January 21, 2011

on having That Conversation

Around about the same time last year, we had That Conversation. You know, the hard one. The one where everyone leaves bruised and sore-throated, but nobody has changed their minds or understands each other any better.

If you've followed any discussion about race in any progressive space on the blogosphere, there's a clear indication where the conversation goes from bearable to shit. It goes like this: someone fails to check their privilege (often not maliciously), gets called on it (not necessarily politely), then acts like they were told they ate babies for brunch. After that, dialogue grinds to a halt.

The problem with how That Conversation progresses (or rather, doesn't) is that people expect it to happen spontaneously without reproducing the same dynamics that already exist. Now add the problems of communicating via social media in general, and you've got a discussion guaranteed to leave everybody all pissed off with neither clarity nor a plan of action. It's not because White people hate Black people, Black people are too angry, Asians too quiet, Latinos don't speak English, or Native Americans too - waitaminute, what Native Americans?

That's the bad news. The good news is that this outcome not a foregone conclusion. I've had That Conversation go well with the most "colorblind" and the most "conscious" people in the same room, all sharing their truths. Honestly, I would prefer having That Conversation with people who've gone through training with the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond and/or have familiarized themselves with the material at Anti-Racist Alliance.

Over at Parabasis, we sort of touched That Conversation, and 99Seats made a good point. That Conversation is important. It's necessary and urgent. But not everyone comes to it with years of experience with anti-racist analysis and organizing, and That Conversation is important enough to not wait until everyone can find the time and money to participate in the training before they have it. However, just jumping into it without a fucking idea of what's going on internally or externally is just asking for somebody to do or say something fucked up. Then, instead of That Conversation you want to have, everything grinds to a halt.

Here are a few guidelines I came up with on how to have That Conversation.

Establish clear goals.
If people don't know what they want to get out of That Conversation, it's a good chance that it's going to turn into a clusterfuck. Be honest. If you just want to show those PC bastards how wrong and stupid they are, admit it. If your goal is to see what everyone else thinks/feels and why they think/feel that way, make that blindingly fucking obvious. If you want to apply a personalized, structural analysis of systemic oppression, say so. Just for the record, that last one is usually what I'm trying to do.

Set common ground.
Everyone who agrees to That Conversation needs to be on the same page, though. If I'm trying to apply a personalized, structured analysis of systemic oppression, and people don't even know what that means, there's no way anyone would have anything worth saying to each other. It'll just be, "You're wrong!" and "No I'm not! And you're a fucking asshole for saying that!" That's boring.

That Conversation needs to have a direction, and there needs to be a shared frame of reference if it's going to go anywhere but all over the place. Whether it's a book, a website, a workshop, or what have you, That Conversation needs to be the common reference.

Get your 101 on.
I don't know about you, but I don't have it in me to try to convince White people that racism is real and has devastating effects on the lives of people of color. Google "racism 101" (yes, exactly like that), and thousands of things are right there at your fingertips. If that's too difficult, I give plenty of links below. Knock yourself out.

Keep learning.
Few things are more disruptive to having That Conversation than someone who thinks they know everything worth knowing about it. Tim Wise named you his successor in the anti-racist movement? Good for you. Now shut the fuck up. No matter how much you know, you don't know shit. You might know more facts than the next person, but a visceral sense of truth is a more powerful tool for understanding and challenging the status quo. Being able to read code is not the same as seeing through the Matrix.

Own your shit.
How the hell can That Conversation lead anywhere if you don't know where everyone is coming from? Where is the system stacked against you? Where are you privileged? What knowledge and experiences are you bringing to this conversation? What assumptions are you clinging to?

If you're a light-skinned Black person who dealt with color issues coming up, and you feel insecure about your Blackness, own it. If you're the White kid who went to a Black school and felt the brunt of the rage and pain of your peers, own it.

Keep it personal.
We can compare data all day long, but comparing data is not making connections. Claim your I-ness. It's a lot easier to have That Conversation when we see and treat each other as people first, not abstract ideas. If everything that everybody said in That Conversation began with IMO or IMXP (because you don't want to get zapped with a logical fallacy and look stupid, do you?), it will never get past hello. But don't act like people don't know what they went through or how they felt about it. You can be the most brilliant intellectual, the most devoted activist, the most persuasive orator but all that is bullshit if you cannot be fully present and fully human.

Opinions can be challenged. Facts can be found. Blind spots can be illuminated. But that can't happen if you strip the humanity out of That Conversation.

Helping to understand.
That Conversation does not work well as a debate. It just doesn't. That Conversation is not a game. It's not something you're trying to win (unless by win you mean make theatre more equitable). As I said around the same time of year last year:
[...] no one is on trial. This is not a cross-examination. Nobody's casting anyone as heroes and villains. In fact, it's just the opposite - I want you to be better Good Guys. To do that takes going beyond earning a little bit of good karma here and there. It takes creating a new way of seeing and existing in the world - and that's not a comfortable place to be in.

A better way to frame That Conversation is around helping people to understand. Fact: not everyone is going to see eye-to-eye on everything. It's not about agreeing or disagreeing in principle. It's simply about people being different. Instead of going into that agree/disagree tailspin, focus instead on seeing more clearly where people are. It's as simple as, "I'm not seeing what you're seeing. Help me understand."

No psychics.
This one is deeply personal for me, so I'll be here a while.

For some reason, when it comes to That Conversation, people act like they're telepathic or some shit and assume they know my feelings or beliefs about things without me telling them exactly what they are. I rarely get this from other women of color, but they're Republican. I can't tell you how many times I've said something like, "That's a pretty privileged position you're speaking from there [insert what's privileged about it]," and have people treat me as though I said, "FUCK YOU RACIST KKK SKINHEAD MOTHERFUCKER!!! YOU R  A PIECE OF SHIT & BE ASHAMED OF URSELF!!! DIE WHITEY DIE!!! Fuck your mama too."

If you feel confident about someone's emotional state or personal beliefs without them telling you explicitly, so confident that your amazing supernatural powers will work over the internet, chances are you're not owning your shit. Because chances are you're not seeing someone talking about something with great personal significance to them that they're very passionate about - you're seeing something else entirely, and you need to own it.

I don't own any tinfoil hats, so don't do this.

Thank people for sharing.
You may think that because I talk about racism a lot, that it's easy for me. It isn't. I really make myself vulnerable on this blog and in other places in ways that I cannot in my daily life. Of all the White people who've read and commented here, only one has openly acknowledged this. Act like it means something when people share their stories with you in That Conversation. When someone is patient enough to explain something you don't understand or to provide you with a resource that does, thank them. It doesn't have to be right away. You can do a follow-up post or comment. Give yourself time to make it count. But do it in a timely manner. Don't just take their stories and consume them for your own self-improvement without so much as a thank you.

For people allergic to Google, here are some resources.
Some required reading:

Some required viewing:

Further reading:


  1. I think the biggest issue is that people genuinely don't want to know and grow and learn.

    They talk a good game but if it's anything that requires them to step out of their comfort zone, they aren't having it.

    Because the ones who do make a good faith effort to understand aren't the ones who are constantly fucking up or making with the textbook fail.

  2. Because the ones who do make a good faith effort to understand aren't the ones who are constantly fucking up or making with the textbook fail.

    Just for the sake of clarity, would you mind expanding on your idea of a good faith effort vs. fucking it up?

  3. Bookmarking. Thanks for a thoughtful post and relevant links.

  4. I'll also suggest that when you get into That Conversation it helps when you define terms. It's been my experience that when two people are using the term "racism" with differing definitions the conversation goes wrong very quickly. (I tend to use the small "r", capital "R" distinction in my head, but it works best when I actually remember to tell people that the former is about skin color and the latter is about societal and historical oppression/disadvantage.)

    I'm also bookmarking, and looking forward to carefully reading through your links!

  5. I'm in the middle of reading your response on the "More About Words" post about Huck Finn and I agree with you times infinity (and I know you've said it before--shit gets tiring). What's the phrase you use? "Must be mighty nice" to view exposure to a racial slur as an learning tool and not a psychological assault.

    P.S. I'm throwing my $.02 in over there now.

  6. Awesome post. I found your blog recently and really enjoy it.

    I really like your point here on "Racism 101". It is so exhausting (and often alienating on all sides) when a "Conversation" can't even get off the ground because non-white folks have to explain to white folks (or, those who choose not to educate themselves) that privilege exists.

    Again, great post. Looking forward to reading through the links.

  7. Thanks, everyone!

    Feel free to add your own ideas, too. I'm sure I can't think of them all!

  8. I stumbled over here from a link from someone on LiveJournal, and really appreciate the time and effort you've taken to compile these resources.

    I also, deeply, appreciate this:"If you're the White kid who went to a Black school and felt the brunt of the rage and pain of your peers, own it."

    I can and do own it, but/and don't recall ever seeing that kind of lived experience acknowledged in this way. As a childhood-onset PTSD survivor (not "just" because of my school experiences; far from it), I thank you from my heart. You've never met me but I feel heard by you.

  9. A lot of this advice can be applied to conversations about ANY hot button issues. Even in inter-personal relationshit conversations, we have to listen, understand and own what we are and be responsible for it.
    Thanks for this post. Sharing it with those I know. Maybe it can help those having That Conversation (or some variety of Conversation) and maybe they can pass it on, too.