Grace vs. niceness in interracial dialogue

Grace vs. niceness in interracial dialogue August 31, 2014

I wanted to ponder the difference between grace and niceness in difficult online conversations, particularly the discussions of race that have sprung up in response to the crisis in Ferguson, MO. Please do not read this as an analysis of any particular conversation that has occurred. It is meant to be a completely generic, hypothetical consideration. The problem is that many of us conflate grace with niceness, and while they have some overlap, they are very different phenomena.

First, how can we define the distinction between niceness and grace? I would say that niceness refers to the complex dance of smiling, posturing, innuendo, laughter, self-deprecation, etc. that keeps a conversation pleasant and easygoing. Niceness doesn’t always mean that you’re being loving. One of the exquisite arts of the Southern white culture I was raised in is the use of niceness as a mask for vicious cruelty. What’s not allowed in the culture of niceness is to be blatantly “ugly” or “vulgar.” Being nice isn’t a bad thing per se. It’s good to be nice to people, particularly strangers, as a default for conversation. But the grace with which we’re called to treat other people as Christians is something different than niceness.

Grace is a space in which truth and love are fully welcome and present. It is like niceness in its posture of welcome; it is unlike niceness in its unwillingness to airbrush over the unpleasant. As a Wesleyan, I define grace first and foremost as God’s quest to win our trust through Christ’s justification on the cross and then make us holy and beautiful through the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying transformation. Given this particular divine source of grace, we could say that grace happens among people who assume that they often do wrong, know that they’re forgiven, and want to learn how to be better. Niceness prioritizes pleasantry and the avoidance of conflict; grace prioritizes complete acceptance and thus complete openness to unpleasant truths.

So how do grace and niceness happen in our online conversations? We need to recognize that we inhabit a very strange and unprecedented conversational space online. As someone who mostly uses social media for my writing career to build relationships with fellow writers and readers, I spend a lot of time interacting with people I barely know at all. My in-person conversations outside of my immediate family are generally governed by niceness. I make pleasantries and avoid conflict with the people I have to interact with face-to-face. But when I get online, it’s much easier to let everything out. I’m an “introvert” in person and an “extrovert” online, which is to say that I’m very guarded about what I say to people in real life and not quite so guarded about what I type on my computer screen and blast out to people online.

Online conversation can be very disorienting when we expect it to simply be a written version of what our in-person conversations look like, because it completely isn’t. Online, all of the natural social inhibitions that regulate our in-person conversations are gone. That can be a source of liberation. It can also cause conflict to escalate and spiral out of control very quickly. It’s very easy to misread other peoples’ tone online. Southern white people like me are accustomed to the culture of niceness in which every communication is mediated through self-deprecation, innuendo, and other pleasantries in order to smooth over any delicate, contentious point that needs to be made. When people simply make their contentious points without all the fluffy niceness, we perceive them to be rude. And this is precisely what happens online where it’s a lot easier to forgo dressing up our words with a bunch of packaging and just cut to the chase.

When you add racial difference to the powder-keg of online communication, it becomes even more uncomfortable. I’ve been told that a very liberating aspect of social media for people of color is that it provides a forum to call out hurtful things that white people do and say that seldom get called out in the socially segregated worlds where we have our in-person interactions. Nor did these things get called out in the pre-social media past when the world’s information was filtered through news anchors like Walter Kronkite and Tom Brokaw.

There are habits that white people have inherited from our culture that sideline and silence people of color, even though it’s often quite unintentional on our parts. The culture of niceness that pervades so much of white culture makes us think that it’s “rude” to talk about injustice in polite company because it’s unpleasant and controversial. Another invisible factor in our conversations is that Western European people have been socialized over the past several centuries of our global dominance to view ourselves as the protagonists of the world’s story. Because of this socialization, white people unconsciously find ways to make it our story even when we’re talking about other people. There are various different manipulative tactics we engage in to dominate conversations, usually without realizing that we’re doing it.

