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Two dinners on Race & Privilege: my takeaways

October 5, 2017

In this blog, I attempt to put into words what I observed and experienced during the two Making Conversations dinners on Race and Privilege September 26th and 28th. I aim to share something I learned, something I’m still thinking about, and something I want to discuss further. So, here goes…


It seems white people are the only ones not talking about race. There is also the concern of racial anxiety, which is not exclusive to any race. When conversing with individuals of your own race, one does not experience racial anxiety. However, when in a diverse racial setting, anxiety over communication with individuals of another race can dominate and thus determine the outcome of an interaction, and, on a larger scale, can shape opinions and beliefs about The Other. 


As we discussed at dinner, racial anxiety is experienced as non-whites having to temper and carefully curate how they address white men, which is different from their approach to white women - both scenarios of limitation and exhausting self-policing - where non-whites have to worry about how they say what words and whether or not something came across wrong, afraid of being perceived as “just another angry/race card player/entitled/lazy/etc black woman/man”. On the flip-side, white people are afraid to ask questions out of fear of sounding like a racist (though in reality, that will likely happen, because “white as superior” is a centuries-old paradigm, and if you are white, you have been taught, or benefitted from, white privilege therefore influencing how you process information and formulate inquiries). The sooner the white community, myself included, confronts this reality, the sooner we can remove our ego. Ego sounds victim-blamey of the “white anxiety” experience, and I think it is very important to acknowledge this anxiety associated with conversation over race, and not dismiss it as being “not as valid as ________.” White privilege is not a pedagogy. There is no syllabus, and unless you are a proud white supremacist, this education is unannounced and unwanted.  


In one scenario, a group is concerned about perpetuating false, limiting and demeaning stereotypes, while another is concerned with their ego. Both groups are concerned with being misunderstood, yet without actually talking to one another, stereotypes are assumed and perpetuated, and white anxiety is suppressed. When I suppress my anxiety, it means I’m choosing not to ask a question because I fear I will be misunderstood, labeled as “X”, sound ignorant, etc. In suppression, I make the assumption that in fact I will receive such responses, therefore driving me away from conversation and into white comfort. It is a choice I am making to not retreat into white comfort, but to instead try to "stay in the question" even if I can't voice it yet, until I can, and all the while actively denying fear or ignorance-based judgement or assumptions.


I found it interesting that (based only on the two women at the table that fit this description, so a poor sample size) if you are white woman born and raised in the south, you were taught not to talk about impolite things at any time. Impolite translated as: money, religion, politics, gender, race, etc. Anything of substance.


I learned that for one black woman, she was never made to feel anything other than fabulous and belonging until, as an adult, she moved to the south. I learned from another black woman how higher socioeconomic status doesn't shield you in any way from racism and invisibility. I learned from a white woman how her three white roommates and their three white boyfriends beat her and sent her to the hospital with broken bones because she hung out with black friends. Her tall, dreadlocked black male friend rushed her to the hospital. When the doctor entered, he looked to the tall black man in the room and asked "what did you do?"


This crap is everywhere, and learning how to talk about is existentially necessary. Getting to the source of our beliefs, and understanding why we believe and think what we do, is one goal. The other is to identify anxieties and talk about them openly in a no blame, no shame, no guilt environment. We also talked about action items - resources for getting involved locally in the conversation, things to read, and the importance of educating yourself, rather than hoping your black friend will make it easy for you. 


The thing I'm still thinking about is this: we had a guest share a story that has really affected me. She spoke about how, in 6th grade, her (white) friend's parents said they didn't want their (white) daughter to be seen with her (a black girl), so after school, she would walk outside with her (white) friends to a certain point, and then hang back as they continued on, so that she wouldn't be seen with them. She would wait alone for her ride home. She then recounted a troubling conversation at church, where basically she was both the target of insult whilst still invisible to the group. I wanted to hug her and cry in anger and tell her how horrible these stories were, and that she's beautiful and people can be insanely ignorant and clouded by wrong and toxic ideas. I wanted to help somehow, too - to get her out of her current situation in a community of negative energy and racial slurs. The problem is that I didn't do these things because I didn't know how to reach out, and I was already aware that this “white savior” mentality was creeping in. It's feeling comfortable sharing these emotions and also being clear that I have no illusions of grandeur, and I can't fix that, but I can listen and vow solidarity... I just choked. I already have Anxiety, a clinical diagnosis that leaves me confined to the home some days, so compound that with white anxiety on not knowing how to just be a dang human for fear of doing the wrong thing... well, I’m really frustrated by this and sick of silence. And also has me thinking about the ways in which terminology, like “white savior” or “race card” creates roadblocks to honest and pure relation building… the ways in which these terms prevent us from asking deeper questions, and prevent connection.


So this is where I want to go next with another conversation. I invite everyone who attended to consider gathering together again in November to have a follow-up conversation to reflect on and respond to the dinner last week. This won’t be a ticketed thing but rather an informal opportunity to share and laugh a little at ourselves and with one another. We could do a potluck at my house or we could arrange a meal somewhere. Just some of my thoughts. Would love to hear yours!


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