Sunday, November 22, 2015

The gentle approach

There has been some talk in my various  spaces about the gentle approach when it comes to  "educating" fellow white people. Some even demand gentleness from black people when confronted with an unconscious or unintended racist agenda.

Being perceived as angry, emotional or even aggressive, is generally seen as counterproductive to any conversation around racism. This has been bugging me for a while, but I have so far failed to come up with  a reasonable argument  whenever somebody was getting to me by demanding that when I talk to white people about their racism I should do it gently.

So what is wrong, I have to ask myself, about entering a conversation "gently" in order to facilitate the other person's listening abilities? In most cases I suppose nothing (coming from the heart and all...)

The problem is that when it comes to racism, the gentle approach doesn't cut it, because instead of educating  people and calling them out on their hidden bias, it creates a wall of  downy pillows behind which they can hide once again. And whilst burying their heads in feathers to indulge in a spot of feel-good whitesplaining of their own racist agenda, they are at the same time saved from having to listen.

Consider a situation where somebody tells a black woman:

" Wow, where did you go to school, you speak so well ..."

No doubt that this is a racist comment. There is also no doubt that more often than not the person making the comment is not a raging racist, has a good heart and is trying to say something nice to the black person, who is making him/her feel slightly uncomfortable for reasons he/she is not even beginning to understand.

Now prepare for the gentle approach:

"Dear (white person),  I am not doubting for a second that you are a good person and  have a heart of gold, but maybe if you have a moment, could you be so open and consider that when you are complimenting a black woman on her  English speaking ability, it is actually racist? Ooops sorry, I didn't mean to say racist, I meant, you are coming from a space of unconsciousness, which is totally not your fault but the woman you are talking to  might actually feel offended..."

Gentle enough? I tried it many times. And guess what: in nine out of ten cases, in every day situations, the person addressed in such a gentle way will get defensive anyway.  Because what they hear is:

I am being critisised.

They don't hear anything else. Apart from possibly projecting a note of anger into my voice, or maybe they might perceive my tone as  patronizing or arrogant, which ultimately means: I am in the wrong and they don't need to listen to me.

The fact is that most people, myself included, have never learned to react well to critisism in any shape or form.  Our instinctive reaction is to  make ourselves look better. Even or especially when approached gently, most people feel that THEY  now have an opening to convince ME by throwing a thousand reasons my way why what they just said could not possible be racist.
 At all.
And how they are offended at my implying that they are.
And that they have black friends/colleagues/children/partners, so again, what they said can't be racist. And they wish I could separate them from my anger :  I either should know them better, because we are friends, or I don't have a right to critise them because I don't know them...

And most will not say this out loud, because we are after all having a gentle, reasonable conversation, but they still feel it. And so they reply in a similarly gentle  way, trying to turn this into a conversation about their basic goodness and me into the one at fault.

So now I am stuck  with somebody wasting my time trying to convince me (or rather themselves) that they are not racist and that I just misinterpreted  their intention, which has always been: TO BE  A NICE WHITE PERSON.

I could then gently point out, that it is not the intention that is the problem but the impact. And that somebody unintentionally knocking a person over with their car does not make it any less hurtful just because they did not actually aim for that person. But as a bystander do I need to spend hours at the accident scene making the driver feel better about him/herself or should I rather see to the victim lying bleeding in the road?  Do we tell the victim to stop being hurt or angry? Do we ask the victim to acknowledge in front of all us bystanders  that the driver is a good person at heart before being allowed to calmly and reasonably explain her/his injuries? Do we then proceed to tell the victim that most of those injuries are imagined, that they  need to get a grip, move on and stop blocking the road for the driver? And that their cries of pain and/or anger are actually hurtful to the driver and distressing for the bystanders?

You might think anybody with half an ear to listen would actually be tempted to consider this position.  Not so.

The problem is that the person I am trying to explain these things to, has stopped listening at impact. Because in their reality I have ceased to exist as the nice white person having a mutual moment of understanding about our non-racist agenda and mutated into unreasonable race obsessed white woman trying to make them look and feel bad.

Even if I started my gentle approach with hugs and buckets of Buddhist love and light, what most people will hear is only this: I am being critised, and she is angry with me.

I could have this conversation ten times over each day: when I go shopping, when I drop my kids at school, when I am at work or at college, whenever I meet other nice white people like me. In fact, I could have gentle conversations all day long.

And to what end?

At best we still part on civil terms, with me feeling a little more exhausted, exasperated and frustrated each time, and the other person probably angry, confused or hurt, looking at me if and when we meet in future through the lens of  race obsessed white bitch, who needs to be avoided or approached with caution.

So much for the gentle approach.

And I am not talking just yet about the one person out of ten, who will actually listen and engage. I am talking about the nine who  zap my energy in the process of not listening.

So what would happen if I used the matter of fact  instead of the gentle approach?

"What you just said was racist and here are some links to white supremacy, internalized racism and white privilege (pulling a copy of previously prepared reading materials from my bag). Why don't you read up on the subject and if you like we can have a conversation after?"

Or even the angry approach?

" How can you say such racist and insensitive things?"

