TERMS, PT 1: THEY'D BETTER WATCH THEIR MOUTHS
this is the start of a new vlog series called Terms and Conditions,
based on actual conversations I’ve had over the past year with people who are either neutral, passively opposed, or actively opposed to pursuing racial justice. In those conversations, there seem to be underlying assumptions that “if black people expect others to join the fight against racial injustice, then…” the terms and conditions we’ll explore today go something like this: “if black people expect others to fight against racial injustice, they’d better mind their words..”
It’s no secret that the terrain for conversations about race is decorated with semantic landmines--words that can easily shut down the conversation like privilege, racist, or fragility. You say trigger words like those, and the whole exchange is likely to detonate. This is, in large part, because we can’t talk about racism without also talking about our foundational ideas and beliefs and lived experiences.
When we talk about racism, we’re talking about how the world is arranged vs. how the world should be arranged--something we all have different ideas about and perspectives on. We’re also talking about our ability to discern whether we are seeing the world as it is--and much of our conclusions about the world we live in is based on our personal experience of the world. We are also talking about how we perceive ourselves--either as participants or non-participants in pervasive social evils. Most of us have already answered these questions for ourselves: we have an opinion on how the world should be arranged, we think that we have keen abilities to see the world as it actually is (because our experiences of the world are real), and we’d like to assume that if we were participants in some kind of pervasive social evil that we would at least know about it. And because these ideas and beliefs are so foundational to us, we keep them under heavily armed guard.
What psychologists call The Backfire Effect seems to have made its way into the realm of public knowledge now, and it gives us a scientific explanation for the landmines in our conversations about race. Basically, humans in general--red, yellow, black, or white--do not change their minds very easily when it comes to deeply held beliefs. Studies have shown that when we are confronted with information that challenges our deeply held beliefs and ideas, that the brain responds the same way it would if confronted with a physical threat. Basically, we instinctively perceive contrary ideas as dangerous.
Because we are generally so defensive about our ideas, black people are often admonished to master the landscape--to know the location of each hidden bomb--and to tread lightly when they talk about their experiences as black people, so that we don’t trip the landmines. If you say those trigger words, you could cause an offense that causes your conversation partner to backfire and to retreat or explode. So, black people are often expected to get creative and build some type of Trojan Horse to bypass the armed guards on the walls that surround the precious worldviews of those who either don’t know, don’t want to know, or don’t care that injustice is an American tradition.
There is something to be said about knowing one’s audience and speaking to that audience in a way that they can receive. A mentor of mine often says to me, “There is a way to say something that makes you feel good about saying it, and a way to say something that causes people to listen.” Point conceded. But there are also some problems with these particular terms and conditions.
[the value of discomfort]
I’m all for finding creative ways to bypass people’s defenses with truth. I’m all for trying to have civil and gregarious conversation. At the same time, we have to be careful that in our efforts not to trip the landmines (if that’s what we’re trying to do) that we still say what needs to be said.
As I think of this, I recall a conversation with an older man who had said something racially insensitive. I said that I would use the “goof” as a teaching moment. Saying I would “teach” him tripped a landmine; he found that language “condescending,” because it implied that he didn’t know what he was talking about. But he didn’t know what he was talking about! And somehow me acknowledging that fact was worse than the fact itself. My response was simply, “well Brad (his name is not Brad), do you know [what you’re talking about]?” “I don’t know!” Brad responded. “Well then,” I said, “you need a teacher.” I’m not going to avoid telling someone that they’re uninformed just because they don’t want to think of themselves in that way.
Fact is there is no way of becoming a part of the solution without the risk of learning how you have been a part of the problem, and that discovery is likely to be difficult, exhausting, and painful. People are not generally chomping at the bit to learn such things about ourselves, and so it is in their best interest to be told the truth and to be told it straight. If you were getting black-out drunk every Monday night and showing up to work late the next day, you would eventually have to come to grips with the fact that you have a substance abuse problem. You would have to get comfortable with the confession “I am an alcoholic” as a part of your recovery, no matter how badly that confession may chafe at your deeply held belief that you may have held that you could manage the problem.
Some people need to be told plainly that they can be racially insensitive, that they have a habit of silencing black people and centering their offenses and experiences, that they are unwittingly participating in a culture that victimizes their neighbors and loved ones, or that they don’t know as much on the subject as they think they do. Some people need to hear things like that without equivocation, regardless of how unsettling it may be. And that conversation can be had directly without disrespecting the person.
Nit-picking the language being used in conversations about racial injustice can be just another way of trying to avoid the inconvenience of the truth--another way of pulling out your shotgun and demanding that someone get off your ideological property with their dangerous language. And saving people from discomfort may actually rob them of their only incentive toward change.
Consider your own body: you don’t shift your position unless you’re uncomfortable. Neither will you shift the way you think unless you become uncomfortable.
[asking too much]
Another problem with these terms, it really is a lot to ask that black people constantly engineer creative ways of bypassing the defenses of opposers to racial justice. Black people already have to deal with the unjust structures of society, traumatic images of racialized violence, racial micro-aggressions, continued discrimination and stereotyping, and more. We need to spend our energy on things like self-care, not saving people from their complicity in racial injustice.
To say that black people are have to find the perfect language to talk about their experiences is to make us the sole steward of every conversation we have about race. We are tasked with managing the feelings of every conversation partner we have to the point that, whenever those exchanges go south, the blame is almost always entirely on the person of color for upsetting the other party. That is simply not fair.
[it's your health, bro...]
Finally, people who set forth these particular terms and conditions are essentially saying “if black people want others to fight racial injustice, they’d better ask nicely…” That mindset neither takes the problem of racial injustice seriously, nor does it convey any serious intent of getting involved to begin with. But most of all, it misses the point that becoming an active anti-racist is in everyone’s best interest, not just black people. We are not pleading with people to save us. We are inviting them to save themselves. Their participation in a culture of racial injustice, whether actively or passively, is ultimately their problem--and as long as they are unwilling to know that they have that problem, they can never be free from it.
If I approached a friend about their smoking habit, expressing my love for them and concern that they don’t die from smoking, and they got defensive and nit-picked my language, saying I should have come at them differently, I would ultimately say, “it’s your health, bro.” Sure. When someone kicks the habit, other people may benefit from not having to inhale 2nd hand smoke; but let’s be clear, the person kicking the habit is doing something of great benefit to themselves.
I can’t force anyone to become an anti-racist any more than I can force them to take their health more seriously. It’s up to them if they want to brave the scary, exhausting, and painful journey of becoming more empathetic, more aware of their neighbors, more aware of their own short-comings. Their freedom is up to them.
Things to Read and Watch for Going Deeper: