Confronting the Wall of Racism: Six Steps Through a Difficult Conversation

Speaking up feels uncomfortable, but honest friction is more alive than complicit silence.

Image created by the author from a photograph by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.com

The reading took place during the final dark days of the Trump presidency, on Zoom, of course. I had been invited to read an essay that had been chosen for a regional literary magazine. It felt like bubbles of champagne to find myself included in a group of “local authors”.

My hand trembled in anticipation as I clicked on the Zoom link. The twenty of us popped into our places on the now familiar Zoom grid. I didn’t know any of the other writers, but I could see that, like me, they were White, middle-aged or older. People with time to have a serious writing hobby. People with the job flexibility or leisure to be able to join a Zoom meeting in the middle of a weekday afternoon.

We started with introductions. Everyone else had prepared a polished, witty intro. I hesitated and then just gave my name. The other authors were all more published than I was, several had even written entire books. I wasn’t sure I belonged in such company, but I relaxed once the authors began to read. The pieces were mostly compelling and well-written. It was a pleasure to escape, if only briefly, from pandemic loneliness and political instability, into a magical world of a language, creativity and storytelling. My own reading received a warm compliment from the host and a few scattered smiles from the other participants.

#1: Take responsibility for racism

The next author read a piece about playing “Cowboys and Indians”. It was a light-hearted essay that intended to show the illusions children have about war and conflict. I doubt the author, a woman named Helen, intended to cause any offense.

The problem was that her piece didn’t acknowledge a sinister reality: the children were making a game out of the genocide of millions Indigenous people. The obliviousness of her story made me cringe, and I can only imagine the impact it would have on an Indigenous person. The game, as well as the Western novels, movies and TV shows on which it was based, obscure and erase the truth of the ruthless and violent conquest and colonization of the American continent by White people. Denial of the history of White Supremacy in America is what sustains systemic racism today, privileging me as a White person, continuing the oppression Indigenous People and other people of color in my name.

Denial of the history of White Supremacy in America is what sustains systemic racism today, privileging me as a White person, perpetuating the oppression Indigenous People and other people of color in my name.

The cozy ambience of the afternoon had been ruptured by a real world of pain, injustice and my own witting and unwitting collusion in all of the above.

#2: Find your brave space

My stomach clenched.

Part of me felt compelled to say something, while another part wondered if I couldn’t just let this one go. After all, I didn’t know any of these people, and I didn’t have to ever see them again. I spent a few moments scheming desperately for a way to respond without disrupting what had been a pleasant interlude. I toyed with the idea of composing an articulate email and sending it to the host — surely that was almost as good as, maybe even better than, interrupting the reading?

“Stand in your brave space.”

A Black woman at a forum on racism that I had attended a few weeks earlier had spoken those words.

“The silent people hurt me just as much as the speaker,” another Black woman at the forum added, “It’s bad enough to be insulted, but when nobody else in the room speaks up it means nobody cares.”

#3: You don’t have the right to be judgmental or righteous.

There was a round of muted Zoom applause when Helen finished reading. A wave of heat rose up from my belly, coloring my cheeks.

Now or never.

I unmuted myself.

“That was a really well-written story,” I began, “but I am sorry to say I found it terribly upsetting. I think about how it would feel to hear this story if I was an Indigenous person. I mean, I’m Jewish, and if someone read a story about children playing Gestapo hunting Jews, it would feel like a punch in the stomach.”

I didn’t want to be angry, righteous and judgmental. Over the years, I have said similar and worse things. I was just as deserving of anger and judgement as as anyone in that Zoom room.

I deliberately didn’t use words and phrase like “racism” “white supremacy” or “micro-aggression”. I didn’t believe the terminology would help my point. But also, I didn’t want to be angry, righteous and judgmental. Over the years, I have said similar and worse things. I was just as deserving of anger and judgement as as anyone in that Zoom room.

“But I thought I explained very clearly that this was a foolish children’s game that created a false picture of reality.” Helen responded plaintively. “And besides, didn’t everybody play Cowboys and Indians? I just wrote about my childhood memories. Can’t I do that without having to worry about being politically correct?”

“I understand your frustration,” I responded, “as writers it feels like we should be able to give our creativity free rein. It doesn’t feel good to question and second-guess the stories we want to tell.”

I went on to explain that, as a member of the dominant culture, a culture that continues to oppress Indigenous people, I believe I have a particular responsibility not to participate in the false narratives that our culture has created to cover up their history. If I, as a White writer, choose to describe playing Cowboys and Indians, I have an obligation to highlight the ways this game perpetuates harmful lies.

