Tuesday, November 3, 2015

On "Be Kind", and Other Bull****

Person A: [Something racist, intentionally so or not.]
Person B: Hey!! Hearing that racist bullshit hurts me!!  Stop it!!!
Person C: Gosh, Person B, why couldn't you be KIND in how you said that?

Person A: [Hits someone with their car, intentionally or not.]
Person B: Hey!!  You just hit me with your car, and... shit, this hurts, look, my leg is broken!!  Stop the car!!!
Person C: Gosh, Person B, why couldn't you be KIND in how you said that?

This is an expression of White fragility, which can take many forms.  Person C could also say, "Why are you tearing that driver to shreds?", or crack a joke that Person B is supposed to laugh at, despite the pain she's in (followed by a smiley face), or--here's the kicker--say "How dare you bring race into this?"  In my metaphor, that would be "How dare you bring her driving skills into this?"

White people, we *have* to get tougher.  We have to learn to bear the discomfort of race-related criticism, and challenge ourselves to consider--no matter how someone informs us of the fact--that if we're being criticized, we should focus on apologizing for and learning from our words and actions, and not on the manner in which we're being educated.  Here are some tips that have helped me work through the discomfort when I've been called in on things:

1. First, I take deep breaths, from my belly.  If I've been called on something in a public space, I try not to cry, lest my tears become a weapon (NB-I don't always succeed, more coming).  I try to get my throat to loosen up.
2. I remind myself that the person educating me is doing so at risk to him/herself.  I need to thank them for that.
3. I remind myself that White culture and White dominance WANT me to feel paralyzing, unproductive guilt and shame rather than a galvanizing desire to accept my imperfections, learn from them, and do better next time.
4. I say, "I'm sorry."  I do my homework.  And then I follow up with a more complete apology.

We've seen some great examples of this in recent days.  And some not-so-great.

I thought about ending with a funny GIF, but this really isn't funny.  This is about how we prioritize the pain experienced by human beings.  Studies have shown that White children as young as 7 believe that dark-skinned people are less susceptible to pain than White people and that White people feel less empathy for Black people experiencing pain than White people experiencing the same pain.  This translates directly into greater and better access to health care for White people.

All this could make a conversation about children's literature seem, by contrast, trivial, but this is how we train our children, especially White children, to perpetuate--or interrupt--the status quo.   We are their gatekeepers to a better education.  And right now, we're not prioritizing White people's pain over equal pain expressed by Black people (as was done in the study I cite above).  We're prioritizing White people's discomfort with *the manner in which we are being informed of the pain we're causing people of color and First/Native Nations people* over the pain we're causing people of color and First/Native Nations people.  And that's just plain bullshit.


Unknown said...

I highly value kindness, so the way I work this is to strive, myself, with all of my white privilege, to be kind. That means being kind when someone is angry with me - which means listening, paying attention, checking my own motives and behavior, and responding in a human way. It also means being kind when I talk about racism to other white people. Nothing wrong with being kind - if it's important, then I need to do it myself...and meanwhile honor others' experience and values and ways of expressing themselves. I myself am far less kind (and it's less of a value) after getting whopped upside the head, intentionally or accidentally.

Anonymous said...

I think it's important, too, to learn from other White people's mistakes. More often than not--to keep with your metaphor, Allie, we are driving that car, breaking legs left and right, and no one is calling us on anything. We have no clue that we're breaking legs!

But if we see other White drivers being called on breaking legs--okay, I'm going to stop with that metaphor now because it's been way too extended.

IF WE WITNESS other White people's mistakes, we need to be able to reflect on our own interactions with people--Do we do the same thing? Something similar? To what extent are the thoughts that motivated that person's actions also our own? We need to learn from White people's reactions when they are called on those mistakes too--both the "good" reactions and the "bad" ones. So often our knee-jerk reactions are defensive ones--WTF! Not ME!!--(guilty, btw)--but as we become more conscious of our Whiteness and White privilege we become more responsible to react with reflection first then act accordingly.

"Good" actions (e.g., an apology, etc.) without reflection are hollow and don't bring us any closer to racial justice. They just ensure that we're going to keep having a lot of people hobbling around with broken legs...

Megan Schliesman said...

I think everyone values kindness, and I do think it's human nature to be defensive when we feel attacked. Moving beyond that response is hard, as Allie notes. Having said that, I think what's important for me as someone who is White is to not minimize or dismiss the anger of people of color or First/Native Nations individuals calling out racism--even if I don't see it at first--as simply "anger" without listening to what is being said and understanding there is reason behind it. I have learned so much from taking a step back--time and time again. Finally, I think that what one of us sees as "anger" another of us sees as "honesty."

Helen Frost said...

I've been thinking about this too, since I mentioned in a comment the other day that I valued K.T.'s kindness and thoughtfulness. First I wished I had chosen another word than kindness, then I tried to think harder about why I chose that one.
Part of it comes from my own education/experience in cross-cultural friendship and communication. Being the only White person (teacher) in a small Alaska Native community meant that I had a lot to learn, and the way people taught me what I needed to know taught me at the same time how I was expected to treat the children in my classroom.
A lot of indirect instruction and correction--"thoughtful" is a better word than kind--so I would find myself knowing something, barely aware of how I had learned it. So much mutual respect in the friendships that formed in those years. So much love.
I guess I'm a pragmatist on this--if public shaming and yelling at people worked to tear down the racism we have constructed, maybe I could do it. Maybe I could toughen up and take it when necessary. But it hasn't worked on me (and other means of instruction have) so I don't expect it to work on others. I don't know how this translates to online interactions.
Thanks to everyone for this good conversation.