So what happens when a person of color calls out something I’m doing as a white person that steps on his/her toes? It’s very very hard not to get defensive, because I immediately think that if a person of color criticizes me, it must mean I’m a racist and that’s the most horrible thing that a white person can possibly be and I try so hard every day not to be that way, so how dare some stranger accuse me of being racist when s/he doesn’t know a thing about me? And what’s even worse is if this happens publicly in social media where a bunch of other people see it. How utterly humiliating! It’s like the online version of the medieval punishment of getting put into the stocks for everyone to see and shake their heads and completely write you off forever.

Except that it doesn’t have to be that way. I can respond with grace. In this case, grace means recognizing that even if I wasn’t trying to be hurtful, my actions or words were hurtful to somebody else who probably has a history of being belittled and silenced by other white people like me. It may very well be that the sins of other white people have been projected onto me, but that only means that I have been given the opportunity to repent for the collective sin of my people.

And as much as I may want it all to be a simple misunderstanding, it’s probably also the case that there are things about my behavior and speech that can be made less harmful to other people. That’s why I would say it’s the gracious move to simply thank the person for his/her feedback and apologize that s/he was hurt without qualification or reservation. I don’t need to defend or explain my intentions since what they received was hurtful, and that’s what matters in this case. I don’t think I lose any credibility points for apologizing that someone else was hurt even if I can’t understand what I did wrong.

What’s a bit harder to know is how to behave as white people who are sensitized to racial power dynamics when we see other white people getting called out. Grace is critical in this circumstance as well. I think there are two general responses that are problematic (and again, please understand, I’m not saying this in response to the particularities of any conversation I’ve witnessed, but recognizing two opposite general responses).

One response is to show how zealous an anti-racist I am by how ruthlessly I can tear apart another white person. White people must be acutely self-suspicious about the authenticity of our anti-racism. We will always be tempted to make ourselves the protagonists of the story, especially when we get to pretend that we’ve transcended our personal whiteness by going off on other white people. It’s certainly legitimate to show our solidarity for the person of color calling something out; it’s part of our responsibility once we understand our problematic legacy; but we must express ourselves with the utmost humility when we do so.

The other response happens when we see friends whom we know to be good, thoughtful, compassionate people getting criticized by people we don’t know as well. It doesn’t matter what the criticism is. It’s always going to appear like an unjust caricature of the good, thoughtful, compassionate person we know and love. So our instinct is going to be to jump all over the critics like a mama bear whose cub has been bullied and say whatever we can to discredit and repudiate them. It totally makes sense to stick up for your friends. But when we do so, we inevitably make unjust caricatures of our friends’ critics who are also probably good, thoughtful, compassionate people we don’t know very well (whose race may be part of the reason why).

I think what grace looks like when we see another white person getting called out is to have a private truth-in-love conversation with that person if we have enough of a relationship to do so. Activist Ngọc Loan Trần refers to this as “calling in” rather than “calling out.” Such a conversation would not begin with unsolicited feedback about whether I think what they did was right or wrong, but by asking questions, like how they perceive the criticism they received and why they think their words or actions were received in this way. It would involve reaffirming the dignity of the person who has been criticized while exploring honestly the validity of the criticism and refusing to invalidate the dignity of the critic regardless of the conclusion. It would involve seeking the truth together without presuming to know the truth in advance.

I’m not sure exactly how to have this type of conversation, and I’m not sure if I have ever had one. Usually when my friends have conflict, I stick up for them and dis their critics, even though I might be simultaneously dissing them in a different conversation with the person who criticized them. Being a good Southern white boy, I’ll be nice to whoever I happen to be talking to even if it means being spineless and two-faced like that. Grace is a lot harder than niceness. One day I hope to learn grace.

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  • this is so curious and foreign to me, morgan. there are books to be written on how personality plays out in conflict and reconciliation and the differences between “thinkers” and “feelers”.

    • I would love to hear more. How do non-INFP’s navigate this differently?

      • i think the apologies we desire and give are pretty different. i want (and try to give) apologies for specific behavior and words, and it drives me up a wall, particularly online, when i identify some sort of sexism at play, and men are like, “i’m sorry i offended you/made you sad,” like the issue is my sensitivity and not the actual presence of sexism that could/should change.

        when it comes to racism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, etc, i think we trust people as experts in their own experiences and marginalization. if someone says that something i said is racist, i believe them. we probably aren’t having a misunderstanding, because i don’t have to mean it for it to “count.” most of this junk flies under dominant radars. people rarely intend to discriminate or marginalize, but misogyny and white supremacy are institutional and systemic. good people doing nothing will perpetuate a status quo that is inherently unjust, and well-intentioned people do racist and sexist stuff every day. we don’t need to justify our intentions (or in my opinion, apologize for stuff we still don’t understand)–we need to cultivate eyes to see, hearts to listen, and feet to walk out another path.

