Monday, June 29, 2015

We Never Talked About It Again

Me -- a long time ago
I remembered the moment clearly for years. 

It was back in the day, which for me was 1969 or 1970; I was a student in college, the George Washington University in Washington DC. And there was a big national antiwar march of some sort coming up. Honestly, they all blur together in my mind at this point. 

Anyway a group of us had decided that we wanted to have our own march, marching as a contingent from our neighborhood, up by DuPont Circle, down to the Mall where our little contingent would join the masses there assembled. We decided to call it “a community march”. We did all the things you do get a march going — tweeted, facebooked, emailed — no, we mimeographed leaflets and stapled notices on telephone poles and spread the word by word of mouth. We had a meeting planned to talk about it. 

And I was chosen among the organizers to lead that meeting. 

We gathered, the room was pretty full. 

And joining us, unexpectedly, was a contingent of African Americans who were from, you know, “the community” — the community of people who lived in our neighborhood, and were not students, or used-to-be-students or just free-range young white people.

They let us know that it was presumptuous, and indeed, racist, to declare what we were planning a “community” march. 

We were not the community, we were not community leaders.

They confronted us with our racist assumptions.

I was twenty years old, with no real experience in political organizing beyond my college campus and I was the leader at that moment. I think back on all the things I could have done right then that would have been more helpful, but none of those were what I did.

Instead, I got defensive. I explained again with great care what our intentions were and how they were really good intentions. I talked a while, you know, as you do, when you just keep talking in the vain hope that something useful will eventually come out of your mouth. 

I knew they were right, and so I was embarrassed.

I was angry because I was embarrassed. 

I just want to be calm, and in control of myself, succumbing to neither embarrassment or anger. I was so self-focussed, that I can remember exactly how I felt, but can remember nothing and nobody else. 

I don’t know how the meeting ended. I do know that we had no special march down to the Mall. I think the whole thing died that night. 

But my friends, my fellow organizers, we never talked about what happened at that meeting, never talked about it again. 

Have you had a similar experience?

Or, Have you had the experience of being the people of color in that room, and watching the white people retreat into themselves, like turtles, to avoid making a response or even starting a relationship? Protecting themselves and their sense of dignity above all?

I have carried that experience for now 40 plus years, as this unresolved chunk of experience and I mostly try to avoid being in that situation again. 

Only recently has someone given a name to that fear of the powerful emotions of moments like that. They call it “white fragility”. 

Segregation has meant that many white people don’t have much interaction with people of color, and when we/they do, we want those interactions to be “post-racial” or “color-blind”, like nobody sees race.

So, a lot of whites are emotional fragile about racial differences.  We whites don't think that we live in a post-racial world, as much as we really want to live in a post-racial world, where we never had to think about race again. But it’s a multi-racial world. We're anxious about making mistakes. We're anxious about being called out for offending someone. 

Of course, people of color don’t have the option of operating as though race didn’t matter. So, I have seen named something called “racial battle fatigue” — the accumulated stress on people of color having to interact with white people who are avoiding the whole subject of race, and are thus, clueless, careless, and damaging.

My friends and I never talked again about what happened at that meeting, and so it has lived on, unhealthily for many years. 

We can’t keep doing that…

We have to imagine a new way; we have build a new way.

Let’s imagine that we can create communities, ways of being together whether face to face or in a network where white fragility transforms into white vulnerability, and white vulnerability creates white resilience which leads to white authenticity which then flows into genuine solidarity. Let’s create spaces where we are unafraid of criticism, and free of self-focus, and able to stay in the room. Let’s build a new way where the feelings of white people, their fears, anxieties, and shame, are not the center of our collective attention. 

Our religious and spiritual communities have always been places of imagination and hope; let them become places where we break down the emotional imperviousness of white fragility. 

Shakespeare, in Othello, creates this wonderful metaphor of emotional vulnerability and honesty. He has a character say, “Let me wear my heart upon my sleeve..” Out here, where it is less protected, less cushioned, but where it can be seen, and touched.  Let us wear our hearts on our sleeves, so we might join heart to heart, and move forward together. 



4 comments:

Susanne said...

Awesome, Tom. You nailed it. We are fragile when we know we are wrong but we don't know what to do about it how to atone. You're right. We need to stay in the room and get out of ourselves, out of our self-focus. And we need white leaders to show leadership, to show us how to accept responsibility, offer real reparations, create justice. Whiteness privilege needs to be publicly deconstructed by white people.

Curtiss Reed, Jr. said...

Brilliantly stated. I wish you the courage for your convictions.

Joel Miller said...

It's such self-destructive Progressive term: "White Fragility". Yes, it's useful since it's true. Yes, "whiteness" has to be deconstructed.

But it's that Progressive thing we do too: self-sabotaging ourselves with a shaming term.

So, 40 years ago, how about asking "How can we support you, the people of this Community? How can we be your allies, maybe even your friends?" To do that would make us white folks even more fragile -- because we then take on the vulnerabilities that Black folks had/have to live with relentlessly every moment. How can be allow ourselves the courage to be broken, to be hurt, to live for the world we long for in which all people are beloved?

Janet Klein said...

Yes, I assume all have had a similar experience.

Several groups at my church are reading and discussing Debby Irving's powerful book "Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race." Highly recommend the story of her unpacking white privilege in her life and learning about the realities of racism and it's invisible influence in every single part of our society. Time for all of us to wake up, get out of our comfort zones, and be willing to be the change. The enemy is us.