In nine out of 10 cases, the person addressed will feel attacked and get defensive. They will probably have me sussed as angry white bitch immediately, turn away and never talk to me again.

And I just have saved myself a whole lot of time and emotional energy, better used on the one person, who is prepared to engage on the subject instead of trying to save face. The one out of ten whom I will talk about now:
Who will use this opportunity to go there.
Who has the emotional intelligence and racial stamina to acknowledge the possibility of being wrong. Who knows that he/she has been indoctrinated from birth with a racist agenda, suspects that she/he still has massive blind spots and sees the opportunity for self-healing and a wider human connection in facing those.

These people will talk to me, no matter the approach. Yes, they would probably feel less threatened with the gentle approach, but nevertheless, they will not run from facts or emotions. They might not fully understand their own role or the depth of their own indoctrination, but they already have a sense of unease that all is not well with the world they operate in.

Most of all these people do not say with conviction that apartheid(or slavery) is over and we must all move on They are aware instead- and maybe feeling helpless and angry themselves - how racism continues to violate and dehumanise people every day in overt aggressions or subtle nuances; ultimately when it is pointed out to them, they understand that the victims of such transgressions can not be told to be gentle and calm before we listen to them, because this would be a further violation of their humanity.

So these are the people I ultimately want to have conversations with. I even go further and say, these are the only people we can reach in dialogue.  The people who want the gentle approach do not want real conversations, they just want to feel better. Which does not make them bad people or raging racists. It just makes them unfit for dialogue.

Those who still want to tone police black people into being polite and reasonable about their experiences and who expect me as a fellow white person to indulge and cushion this approach, will need society to reach critical mass before they will feel the  need to change.

And this is what I have learned over three years of experimental dialogue: if we are serious about change, gentle dialogue is a waste of time, as it is self indulgent and over time only recreates the system we are trying to expose.

I also learned that talking gently to the wrong people does not only waste time and resources , it also harms me in more ways than I can explain right now. To gently and repeatedly run headfirst into cushioned walls makes me feel isolated, insane and ineffective.

As a result I choose the matter of fact approach. And sometimes I slip and land in a toxic mixture of anger and hurt.  But I never choose to be angry over being reasonable. I sometimes find myself in a muddle of emotions depending on how strong I feel on any particular day. Because on some days when somebody unintentionally compares my black children to animals or another child asks them at school if they have been bought, my heart gets ripped out and I want to crumble to the floor and never get up again.

And it is on those days that I need to know that I have a life line. And this life line can be the one person out of nine, who will sit down in the mud with me, stick out the moment of discomfort and listen to my pain or anger. Or listen to my reasonable matter of fact arguments on my good days. I am lucky enough to have some of these people in my life today. People I have met on the brink of confrontation and who have not turned away and became friends instead. Or friends who have valued our friendship more than their ego and stayed close through moments of discomfort.

None of us white people will ever arrive at the final destination of non-racism, we are all on different parts of this journey and what we can do for each other is call it as it is. To not sugar coat our transgressions but not demonize each other either. To recognize our internalized racism and basic goodness as human beings is not a contradiction. To face emotions such as anger and pain does not threaten us. It connects us deeper to our humanity.

My racist indoctrination does not just disappear by giving to charity or having a black friend, child or partner. My good intentions and  actions will not erase my internalized racist agenda. My racial bias does not need protection, but constant, honest work so I can become aware enough to challenge and address it.

It starts when I walk out of the conference building, looking for a driver and automatically home in on the first black person. It continues, when my doorbell rings and I look out the window and first see  a black person begging, before I recognize my friend coming for a visit. It is there, when I drive from my posh neighborhood in the morning and pass a not so posh car with four black men inside, wondering in the back of my mind if they will rob my house while I am at work. It is everywhere I go, because it is a part of who I was brought up to be. It is certainly not what defines me but I can't run away from it either.

I am not proud of it. I am fighting it every day because I  truly want to heal one day and become as whole as possible once more.

And the last thing I need in this effort is a pair of rose tinted glasses and a mountain of feather pillows protecting me from further insights. Does it scare me when I am confronted with people's anger and hurt? Yes it does. But this was never meant to be a comfortable and pleasant conversation.

Us white people need to stop demanding that everyone around us inflates airbags of polite and reasonable contents to cushion our fragile egos against the unpleasant impact of our unconscious racist transgressions. Or block our eyes and ears against uncomfortable truths and emotions.

This diversity dialogue space is not meant to be a happy space. It is a space of violence, aggression, hurt and anger. On a good day it can be a space of deep but fragile connection. I can enter this space new each time and as prepared as possible to deal and be real or I can continue to hide behind gentle and polite.

This is my choice. I have made my choice. I am far from perfect in this choice. I still get defensive or run away from somebody calling me out on my stuff, but I am committed to the process and I don't have time anymore for people who are not.


  1. Wow. THank you. I was talking to my husband about this this very morning. That sadly, it seems when a black person talks about racism, it's seen as pulling the race card...So we need more white people to also add their voices. Which in its own very sad way shows how disempowered black people still are. Sigh...

  2. Thank you Thandi for your feedback. I agree on we need more white people to stand up and be counted!