Confrontation without Humiliation?

It’s been awhile since I’ve had something I felt I really needed to say. The older I grow – and the healthier I become, I’d like to think – the less I feel like it’s my place to opine on anything at all, but I also try to respect it when that little voice inside me says, “you need to talk about this.” So here goes.

A few months back, I attended a powerful event on being anti-racist. The speaker was well-informed, amiable, clear and accessible. He left time for questions, and the first person to take the mic was a white-European woman. She thanked the speaker and proceeded to relate the talk to her child, who is living with a disability. The speaker was extremely respectful and did his very best to relate her situation to what he was discussing. I raised my hand and got the mic next. In as calm a tone as I could manage, I pointed out that what had just taken place was what we as white-European people sometimes do: we derail the conversation on race by bringing up an adjacent issue with which we have more comfort or familiarity. I said I thought it was important to catch ourselves when we’re tempted to do this, as it stalls progress on confronting racism and requires the speaker to redirect us back to the topic of race. There was a smattering of applause after I spoke, and we moved on.

A day or so ago, the event speaker released a post about the incident as a lesson on “channel-switching.” In the retelling, however, he wrote that my voice was “filled with exasperation and disdain,” and I “loudly uttered: ‘See, this is what always happens at these events! You have some White person who is uncomfortable talking about race and can’t resist the impulse to steer the conversation in a different direction. This is NOT about YOU!’” Also according to this piece, the woman’s response to my comment was “rolling her eyes and shaking her head in denial of the accusation that had been levied against her.”

Some of you have read the article I posted on LinkedIn, “The Cowardice of Calling-Out Culture.” I’m not terribly proud of it as I think it reflects a lot of my own self-centeredness and insecurity, but I’ve kept it posted because I think/hope the example is worth sharing. I know what it’s like to be openly humiliated by another white woman in an anti-racist space. And after I experienced it firsthand, I vowed to never intentionally alienate, humiliate or disrespect another person in my efforts to be an ally or an advocate.

I reached out to the presenter/writer and expressed that I felt misrepresented by the piece he’d written. In his response, he pointed out to me that regardless of my tone, I could have approached her privately after the event, but instead chose to address the situation publicly.

That observation gave me pause. He was right. I did speak publicly, no matter how careful I might have been with my tone, or how often I used “I” or “we” statements. I’ll admit that it never occurred to me to approach her privately, and I’m grateful for that insight. In that moment, all I wanted was to address what had happened so that the presenter didn’t have to. I wanted to be a white person speaking to other white people about the ways we avoid conversations about race.

I do know that there were people who felt validated and appreciative of what I did that night. But my existence is deeply rooted in the holy grail of collective liberation; that we need one another in order to evolve and heal. I know from research and personal experience that shaming puts us in a state of trauma that stunts growth, compassion, connectedness and empathy. I don’t want to be an enemy of other white people, or a perpetrator of shame. Is there a hierarchy I should follow, of whose marginalization gets attended to first? I think there is, honestly, and it’s aligned with the power structures in this country, which still favor white people and disenfranchise people with deeper skin hues. It is my place in dismantling racism to speak up, and therefore to continue to work on speaking up as respectfully – as non-shamingly – as possible. And I accept the reality that in so doing, I may give other white people an excuse to leave the fight, and that I will likely continue to be alienated both by the white folks I’ve addressed, as well as by the people with darker skin who either ignore my efforts or use them for their own purposes.

For white folks, including myself, acknowledging the realities of racism is a daily choice, because we don’t experience it ourselves and can always decide to hole up in spaces where we don’t have to notice its effects (predominantly white schools, neighborhoods, houses of worship, work environments, etc.). I think of myself as someone who intentionally creates spaces where white people face racism. And I continue to believe that speaking up is worth the risk of embarrassing or alienating another white person, even as I try and try and try again to make my words as respectful as I possibly can. Even though it’s lonely. Because I want justice and connection, and I believe with my whole heart and mind that neither of those can flourish without the other.

Your Brain: What’s it Like in There?

I remember running a training where a participant said that if someone behind him was talking to him the way that he speaks to himself, he’d punch the guy in the face. I’ve heard it said that our unconscious doesn’t understand sarcasm – that we take those “jokes” we make about ourselves very much to heart.

How do you speak to yourself? What words do you use? What’s the tone? Would you use those words and that tone with someone you loved and respected?

I want to say something so that people outside the circus tent hear it, too: self-compassion, being gentle with ourselves WILL NOT make us complacent, weak, lazy, or any of the other fear-based threats so many of us have been subtly and overtly taught. Being critical of ourselves forces us into a trauma state – the urge to fight, flee or freeze – which halts creative, spontaneous thought and growth.

