Where Do We Go From Here? Keep Talking
Just a few weeks ago on a clear, crisp early summer morning, I met a friend outside for coffee. We brought our own, sat at a distance and though we hadn’t seen each other for a while picked up right where we left off as good friends often do. We talked about our kids, our husbands slightly making us nuts, the virus and the reality of race in America. That last piece of the conversation between my white friend and my brown self was one I don’t think we’ve ever had before. As she described the sort of awakening she had experienced, she took off her sunglasses to brush a few tears from her eyes.
She went on to tell me she was sorry because she never really thought of me as being affected by racism and that she should have been more aware of it and how she felt just horrible about this. I thought about this for a moment and said, “you have never been insensitive.”
That was the truth. This is one of my closest friends. She is a friend who adds great value to my life- who respects me for who I am and deeply cares for me and my family. We laugh a lot together and enjoy spending time with each other just because. It is a beautiful friendship that I am grateful for. Yet the conversation made me realize how many well intentioned, deeply moved white people might be struggling right now with shame, guilt and hesitancy in knowing what to do. These feelings are hard to reckon with and actually may be why we have stopped talking about race.
I get it. Summer is now in full swing, kids at the pool, trying to get together in backyards as safely as possible with friends while we still can. “How are the kids going back to school?’ is our new hot topic… life goes on.
Yet although those conversations that inspired hope just a few weeks ago have died down, the reality of race in America has not.
I’m writing this to encourage you to keep talking. Keep talking to your kids, to your friends and families and think about what you can do to continue the work in your own circles. Read the books, watch the videos, share them and discuss how you can move your community forward.
I know for many the messages have been confusing. “Say something, don’t say anything. Do something, but not everything. Make black friends, but not just because they are black.” It is not surprising that many white people have retreated into silence for fear of offending and making the situation worse. I wanted to take a moment to clarify a few things that hopefully will help bring more light to some of the questions you may be asking.
You Have A Right To Feel The Way You Feel
First off, it’s ok to feel what you are feeling. We can not control how we feel in response to a situation. Feelings of guilt, shame, anger, confusion are just that: feelings. It’s important to follow that feeling and ask what exactly is making you feel that way. Feelings may be triggered from previous situations and experiences that are important to revisit so they are not projected on to a situation that may be quite different. Then think about what your next action will be. Reacting out of negative emotion is generally not a good thing, so although we can’t always control how we feel we can control what we do. Rather than a reaction we want to move towards thoughtful, meaningful action.
I also wanted to clarify a few thoughts on guilt and shame. Guilt can actually be a useful feeling if it is associated with regret. For example, I felt so guilty that I arrived late to pick up my child after soccer practice, because when I arrived she was tearful and scared. That guilt can motivate me to change the way I think about a situation and act differently. It was also warranted because it was my fault my child was left at practice. That feeling might motivate me to manage my time better and not start a project that will prevent me from leaving on time for pick up. Shame is different. Shame belittles and demeans a person. Shame labels and name calls. If I said “I am a horrible mom and clearly don’t care about my kids” and worse if someone else had said that to me when I arrived at the soccer field that would incite the kind of shame that only serves to paralyze people. At this time in history we do not need people to feel paralyzed we need people to feel empowered.
You Are Not Being Shamed
There is a difference between feeling shame and being shamed. Shame is never a productive vehicle for change and no one’s intention is to shame anyone into making positive changes. If you are feeling shame, there are a few things that are important to do, because shame is not a healthy way to motivate meaningful change. As I have told many of my friends, this 400 year history of brutalization and dehumanization is not your fault, but it is your problem. It will not change until those who are against it make the changes needed to change it.
If you are feeling shame talk to someone you trust and tell your story. We know from the research shame can not survive in the face of empathy and also thrives in silence. Much like my friend did that day having coffee, we talked about it and she then knew my feelings towards her were nothing like her thoughts. Your experience might be different, but a friend will not judge you, will share vulnerably with you and encourage you to keep going. Because of implicit bias, we are all complicit in doing and saying things unaware of how it may have perpetuated racism. This is our collective, inherited tragedy and we need collective action to bring healing.
Think back on past experiences where you have felt shame. We all have shame triggers and they can resurface and be projected in places where they are not warranted. If I had experienced being shamed by another parent on that soccer field, that feeling may arise in the future in a conversation with a parent who might not agree with me, but is not shaming me. It’s important to examine our past experiences and understand them so that we don’t project emotions into the present by looking through a lens of the past.
Lastly, be kind to yourself. Speak kindly to yourself. There is a steep learning curve here. We as adults are not used to this and especially not used to trying something new and getting it wrong. We left those uncomfortable experiences back in middle school and vowed never to return to them again. Well here we are. As Brene Brown says “I’m not here to be right, I’m here to get it right.” Getting it right requires humility, vulnerability and self- compassion. It also requires time, energy and effort. As I’ve said before, this is a marathon not a sprint and it won’t all come together right away. You are going to make mistakes, say the wrong thing, and likely offend someone, but please don’t stop. Please don’t stop. There are literally lives depending on you.
So keep talking, keep reading, keep engaging even when its uncomfortable and embarrassing.
Not being racist is not enough to change the disparity in this nation and end the type of oppression all of us have witnessed. Change will only happen through education, thoughtful conversations and intentional, meaningful action. Because in the truth-filled words of Angela Davis “It’s not enough to be not racist. We have to be actively anti-racist.”
To learn more about this listen to Niro’s Podcast All Things Life EP 27: From Hurting to Hopeful, Race, Privilege and Meaningful Action, EP 28:Reflections from a Non-Black POC, EP 29 What Do I Do With the Shame and Guilt, and EP 33:Beyond the White Picket Fence with author Amy Julia Becker and visit nirofeliciano.com.