Whatever your personal journey of trying to understand someone else’s (collective) reality is, step into it with curiosity, openness to listen, and kindness. Fight the shame, fight the defensiveness. Your defensiveness is not at the centre here: that collective reality is.
To my friends who I would love to be more shameless
How weird would it be to open a political commentary with a quote by Ram Dass?
I was debating it for some time, and I’m going for it.
Be careful: when read slowly, his quote can make your heart open:
“We can only tell the truth when we cease to identify with the part of ourselves that we think we have to protect.”
In my personal life, there are many parts like that, let me tell you. Liberation is work in progress, sometimes placed on hold, sometimes sped up by some intense journaling attempts.
Yet are there things that we might be protecting as a collective? Things that, once pointed at, scratched, or at least dusted, activate our defence mechanisms?
I think you know where I’m going.
If you’re white – like me – it could be so that topics like racism, privilege, and systems of oppression activate those defence mechanisms for you. Suddenly, there’s an urge to defend yourself from an identity you’ve never given yourself (the oppressor) but the benefits of which you’ve been reaping, willingly or not.
The oppressor – so uncool! Ah, the discomfort.
But it’s more than that, I think, it’s something way darker and way more profound: it’s shame. Having researched shame, among other topics, Brené Brown drops this bomb:
“ You cannot talk about race without talking about privilege. And when people start talking about privilege, they get paralysed by shame.”
I think this paralysis is very painfully real: it’s underpinning difficult conversations, it’s in awkward (not necessarily hateful, but awkward) social media comments, and, just as importantly, it’s underneath the silence of those who have all the privileges to speak up. They’re up there, in the tower of privilege, they can ring the bell (this bell produces a beautiful “the system’s messed up, everyone!” sound) so easily, yet they can’t move. They’re paralysed. Staying quiet is safe and they choose to stay in that safety.
There is one particular – and seemingly subtle – type of this paralysis that I have noticed. It’s not a complete unwillingness to talk about racism, but the unwillingness to “take the conversation further”.
In a dramatic way, let me call it The Gap and give you some examples.
It’s the gap between acknowledging that oppressive systems exist and then believing people (instead of questioning them) when they say that it’s been pretty bad under those systems. It’s the gap between agreeing that the police use excessive force disproportionately against certain groups and saying that of course it makes sense to march against it. Finally, it’s the gap between intellectually “getting it” and actually supporting people in protests, instead of asking them to protest “politely” (in other words, asking them to engage in civil disobedience in an…obedient way).
If there’s a gap, a leap is needed. A leap to being a vocal antiracist.
When I reflect on it, my own personal leap took me decades. What it took are many, as I’d like to call them, cracks in my ignorance. Rumi teaches us that a crack is where the light enters you. I like that idea.
Let me give you some examples.
I’m an international kid in a small+white+historic town in Pennsylvania. For the first time, I hear about a Black History Month. For the first time, the concept of Eurocentrism enters not just my mind but my vocabulary.
I’m in Salvador, Northeast of Brazil. It’s the election season, I’m riding a hot city bus (what helps is the nice breeze from the Atlantic), looking at buildings covered with political campaign ads. The candidates are smiling at me, but I can’t help to think there’s something weird about them. “Wait… Where are all the black candidates?” I say to myself. The state is predominantly black. People in the ads are definitely not. I know the answer to my question, of course, but it is 400 years of history old and involves the same ocean that’s so kindly helping me on that bus.
Suddenly, women in love-yourself-but-also-lose-weight magazines seem very white. All the dolls are white, too.
The cracks kept on coming, but, my God, three decades, really?
Due to countless tiny and occasional substantial cracks, like in my own personal action movie, I’ve made a slow-mo leap: from intellectually “getting it” to saying “I’m here and I’m listening.”
It was also a leap from acting from the place of white guilt (or, should we say, white shame) to acting from a place of, well, being a slightly nicer human being. And it feels great.
If you’re in that tower of privilege, standing there paralysed, choosing not to ring that bell and to stay safe, Brené – again – has a quote for you:
“Not to have the conversations because they make you uncomfortable, is the definition of privilege. Your comfort is not at the centre of this discussion.”
All shame is heavy. That’s why, I would love you to be a shameless antiracist.
“Your liberation is bound up with mine”, says Lilla Watson.
Your liberation is bound up with mine.