On the Subject of When You Lose Your Power & Baited Arguments

Reading Time: 7 minutes

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression

Growing up, I never particularly enjoyed fishing. And, every other year my extended family would vacation at a friend’s cabin. There, fishing was a social event. My dad and uncles would loan out fishing rods to eager cousins waiting to rush into the marsh, battling waist-high cattails while they awaited a bite. And, while occasionally someone would catch something, more often than not empty lines would reel back in with a bit of algae and other aquatic greenery.

Disappointed, a cousin would walk back to the forest with a shovel, confident that the right worm would bait the fish. Confident that the desired input would create the desired output.

Right?

But fishing doesn’t always work like that.

Sometimes, we fish and we get a bite. Sometimes, we fish and we catch something. Sometimes, we fish and all we get is a bit of algae. And, sometimes we fish and we catch something completely unexpected. Like…who knew there was a tractor at the bottom of our lake?

I think that this analogy is often similar to how people approach conversations about race. Sometimes with a bit of trepidation, sometimes with a particularly juicy worm and sometimes confident that the desired input will create the desired output.

This past weekend, I went on a backpacking trip with my family, and I couldn’t help but notice my own rising anxiety as I prepared for the trip. In general, family dynamics are hard. And, intentional multicultural awareness and sensitivity can be particularly nuanced when these characteristics are also inherently bound to a familial framework and, perhaps, uninvestigated traditional worldviews.

As the youngest child in my family, my experience has often involved being discounted as a source of authority solely on the merit of my familial position.

And, perhaps you have experienced your own familial arguments riddled with the latent understanding that: you can have an opinion but other people are older and wiser.

This familial framework combined with the overwhelming temptation to revert back to old childhood frameworks and understandings can often hold deep political implications as well as intense emotional ones.

And, in order to function semi-sanely, I have found that part of my own multicultural double consciousness within my own familial system inherently relies on separation tactics.

When a sibling discounts my opinion on something regarding to my own experience with racism, I often find myself reasoning myself down with something like the following: in most situations with this particular sibling, my voice is often discounted because of my familial position compounded by our own complicated relationship; therefore, the over reactionary statements I’m hearing can’t be racist, because no matter the context I wouldn’t be right. Instead, this conversation is perhaps more of a direct output of pent-up rage, frustration and perhaps intentional meanness.

This is not to claim that my opinion about racism is infallible. Nor, is it to suggest that cross-racial dialogue regarding racism isn’t valuable. However, the mental somersaults, I was creating in order to explain away the ________was more than ridiculous. It was unhealthy.  

See, while I used to be disgusted but committed towards creating alternative explanations, I have found that as I focus on my own mental and emotional health, I can no longer create defenses for siblings, family members or community members whom spew intentionally untrue and racist ideologies.
Creating defenses isn’t helpful or healthy. 

And, while I used to think about how this decision would cost me, I realized that it was already costing me.

It has already cost me.

It has cost me my own ability to stand up for myself.

And, it has cost me my voice in exchange for white, although family, comfort.

It is not my job to make white people comfortable. And, I cannot limit this to only certain white people. It is not my job to make ANY white person comfortable. Whiteness is generally an institutional default. To name a few, in terms of objective opinion, idealized “truth tellers,” media narratives, the NFL, white supremacy, immigration policies…whiteness remains centralized. Whiteness remains protected. Whiteness remains a leg up despite my own interracial upbringing.   

Noticing and naming these dynamics are important steps towards regaining emotional health. I have often discounted confronting the politics of whiteness, racism and supremacy within my own family system because I have often been too scared of feeling abandoned again.

But noticing and naming my own fear of abandonment equips and empowers me to name and confront my fear when fear is holding me back.

I have often used this space to reflect and create dialogue on various racialized experiences I have had, or to write about pieces which I believe are contemporary and newsworthy. And, I strive to present personal, well thought-out, well-researched information in the hopes to create sustainable, intentional, committed, cross-racial relationships.

While, I think it is usually futile to argue with internet trolls or take the baited argument, I wanted to provide some reflections on something that happened to me this weekend because I have often been asked how to respond to racism or racially charged commentary within family systems. And, while I often caveat that I am not a counselor or a social worker, I believe that vulnerability is a critical tenant of relationship building and, vis-à-vis, dismantling racism.

As mentioned earlier, this past weekend I went backpacking (for the first time!), with my family. And, if my family is anything like yours, perhaps you know that intentional family time can be kinda like a kudzo vine that, if left unsupervised, can grow into all sorts of unknown and terrifying shit.

I want to caveat the included vignette, by admitting that I’m still hurt, frustrated, disappointed and disturbed by this particular incident. And, for better or for worse, I usually try to take an intentional break before writing in order to combat my own propensity of instantaneous reaction. However, the reason I wanted to share this in, perhaps, a timelier fashion, was because I believe that these stories are not specifically unique. More and more often, I have heard friends and community members dreading the holidays because, undoubtedly, someone will bring up politics.

