Last year brought many of us additional exploration of racism, racial injustice, white supremacy, systemic racism, white fragility, white girl tears, and what it means to act black or white. As a Compliance and Diversity Training Specialist who has been working in and around Diversity and Inclusion since 1992, I have a lot more experience discussing these topics than some of the people around me. So, it doesn’t surprise me much when they struggle to ask their questions or express their views in ways that don’t offend anyone. I still stumble at times, too. I’ve also learned it’s impossible not to offend someone by almost everything I say or do. You are judging me right now as you read this post. I just don’t know yet whether you are judging me in a positive or negative light. I hope it’s positive, but I can’t control that. If it’s negative, I ask you to read compassionately for my intent and let me know how I can improve.
One way I am trying to improve this year is to review what I have sent out into the world over the years that I have been on the Internet. I came across an old post in which I expressed sadness about a video in which a comedian used the words “racist” and “white” as if they were synonyms. Admittedly, his routine made me laugh. It was a creative expression of what many people experience every day. It was sarcastic and intended to be ironic, but it was ironic for reasons he probably didn’t see. Isn’t it also racist to assume someone is racist because they are white?
I know that a lot of scholars say non-white people can’t be racist. Robin DiAngelo, PhD makes a lot of money answering no to my question, and this alone doesn’t invalidate her work or best-selling book. But I keep wondering if turning tables does anything more than invite future table-turning, until we have nothing more than a bar destroyed by a brawl.
I’m aware that the Merriam-Webster dictionary expanded its definitions of racism, and I agree that we need to be discussing long-standing oppression of Black and minority populations in the United States, where I have lived my entire life. I also understand that the discussions–and more importantly, actions–need to occur in many places throughout the world. But will we ever live in harmony without compassion?
Perhaps it is my legal training that limits my ability to embrace the all-or-nothing approaches to discussions of racism. The lawyer in me is trained to look for direct causation before punishment is administered. We don’t punish bad thoughts; we punish the actions that arise directly from them. I might think about pushing away someone who is standing closer than six feet away, but as long as I refrain from that action, I have done nothing punishable. I have managed my brain, which I know plays tricks on me.
After I was violently assaulted by a 14-year-old Black male wearing baggy pants and a hooded sweatshirt, my amygdala heightened my awareness of similarly-dressed males around me whenever I went out. Some people would have justified my fears and told me I had every right to be afraid of them. But did I really? Do you know how many young males in New York City in 2014 dressed similarly? Was I really justified in judging the honors student who tried to blend in so he wouldn’t be distracted from his studies by wardrobe nonsense? What about any other person–those I knew nothing about? How much did their clothes really tell me about them? Almost nothing, for better or for worse.
There is a song in Avenue Q titled “We’re All a Little Racist.” Unfortunately, it’s true. We all have implicit (hidden) biases that are unsupported, or at least so loosely supported that they are ineffective. That truth is what we have (finally) been grappling with over the past year. It has been bubbling beneath the surfaces of our skin for much of our lives. Yet like the same red blood that flows through each of us, we haven’t been acknowledging it. We’ve been trusting it and giving it too much power.
Most of us don’t mean to perpetuate hatred and divisions based on immutable traits. We are trying to connect with others through comedy or common experiences. We want to be proud of the portions of ourselves that we have adopted as our identities: our races, our genders, our ethnicities, our hometowns, and our favorite teams, shows, music, etc.
Define the Conflict
We’re in a daily conflict between staying safe among those we think are like us and connecting with people who seem different.
Identify the Interests
I can’t solve this for each of you. I can only address my own experience of this conflict, but perhaps my work through this will help you see how to create peace for yourself around it.
- I want to be safe more than I want to feel it. I have learned that I can feel safe when I am not and vice versa.
- I thought I knew how to recognize who was safe and who wasn’t. I discovered my brain can play tricks on me.
- I believed my brain was more effective than it is. I now know it might not have evolved to function effectively on its own.
- I expected others to want racial unity or harmony as much as I do.
- I wish we could put an end to racism, racial injustice, systemic racism, and all the things that divide us.
- I have to do what I can, even if not everyone wants what I do or if they pursue it differently from how I think they should. (I typically bolden and italicize the word should because it raises the question, “Who says?” This often helps people determine if their beliefs are their own or ones they have adopted from someone else. Then we can look at whether this is a belief they want to hold onto and how they want to use it to inspire their actions, understanding we can only control our own actions.)
Play with the Possibilities
If I could have this conflict resolve in any way possible, we would all work toward racial unity, or at least harmony. We would listen to each other with our third ears for the hurts we can heal, and we would stop invalidating each others’ experiences. We would be better able to listen, even to people we don’t agree with. We would love them from afar when we don’t feel safe with them, and we would keep looking for reasons to love them. We would take responsibility for the harms we caused and give complete apologies. We would forgive those who similarly take responsibility, apologize, and make amends. We would stop blaming each other for things over which we had no control, so we could start focusing on what we can.
Create the Future
Updating this post from several years back, I have been uncomfortable. I can see how offended, frustrated, and confused I was by others’ racist generalizations, even when they did not directly harm me. I have new understanding of why we need to focus on certain types of racism right now and what my role is in that process, at least in this moment. It’s okay that it was different then and that I was different then. You were, too. So, don’t waste too much time punishing yourself for who you think or wish you had been. Here are three actions I will take over the next week toward the racially harmonious future I want:
- I will listen to people I disagree with on the topic of race and see what I can learn.
- I will be on high alert for my implicit biases, looking for ways I judge people before I know them.
- I will continue doing free 30-Minute Breakthrough Calls for anyone who wants to see something new around this issue.
Stay on PARR
I am playing a big, long game here with complicated rules that are not equally or equitably applied. As such, I will continue to plan, act, revise, and repeat, until I get the results I want. I expect that to take a lifetime, but feel free to surprise me. xo
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Nance L. Schick, Esq., is a workplace attorney, ethno-religious mediator, and conflict resolution coach based in New York City. Her goal is to keep you out of court and build your conflict resolution skills so everyone has a better work experience. She helps managers and business owners have empowering conversations about emotionally-charged issues such as gender, race, religion, and disability. She is creator of the Third Ear Conflict Resolution process, author of DIY Conflict Resolution, and an award-winning entrepreneur acknowledged by Super Lawyers (ADR, 2018, 2019 & 2020), the New York Economic Development Corporation/B-Labs (Finalist, Best for NYC 2015 & 2016), U.S. Chamber of Commerce (2015 Blue Ribbon Small Business), Enterprising Women Magazine (Honorable Mention, 2014 Woman of the Year awards).