This text is a response to last week’s post, “My Truth,” in which the author, Janelle Gray, writes about her decision not to sugar coat her lived experiences as a black woman for a white audience.
Make the medicine go down
I am a white teacher and I sometimes get to teach about racism. I’ll be frank: I am not without insecurity. That’s because I know I have blind spots about how racism functions for black people in the US. The only reason why I have any fewer blind spots today than ten years ago is through being exposed to truths like those Janelle writes about in her previous post.
This feedback has taken the form of reading articles, having black friends confide in me and hopefully not regret it, seeing arguments, overhearing conversations where black people say, “Oh, and don’t you hate it when white people do this or that?” And yes, sometimes realizing that I’ve been exactly “that person.”
White America goes to great lengths to avoid hearing what our actions are like in that other reality. And it will fight tooth and nail for any explanation other than race or that we do damage. We’ll label black people who speak these truths as trouble-makers who then suffer social, economic, or lethal consequences. The name Kaepernick comes to mind, and if you can name any civil rights leaders killed before their time, you can do the rest of the math.
These truths, however, are exactly what we need to hear if we want to be useful to the anti-racism cause. To do that, we must abandon defense mechanisms and build feedback mechanisms.
Because the shoe fits me, it fits you
A common logical fallacy we exercise is “Because it is this way for me, it is this way, period.” For two years, I lived in another city, abroad, where I was very unhappy. In short, the locals saw their society as a happy-go-lucky party place where everyone was welcome, while I often saw it as close minded, misogynistic, and only welcoming to insiders.
Many locals thought, “because I am welcome, my city is welcoming.” But the more accurate truth may be to say that the city is very welcoming for the “right” kind of person (married, kids, impeccably dressed, socially conservative, Catholic or Evangelical), and closed off to those who don’t fit the bill.
Because I failed all of those requirements, I constantly got implicit or explicit feedback that I was an error. My local friend who met the requirements, however, praised the city as the best on earth. When I told locals how I felt, the response was frequently: “What do you mean you are not happy in the best place on earth? We are all so nice!” I wanted to respond, “To each other.”
If a society feels welcoming to me, that doesn’t mean it is welcoming. It means it is welcoming if you are me. That a shoe fits you does not mean that those who complain of it chafing are aggressive, overly sensitive, inventing things, or attacking you. It means the shoe chafes them. Probably because it wasn’t built with them in mind.
We overcome that logical fallacy by taking seriously people who live other realities and not rejecting their factual observations about life just because it might say something painful about us. We stop telling black people that what they describe isn’t true just because we can’t see it.
A mechanism for receiving feedback
When I was younger and I got in trouble, I would deny, invent excuses, and throw distracting fits because I couldn’t bear to own up to what I had done. As I got older, I realized how immature that was of me and difficult that was for others. The appropriate response, instead, was recognition, apology, reflection, and improvement. And if the other person was angry, you let them be angry. They had a right.
I think most white adults in the US have a normally developed mechanism for taking responsibility for wrongs. That is, in all other areas except for racism. Why? Doctor Robin DiAngelo’s work on white racial identity was key in getting me to recognize these patterns in how we talk about race (links to some articles found at the bottom of this post).
In white circles, “I am not racist” tends to be code for “I am a good person.” When somebody tells us, “you were really inconsiderate,” we may feel embarrassed, but we don’t interpret it as “you are a worthless human being.” We may even admit that we were, in fact, really inconsiderate. However, when we hear “that was racist,” we hear, “you are the dregs of humanity.” We deny, defend, and throw fits, because we are completely unwilling to even entertain that possibility. We feel hurt, shame, that our very core has been attacked, and quite frankly, if this is how it is, we don’t even want to participate in anti-racism anymore.
But what if people aren’t telling us “you are the dregs of humanity”? but “this thing you do makes it hard for me to comfortably exist”? I think we can entertain that idea without getting defensive, aggressive, or so consumed by our own shame that we quit.
Another reason we haven’t developed that mechanism is probably because our elders haven’t. It’s been set up for black people to keep it quiet, not for us to face it. Growing up, when I saw white adults getting feedback on their racism, it often resulted in repeated denials, defense of one’s character, and counter-attacks against the speaker. Rarely did I see anybody model healthy apology, introspection and responsibility, even if they did so in response to other wrongs.
Many white people also interpret that feedback as “you, person born in 1984, have to be punished for centuries of mistreatment.” We often respond with “I didn’t invent racism. I didn’t choose to be born into the white/aggressor side,” or a favorite of white immigrants who move to the US (yours truly!), “I just got here. I didn’t start this. Why am I tasked with fixing it?” It may be helpful, if we feel this way, to remember that even though we did not individually mastermind global warming, we live in a society where just the normal things of life - driving, plastics, clothing - help further climate change. There are lots of things we did not consciously choose that we still participate in or exacerbate. The difficult task is to figure out how to not participate, to subvert, to do what we can with who we are.
We also can’t outsource our racism to China and expect them to fix it. It’s on us.
Many white people get so bogged down in this shame, embarrassment, and denial upon hearing that we haven't quite “gotten it right” about racism, that we just quit the fight and go lick our wounds in private. Hearing that feedback and what black people say behind closed doors stings, both because it often hits home more than we would like to admit, and because mechanisms designed to protect us from guilt have rendered our social muscle for discussing racism just an atrophied limb: present, but unable to do any heavy lifting.
Are we doomed to that level of fragility forever? Can we find a sense of solidarity that outweighs the shame of getting it wrong? Can we accept that getting it wrong on the path to getting it right is par for the course, and not a reason to break down?
Truth and Reconciliation
We would roll our eyes at someone who refuses to discuss their cancer with a doctor unless they have assurances against feeling fear or sadness, yet we hold on pretty tightly to the idea that we want reconciliation as long as we’re not made to feel the discomfort of truth.
Painful things hurt. You can’t swim without being in the water. And the fact that the water is wet is not a personal attack. Remarking that much of racism has been built around the guise of protecting white women is not an act of aggression. It is a description of a very sordid and tragic truth with our name on the receipt. It may be saying that the emperor has no clothes, and if we think it shouldn’t be said, we may want to revisit the moral of that tale.
When we say that we want to help, as long as none of the 40 some million black people in the US say anything about how we are hurting them, even if we are, or make videos like those of JillisBlack, or Janelle never tells us that our help isn’t helping, even if she’s right, we are not only being unrealistic, we are refusing to do any work.
Participating in conversations about denial of humanity, about life and death, without a single black person ever being angry, out loud, in front of us, is not a possibility available to us in a realistic universe. We are not in charge of managing how black people feel or express that anger, frustration, loss. We do not get to police how the very difficult truths between us are expressed, how JillisBlack should speak her truth or what Janelle should do upon witnessing us behave like elephants in a china shop. We are in charge of how we respond.
We can’t fast forward through truth and expect to still get reconciliation. It may sting to hear it, but JillisBlack’s radical truth and Janelle’s declaration not to sugar coat her truth are that truth. Perhaps the first thing we need do as white people is to develop a humbler, stronger mechanism for hearing that truth. I think enough of us are more than capable of a solidarity that doesn’t end at discomfort.
For additional reading, check out these articles by Dr. Robin DiAngelo.