Being critical of myself is how I was raised, and it was my default inner voice, so learning how to be gentle and kind to myself instead is an ongoing and involved process. I meditate; I read inspirational daily readers; I attend 12-step groups; I surround myself with people who love, respect and see me for who I am; I do things that spark joy, I try to move my body every day and feed it with foods that nourish me; I do some kind of service that helps someone else out.

I can tell you this with 100% certainty: I like myself; my day-to-day, hour-by-hour life; my work; my body; my relationships and the labyrinths of my own brain infinitely better when I know that I won’t treat myself with cruelty and condemnation, when I am as gentle with myself as I would be with someone or something truly precious. In short, it’s infinitely easier and more enjoyable to be alive when the bully no longer has the loudest voice in my head.

What do you do to improve how you speak to yourself? What could you do?

Unless I’m Sitting On Your Face, My Weight is None of Your Business

I’m sorry to be crass, but I’ve never seen a more effective response to weight stigma. Put differently, I believe with my whole heart (and have seen time and again) that criticizing someone else’s body – even when we think we’re being helpful – never, ever, ever helps. Unless I am living under a rock and I never leave, I am deluged on a daily basis by messaging about what my body “should” look like to be acceptable in this culture: believe me – we have each already internalized those images and have become quite skilled at comparing our own bodies to them. What we accomplish by commenting on another’s body (particularly negative comments) is to let them know that we, too, are judging them by this one yardstick; we become the personification of the messages that are already a Greek chorus, a tickertape, in that person’s head. And that person can never “un-know” that we view them through this lens.

When we are critical of something that does not directly affect us, such as someone’s size, it shines a spotlight on our own fears, anxieties and perceived shortcomings. It’s really about us. When you are tempted to express your concerns about someone else’s weight or size, consider these questions:

  • Does this person know they have a body?
  • Does this person live in Western society?
  • Do I know how this person already feels about their body?
  • Has this person asked me for help or support concerning their body’s size?
  • Am I willing to lose this person’s trust and possibly the relationship itself by saying what I want to say?
  • How comfortable am I inside my own body?

Hopefully, answering those questions silently in your mind will give you enough of a cautionary pause to prevent your words from leaving your mouth. Because loving that person and shutting the heck up is how you help. Love, connection and acceptance allow us to become the whole person we’re in this life to be, a whole that contains multitudes more than the “skin sack” holding it all. Yet again, an old adage wins the day: if you can’t say something nice, keep your mouth closed and consider what your words really say about you. Or something like that.

What is CRT?

CRT (Critical Race Theory) is a term coined by university professors Derrick Bell and Kimberle Crenshaw as a model for seeing history and other subjects through a lens of race/skin color. Two details about that sentence are are important: a) CRT was developed for a university/graduate school level of discourse, not grade school; and b) the model simply asserts that in order to see systems fully and accurately, we must consider them through a lens of race and skin color (for an explanation of why I write race AND skin color rather than just race, please see my earlier post on the myth of “Caucasian” ancestry).

Here’s an example of how acknowledging race/skin color changes what we’re seeing: the GI Bill of 1945 was intended as a gift to soldiers returning from World War II, as well as an incentive to invest in the American economy: the GI Bill offered low-interest mortgages on new homes and low-interest loans on college education for returning soldiers. This ultimately led to the building of suburban neighborhoods and a greater middle class. Great, right? A total win for America. Except that the colleges that would accept the federal loans did not accept Black people, and the neighborhoods that accepted federal mortgages only permitted white-European people to live there. If we don’t look at the GI Bill critically through a lens of race, we won’t see how this bill not only discriminated against Black soldiers, but ultimately became one of the greatest contributors to the current wealth divide between white-European and Black Americans, giving the former group an opportunity to access financial stability and higher education (along with all the connections made during this time that result in employment leads), while the latter group could not.

If we refuse to look at systems of power through a lens of race/skin color, we “whitewash” history and perpetuate the myth that the current inequities are the fault of the individual/population, rather than of laws that benefit one group while disadvantaging another.

I want to be clear regarding my own position on this CRT debate. As anyone can hopefully tell from my website, I don’t believe any of us thrive in situations where we are shamed. Telling the truth about our history DOES NOT have to mean that white-European children are made to feel bad about themselves or their place in history. By facing up to a more-nuanced telling of our story, what is ideally being taught is the ability to hold multiple truths at the same time. We can look at our circumstances through a racial lens and take responsibility for what we see without needing to shame each other. Inequities must be named in order to be corrected.

