Like many of you, the recent increase in attention to the murders of Black people by law enforcement has led me to reflect more than usual on the extent to which I live my life as an anti-racist. As I do this, I remember times when I failed in this goal, and think about how I can improve in the future.
Recently, one incident from my time at MIIS came to mind. A BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) member of the MIIS community informed me that something I had said during class had offended them, but I didn’t understand why. Although it made me very nervous to do so, I worked up the courage to talk to the person in more depth about our interaction. Certainly, I wanted to understand in order to take responsibility for what had happened and avoid harming anyone further in the future. I have to admit that on some level I also wanted to complete the steps necessary to show that I was “a good white person”.
Before I proceeded, I hesitated. I knew that I happened to be going through a hard time emotionally, and thought about how I therefore might not be able to remain composed during a difficult conversation. However, with only a few days left in the semester, I wanted to check this conversation off my to do list, so I went forward.
During the conversation, I really wanted to understand the other person’s point of view. I knew that I perpetuated and benefited from systemic racism in many ways. However, I kept feeling like in this particular instance, I had been misunderstood. During this conversation in which I was supposed to be listening and apologizing, I started crying.
It isn’t easy for any of us to confront the racism that permeates every part of our society, and especially our own participation in it. Many of us must dismantle white fragility maintained over decades of avoidance of the topic of race. We must remember though, that facing these challenges is our responsibility to our BIPOC friends and colleagues who have been carrying the burden for far too long.
When BIPOC choose to share their experiences of racism, allies should thank them for their time, emotional labor, and social risk-taking, and use the conversation as an opportunity for growth. We often won’t fully comprehend their perspective right away. However, our first step should be to believe the person who has lived with these experiences their entire life. Verbalizing immediate reactions like mine that the criticism is unfounded or was addressed incorrectly have the effect of gaslighting and tone policing. My behavior may seem from my perspective like a reaction to a unique combination of factors (e.g. too little sleep, stress, being in a rush), but if this is a well-known pattern to the other person, I have to examine my role in a multi-layered system of oppression. Too often, we haven’t done that analysis because we have the privilege of choosing not to.
There is a deeply racist history of lynching and imprisoning innocent Black men in the name of defending white women, who in some cases had made false accusations. There is also a pattern of white women calling the police over Black people making normal use of public space. The intersection of sexism and racism has normalized white women crying while others rush to their aid. Frequently, this occurs after a white woman interprets a conversation about racism as a personal attack. Meanwhile, BIPOC women are expected to control their emotions, and are blamed for offending the white woman. This reaction silences the person trying to share their experience of oppression in the moment, and deters them from doing so again in the future.
White people may still need help processing thoughts and emotions about racism, but we should do this in private with other white people. The ring theory of trauma imagines people on concentric circles, with those closest to the trauma at the center. In the context of racism, BIPOC are at the center of the circle as disproportionate recipients of a wide range of injustices, from police brutality and mass incarceration, to discrimination in housing, healthcare, education, and employment. We should always aim to support those closer than us to the trauma, and ask for support from those farther away. In ring theory this idea is summarized as “comfort in, dump out”.
It is also important to be honest with ourselves about what level of discussion we can handle at a given time. While having a discussion to understand how we have hurt someone is important, it will do more harm than good if we aren’t ready to center the conversation around the person who was hurt. The conversation immediately shifts to center around the feelings of a person who is crying.
If we engage in anti-racism, it is inevitable that we will make mistakes and receive criticism. We must move away from a racist/non-racist binary, in which a small group of bad people are the “racists”, and good intentions keep us safely in the non-racist category. Under such a system, any acknowledgement of our participation in racism sounds like a judgement of our entire morality. We have to instead accept that we are in the constant process of learning to be anti-racist, and prepare to respond with accountability when these conversations occur. When they do, we should then be able to center the pain of the person who has been oppressed, and focus our energy on preventing future harm.