice that you’ve already wanted to make.
Before we knew that this verdict was coming in, for weeks there had been conversations and questions about how are we gonna handle it. This wasn't a Trayvon Martin was murdered meeting, what are we gonna do, you know? This was a Trayvon Martin was murdered two years ago, and now the trial that’s been going on for weeks and weeks and weeks that we knew had an ending is now here and we have to respond. So I think what -- we talk about this idea of -- you brought this up, and I think if you are being present you're not practicing perfection, right? Because I think perfectionism keeps score.
Rebecca Ching: Yes!
Jenny Booth Potter: Perfectionism is calculated, and perfectionism is very black and white. You respond or you don't respond. It is these things that --
Rebecca Ching: It’s a binary.
Jenny Booth Potter: Totally.
Rebecca Ching: There’s one result.
Jenny Booth Potter: Exactly.
Rebecca Ching: There’s one end game versus the relationship, the progress, the movement, the process.
Jenny Booth Potter: Yeah!
Rebecca Ching: It’s all about what’s the end result? What’s finished? What’s done so I can check the box and be done? It’s tidy. It so misses the mark in so many areas but especially when facing -- when I face my own racism and trying to be a part of anti-racism anything, it shuts that down, and it is the antithesis of progress, not just externally but internally.
Jenny Booth Potter: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: It freezes.
Jenny Booth Potter: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: It freezes the systems, internally and externally, that are burdening everybody. It keeps us frozen there. Gosh, we could keep talking about this. [Laughs]
There’s one more quote that you wrote on perfection. I just want to read it briefly. I love how you said, “We will make mistakes. We will be silent when we should have said something. We will speak when we should have listened. We will say the wrong thing. We must let go of the illusion of doing this perfectly. Perfect allies are a myth and a looser-y unicorn of white saviorism.” That was awesome. “Perfect has things under control but is the energy of growth and liberation. We are in practice mode always, training mode always, learning and unlearning always, humility and teachability mode always.”
Again, that’s getting printed out and is gonna be just a reminder to myself because it’s process, it’s practice, it’s “can I try that again?” It is redo, and it is also taking care of myself when I mess up and someone’s hurt and how to handle all the ish that comes up.
We could keep talking about this and I probably will have to have you back to continue this conversation.
Jenny Booth Potter: Oh, I’d love that.
Rebecca Ching: But I want to just wrap up with some fun, quickfire questions. I like to do this with my guests. Would that be fun?
Jenny Booth Potter: Ooh, yes. You know why? ‘Cause as an Enneagram 1, when I’m in growth mode, I got to 7 which is the Enthusiast so I do know how to have fun, I think. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Nice, nice. [Laughs] I love that. So what are you reading right now?
Jenny Booth Potter: So, at the very top is a book of essays on motherhood and middle-age called I’ll Show Myself Out.
Rebecca Ching: Wow.
Jenny Booth Potter: And it’s so funny. I’m laughing out loud. I’m really enjoying it. Then, I’m listening to The Dutch House, and Tom Hanks is the narrator, and so, that’s really lovely.
Rebecca Ching: What song are you playing on repeat?
Jenny Booth Potter: [Laughs] So every night we have a dance party as a family, and, usually, we are listening to The Greatest Showman.
Rebecca Ching: Ah, this is me.
Jenny Booth Potter: Yeah, pretty much any song from that, but I have been listening to an album by the band HAIM a lot. It’s an all-sister band. I saw them in concert a few months ago.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, fun.
Jenny Booth Potter: That’s my non-mom answer.
Rebecca Ching: Nice. Best TV show or movie you’ve seen recently?
Jenny Booth Potter: I loved Only Murders in the Building. I just finished season two.
Rebecca Ching: So good. So good! So good.
Jenny Booth Potter: It’s so good. So, I mean, anything with Steve Martin. I saw him in concert. He is, like, the definition of a performer.
Rebecca Ching: He is.
Jenny Booth Potter: Because you know when you go to a concert and they vamp in between and you laugh because they’re like, “Oh, it’s cool that this person is saying something. I like their music.” When the person is actually a professional comedian, and so, they're going from, like, their amazing musicality talent to their comedic timing back and forth, it was such a treat. So anything he’s in.
Rebecca Ching: What is your mantra right now?