Jess said...

I love your blog. Moreso because this post just supports something I did awhile back. I am white. Someone misspelled something that could be construed as extremely racist. I got attacked by MULTIPLE people while the other person cried about it.
This all occurred online, so I am fairly certain not as many people would have come to the defense of the other person or attacked me so quickly.

Jess said...

I love your blog. Moreso because this post just supports something I did awhile back. I am white. Someone misspelled something that could be construed as extremely racist. I got attacked by MULTIPLE people while the other person cried about it.
This all occurred online, so I am fairly certain not as many people would have come to the defense of the other person or attacked me so quickly.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

I'm realizing that there's a huge, gaping hole in what I wrote above that I should have made MUCH clearer:

In this post, I intended to describe scenarios in which people of color and First/Native Nations people inform us that our words or actions are racist and hurting them. I did not intend this to extend to how White people communicate with each other. (The "Be Kind" campaign, which started last... July?, was largely a tool used to put down and silence people of color and First/Native Nations people, particularly women, who were saying "Ouch! That car hit me!").

I need reminding of this more than anyone: That I do not stand on some sort of moral high ground as compared to other White people, that I should not lob stones at other White people in hopes that doing so will make me "the good White person", and that I occupy the same power position as any other White person and therefore am part of the problem. My job is to work to build community and help organize White people so that we can examine ourselves and work to change the balance of power.

So, I should have made clear in my post above, that when it comes to racism, we White people are never the ones being hit by the car.

And therefore we do have every responsibility to call people "in", not call people "out", to name others' mistakes without their having to fear that our doing so will end the relationships we have with them. This doesn't have to mean that I repeat "I'm sorry" a million times while pointing out someone's error, or sugarcoat what I'm saying with other niceties. It does mean that I remind myself that I am not "the good one" and that whether I call this person "out" or "in" matters.

Malcolm X wrote, "Where the really sincere white people have got to do their "proving" of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America's racism really is—and that's in their own home communities; America's racism is among their own fellow whites. That's where sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something have got to work."

I have been asked to work with other White people, and I'm trying to answer that ask. I can't do that if I call people out instead of calling them in.

So, Jess, and I appreciate your naming your Whiteness, and I don't know how exactly what you said/did, and you do not have to tell me, and if you were calling this person IN in the scenario you describe, that's fabulous and this comment is not directed at you, and if what you did was calling the person OUT, I hope my explanation makes sense and that I've called you in.

PS - Here's my citation for the Malcolm X quote (YES I AM A LIBRARIAN)
Haley, Alex, and X, Malcolm. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York, NY: Ballantine, 1965. p. 412.

Laura Ruby said...

Thank you for this, Allie. I agree with many of the comments above, that I appreciate kindness from others, and try to be kind when others are angry. What I believe we're struggling with is the tendency for white folks to interpret criticism of books on a racial basis as a personal attack; in other words, when a person from a marginalized group points out that there are issues of representation, we white people interpret that critique as "unkind." We have a tendency to get defensive, and claim that those doing the critiquing are being "mean" or "angry." I'm thinking about something Daniel Jose Older said on a diversity panel yesterday: "I was also wary of quickly the industry translates a critique as an attack, especially one that comes from black and brown sources." I've seen numerous people on Twitter and elsewhere give credit to book creators for having the best intentions, but does not give the same credit to marginalized folks -- writers, educators, readers -- who point out problematic issues in those books. And that is unkind.

Jen Abrams said...

As a mom who is very focused on instilling kindness as a value in my three-year-old daughter, I think a lot about that word. I use it on purpose in front of her - for instance, when someone offers us their seat on the subway. I don't just say "thank you," I say, "thank you, that was very kind of you." This is so that she can match real-world behavior with a value that we also speak about abstractly. I believe that kindness is one of the most important values I can instill in her.

However, it is not the ONLY value. Other things are sometimes even more important. For instance, learning. One of the most valuable lessons I've learned as an adult is how to assimilate the knowledge being offered by someone who is speaking in a way I find uncomfortable. This goes beyond race for me. It shows up at the doctor's office, for instance. My knee surgeon was a jerk, but he had important information for me. If I couldn't hear what he was saying because he was saying it in a difficult way, I'd be in trouble.

Bringing it back around to children's lit, I wonder if there are any books that model this for kids. Teaching them the difference between standing up for themselves when they are being mistreated, and hearing what people are saying even if they are saying it in a way they don't like, is a needle I haven't figured out how to thread yet.

Tony said...

That example really resonates with me, since I actually *have* been told that after being hit by a car and swearing out loud!

Kpower said...

I've been looking for the books you're searching for in the last paragraph, for over a month now...I still haven't found them.
Great food for thought.