This third installment in a four-part series contains our year-long reactions, reflections, and our call to action following the July 13, 2013 “not guilty” trial verdict for George Zimmerman, accused of killing Trayvon Martin in early 2012. [Read Part I and Part II].
Susana: It’s been almost two months since Part II of this series. I know I’ve been super busy with travel, clients, and multiple priorities. And I understand there’s some other things coming up for you in writing this installment, is that right Melissa?
Melissa: Yes! I’ve found myself struggling to come across the way I want to, and feeling somewhat nervous about how people will react to what I (or we) say! I keep editing and second guessing myself. It’s like I keep looking at the lake without just jumping in. I’ve been wanting to approach this in a rational, orderly, calm way — like I’ve internalized a White male approach to this topic! Being passionate and messy isn’t something I’m used to showing in my professional side.
Susana: Indeed! It’s scary and risky, because we’re trying to do something new, something different. We’re trying to show up AS the change we want to see. This conversation is just as much about the “being” of the words as the “doing”, and perhaps our own messiness and imperfection can indirectly give others permission to be messy and imperfect! Food for thought for our final installment about what to do next!
Melissa: Yes! It’s weird to have a fear I didn’t even know I had! So I’m going to dive into the lake, “feel” into it, and get back to Trayvon…
One of the reasons this case was so jarring for me was that it exposed the conveyor belt of injustice that I hadn’t even realized existed. There was racism from start to finish, on the street, in the courtroom, and in much of the media coverage. Take the very idea that a Black person wearing a hoodie could be threatening. How could he be, unless we perceive Blacks as inherently scarier and more violent than Whites? If Trayvon posed a clear and present danger to Zimmerman’s life simply by being Black, we must conclude that the story would have gone completely differently if he had been White. (Speaking of differences, why does the world generally refer to Trayvon by his first name, and Zimmerman by his last? It’s how I keep writing, it, and I don’t even know why.)
Anyway, when I look at this complete package – an innocent child pursued and killed by an adult, then denied justice by an all-White jury deliberating within narrow parameters – I feel outraged and pushed to “do something.” But the mess is so big and overwhelming, I don’t know where to start. It’s like coming home for the holidays and rediscovering your family member is a hoarder, but there aren’t any shelves to organize things. Equally paralyzing is the realization that people of color may view me suspiciously. I feel guilty by association, and yet feel defensive since I didn’t actually do anything. I’m stuck!
Susana: Yes, feeling like the bad guy, the perp, the one at fault, isn’t a good place from which to have balanced thoughts and curiosity, much less a healthy, open, meaningful conversation. Our amygdala and the rest of our primitive “downstairs brain” get triggered when we feel threatened, and our best self and executive brain functions literally go offline! Also, we Whites often don’t realize we’re the dominant power group (that’s how the system works, we’re blind to how it benefits us on a daily basis even though we didn’t ask for it or earn it) but unconsciously we’re used to being in power and not being questioned or having our version of reality questioned. So, when we start to feel un-powerful, I think it especially triggers us because we’re not used to feeling that way and we’re not supposed to feel that way!
Melissa: You’re right! I don’t want to admit it, but I experience these knee-jerk reactions when I see rants about White people on social media. I think, “Hey! I’m not the bad White person you’re talking about!” That’s not my story! My family’s narrative is one of being the underdog – the huddled masses yearning to be free. We’ve had a lot of real hardships, and being lumped in with those who had more power and resources feels unfair. From what you’re saying, I can see that we’re emotionally invested in the perception we have of ourselves, and that’s where a lot of the resistance to talking about privilege comes from – this feeling that in order to acknowledge it, we have to deny the struggles we’ve faced.
Susana: Yes! I also think most USians in general are uncomfortable at some level with having power because we’re psychologically invested in this deep cultural belief of equality and democracy. We reject any suggestion we have privilege or power individually or collectively because this threatens our belief that everyone is equal. But we do have power and privilege, and more than others. Ignoring and denying this keeps us stuck and pisses off people of color who see it clearly and daily. We have to get real about power and unearned privilege. The question isn’t whether or not we have power, it’s how we use it. Just because we don’t feel powerful or as one young White man once said to me “I work hard” doesn’t mean we don’t also enjoy lots of unearned advantages others don’t. Both can be true! Just because your life doesn’t feel fantastic all the time doesn’t mean you’re not actually getting lots of breaks and help along the way. And imagine how less fantastic others who don’t get those breaks and help might feel! Reading Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack 22 years ago really gave me new vocabulary and awareness of all the privileges I enjoy because I was born with White skin, even though my family’s story is much like yours – farmers, working class immigrants and such.
Also, avoiding introspection, awareness, and conversation around race and power ourselves as White people allows our narrative to be defined by others. This leaves limited room for diversity in the White experience to be seen, heard, and appreciated! The truth is that we ALL experience BOTH advantages and disadvantages.
Melissa: Your cultural interpretation really resonates with me, and I think you’re right. The U.S. values of individualism and egalitarianism presuppose a level playing field, and it’s confusing to learn that the foundation we’ve built our lives on isn’t as secure as we thought it was. But when we’re crossing cultures, we don’t have to choose which perspective is the “right” one. We make room for both. I think we can do that here, too, and accept that there are multiple perspectives and realities, both within our own racial group and between groups.
Would you say that for well-meaning Whites to make progress, we have to acknowledge that even if we aren’t personally racist, and even if we know White people who are better off than we are, we’re still the beneficiaries of a system that favored – and favors – our racial group? I think that could help us diffuse our hostility if we say it’s not necessarily about you, or about me, it’s the society we’re part of.