Jenny Booth Potter: What is, not what if.
Rebecca Ching: Ooh. Nice. What’s an unpopular opinion you hold?
Jenny Booth Potter: I’m gonna go with meat is gross because I’m a pescatarian. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Who or what inspires you to be a better leader and human?
Jenny Booth Potter: I mean, literally people with a vision and imagination for how the world could be - artists, writers, activists. I once heard Enneagram 1’s described as we walk into a room and we say, “What’s broken here, and how can we fix it?” So people that are giving me imagination for how it could be fixed and not just restored back to what was but to something even more beautiful.
Rebecca Ching: Wow. Wow, that’s beautiful, for sure. So there’s this quote that I’d just love for you, as we wrap up our time together, to read in your own voice as we wrap up this conversation. So handing it off to you, Jenny.
Jenny Booth Potter: “The invitation to racial justice work wasn't rocket science. it was actually very clear. It was the practice of the better, of the vulnerability, of discomfort, of belief, of presence. I had often made it much more complicated than it needed to be. I was not invited to partner with my friends in this work because I was good or exceptional. I was there because I believed them when they said, “This is my experience,” even when that experience did not match my own. When you shift who you believe, it changes who and what you don't. Everything changes. I was there because believing them meant I was being transformed and letting things go that did not serve us both, but, mostly, I was there because of love and amazing grace with a clear and imperfect path toward practicing the better. I was learning to belong to myself and, mostly, to belong to a larger us.”
Rebecca Ching: Thank you, Jenny. Thank you for that reminder of the gift of belief and the power that has when we give that to others and to not just belong to ourselves but to remember that we’re a part of a larger us. So thank you for this conversation. Congratulations on your book launch.
Jenny Booth Potter: Thank you.
Rebecca Ching: And I do hope you come back again, but thank you for our conversation today.
Jenny Booth Potter: Yeah, thank you so much. I’ve really, really loved all the different places that we went, and I’m really grateful for you and the work that you're doing. So thank you for asking me.
Rebecca Ching: The more I’m aware of how I use niceness, I feel disappointed in myself or like I just want to take a shower. Nice is a powerful protector, one that does a lot of harm to self and others. I also see how I’m not necessarily being honest but instead maybe saying more what I think someone wants to hear. Jenny walked us through many ways niceness shows up, especially when talking about race and speaking up to individual and systems of power. Jenny also reminds us this is a life-long process that feels hard but leads to truth. What impact does discerning between nice and kindness have on you and when does niceness show up for you regularly? What gets in the way of you choosing kindness in the face of being misunderstood or saying something imperfectly?
I know, when you choose niceness over kindness, you’re not off the hook. So to live and lead with more kindness, it requires doing the work to maintain the capacity for discomfort and not always getting it right, and this is the work of an Unburdened Leader.
Leading is hard. Leading is also, often, controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, your boundaries. Navigating the inevitable controversy can challenge your confidence, clarity, and calm. Now, I know you don’t mind making the hard decisions but sometimes the stakes seem higher and can bring up echoes of old doubts and insecurities during times when you need to feel rock solid on your plan and action.
Finding a coach who gets the nuances of your business and leading in our complex and polarized world can help you identify the blocks that keep you playing at safe and small. Now, leading today is not a fancy title or fluffy bragging rights, it is brave and bold work to stay the course when the future is so unknown and the doubts and pains from the past keep showing up to shake things up. Internal emotional practices and systemic strategies are needed to keep the protector of cynicism at bay and foster a hope that is actionable and aligned.
When the stakes are high and you don't want to lose focus, when you want to navigate inevitable conflict between your ears and with those you lead, when time is of the essence and you want to make hard decisions with confidence and clarity, then Unburdened Leader Coaching is for you and where you deepen the capacity to tolerate the vulnerability of change, choosing kind over nice, innovation, and doing things differently than the status quo.
To start your Unburdened Leader Coaching process with me go to www.rebeccaching.com and book a free connection call. I can’t wait to hear from you!
Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. If this was an impactful episode for you, I’d be honored if you left a review, a rating, and shared this with someone you think might benefit from it. You can find this episode, show notes, you can sign up for the Unburdened weekly email, and free Unburdened Leader resources, along with ways to work with me, at www.rebeccaching.com.