I hope that’s the gist of what I said. I was trembling with arousal and trying to stay centered at the same time, reminding myself to feel my seat on the chair and take conscious breaths. With all that going on, I can’t be sure exactly how I organized my thoughts into words and coherent sentences.

An uncomfortable silence greeted the end of my diatribe. Helen rubbed the space between her eyebrows with a forefinger. The other participants shifted uncomfortably in their Zoom squares.

#4: Don’t expect to convince anyone.

“Well, I just can’t even believe we’re having this discussion” another writer, Jill, spoke up. “I think you’re being very narrow-minded.”

“What I am trying to do is put myself in someone else’s shoes” I responded. “And, I want to say how much I appreciate the graceful way Helen is receiving this feedback. It can’t be easy to hear that your writing has offended someone.”

There was another long silence.

“I am sorry you were upset, Tamar” the host of the group struggled to regain control. “I read each of your stories before inviting you here. I didn’t see anything wrong with any of them”. He sounded more perplexed than angry.

“Well I think this is just outrageous. I really can’t believe this discussion”. This time it was Jack, who, I found out later, was married to Jill. “This is absolutely censorship”.

I took a deep breath and forced myself to smile at the little squares on my screen. “Thank you all for being willing to hear me. I know this is a difficult conversation. I appreciate all of you for your willingness to listen. I don’t have anything more to add to what I have already said.”

There was another long pause. I peered at my screen, trying to make out the other participant’s emotions. Jill and Jack looked furious. Helen was looking down and away from her camera. The other participants’ expressions fell along a continuum from blank to anxious. The host looked sad. Was he disappointed that what was supposed to a be a convivial gathering, a break from the stresses of our times, had instead become an awkward, contentious discussion? I felt a twinge of regret. It had been generous of him to include a newbie like me in the reading. And I had come here hoping to make influential new friends not frosty enemies.

“Alex, can you read your story, please?” The host broke the silence.

#5: Acknowledge whatever you have been able to accomplish, even if it’s just overcoming your own fear.

The next author began to read, an absorbing story about a scientist who created a hive of insect droids with a common, evolving consciousness. As he read, I could sense all of us begin to relax. My heart still pounded, my face was flushed, but could feel something in my chest begin to open.

There was so much more life, I realized, in honest friction than in complicit silence.

Speaking up and speaking honestly, being able to tolerate the resulting discomfort, left me with an exhilarating sense of relief. As I looked at each square on the Zoom screen, I felt something like love for each of the writers, even the ones I didn’t like. There was so much more life, I realized, in honest friction than in complicit silence. For a moment, I felt like a cautious child, who has finally dared to grab a sputtering sparkler and wave it around on the Fourth of July.

#6: It’s Okay to Take Small Steps.

OK, I know this all sounds modest, if not completely ineffectual. I can picture some bold, brave activist snorting with disgust when she reads this. I had a short Jane Austen-esque conversation about racism with a group of other White folks. Some people were angry, perhaps some were open, most said nothing at all.

What will this actually do for Indigenous People? Will it restore even one acre of land? Will it rewrite even one textbook?

And didn’t I let all those people awfully easily? I stopped the discussion after a few minutes. I thanked them for listening. I never used the word “racism”. I didn’t even try to explain how what we say and do in our innocence is every bit as damaging as the most explicit racial slur.

As these thoughts swirled in my head, I remembered a story told by Sister Dang Nhiem, a Buddhist nun and teacher in the lineage of the Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh. As a novice, Sister D and the other nuns would meditate in an old converted barn, facing a thick, hand-built wall of stones. The wall reminded Sister D of a block she felt in her own heart that seemed like an insurmountable obstacle to the healing and peace she sought. Then, one evening an insight came to her. The wall she faced was made of big stones, with small pebbles filling in the gaps between them. Maybe she didn’t have to start by grappling with the huge stones. Even prying out a small pebble would let some light in, and if she pulled out enough pebbles, maybe someday the whole wall would crumble by itself.

Maybe she didn’t have to start by grappling with the huge stones. Even prying out a small pebble would let some light in, and if she pulled out enough pebbles, maybe someday the whole wall would crumble by itself.

I have to let myself hope that the conversation I started shifted a pebble for someone at that Zoom meeting. Maybe the next time they hear about playing “Cowboys and Indians” they’ll think about how we unconsciously absorbed racist narratives, as White children growing up in a White Supremacist society. And maybe I pulled out a small pebble in the wall of my own passive racism, just by finding the courage to speak up. Maybe the next pebble, whether it’s mine or someone else’s, will be just a little easier to pry loose.

Note: This essay is based on an actual incident, although names and identifying details have been altered. Dialogue is based on my memory of the experience.

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