        • Okay. I think what I was trying to do in that paragraph was to remove any stumbling blocks for people who think, “I wasn’t trying to be sexist/racist/etc.” Intentions don’t matter. It’s how things are received. I understand that “I’m sorry I offended you/hurt your feelings” is not a real apology but a devious shifting of blame. I do think it’s legitimate to say, “I’m sorry I hurt you,” which acknowledges that real harm occurred without it having to be the case that I was malevolently seeking to cause harm.

          I don’t think I have to commit to the absolute infallibility of every non-white, non-cis-het, non-male person in their criticism, which is what I kinda hear you wanting me to do. That premise when it’s made absolute is a major stumbling block for moderate white people. I don’t think being gracious requires me to say that I’m always in the wrong whenever there’s a dispute because I’m white, male, and cis-het. To believe that seems to me to be the recipe for a guilt-laden and ultimately resentful existence.

          To me, grace means that I don’t get defensive about whatever criticism I receive from someone who has been marginalized because I don’t want to silence that person. I certainly study it and take it seriously as a resource for my sanctification. I certainly presume that I have major blind spots that I need help seeing. But my lack of defensiveness is not contingent upon a presumption that all of the criticism is always 100% right. If some of it doesn’t fit, I forgive and let it go. If I have a trusting enough relationship with the person, I might push back gently in private to keep things real in our relationship.

          • jtheory

            “I don’t think I have to commit to the absolute infallibility of every non-white, non-cis-het, non-male person in their criticism,” I really didn’t see her saying that at all Morgan.

            I think what her point is, and this is only my interpretation mind you, is that when POC are speaking of experiences, power dynamics, etc. (and this goes for other marginalized as well), that we should consider that experientially they do know what they’re talking about better than we know what they’re talking about. It’s not infallibility and that seems like a nonsequitur, it’s an acknowledgement of experience trumping intellectual interest every time.

            When in a conversation I’m going to assume automatically every time that I know how this looks less better than one who has experienced it daily. That’s the safest assumption. Sure they might be wrong, or maybe someone else’s experience is different, but we can definitely safely assume their experience is better informed than -our own- at least.

          • I think the stumbling block for me and perhaps other post-evangelicals is that post-evangelicals are used to being told that we know nothing since we’re totally depraved and we must submit to an infallible authority figure whether it’s the small group leader or pastor. It’s easy to feel like POC critics are the new infallible authority figures for a post-evangelical entering into radical politics. At least that’s what I did in my brain in my first foray into the radical community in the early 2000’s. I just mapped my unhealthy evangelical anthropology and self-hatred onto a new system. And then I got resentful. And I left radical politics for a decade. So for me what works better is to say if someone tells me that they’ve been hurt by something I’ve done, I’m going to separate out my commitment to listening graciously and affirming their dignity from my private discernment of what I can actually change about my behavior. I don’t have to be completely wrong to acknowledge the wrong that somebody else got hurt by something I did. I don’t know if that makes any sense. My goal is to learn how not to harm others without beating myself up to the point that I get resentful. And this is the best way I’ve found to self-narrate what I’m doing.

          • this isn’t about infallibility. it’s about people being authorities on their *own* experiences (which are not wholly alike). grace defers, acknowledging that my perspective on racism as a white lady is simply not as valid as a person of color’s. similarly, your perspective on sexism is second-hand, whereas mine is a primary source perspective.

            there are a million instances and conversational topics, in theory at least, in which varying perspectives are equally worthy, but in matters of discrimination or oppression, we privilege the margins. that’s actually kinda all we’ve got. in pretty much *every* other scenario imaginable, those reliable authorities look just like you.

