Monday, March 7, 2016

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

I've given a lot of thought lately to what it means to be connected in a common cause.  I can't give up on allyship, but I have grown increasingly frustrated with it.  The more I do this work, the more work I see that there is to be done.  As I sat at a table with an elderly mother to mother support group leader this past weekend, trying to communicate the concept of systemic racism and the resulting inequities that exists within organizations and institutions, I realized we had no basis for a conversation.  Our common verbiage meant different things. True communication was not taking place.  We didn't even have enough in common to have a conversation.  She looked hurt and so puzzled.  Was I saying they had not done the right thing?  Were not doing the right thing?  That's just it, I said.  What you perceive to be the 'right thing' is grounded in your own ethics and ideology, not ours.  We are not on the same page about anything at all.  What she perceives and what I perceive are worlds apart.  She was very far out from beginning to hear my message.  She was too stunned to have to accept that I did not accept 'her truths' as 'my truths.'I could tell she walked away from our conversation with a heavy heart.  She is at a precarious point.  She could just as easily reject as accept my point of view.  It is difficult to accept that your thinking for so long has been really wrong on something.  When it comes to health disparities, White people will have to accept some culpability right off the bat.  For a) establishing and maintaining corrosive and corruptive systems that harm people of color continuously and b) for failing to recognize them as such.  This fantasy world view must first be shattered.  Its a very difficult and disorienting journey, but one that must be undertaken if any progress is to be made.  If you are a White person and consider yourself an 'ally' but you don't feel as though your world has been shaken to the core or that everything you hold dear has been challenged, then you are not there.   You have not arrived and your usefulness as an ally is truly debatable.   Listen to this account I had with a friend on Facebook:

Last night I hung out with my dear friend Karen. We taught an evening CPR class together and then went out in search of drinks. I was broke (per usual) and all she had on her was her "Apple Pay". We could not find a bar that took Apple Pay so we went to a late night Whole Foods and settled for soup and soda. As we laughed and talked, the conversation turned serious, and Karen (whom I've known and loved for nearly 20 years) began to tell me how she had been challenged by my Facebook page. I know that many of my former white friends have fled my page- some not before telling me how wrong I am. Karen said at first she felt just like those that left, she felt shocked and challenged by the things I was saying, but she didn't leave. She didn't unfriend me. She stayed and continued to listen even when she didn't understand why I was saying the things I was saying. She continued to read everything I posted. She too had grown up impoverished and didn't see how White Priviledge applied to her. And then one day, it happened. After reading someone else's post on the subject- a white person's- she suddenly understood. She said from that point on she began to see the small injustices, and what was worse, she couldn't unsee it. She talked about how disturbing and unsettling this kind of paradigm shift is. For forty plus years, she thought the world was one thing, and then found out it was quite another. As time goes on she notices things on a daily basis. How we all live steeped in this racist ideology that is American culture. She is a nurse, and as I've always contended, surely there's no American institution more corrupt, more morally bankrupt than healthcare. There is plenty for her to see. Karen says the discomfort is tremendous, and worst of all, she doesn't know what to do about it. She says its as though her dreams have been shattered. The world she thought she lived in does not actually exist. She compared it to the plot of The Matrix (a movie I have not seen). She says she is trying to find her way in this new, darker reality. She lives now in this uneven shaky world, surrounded by other white people who still live in the illusion. I can understand the supreme discomfort of this, but I resist expressing sympathy. After all, I never got to be a part of the illusion. I tell her that what she has to do now is tell others. Starting with her children. And her husband. Of course they won't believe her at first (maybe not ever), they'll deny and castigate her. They'll deny that they are racist or can be racist. But she must stand in her truth and speak the truth whatever comes her way. After all, she now knows the truth, and there is no going back from it. (Like after I had my first homebirth, I could never love hospital birth again.) I was so excited to hear that Karen had 'crossed over'. I have a daily onslaught of dealing with folks who think they have, but have only done so theoretically, but never had that 'road to damascus' conversion. They have adopted an intellectual argument, but they are not truly changed. They can talk the talk, but their truest selves peak out from behind the curtain and reveals itself. Those individuals are exhausting and come in no short supply. White people like Karen, who finally at long last 'get it' are few and far between. I know when I am in their presence because they are the only White people who do not drain my energy- and those encounters are rare indeed. I tell her that her discomfort is my salvation. Only when the mass of White people have reached the point where she is at, can we begin to have a national dialog on racial reconcilliation, until that point, there is no common ground for conversation. After all how can someone in the real world share a common vision with someone living in an illusion?

This conversation is everything.  But it cannot be had until you are a puddle on the floor, or balled up in the fetal position with despair.  Only then can you be sure you have seen the light.  Until you as a White person reach this point, you are not helping me, you are using me to help you.  You are siphoning off my valuable time and energy to your own advantage.  Keep learning and listening- to and from other White people until understanding comes to you.  Until then, we are not even speaking the same language.  I know what I am asking takes humility.  White people are used to being right about things and its disorienting to hear about your mistakes from a person of color.  You'll have to get used to that.  You'll have to get used to a great many things in this new world of true equity where your thoughts and ideas take a back seat to others.  It will be odd living in a world where Whiteness is not centered, and the lens through which all reality is viewed, but you will get used to it. When you come out on the other side, you'll find me waiting.  


  1. This is the best blog post I've ver read. Period.

  2. I learn so much from your posts, your words, and your wisdom. Thank you.