Susana: Well, I think it’s how you define racism. I may not be consciously or intentionally bigoted or prejudiced on an interpersonal level, but I’m still a racist on a macro level because I benefit from racist institutions and systems. I agree that separating the interpersonal from the societal can diffuse our hostility and defensiveness but I disagree that it’s not about you or about me. Society doesn’t exist apart from you and me – we all create it and contribute to it every day with our myriad choices and behaviors. We may not have started it, and we may not like what it’s doing, but we still have a responsibility for our behaviors and their impact. In this way it is about you and me. Not being “guilty” doesn’t mean I’m not responsible. I can take responsibility without being guilty or feeling shame.
Melissa: It’s that part that is the hardest to hear, isn’t it? This idea of our being responsible for making the society that we’re living in. It’s such an awesome responsibility and I think it is easier to throw our hands up in the air (or maybe sing “We Didn’t Start the Fire”?) And yet, it also gives me hope, because if we are all co-creating this society anyway – one that isn’t working very well for so many people, and sends those of us it is serving into spirals of denial – couldn’t we just choose to make a better society?
This kind of thinking is inspiring and exciting, but coming back down to reality, I feel poorly equipped to do the work. I still feel afraid of making mistakes, and am super aware of not having the necessary skills! It’s a bit like trying to build a bridge across a chasm while standing on that bridge – learning as we go.
Susana: I agree. And we’ve got to start building that bridge and stop waiting for it to somehow get finished on its own. I think most of us don’t know how to do this, or what tools to use! This is where we’re stuck. Most people have good intentions, but good intentions aren’t enough. Courage is required – the willingness and ability to be uncomfortable, to stick with it, to show up authentically, to be wrong. We must get to know ourselves and a more complete history of this country and of ourselves as you pointed out earlier. It’s like Anne Morrow Lindbergh said: “When one is a stranger to oneself, then one is estranged from others.”
And like you said, skill is required. Few of us are taught (much less modeled) how to do some of the most important things we need to know how to do to be happy , healthy people – communicate effectively, navigate conflict, manage stress, or lead people. And yet skillful, effective communication is necessary to move us forward.
Melissa: I’m realizing that the irony of having dominated the narrative is that we don’t know how to join a real dialogue; we don’t know what real dialogue looks and feels like. Well-meaning Whites want to make things better at a societal level, but don’t really want to confront what that might mean on an interpersonal one. But why do we think being uncomfortable is a sign we’re failing? Why are we so afraid of being authentically engaged and honest with ourselves, of letting down our guards? I think we really don’t want to make a mistake and prove that everything Blacks think about us could really be true. I don’t want to be the next White girl taken down on a viral YouTube video or Jezebel article!
Susana: Yes! I like the way you put that. We’re afraid of making a mistake, we make mistakes without realizing it, we beat up on ourselves for being “bad people”, we’re hypersensitive to people of color calling us on our stuff, and so we shut down, give up, walk away! I’ve seen “good” well-intended White people, especially White women, just give up and walk away. It breaks my heart, and yet I can also relate to the fight-or-flight response!
Melissa: Exactly! I’ve asked stupid questions or done things that in retrospect, I realized were dumb or insensitive. And I still berate myself years later, I still wonder whether I’ve permanently offended the person involved, whether I should just run and hide and never show my face again. Which, as I write this, I realize is so overly dramatic – but it is an impulse for self-preservation that is apparently extremely strong! From this perspective, half the battle isn’t even the power, but our own obsession with perfection. But how could we possibly expect ourselves to navigate this perfectly? It’s unrealistic!
Susana: I definitely see that! I think the fear of offending comes from Whites’ unconscious belief there are good White people and bad White people. Not being “bad” – like Paula Deen or Donald Sterling — must mean we are good! There’s a White cultural value of being (and coming across as) good people. We value being nice and not offending, and tend to fear being misunderstood as having bad intentions. This means we fixate on intent over impact, but impact is where the problem lies. You stepped on my foot and now it’s broken. I appreciate you didn’t mean to step on my foot, but who’s going to take me to the hospital and pay the bill!
Melissa: You raise a good point that we Whites are so caught up in how our actions make us look that we miss how our actions actually affect people. We can’t stand the awkwardness, so we try to sweep it under the rug as quickly as possible. I think this especially applies to Millennials. We grew up in the age of “Zero tolerance” polices for everything, and are now young adults in a working world where saying the wrong thing ends careers. So we’re trained to duck and cover, rather than confront, and when we do collide with the outer limits of our comfort zone, we freak out.
Susana: We’re afraid of making a mortal mistake, yet when it comes to issue of race and racism, we have to let go of this process being tidy. It’s messy. Middle/upper class White women in particular I think often oppress ourselves by not speaking our mind because our thoughts may not be pretty, polished, or socially acceptable. Hopping over all the landmines makes it hard to get to the other side of the field. Yet having more conversations increases the odds that they will go well! We need to gather, and provide, more data – more experiences of White people speaking about these topics so the only examples aren’t the ugly and embarrassing ones.
Melissa: This is so liberating – to just acknowledge that feeling awkward isn’t a problem, it’s a part of the process, and that maybe it’s even required. Like riding a bike – falling down doesn’t mean you’re a permanent failure, it is a sign that you are making progress. By acknowledging that I’m not the only one who’s scared, or feels poorly equipped to confront the challenges facing our society, I can take the impossible burden of perfection off my shoulders and maybe breathe a little. But like you said, it’s not just about feeling the urgency, but doing something about it.
So how do we get started?
Continue reading Part IV (final chapter) — moving into action!