Our work at Aephoria is all about maturing humans and organisational systems. Often in our facilitation this requires us to talk about issues of diversity and inclusion and race in particular. I’ve been reflecting on the way in which white workshop participants sometimes respond to this. Maybe I feel a bit like the clairvoyant Rodrigues who sings about the kinds of people you will always find in a bar on a Friday night. I have come to expect a variety of responses in the group and many of these responses are aimed at alleviating and avoiding the anxiety that comes from conversations about race when you are a white South African.
Now a lot can be said for the sometimes annoying attempts we make as white people to be “best whites”, as Rebecca Davies calls us. Best whites are those of us who care about inclusion and try to be understanding and supportive of the black perspective. This perspective of goodness is sometimes useful and sometimes disempowering and annoying, leading to “whitesplaining” and other annoying behaviours in a group that can make us as hard to pin to a wall as a jellyfish. It speaks to a certain expression of white fragility that I know I can be guilty of. As a “best white” I am sometimes so self-aware that I lose my agency and ability to show the good-bad polarity that being human entails. It can be politically correct and nauseating (to me and my black colleagues). Fine
I am however also interested in busting some of the other expressions of white fragility we see in groups. So let’s have a Rodrigues-like moment and name the behaviours that are often less than helpful in group conversations.
- I am not a racist BUT
Gosh, we all know this person. And we know that the next sentence out of the person’s mouth completely invalidates the clumsy attempt at concealing the truth. This person often also follows with embarrassing examples of being raised by his black domestic. It always astonishes me that the very same person sees nothing wrong with how this also means the black woman in question had to leave her children behind with relatives for the “privilege” of cleaning up our privileged white lives.
- Can’t we PLEASE stop talking about race, I’m tired of this conversation
In a recent workshop we had such a useful conversation about the challenges young managers have when managing individuals across race and age boundaries. Young white managers managing older black men and vice versa. The conversation was interesting and helpful. So how do move from that to “stop talking about it”? Normally this happens when someone says something that touches a nerve. I don’t want to talk about this thing that causes me anxiety or guilt, so I am going to invalidate everything useful that we’ve done before. I experience this as incredibly selfish. The problem is that naming the pattern often gives you more of the shutdown mode in the form of passive aggressive checking out, scrolling around in a phone and other forms of eye-rolling, folded arms and sighing. These participants make me work really hard as a facilitator when what I would like to ask is for you to toughen up and stay present.
- They are only appointing black people these days
This individual uses a reference of the current reality, aimed at creating a more equitable society, as data points to invalidate talking about race beyond the accusatory racialised data-point offered. We can talk about race as long as you agree with my point and save me from the anxiety of any alternative viewpoints or even alternative interpretations of the same data being offered.
I guess the point I am trying to make is that in proclaiming that racial issues are a thing of the past, passe or in a reversed position of now being at some receiving end we are trying to shut down racial interpretations of reality. It is an extreme attempt at controlling what is and isn’t relevant ways of interpretation. And if we claim the right to do so, the extreme level of privilege that we claim is beyond arrogant. Just because I am tired of talking about race as a white person, doesn’t give me the right to shut down conversations about race other people want to have.
Part of having been in a position of privilege, is that we suffer from anxiety inoculation. In a white world that is becoming more integrated, and in some instances reverting to being more of a black world, we just don’t know how to remain in a conversation and in touch with our discomfort. Black colleagues, friends and even strangers have been complicit in this inoculated existence by rescuing us from our discomfort – telling us it isn’t that bad, changing the topic or holding back on their anger and frustration.
We can’t stand the discomfort, so we get angry and indignant at being in the race conversation “again”. Black colleagues have to suck up their anger and yet we remain fully privileged in our expression of our anger.
Real maturity invites me to stay in the conversation despite my anxiety. In fact, that anxiety points me towards some of the biggest learning opportunities of my life. It takes real courage to not tune out, shrug off or fight off conversations that make me uncomfortable. And beyond this invitation to maturity there is the bigger reality – if we invalidate race as a category of analysis and social sense-making in South Africa, we are turning ourselves into blind leaders. We are disregarding data-points and trying to regain control in a completely illogical way. We can only manage what we are willing to see and work with. If I am not willing to talk about race I am choosing to be managed by race.
This is not to say that conversations could and hopefully will transcend race over time without negating identity and culture and power. We are not yet in this place. So I wonder about the expansion of our leadership identities to include aspects of self that make it easier to stay with the anxiety. As a white African I know that allowing the African into my identity challenges and expands me in useful ways when the conversation gets tough. I also know that I need to own the colonial heritage from which I have grown into this soil. For each of us this identity expansion is our own work. Identity is constructed and malleable. Identity is not cast in stone unless I make it so. The more I expand my identity, the more I expand my capacity for anxiety. Let us undo this inoculation and stay with the conversation.