And, I used to empathize, nod my head, and give a few suggestions like: lean in. In a nod (yet again to Dr. Amanda Kemp) notice if you are acting from your own specific vision of racial justice or from fear. Ask clarifying questions. Notice if you are in the right head space to be able to lean in or if you need to walk away. Notice and validate the way in which your body is reacting. Your body will give you clues regarding your true emotional state! If you can, stay committed to listening to your body throughout the conversation as well.

But, sometimes, a conversation will come up where no matter the strategies I have in my toolkit, I still hit that one conversation where you know you’re just gonna have a moment.  

And, I hit that conversation this weekend.

Perhaps, it was because we were backpacking and rolling out of bed to a conversation of steaming hot, scrambled Donald Trump breakfast before 9 isn’t the way I want to start off my day. EVER. Or, maybe it was because my relationship with this particular person hasn’t ever been what I would consider good. Or, maybe it was because after sleeping on roots, and getting rained on I was not even close to being in the headspace to talk about race. But, whatever it was, I found myself having the conversation.

I remember, at one point near the beginning, caveating the conversation with something like: I’m not sure if our relationship can handle this conversation, but I want to at least try. This is a good strategy because it is intentionally honest and allows room for the other person to be honest about the relationship.

While, the conversation remained civil, I found myself reeling from these particular soundbites:

Me: Why don’t you believe me about racism? This question, while I felt like was a good question at the time – and was really kind of a desperate grab for visibility like, hey! Remember that I’m a credible person -, isn’t actually a strategy I would recommend because it inherently relies on a sum-zero game of truth-teller vs. liar. Additionally, it sets up the conversation to re-center on personal grievances rather than one which relies on shared empathy and relational commitment.

 It maybe goes without saying that, in multicultural families, this framework is particularly nuanced in black (POC)/white frameworks and additionally nuanced when buoyed by familial contexts.

Sibling: “You really want to know?! Because you sensationalize EVERYTHING. I know I’ve skimmed some of your posts, and you go looking for racism in everything and you perceive racism everywhere and everything you say is related to race…” “…god just wants us to live positively, and I don’t read the news much…but here you are pissed off all the time at the world because you look for racism, and I hope the world isn’t as racist as you perceive that it is”

And, I didn’t know what to say.

I mean, I did.

But…it wasn’t worth it.

I could tell you that I managed to end the conversation without—

Punching. Throwing up. Screaming. Swearing or yelling.

I could tell you that I managed to walk back past my tent and sit on a log and cry for about ten minutes.

I could tell you that I tried to avoid conversations with this particular sibling for the rest of the weekend because I knew that if I didn’t, I might revert back to say oh

Punch, screaming, throwing up, swearing or yelling.

But, while these situations happen, what I found myself needing was a time to not only debrief but also a time to re-strategize.

And, I found myself repeating these words over and over to myself:

If I am committed towards building cross-racial, sustainable, committed, relationships than that includes my family.

If I am committed towards building cross-racial, sustainable, committed, relationships than that includes my family.

If I am committed towards building cross-racial, sustainable, committed, relationships than that includes my family.

As someone whom one day hopes to be a diversity and justice consultant, I have found that a version of this conversation, while – generally perhaps not so direct – crops up in my personal life from time to time. And, I wonder, if I had stuck to some of my tools in my toolkit- how the conversation would have turned out.

What if, I had said something like: Wow. It sounds like you have a lot of strong emotions. I wonder what feels scary or particularly hard about this conversation? This is a great question because it invites the other person to get right to the core of their emotions. And, by way of invitation, it validates the other person’s experience and equally allows them space to take a breath and realize that you are committed to seeing them despite the outward reaction.

Ask a clarifying question and lean in. I wonder what would have happened if I had said something like, “wow, it seems like you are really frustrated. Can you tell me more about your frustration?”  

 “Can I share what it is like for me?” This is another great strategy because it allows a chance for dialogue. In this situation, I wish I would have said something like, “wow, when you accuse me of ______, I feel hurt. I wish that I felt like this relationship was a safer place in order to have this conversation. I care about you and I want to know what is hard for you. You’re important to me.”  I often find that in conversations like these, I do one of two things: distance myself by only asking questions or distance myself by deflecting.

While this conversation included dialogue in which I did share examples of my own experience, I realized that I left the conversation feeling powerless. And, I had to rely on some of my own mental health strategies to feel re-stabilized. For example, I talked with a trusted friend. When I got back, I took a long hot shower. I wrote down my feelings and I meditated.

When I allow myself to notice my own feelings and my own body, I allow myself to heal.

To borrow, (again), from Dr. Amanda Kemp, here’s my challenge to you: “Notice when you feel as if your power has been stripped away from you.  What triggered you?  What do you do to protect and strengthen yourself?  Any poisons?

Shalom always,

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