          • That’s a helpful way of articulating it, in terms of people being authorities on their own experiences. I can’t disagree with that. I of course agree with privileging the margins. My point in framing grace the way I did is that I think it involves *bracketing* my protests about feeling misunderstood or having good intentions so that I can actually listen to someone else’s perspective. I don’t have to say well since I’m always wrong and I suck in general, I should listen. The prerequisite to listening is not absolute ideological surrender and self-negation. I don’t have to renounce whatever feelings and perceptions I have as being completely invalid bullshit; I just have to bracket those feelings in order to make space for listening. To me, grace means setting aside the preoccupation with whether or not I’m wrong/invalid/worthless so that I can learn and grow.

          • Elisabeth Grunert

            You guys, that was a beautiful conversation.

            And, Morgan, I thought this post was spot-on; very insightful and wise analysis of both “sides.”

            I watch a lot of these arguments unfold and get nastier and nastier and involve more and more combatants, and think in frustration, twitter is just not the place for this. Everyone is an avatar to everyone else, and no one can possibly develop their thoughts in such a way as to be understood.

            Like so many arguments, there seems to be a text and a subtext. Each party has a fear or a worry about the opposing side that it would be too vulnerable to name over twitter, you know?

            One one side, it seemed people were worried that their supposed allies were not actually willing to dismantle white supremacy at all. Like these white progressives that so many look to for leadership only want a kind of surface level liberalism, and won’t be willing to give up any privilege or power for marginalized voices. They’ll fight for civil rights, but won’t help dismantle the system that denied them in the first place.

            On the other side, I saw a lot of the fear you describe above, Morgan, that “because I’m white, I’m going to be treated as wrong on all things, forever. I won’t get to decide whose internet accusations pursue me everywhere and keep me up at night. No matter what I do or don’t do, at any moment, someone could call me a white supremacist and then the whole internet will pile on me.”

            Both fears, to my observations, have some grounding in reality, and neither should be dismissed or scoffed at by the other side. But only if people are honest about what’s really at stake to them will we get anywhere, I fear.

            Otherwise, we’re going into battle in brilliant shining armor, safe, but unrecognizable as humans.

            Does that make sense?

            I’m sorry to butt in! I just had to get that out.

          • You’re not butting in. Always great to hear from you. I think part of my role as a “feeler” trying to dismantle white supremacy is to say to my fellow feelers I get what you’re feeling and it’s not something you just need to get over already and STFU about, but it can’t be the trump card against making the changes that need to be made.

          • Elisabeth Grunert

            I usually ENTJ on the Meyers-Briggs, but I still have to fight feeling terribly disturbed and like someone wants to negate me when I get the sense my skin color (or any other attribute of my identity) might determine whether my words are believed. I have to remind myself every time I feel that sensation that some people feel that way on a daily basis, and that reminder sometimes helps me be more willing to entertain others’ criticism.

          • Christyinlosangeles

            Jay Smooth (who I think is always so fantastic when it comes to talking clearly and kindly about racism), has a great TedX talk that I think is helpful in shifting perceptions and making challenging conversations about race less threatening. He directly addresses the fear that “I can’t have just done/said something racist because that would mean I’m a racist and a horrible person, and I don’t want to be a horrible person” that several commenters have referred to.

          • i think this comes back to personality differences, too. from my perspective, personal worth and dignity are wholly independent of behavior. we all make mistakes and hurt each other, but those things don’t make us bad people–they make us human. none are worthless, always wrong, or in need of “self-negation”.

            i do think that “feelers” who are people of privilege have a harder time navigating justice frameworks and public conversations, because while our feeling are certainly valid, they may need to be radically de-centered (which, i think, is some of what i hear you saying). my guilt, frustration, anger, or shame may be standing in the way of the work of dismantling broken systems and cultivating something whole and just in their place.

          • jtheory

            that’s a good way to put it. decenter your feelings. something I’ve definitely had to do as a “feeler”.

          • Yeah I think we absolutely agree on the need to be de-centered. The difference is perhaps how we narrate the way there. Perhaps “feelers” need a lot more reassurance that they aren’t evil horrible people, whereas “thinkers” are like okay, I did something that caused harm, I’m going to listen so I won’t do it again, end of story.

