The Danger of Becoming a WANNABUT

There have been numerous occasions in my work on issues related to racism when I have seen creativity stifled by someone who says, “but,” “but,” “but.”…. It usually comes in response to a suggestion about what a person or group might do programmatically to counter the effects of racism. If I am in a group where I know there are people who do not want to see anything done, I obviously expect a lot of “buts.” These will come from people whose basic attitude is “we don’t want to.” I expect them to reject, oppose or erect barriers after every suggestion. While disappointed that they feel that way, I expect and accept their “buts.” BUT… It is very disappointing when I hear the “buts” coming consistently from those who at the same time insist that they want to take action. But racism is not the only issue in our business, we had some money issues but thanks to it’s all good now.

It happened again just the other day, when a group of people was responding to the request by one white man who had asked for help in thinking through what his business might do to reach out in a creative way to engage people of color in its vocational field. In the group with him there were seven others, two of whom were African Americans, and several of whom worked in the same professional field though not in his firm. There was in the collective group a good deal of experience and wisdom to provide helpful suggestions for our friend.

The conversation began with a statement by the one who was seeking help indicating that people in his business were eager to “reach out to identify, recruit and train people of color for the firm, which was almost all white.” “I want to         ,” he said, suggesting a goal he had in mind.
“My colleagues want to.” … “All top managers agree.” …”We all want to do this; we just don’t know how.”

With such an open mind, such an expression of agreement as to the stated objective, this sounded like a piece of cake! Several of those present began in an almost brainstorming fashion to make practical, concrete suggestions about what our friend could do. From the moment we started with those suggestions, the conversation became one which I have heard so many other times that it blurs in my mind; memory becomes one of a composite of all those times when “buts” got in the way of action:

“I want to do that, but …. that won’t work for us.”

“I want to, but …. we don’t do things that way.”

“I wannabut … there is no budget.”

“I wannabut … I’ve never done that before.”

“I wannabut … our clients won’t like it.”

“I wannabut … that’ll never fly in our business.”

At this point you can create your own list of the “buts.” They are scattered over the landscape of many organizations with whom I have sat over the years. They lie with all the good intentions which pave the road to nowhere. The disappointment for me is to see the frustration of the stated purpose of the person who says this or that is what they want to do. There is a dangerous attitude which creeps into many heads and hearts and prevents them from moving in the direction they say they want to move. Becoming a WANNABUT can frustrate the very one who “wants to.” In my work I have too often seen that attitude frustrate attempts to develop creative ways to respond to the racism present in a given situation or in our society.

There is always the danger of becoming a WANNABUT! As I say that to others, I must also say it to myself Every week at least, probably every day, someone suggests something that I might do, or that we might initiate at Community Change, as we develop anti-racism programs. Many times I feel that “BUT” trembling on my lips, and I have to call it back into my throat before it blocks the possibility of something new and exciting happening:

I WANNABUT . . I tried that six years ago, and believe me it won’t work! I WANNABUT . you don’t have any idea how tough that is.

I WANNABUT the opposition to that kind of thing is much stronger than you have any idea about.

I WANNABUT . no one is going to help us find the money.

I WANNABUT . who is going to do the work?


Many times when I have said I WANNABUT, I’m quite sure that my “but” was well-founded in experience, many times the suggestion did come from someone naive about realities I have encountered. Many times the “but” was a reasonable response, that I might make again should the same situation occur once more.

Then I begin to caution myself about the DANGER OF BECOMING A WANNABUT! I wonder how many great ideas I have stymied by a quick “But?” I wonder how many creative people I have discouraged with my “but-ing?” I could probably fill a trash can with the “buts” I have strewn along the way.

So, I remind myself several times a day to go easy on the “buts” which discourage and try to adopt a “but” attitude which opens up new possibilities.

Here’s a different kind of “but,” which I say to myself when someone comes to me with an idea about combating racism:

“When we tried that six years ago it didn’t work, BUT maybe it should be tried again.” “That’s a tough thing to do, BUT let’s see if we can do it better this time.”

” A lot of people won’t like it, BUT it needs to be done, so let’s see if there is a new approach.”

“No one has been willing to fund that before, BUT maybe there is someone new out there who is willing to.”

“I don’t know who will do that, BUT can you help find someone?”

The first set of WANNABUTS is rooted in a fundamental attitude which accents the negative restraints; the second set turns the negative into an exploration of new possibilities. When I meet the WANNABUT in myself or in others, I block that first kind of “but,” and try to practice the second kind. A WANNABUT can too quickly end discussions which might result in progress if allowed to continue. Becoming a WANNABUT can discourage creativity as we reach for ways to implement programs which contribute to racial justice.

WANNABUT-TING is most dangerous in well-intentioned whites, whose proneness to that behavior often becomes a way of avoiding action which may result in some amazing changes. The prospect of those changes may be a veiled threat to many whites, who, at some subliminal level, might be frightened for fear of losing control, influence, and power when change comes. So, in ways which others can describe better than I, the behavior which says “IWANNA” satisfies that part of the person which knows what is right, while the quickly added “BUT” protects that in the person which is rooted in fear of change. When that dynamic occurs in the context of seeking to be anti-racist, there is an ever-present danger of BECOMING A WANNABUT.

Please help me avoid BECOMING A WANNABUT, and I’ll pledge to help keep you from the same danger.