Constraints and Conversations

What does it mean to have an advantage? Let me tell you.

What advantage allows is a lack of constraint. And because it is a lack, an absence, it is hard to imagine that others might be constrained in ways you are not. For example, when reading a friend’s piece on traveling as a queer woman with a girlfriend, I needed no explanation. I could easily imagine what she was feeling, what her fears were. I’ve felt the stares myself when I’m too queer-looking in the wrong place. It was easy to relate. But then I heard straight people’s reading of it, they are confused. They need more details, they didn’t understand what was going on. Because they haven’t experienced that constraint. They haven’t had their choices limited because of who they love before. They haven’t felt disapproving looks that could always turn into something much worse.

But, why am I talking about this? I’m talking about it because I can’t stop reading article after article on black people being killed by white police. I can’t look away from black people being treated as de facto criminals, who “should have been more careful”, who “should have known better”. I can’t stop hearing too many of my white friends utter those phrases and then have them wonder why I am angry. I can’t stop thinking about how little my anger must compare to the despair, the rage, the sorrow of black people watching a war being waged on their bodies. A war that has never been over, that can be traced back hundreds of years, even though white people keep reminding them that “slavery is over, so why are you complaining?” Yes, I’ve heard that said.

I’m talking about this because I don’t know what to say to my white friends to get them to see that they are wrong. Facts don’t matter. They don’t matter because as another article points out “there are caskets going by”, but they also don’t matter because facts don’t change minds, they more firmly intrench people with incorrect ideas and perceptions.

I am interested in that, because I am interested in trying to make the world a better place, and the only way I know how to do that is by talking to other people who can make a difference by changing their minds, changing their perspectives.

I want to understand why white people, straight people, cis people, men so often have so much trouble seeing what constrains those with relatively less advantages. Why they can’t see that there really is a system that is functioning perfectly to keep some people down to make it harder for some people to ever make it. A system that dehumanizes, that erases, that kills. And it doesn’t really matter if the system had an intentional architect, it’s unlikely that it did. Systems are complicated, and they are the result of so many pressures and history and events and situations. But what does matter is comprehending what systems do and how they are working so that we can change them.

One way to start is having unpleasant or difficult conversations, and having them, sometimes, result in the other person beginning to reconsider some of their beliefs on race, inequality and how those two things intersect.

I’ll leave you with a few recommendations for how you might have such conversations. These are partially based on research into changing people’s minds on controversial issues, but they are also derived from a lifetime of contentious conversations that I seem to have a knack for getting into.

First some research: The New Yorker published a story this year detailing research on false/inaccurate beliefs. The studies looked at indicated that people are more likely to be responsive to concepts that challenge their beliefs if they are reminded of their own positive self-concept. Then, they were more likely to be receptive to information that they would normally reject. What does this mean in practical terms? Well, it means that in a conversation it’s more effective to try to remind people of a time they felt good about themselves or to try and reaffirm their basic goodness as a person before you encourage them to see something differently or challenge their world view.

This goes hand in hand with empathy. Eliciting empathy for another’s situation is key, I think, in conversations like these. It’s not always easy to do but analogies to their own life experience helps. For example, if you’re talking about Ferguson and someone is busy with the classic derailing tactics summed up by Black Girl Dangerous, you may try some version of this response: “It’s clear that you care about racial inequality and have seen it with your own eyes. Now think about what you might not be seeing now with Mike Brown’s case because you are white. For example, what you have seen is looting, but what you may not have seen are the majority of people peacefully protesting because they are seeing a systemic problem (i.e. one that is not just about Mike Brown’s death but about how many black men are killed by police and otherwise mistreated). Try imagining yourself in their shoes for a moment, sad and angry at another death in what they see as a pattern (and what evidence shows is a pattern of racism that is not so much about an individual as it is about a system). Imagine what it would be like to worry about the safety of your children because of their skin color.”

A response like this reaffirms that the person is caring, and encourages them to make empathetic connections they may have made before.

Obviously, this is but one strategy. And it is one that I am, in particular, urging white anti-racist allies to POC to use or at least try, especially in light of Spectra Speak’s excellent piece to white allies about not defriending other white people for their racist speech. It is not me saying that rage and anger are wrong or inappropriate but rather that you may experiment with different ways of channeling that anger so that you can make the most effective change possible.

Right now, words are all I have, and they are one of the tools you have too: use them well.

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Elsa Roberts

Elsa Roberts

Elsa is currently a graduate student, pursuing a M.S. in Rhetoric and Technical Communication, but her real calling is to perpetual activism and teaching. She is frequently distracted by planning actions, attending meetings, and fighting people who are wrong on the internet. Her passions are typically aroused by poor city planning for pedestrians and cyclists, casual sexism, poorly constructed arguments, and being told to “chill” about inequality. She is the current Vice President of Secular Woman and can be found tweeting wildly about a variety of subjects at elsalroberts.

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