Lean In to the Conversations that Scare You

Lean In to the Conversations that Scare You December 11, 2015

Selfie by Lelanda Lee

Recently, this question was asked on a Facebook page: “What do we do with White sensitivity?”

How do we see ourselves compared to the way others see us? How do we view what is in front of us as compared to how others describe the same scene? What makes us feel vulnerable, like we have something to fear or something to lose? [Drawing by Lelanda Lee]
I am grateful that we live in a time when we can ask these questions freely. They signify an underlying willingness to listen and learn. The hope that I see in the Emergent Church is a willingness to lean into these types of self-exposing questions and to find conversation partners who will help us delve deeper into our own psyches and open our hearts wider. I personally love these types of conversations, even though they scare me, because they are our human efforts at connecting the divine spark in ourselves with the divine spark we recognize in other persons.

My answer to “What do we do with White sensitivity?” is, first, we have to acknowledge that White sensitivity exists, whether you think it’s right or wrong. It is real.

I think I would respond differently based on the context. If I’m talking with a close friend whom I know well and who knows me well, then I might assume that we have built a basic foundation of friendship and trust. I might then find it possible to be more frank than I otherwise would be.

It will always be risky in the course of human interactions to name a racist behavior and to confront it with the perpetrator. Yet, not doing so hurts my sense of personal integrity and means that I, as a person of color, am once again “stuffing it” to the detriment of my own mental and emotional health. Not doing so also means that I am helping to “train” the White person to “get away with it” once again.

It also matters whether or not the conversation is playing out in private just between the two of us or in a setting where there are observers – maybe even in a group setting. For me, kindness even as I am trying to be genuine and truthful is something I strive for.

When I deconstruct White sensitivity, I can see the many possible components that underlie it. In some cases, a thoughtful, ethical, and moral White person may not even be aware that s/he is doing or saying something that is inherently racist. A good example which I often raise in anti-racism workshops that I conduct is situations where a Person of Color (like me) is in an intimate relationship with a White person.

Sometimes, in the course of such relationships, it takes a long time – like years – to reach the place in the relationship where it is safe enough for both parties to practice raw honesty and call out racist behavior. My experience is that these kinds of conversations cannot be five minutes and then it’s over; rather, it’s long, detailed, and sometimes painful conversation where a lot of “I” (first person) statements are made … “That makes me feel …” or “I am upset when you …” or “You know when you tell that joke, it’s racist, and here’s why … and it makes me feel …”

Often, the people scenarios that we encounter contain multiple focal points that each have importance and relevance. Parsing and deconstructing fraught scenarios is one way to lean into the essence of the human interaction and reach points of connection. [Photo by Lelanda Lee]
When the racist behavior is in a transient setting, such as in a public meeting where I’m unlikely to interact with the perpetrator again, I might let it go if there is nothing to be learned or gained by anyone. Other times, when I think it’s possible for me to make a point that calls people to think more deeply and to reflect on what just happened, I may engage and take the time and effort to explain what has happened, using again “I” statements and maintaining my composure so as not to get overly emotional or angry in front of everyone, and instead, to be factual, to state the facts of what just happened, and to state how that made me feel and why it’s racist. It may make the others in the group, especially the White people, feel uncomfortable, but I am hopeful that I have the experience and skills to be a teacher and a role model in those instances.

I would summarize by saying that my personal approach is to try to use these instances as teaching moments, especially if the people I’ve interacted with are basically good, but uninformed, people. How will Whites or anyone who is behaving in a derogatory manner ever change if someone doesn’t take the time and effort to help them see the wrongness and hurtfulness of their behavior and to make suggestions on how they could approach the same situation differently in the future?

Just as we can be allies to People of Color who are being marginalized, I think it is also important to be allies to White people who are trying to be good people in racial situations and don’t know any better, yet. At the end of the day, all we have is each other.

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