For those of you whom I haven’t lost yet, imagine for a minute that we replaced the “R” in CRT with a “G:” that all this heated debate was taking place because schools wanted to teach a grade-school version of “Critical Gender Theory,” where students were expected to learn the ways that gender impacts systems of power in American society. Who would argue that it isn’t essential to take gender into account when we look at history or health care? If I don’t acknowledge that people of different genders were and are treated differently (and often unequally) by these systems and that we have had to make significant changes in order for women to have greater access, I’m at risk of undervaluing the contributions of women, their potential for success, and possibly even putting women’s heath at risk (which is what happened when women were dosed with medications that had only been researched/dosed on men). Whenever we refuse to look at the ways that our society privileges some and disadvantages others, we are forced into the myth that one group is simply better, smarter or stronger than another. I would love to believe that even the groups that benefit from this myth would be confident enough to want to seek success on a more-level playing field.

I’ve quoted him before, and I’ll quote him again here: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Thank you, James Baldwin. May we have the courage and the humility to face our history so we can continue to right its wrongs and learn how to be better.

Brave Ideas: Understanding White Privilege

Whoo-wee. If ever there were a term that sets white people’s teeth on edge, it’s this one. And I get it, because the folks who want us to remain segregated and mad at each other have done an excellent job of using the term to suggest that white-European folks should be ashamed of ourselves; that we had everything handed to us on a silver platter and never did an honest day’s work in our lives. I’d be mad about that, too, if I believed it. But I know better.

The term white privilege means that, while I have had hardships in my life – I have faced discrimination, bullying, being denied jobs, etc. – those difficulties did not happen as a result of my skin color. Then it’s just a tiny step further to be willing to acknowledge that yes, okay, having white skin does make *some* things in my life easier, but they might be things I don’t think about very often. Here are a couple of possible examples:

  • All the money I use – bills and change – has people with my skin color portrayed on it
  • When I learn about “civilization,” I am shown/taught that people with my skin color made it what it is (this includes art, music, literature, math, science, etc.)
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to see the “person in charge,” I will be met with someone of my skin color
  • I don’t need to worry that people will assume I am poor or a criminal because of my skin color
  • I can easily buy posters, magazines, greeting cards, etc. featuring people of my skin color
  • I am never asked to represent or speak for my entire “racial” group, nor am I judged as an “example” of my “race”
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being considered a credit to my “race,” or an exception to a rule
  • I don’t have to worry that if too many people who look like me move into a neighborhood, its value will decrease

Someone once said, “I don’t know who discovered water, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.” Part of white privilege is not having to recognize how I am centered by society, how whiteness is upheld as the desirable standard against which no other skin color can compare. I might not have even realized I was white until later in my life, whereas people of color are awakened to their skin (often quite harshly) from a very early age.

I do not know what it is to live a life where my skin color is either rendered invisible or associated with poverty, criminality, public assistance, and so many other negative traits. As a part of the group that doesn’t have to experience that, I believe it’s my job to extend the sense of belonging that I feel to everyone else. How to do that is fodder for another post. Or nine.

Lie #1: “Caucasian” is a Scientific Category

One of the ways racism is super-sneaky is that it provides terms we have come to assume are real, scientific, and factual, when really they are the stuff of legend and myth. In the 1700s, Johann Blumenbach coined the term Caucasian for “the White Race” as one of five subcategories of humans (the other four were: Malayan – The Brown Race, Ethiopian – The Black Race, Mongolian – The Yellow Race, and American – the Red Race, none of which we uphold as distinct racial categories today). He named the “white” race Caucasian because he felt the “most beautiful” skull in his human skull collection was from the Caucasus mountain range (“particularly its southern slope, which produces the most beautiful race of men” – J. Blumenbach), and thereby must represent his own people (he was German). The Caucasus Mountain Range, however, is in Azerbaijan and Armenia, places from which citizens would likely not even be considered “white” today: places that are nowhere near Europe or wherever “white” people are supposed to have originated.

When we use the term Caucasian, we are unwittingly upholding the white supremacy that Blumenbach promoted. We are also falsely suggesting that racial categories exist, which they do not. Our skin carries differing pigmentations depending on the intensity of sunlight wherever our ancestors settled. If they lived for generations somewhere in or near the equator, where sunlight is most intense (parts of Australia, Africa, India and South America), chances are good that their (and our) skin is darker in order to have better protected us from sunburn, skin cancers, etc.. If, however, our ancestors moved far from the equatorial band, they/we needed more vitamin D to penetrate our skin, and therefore our skin gradually lost its melanin in order to take in more sunlight. Skin color differs gradually by location, by distance from the equator – not by race. Think about it logically: if you were to walk from the tropics to the North pole, could you mark where people’s “race” suddenly changed? No – there would be a gradual change in the depth of color of residents’ skin. As Jay Smooth likes to say, “Race is a dance partner that was designed to trip us up.” For more information on this, please consider watching RACE: The Power of an Illusion, a PBS production which can be found on YouTube and Vimeo.