        • One thing that has been phenomenally successful for me has been to explain things in terms of systems. When people start to see the big picture, they can make sense of individual facts like Ferguson or stories about date rape. As they say, all ideas are theory-laden, so if we present the ideas without the theory, then our audience will necessarily misunderstand us.

          This has been a learning experience for me, because there are some things where I just want to say, “THIS IS HOW THINGS ARE, SO SHUT UP,” to certain people. But part of the fight is to be patient and to instill understanding. Sometimes I think we all try to brute force our way into agreement with other people.

          Bringing this around to address your concerns, I would suggest that some but not all of the push-back against social justice has been related to differences of opinion about the theory, especially with regard to privilege (hoping to publish a respectful article on this soon). In short, one can say, “This is racist/sexist/etc. when you do x and y,” and that is indisputable, and you should listen when someone says this. On the other hand, something like, “This is white/male/straight/Christian privilege,” is an appeal to a certain branch of philosophy and can be disputed without being hostile or disrespectful. While deconstruction and post-modernism has grown to be the dominant framework for social justice, there is no reason it needs to be, and it may even have some significant flaws which lead to people pushing against it. This then gets misinterpreted as sexism/racism/etc. proper instead of an objection to the theory, which may be valid, even if not many people are good at articulating their objections.

          But at the same time, we should also develop the principle of charity. Even in the midst of theoretical objections, it’s oftentimes apparent what someone is trying to say. So for me as pretty much the most privileged of possible privileged people besides not being wealthy or conservative, there is a degree to which I have to set aside my objections just to listen past the specifics to the heart of the matter. The point of life is not for everyone to be 100% right all the time.

    • I’d be very curious to hear more on this, as well. I sometimes think my feelings are broken or turned off and have plenty of trouble relating to feelers on some things. This sometimes sets me at odds with fellow bloggers with whom I otherwise have a lot in common.

      Since Morgan mentioned Meyers-Briggs, I’m INTJ.

  • jtheory

    I totally get this part:
    “One response is to show how zealous an anti-racist I am by how
    ruthlessly I can tear apart another white person. White people must be
    acutely self-suspicious about the authenticity of our anti-racism. We
    will always be tempted to make ourselves the protagonists of the story,
    especially when we get to pretend that we’ve transcended our personal
    whiteness by going off on other white people.”

    We (I) still try to be the hero of the story, the white savior coming to the defense of my poc friends. I stand up and shout, sometimes even louder than my poc friends are, my empathy is a factor, but also the desire to be liked and respected. It’s still all about me.

    I like that about “calling in”. I can definitely see the need for me as a privileged white person to do that, to not make the conversation loud with my voice, but approach the person privately.

    What really sticks out to me is that we need to help other white people realize the legitmacy of the critiques being made against them, whatever the language used, because the anger or the hurt does not negate the point.

    Anyways, good post.

    • Mike Ward

      I liked that part too.

      Personally, I will take criticism from a black person that I will not take from a white person.

      For example, if a black person tells me that the violence in Ferguson is the result of insititionalized white racism, I may not agree, but I figure there’s a difference in perspective at work here, and we both might learn something if we talk about it, and heck he might even convince me he’s right.

      But when a white person says it, I just want him to shut up.

  • Guest

    “One of the exquisite arts of the Southern white culture I was raised in
    is the use of niceness as a mask for vicious cruelty. What’s not allowed
    in the culture of niceness is to be blatantly “ugly” or “vulgar.”

    As a white person who unfortunately had to grow up in the South I know that the worst thing you can say to an old white Southern woman is “bless your heart.” You might as well throw a drink in their face.

  • Mike Ward

    You said: “Usually when my friends have conflict, I stick up for them and dis their critics, even though I might be simultaneously dissing them in a different conversation with the person who criticized them.”

    I often have trouble having meaningful conversations with people because if someone says something I disagree with but who is otherwise “on my side”, I don’t know the best way to respond.

    I don’t want to pretend to agree with them, but if I disagree I’m afraid they will misunderstand.

    For instance, if someone says something like, “I oppose abortion because abortion will cause the moon to fall out of orbit and destroy the earth.” I want to respond, “Well, no that’s not true.” But I think that people will think that I’m pro-abortion or worse that I’m just an ass who likes to rebuke people who agree with me.

    Increasingly, I just don’t say anything.