Ever been in a conversation or situation when a racist remark or joke was shared which hit you in your gut, so you felt the need to say something…but couldn’t? Maybe it felt risky, and the right words wouldn’t surface, so the moment passed.
Two recent situations linger with me (although there have been many), which continue to cause me psychic turmoil. What could I have said that would be heard and have impact, potentially shift the person/people’s perspective? During a caucus with other white people who are working on being allies, I shared my struggle with speaking up. I know my silence in these situations is tacit approval of words that hold harm. One of the other participants offered to help me with this. Sara is a professional facilitator/educator of equity work, so I was eager to take her up on the offer. During our follow-up walk-and-talk, she asked me three questions that were eye-opening:
- What do I have control of toward my goal of being heard and shifting perspective?
- How does my own discomfort get recognized and valued?
- What if it doesn’t go perfectly?
To her first question, I had to think about what control I have in any situation. The truth is, I can’t make the other person listen, nor make them change their mind. What I do control is to muster courage to speak my truth in a manner that is caring, honest and direct. What happens from there is controlled by the other person. While I still want to have impact, when I let go of having to think of the perfect thing to say to get a particular outcome, it frees me to speak my truth as best I can.
I particularly appreciated Sara’s question about recognizing and valuing my own discomfort. There’s a Midwestern cultural expectation, especially for white women, of being polite and not causing other people discomfort…it’s considered rude. I practice this politeness to a fault. However Sara’s question lifts up my own discomfort by the comment/joke of the other person…shouldn’t that be equally valued? Even if my response in the moment is to say, “I’m uncomfortable with what you just said,” I have marked how their words impacted me. Will people be uncomfortable when I do this? Probably. And that’s part of our work toward racial equity anyway. Let’s think for a moment of the discomfort of BIPoC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) in many situations as they face subtle and not-so-subtle racism. It’s time for us white folks to sit in a bit of discomfort ourselves, as we do the right thing and speak up.
Lastly, it has been my desire to figure out the perfect thing to say that will change the other person’s mind and heart…a lofty goal indeed. And likely not going to be the outcome most times. After all, I control only my behavior and reactions, not the other person’s. So, even when whatever I say has less-than-great consequences, I need to focus on what I can improve for next time and let it go. Self-flagellation isn’t helpful and takes up brain space better used for learning. When I need to process an interaction, I’ll find another ally and go on a walk-and-talk to explore how I could have improved my own communication.
Do you have a time when you were courageous in speaking up as an ally? Share your story in a comment below or message us
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Thank you very much for this post, Karen. I, too, have attended virtual sessions on white people being better allies, and am working to bring an awareness of the need to work on racial inequality to my place of work – looking for how we can hold space for safe conversation where speaking up about discomfort, voicing concerns and listening to others is expected. We may not solve all the issues, however hearing the perspective of many will hopefully raise awareness. If people then choose to make changes in their lives, great. If not, it is at least their conscious choice.
Appreciate your comments Erin – starting the dialogue at our places of work feels significant. Our staff are also on the path, and it feels like the flywheel toward racial equity is gaining traction…finally.
Thanks for sharing this blog Karen. I found it to be very helpful and thought provoking!
Awesome article! I appreciate your thoughtful approach to what it means to be an ally, and how “social expectations” can infringe on our ability to “see/hear something, say something”. As I travel the ally path myself, I value your perspective and ideas for being/doing better.
Wonderfully written advice that is greatly appreciated and so timely. Thank you!
Yes, I have been in similar situations and felt frozen on how to respond. And then beat myself up about it afterwards. As a white woman I also have this politeness ingrained in me and don’t want to interrupt people and can’t seem to get a chance to speak up in a conversation. Never thought about valuing my own discomfort before. Lots to think about. Thanks for posting.
Thanks Jeanne…we’re all on this path learning!
This is very important for people to understand! A lot of us worry about pitching a perfect, captivating and moving statement but if we don’t get to say anything, what’s the point.