At Carleton’s MLK event this year, one of the student speakers asked the audience if they were engaging in self-care, making sure that they were getting enough sleep and eating well, etc.
That speech got us talking about how that this notion of self-care can be extended to thinking about how we build the resiliency and emotional strength to react in productive ways when we are being “called out” for something we said or did, particularly around issues of identities.
We wanted to share first a couple of examples of how we have reacted in the past–sometimes well, sometimes not–when we were challenged about something we said or did.
Recently, Anita was talking with a friend who is biracial about the Whitewashing phenomenon in Hollywood (and hey, check out our post on this topic if you haven’t already!) and, at the end, she jokingly said, “Yeah, you’ve got to get your people to get their act together.” Her friend said, “What do you mean ‘my people’?”
Anita: “Well, I mean, you have a White parent, you grew up with mostly White family members.”
Friend: “But they’re not ‘my’ people. I don’t get seen as White.”
At this point, Anita should have just stopped talking. Instead, she tried to defend her statement: “I know but they’re your people in a way they’re not mine because you grew up with them.”
Friend: “But so what? That doesn’t make them my people because you and I are more ‘people’ together because we’re both not seen as White.”
And so on. Eventually, Anita admitted that perhaps she was wrong and the friend graciously moved on, and even joked about White folks being “their people” a few days later.
One lesson that we took from this: Anita’s need to defend her not-so-well-thought-out joke become more important in this moment than respecting her friend’s right to name their own experience, community, and identity. Her comment reinforced essentialized notions of racial identity, which can serve to reify and naturalize racial categories. As two of our favorite theorists Omi & Winant note, “‘Essentializing’ race is always possible–treating it as a fundamental, transhistorical marker of difference can reduce race to a sort of uniform people are made to wear, thus reproducing–however consciously or unconsciously–the stereotyping that characterizes racism itself” (p. 261).
Adriana’s experience occurred at a retreat a few years ago where everyone was talking about their racial, cultural, and gendered identities. It’s probably important to know that there were several black women, a few Latinas, a few Asian American women, and several white people. Adriana found herself–naturally, in her eyes–bonding with the other Latinas and feeling close with the other women of color. She wanted to, and did, affirm their experiences openly.
On the third day of the retreat, after the group had gone through a few highly-emotional scenarios, including a discussion of colorism and prejudice, one of the women of color confronted Adriana during a full group discussion, demanding to know why she could identify as a woman of color while presenting as someone so white. She was angry, and in pain. Adriana didn’t know how to handle it at first; her instincts were to shut down, or to leave, or to be angry in return. Whose instincts would be any different? But instead, using a couple of the skills learned in the workshop, she stayed and listened. And then she asked the woman to ask her a question, which she would answer. And then she did.
It’s not that important to know exactly what the woman asked. But it matters that, even though it had been a while since Adriana had been confronted about her whiteness directly, she had a long history and practice of thinking about what her whiteness meant for how she was perceived and how she could and would build trust within communities of color; she knew she couldn’t expect any individual or group to accept her just because she said she belonged. And she was willing to be vulnerable and share with the room her story of who she had learned she was so that they might be willing to trust her.
That moment was hard, but Adriana’s willingness to take a deep breath and listen through the understandable anger opened up the possibility of building connection by being honest and acknowledging her white-passing privilege. This move then made space for the woman to hear Adriana’s truth.
While it seems difficult in the moment to step away from one’s own feelings and logic, it is possible to do so as Adriana’s example beautifully illustrates. And we’d argue that it is not only possible but also necessary to do because we need to be aware of how we might be contributing to discourses and practices that perpetuate inequality or oppression.
We’re not saying it’s easy nor are we saying that it’s not necessary to process one’s own emotions in such situations. Clearly, it’s difficult to let go of wanting to defend oneself, the impulse to say “hey, no, this is what I really meant to say,” because, well, we’re human. We are suggesting, however, that perhaps that emotional processing should not happen with the person who has been brave enough to say something to you or ask a question about how your actions, words or ways of navigating the world are complicit in reproducing discourses, practices, structures or systems that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist or classist.
Thinking about how to build and practice resiliency in these situations led us to a few overarching suggestions. First, we think it’s important to recognize your privileges, so that you are better able to listen to and validate people’s experiences when they don’t have those same privileges. Second, we both endorse the deep breath method. When you’re challenged by someone else’s emotional truth that counters your own, you’ve just received a kind of shock that might shatter your perceptions about yourself and what you take for granted. So take a deep breath, and let your whole system adjust to this new reality. Finally, like any other skill–and we both see resiliency as a skill–it gets easier with practice.
Sally Huang-Nissen, 1999, Dialogue groups: A practical guide to facilitate diversity conversation (Los Altos, CA: Corner Elm Publications). Chapter 2.
Michael Omi & Howard Winant, 2015, Racial formation in the United States, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge).
Katherine Roubos, 2016, “Cultivating Resilience: Antidotes to White Fragility in Racial Justice Education.”
Saroful, 2017, “How to survive in intersectional feminist spaces 101,” Crossknit.
Jamie Utt, 2016, “Learn about common ally mistakes,” Everyday Feminism.
The Another Round podsquad gathered ideas from their listeners about how to be better allies and, of course, listening is listed as one key move. While they were focused on racial allyship, we think their ideas apply more broadly.