Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Calling out/in our white people (how to deepen connection or lose a friend in under an hour)

The other day  at dinner, my (white) partner tells us (me, white & our three kids, black) about how he was meeting up with a friend of ours (black). The friend had called to say he was waiting at the meeting place, only my partner expected him inside and not outside by the gate. So my partner drove past the black man standing by the gate and simply didn’t “see” him.

 He told us that as a funny story because our friend had been in blue overalls, and thus he had read him as a “worker” standing in the road. So he drove straight past him and when he realised his “mistake”, they both laughed it off.

The first thing my son said: Papa, that was racist.
I let this sit here for a bit.

My 10 year old son calling his white father out on “accidental” racism.
I was proud of him.

Not surprisingly, the story doesn’t end here.

My white partner defended himself. Like me he is on this journey of uncovering his own racism, but at the same time he will always be  conditioned to his white male privilege. Apart from knee-jerk defensive reactions to being called "racist", this also means he is automatically being given the benefit of the doubt, recognised as an individual  first and assumed well-intentioned by default.
Predictably we went through the stages of white defensiveness
1. The “yes-but”stage (this can take up to several hours) . The yes-but is mostly the go to response when whiteness is being held accountable.
Yes, but surely in my case it’s different, because he is actually my friend and we could both laugh about it.
So let’s unpack this one:
The fact that your friend doesn’t want to hurt your white feelings by making a big deal about your racism, doesn’t make it a non-racist incident. Sure, your black friend knows you to be a good white person and this may make your accidental racism a little less hurtful, but the bigger picture remains. 
The fact that you stopped seeing him as an individual and read him as part of an anonymous group of black workers (direct reference to apartheid connotations: black plus overall equals worker, translates into: I don’t have to make an effort to remember names or faces as these people are beneath me ) – is violent and traumatising for black people especially in the context of ongoing oppression.
Hint: Don’t run to your black friend so he can make you feel better about your unconscious racism.
Then came the
Yes but, I am really bad with faces so it could have happened with a white friend.
Really? So for the sake of your argument, let’s just assume your white friend  would have stood at the gate in a blue overall. How likely is it that you would have driven past him without looking at that white person’s face or asking yourself why is there a white person in a blue overall standing at my gate?
And even if you would have driven past him, because you might have been distracted or in that particular moment simply not interested in a white person standing at the gate, this would have been an entirely different scenario. White people have never ever battled with being systematically dehumanised and robbed of their identity and / or enslaved by black people. Ignoring a white friend may be problematic on your individual relationship platform, but has no relevance whatsoever in the historical context of black trauma and oppression.
Hint: Read up on micro-aggressions and how these “little” oversights and “harmless” mistakes are precursors to mental illnesses such as depression and post traumatic stress syndrome.
There was still one more but left in him:
Yes but just because I made one mistake (maybe I was tired, or maybe it was raining, or I was distracted ) this doesn't make me a racist. 

You are absolutely right. The fact that you made this one mistake does not make you a racist. It does however illustrate your inner racism through channels that are not accessible to you in your conscious thought processes. 

In other words, your accidental racism does not make you a racist, it shows you the many ways in which you still suffer from the indoctrination of an oppressive system which made you a racist.
You could take this as a learning tool and dig a little deeper into your own shit instead of trying on every possible twist to this story so you don’t come out looking like a racist.

If you could only admit to yourself that you live with inner, mostly unconscious racist bias (as we all are as white people), you could bypass this inbuilt defense-mechanism and activate  learning and healing instead. Try it. You might be surprised when people don’t die of shock the moment you acknowledge your inner racism.
Hint: Try this sentence for size: You are right. This was racist. Let me think about this. Thank you for pointing it out. And I apologise.
2. The second stage is the deflecting stage, also known as the last resort, when white people run out of “yes-but” arguments and can’t cope with the emotional meltdown that follows the realisation that they might not get away with shit. Deflecting is the go to solution, by attacking the perceived attacker:
You yourself are racist! You have done A or B (how come you still haven’t learned our staff’s real names) so let’s talk about that.
Ok let's. Yes, I myself am racist. I have been negligent and lazy in not putting enough effort in to asking our staff members their preferred names. I will have to do better.
So how does that make what you did less racist?
Hint: It doesn’t.
3. Finally we get to The resolution stage: this can go two ways. Your white friend either goes up in a puff of self righteous smoke and you wont see them for a while and if /when you next see them, the air around them will be just this little bit colder and what happened here will NEVER be spoken about again. In fact they will be very careful around you not to mention anything relating to race or black people. You might also never see them again.
OR - and this doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it adds depth, respect and connection to your relationship – your white friend says something like this:
Thank you for teaching me, I never thought about it this way.
Luckily, this is what my kids heard at the end of our supper conversation. Before that, there was a lot of shouting and name calling (we are just that kind of a family) and at times they were also shouting at me to “stop already, and leave papa alone”. 
So I told them:

This is an important conversation and we will finish this. I am angry, Papa is angry, I know this is not a nice conversation, but we need to have it.
Needless to say, they didn't like me that evening. 

But I am glad they were in the room with us. I am glad they saw my anger and his anger. I am glad they saw how his anger turned into awareness and my anger played itself out.

I am glad my son called his father out and saw me fight with him.
I am glad at the end of it all, they saw us make up and be friends again.
And my 5 year old put her own spin on it ( as usual):
“Seriously Mama, you’re making me go to bed NOW? You are being racist to me.”

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