Beyond Uncomfortable Silences

A couple weeks into the Spring semester and once again I’m enjoying exploring the concept of privilege with my students. I’m also very conscious of attempting to “hold space” as I teach this semester. I’m really fortunate to have smaller sections, so I can invest more deeply in cultivating mastery in my students and experiment more freely with different approaches to developing their own intuitions.

Recently, I came across this article on “whitesplaining” from the great folks over at Everyday Feminism. The article very clearly outlines the kinds of responses that (regardless of intentions) invalidate the perspective of people experiencing racism and reinforce white privilege narratives.

As I read, I kept on thinking of another article that has become a part of the way that I think about race. In “A Muscular Empathy,” the author challenges us to confront examples of historic and/or institutional racism not with the immediate assumption of our own exceptional opposition, but rather with the question of what would prevent our opposition? Even better: Why would I have likely gone along with injustice? Although we want to believe that we would be the one to speak out against slavery, against segregation, against prejudice, the truth is these injustices have existed and still exist because most people don’t speak out. Likely, I would have been, have been, sometimes still am numbered among the don’ts. The Everyday Feminism article invites us to a similar consideration. Putting myself in the position of the “whitesplainer” in the article, the informative question is not whether I would say things that attempt to explain away someone’s experiences, but why would I say those things?

For me, I think the answer is mostly embarrassment and shame. I am ashamed that racism is still a daily experience for people in America. I am embarrassed that people who I consider good people say bad things, revealing how embedded racist presuppositions are in our culture. I want to relieve the sting of racist comments, not only because I feel bad for the person receiving them, but also because I am really uncomfortable confronting the fact that racism is a persistent reality.

So I think the first step in avoiding “whitesplaining” is to be silent. Not necessarily to more fully listen to the experience of the person talking. At least, not at first. If my shame is what is compelling me to speak over someone else, then that’s the first thing I need to let ring through my silence. I need to sit in the uncomfortable silence.

But I can’t stay there.

That’s the point of the last article I want to bring into conversation today. It challenges what ally politics and activism should look like. I had to read the article several times (and yes, there were uncomfortable silences in between). Guilt and shame, if allowed to have the last say, can lead to immobility, specifically a refusal to take action under one’s own auspices. The article contends that sometimes even “listening” can amount to another abdication of responsibility even if done in the name of deference to the oppressed community. Although this seems at first to be the correct impulse, like the “whitesplaining” examples above, what results is re-entrenchment of racist and other authoritarian assumptions. The author writes, “For a liberating understanding of privilege, each of us must learn our stake in toppling those systems of power to recognize how much we all have to gain in overturning every hierarchy of oppression.” I understand it this way: in the same way I need to confront my own shame about racism, I also need to fully understand my own reasons for fighting for racial justice. Only then can we have genuine partnership instead of awkward paternalism, arriving at a place where those participating in racial privilege and those experiencing racism will end up as equals on the same side of action.

Please share your reactions to the articles above (my attempts to grapple with them included). If you are a teacher trying to bring these concepts into focus for your class, I’d love to learn about your strategies.

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