We’ve all been there before: sitting in a conversation and watching the dialogue volley around like rubber bullets, waiting for just the right moment to share our thoughts. You want to take part, but you don’t want to take a hit.
As the time passes, though, we become increasingly unsure as to whether our thoughts are worth sharing. Do I understand enough to contribute to this conversation? I know I don’t understand enough, but I’m not sure how to ask the right questions to learn. What if I share my thoughts on the matter, and the other person gets upset, or argues with me? Will I look stupid or ignorant? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I am wrong?
If you’ve had any of these thoughts, then probably, your inner critic, like mine, is first up at the mic, telling you that to speak would be folly and to back away from the conversation.
And so you stay silent.
Sound familiar? Me too.
In life, I’ve been caught in that swirling eddy many times, as I think have we all. Right now, though, I can feel it in earnest. In light of the events happening in the world, and particularly the United States right now, I have found myself being unwilling to speak or share my thoughts, for fear of retaliation or misinterpretation.
Apart from my closest friends, where I feel comfortable in sharing in a discussion, because there’s enough social equity for these people to know who I am and generally understand where I’m coming from, I feel frozen in terms of knowing what to say and how to say it. With my nearest friends and family, even if I am misinformed, or hold a different opinion, it could be discussed and not turned into a finger-pointing, shame-and-guilt-laying insult match about whether or not I’m a “good person” or a racist asshole.
Last week, I responded to a comment that I felt fanned the fires of hatred, rather than dousing them. My efforts to bring love into the conversation resulted in several complete and total strangers putting words into my mouth that I had not expressed in any way, and determining me to be a racist.
My knee-jerk reaction was to fight and argue and defend, both myself and my opinion. Instead, I deleted my comment, and spent the rest of the day feeling hurt, disappointed and hopeless about the state of the world. If two parties are in agreement on an issue (e.g. black lives matter) can’t even have a conversation without winding up hurling insults at those who are allies, then what hope is there for this world to ever freaking come together?
I know I’m not alone. I know so many people want to speak, and speak out, and are unsure of what to say. Especially if they are trying to understand what is happening. It’s really hard to understand something you’ve never experienced. And for most white or white-presenting people, the privilege of their skin tone has prevented the experience of racism and all the trauma that goes along with it.
Sadly, infuriatingly, maddeningly, we have been here before. Perhaps the volume hasn’t been quite so loud, but shame on us all, this is by far not the first time a black man has been killed by police officers, or other white people, in acts of overt racism. Every time this happens, I literally find myself wanting to scream, but feeling completely void of any real way to change it. The problem seems too big.
Despite how frequently we have seen stories like this, it has taken me time to understand my white privilege and my white fragility and to peel off the layers of my well-meaning desire for a different conversation than the one we are in. I myself am only now really comprehending that I am racist regardless of my fervent desire not to be, and my belief that I love the diversity of humanity; regardless of my thoughts about and relationship to Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. It’s not something wrong with me (or you). We cannot be un-racist, simply because we have lived all our lives in a racist context: namely, a world in which systemic racism exists, benefiting some and penalizing others in accordance with the amount of melanin coded in their DNA.
Whether or not I have friends who are BIPOC, or great admiration for the contribution of BIPOC individuals and communities, whether I abhor police or any brutality, especially against people of colour, whether I want the world to be past this issue of racism and disregard for the value of all human life (and animal and vegetable, for that matter), doesn’t matter. All of my experience has been filtered through a system in which I have benefitted while others haven’t, simply based on the colour of my skin.
That is a hard pill to swallow. It’s pretty terrible to discover you’ve inadvertently been an oppressor when you never meant to be one and you’ve long despised the ideals of racism and oppression. Shit, right? It’s a difficult reality to accept, because I don’t intrinsically support racism, and yet it persists whether I like it or not. Once I understood what white privilege and white fragility meant, and stopped taking it as a personal insult, I could begin to own it, though, instead of simply reacting with rabid defensiveness of my good-heartedness. I’m somewhat embarrassed to confess that it took as long as it did, but I can forgive myself for being a product of the world in which I live.
We are all gonna need a lot of grace right about now.
I realize now that there is a lot that I can learn, so that I can begin to unlearn. I understand now that this is not a moral issue for me personally, but rather a life-long practice in noticing, questioning, learning and listening, so that I can be a better ally in creating the version of a world for which I so desperately yearn: a world in which all colours, cultures and preferences—be they driven genetically, or by choice, or otherwise—be celebrated for the contribution to the tapestry of humanity, for the world, and for our shared story.
Right now, people are shouting because they do not feel heard. And clearly, it hasn’t been shouted loudly enough in the past, because these atrocities are still happening. It’s not like racism is polite and insidious (though it can also be, which is a huge part of why racism persists): people are dying, publicly, and without consequence. Saying racism is not real just because you don’t like it, or because it doesn’t align with your beliefs (that’s nice you don’t like it, but nice is ultimately useless) doesn’t make it go away. It just makes it harder to change. We cannot change what we cannot, or will not, see.
Whether or not I want us to be in a different conversation, this is the necessary conversation we are in right now. We don’t get to skip it and get somewhere “better” until what has historically been ignored has been heard and heeded, and change actually made.
In order for this to change, we all must raise our voices. We all must be in the conversation. We have to talk about this thing that, unless you are a person of colour, is largely and conveniently invisible.
Think of it this way: racism is a virus that infects us all. Much like the virus that caused the pandemic that the entire world is reeling from, racism best spreads quietly, asymptomatically, which means that it can spread farther and wider without calling attention to itself. The virus itself is all but invisible unless you have a microscope, but the effects of the virus are undeniable and far-reaching. A person who has the virus but is asymptomatic can still spread the virus to others who are at a disadvantage, which allows the virus to wreak exponential harm in certain populations.
And so, we need you, and me, and everyone who is afraid of saying the wrong thing to say it anyway. Getting it wrong means you’re willing to risk something, instead of risking nothing by remaining silent. Nobody learns anything new without getting it wrong first. Just like learning to ride a bike, you can do it afraid. And you must. You are needed in this.
And it is important to realize that, for the most part, we are afraid for our comfort and emotional well-being, not for our actual physical safety. This fragility is a mark of privilege. There are many, many people out there who are not fighting simply for their comfort and emotional well-being; they are fighting, every day, for their lives, the lives of their families, and the right to feel as safe (not comfortable: safe) as we often take for granted.
I get it. It’s scary. My god, everything feels scary right now, doesn’t it? What a freaking time this is, and for some, scary and difficult isn’t a current, but an everyday experience.
If I am unwilling to risk being wrong, or feeling what I don’t want to feel when I enter a challenging conversation, then how can I ever expect to challenge the issue on a broader scale? If I wait while I expect someone else to say it right or do it right, then nothing will change. If we all wait until we know we’re right, we’re missing the point. Nothing will change, and more lives will be lost. That’s not okay.
We must be willing to risk learning things we don’t want to own. And we must all risk saying the wrong thing, so that we may learn the right things, so that we may put this world right, for all of us.
If you are wondering what you can do and or how you can learn more about how to be anti-racist (yes, please!), check out this list of resources that I am finding very helpful and informative.