I am white, male, straight, well-educated, well-off, able-bodied, etc. – in the “up” position in virtually every category. How can I possibly relate to the Black experience of discrimination?
In the late 70’s/early 80’s, I worked for the Catholic Diocese of Rochester. I was one of a few lay people heading a department in the Diocesan structure. I experienced first-hand the blatant and entrenched clericalism and paternalism that is rampant in this Church, and witnessed the sexism as well. I pushed back, argued, and advocated for six years. I often felt frustrated, angry, powerless.
Now here are some of the differences between that experience of discrimination and what is visited on Black people:
- No lay families were hindered in their need for affordable housing
- No lay children were being denied a decent education
- No lay people were being denied a means of making a living
- No lay people were being imprisoned
- No lay people were being killed
- And most importantly: I COULD LEAVE!!
And so I did. What if I couldn’t leave?
Black people cannot “leave”. They live perpetually in a society in which whiteness is supreme (that is, white supremacy). They experience and witness all those injustices without the option of shaking the dust from their feet and moving on, moving out.
I recall many attempts to explain to a priest or bishop how clericalism and paternalism robbed lay people of dignity and power. I would bristle when those protests were met with defensiveness, denial or patronizing dismissal. I especially recall those protests being minimized because they sensed anger in my tone. I tasted the aggravation of righteous anger being met with tone-policing. Rarely did I encounter a priest with the emotional maturity to listen to what I was saying without reactivity, to listen beyond the perceived tone.
All this to say: When Black people speak with boldness, clarity and righteous anger, we need to check the impulse to critique HOW they protest and hear WHY they protest.
This is not to condone violence, nor character assassination, nor hyperbolic representations of reality.
I also understand that for those who have been victims of angry power people in their lives there may be a need to screen, to be selective, and at times to disconnect.
STILL, for the vast majority of us, I see a responsibility to manage our own emotional reactions and LISTEN for the message in the words of a Black person who appears to be angry. Instead, too often, we white folks display defensiveness and “tone policing”, e.g.:
- “What you just said to me is very hurtful!”
- “You’re accusing me of being a racist, and I’m not!”
- “Why are you yelling at me? I didn’t do this to you!!”
- “Look, now you’ve made her cry!”
- All I said was…… and I didn’t mean it the way you took it!”
These are all examples of the dynamic Dr. Robin DiAngelo has termed “White Fragility”. They allow us to divert attention from the cause of the protest to the manner of delivery. They provide cover, obfuscation, defenses that ultimately protect systemic injustice.
A recent example of this defense is the reaction to the protests initially launched by the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick – taking a knee during the National Anthem. This was originally suggested to him by a white serviceman as an alternative to simply sitting on the bench. But “patriotic zeal” provided the perfect cover for many white folks to condemn the protest. By focusing national attention on HOW he protested, the much more challenging conversation was avoided: WHY he protested.
The author/commentator Van Jones has been especially critical of this tactic (I call it emotional blackmail), used by people on both the progressive and conservative sides of political debates. He challenges our emotional weakness, our tendency to nurse some emotional tweak as a way to avoid grappling directly with what is being said – and relating to the person who is saying it. At one point he says, “We’re not in third grade here anymore. We need to be able to manage our emotions so that we remain engaged in important conversations. We’re talking about maturity here.”
He cites a practice he has used to strengthen his ability to remain in contentious conversations: rather than continually tuning into commentators and sources that reflect his own views, he frequently listens to or watches media sources that promote opposite views. He practices listening. Even when there is a rant coming at him, he remains engaged, attempting to capture the gist of the message, testing for possible agreement vs. reactive dismissal. He is literally training himself to a higher level of responsibility for his own emotional triggers.
Of course, this same self-discipline is relevant in every other area of our lives – family, work, organizations, etc. In race relations, however, the lack of this discipline has been a core element in the continuation of systemic injustice.
Emotional maturity. Reduced reactivity. Increased curiosity. Then action. Always action!
Article: “How White Women Use Strategic Tears to Silence Women of Color” the Guardian
Book: “Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart; How We Come Together” Van Jones. He praises and challenges Americans both on the conservative and progressive ends of the spectrum.
Van Jones #1 book recommendation for conservatives: “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-blindness” Michelle Alexander
Van Jones #1 book recommendation for progressives: “Strangers in Their Own Land” Arlie Russell Hochschild
From another blogger: “When Compliments are Racist”
Workshop: “Intro to Implicit & Unconscious Bias in Professional Settings” Tues. Dec. 18, 4:30 – 6:30, Irondequoit Public Library
Discussion: “Understanding White Privilege: Conversation in the Community Room” Mon. Dec. 17 6:30 – 8:30. 540 W. Main St.
As the search for a new Superintendent for the Rochester City School District gets underway, the input of parents and knowledgeable local people is vital. Contact School Board members to encourage this participation, given that the Board has largely failed to do this in the past. They may be reached at the following addresses:
Thurs. Dec. 20, 6:00 130 W. Broad St.: Attend a Roch. City School District School Board meeting in order to get some glimpse at how this system works (or fails to work), and to support the importance of community involvement.
Tues. Dec. 18, 6:30 – 7:30, Important City Council meeting re Police Accountability Board proposal. Show up and learn more about the issue.
6th Annual MLK Worship Celebration, sponsored by United Christian Leadership Ministry. Sun. Jan. 20, 4:00 pm Pentecostal Miracle Deliverance Church. Details
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