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.


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