A few weeks ago, I attended the Nonviolent Leadership for Social Justice Intensive, a gathering that brings together people studying Nonviolent Communication (NVC, also called Compassionate Communication) and people involved in social justice work. The focus of the intensive was “NVC and Race, Ethnicity, and Class in North America.” Because NVC and social justice worlds don’t always meet, the goal was to bring together people with varying levels of experience in these areas to be real with each other, to learn from each other, and to cultivate interconnection, a sense of shared reality, groundedness.
Very often NVC spaces are majority-white. Recognizing that, the organizers of the intensive made a commitment this year to aim for a ratio of 60% people of color (POC) and 40% white people. They explained this on the website:
In the context of a majority white country, where POC centered spaces for learning, healing and growth can be scarce and/or siloed away from white-identified people, we want to see if we can create a space that supports the implicit sense of shared reality for POC, while at the same time including white-identified people… We anticipate that this ratio may facilitate implicit support for POC participants, provide new experiences and perspectives for our white-identified participants, and bring learning to a deeper level for the Intensive as a whole.
This meant I was on a waiting list until just 2 weeks before the intensive began. Because of this commitment, I was even more eager to go to the intensive and would have affirmed this demographic goal, even if it had meant my not attending. As it turns out, attendees were of Asian descent, Black, indigenous, Latinx, and white. Within each group, there was diversity of age, origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, knowledge, and experience.
I had attended two intensives before this and thought the other two were intense. This one was even more so. With the dual focus on NVC and social justice, particularly racial justice, we had several sessions with the whole group so that we might grow our collective understanding of NVC, systemic violence, and nonviolence. Each one of these is a massive topic to dig into; the diversity within our group added to the complexity and the depth of the conversation, as well as the potential for conflict.
On the second full day of the intensive, a major conflict erupted. It is not mine to tell the specifics of the conflict. Broad themes included cultural appropriation and anti-Blackness. In dominant culture when these things come up, the pain of the people most affected is often swept under the rug, ignored, denied, or dismissed. We were in a place designed to face the pains, to bring them into the light, to try to hold each other in care, to try to create more understanding, and in doing so, even, maybe, some healing. A little bit of healing that we might carry out with us beyond our days together, that we might carry into the world, recognizing that our healing is part of the world’s healing, because we are part of the world.
As a white person ardently desiring to be seen as one of the “good white people” (a quality in myself I’m not proud of), I was at a loss, not knowing if or when to speak up. There were discussions I witnessed that I didn’t even know if I should be in the room for, but I didn’t want to leave both because I didn’t want to cause any disruption and the conversations were not ones I’m often privy to. My way of staying in the room was drawing, processing it all at a level without words.
Being in those spaces felt sacred, but also uncomfortable; sometimes I felt like I was seeing something that really wasn’t meant for me. It’s because I want to honor that time with such care that I don’t think it’s for me to share the particulars.
For much of the week I was wildly uncomfortable, wanting to be an active participant, but not knowing quite what that meant, particularly in large group spaces. I didn’t want to get things “wrong” and be called on it and I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I wanted to have a voice, but I was one of the people least directly affected by systemic racism. What business did I have voicing the particular pain that racism causes me?
At one point in a white caucus gathering, I admitted my dis-ease: “I don’t have a f—ing clue.” It wasn’t a surprise to anyone. It wasn’t a unique sentiment. I’ve done some work on racism and white privilege, looking at it from personal and structural levels. I’ve even led others through explorations of these topics. But I still have so much to learn. There is so much I don’t see in large part because, systemically speaking, I’m not meant to.
I am so grateful for the dis-ease I was feeling. I don’t enjoy discomfort, but I’m grateful for times of grappling, learning, struggling, sometimes with POC, often with other white people. I believe that for white people, putting ourselves in healthy dis-ease is critical, if we care about our interconnection with our brothers and sisters of color.
I believe being in this dis-ease, personally and collectively, will ultimately make us healthier, especially when we enter the space with intentionality and care. I believe that our lives, our children’s lives, their children’s lives, depend on our choosing to have some healthy dis-ease.
And let me be clear: Some of us have a choice and some of us don’t. I chose to be in the discomfort. As a white person, I had the choice. I could have stayed in my white middle-class American bubble of relative comfort, fairly confident that people would treat me well by virtue of my appearance, people would err on the side of positive assumptions rather than negative ones. This ease is the default setting in my life. Most of the time I have a choice to be in ease or dis-ease.
That’s not true for everyone. The ease and choice of comfort is not the reality for many of the people I spent the week with. For POC, the decision to speak or not to speak could affect their jobs, physical well-being, life. Ease is not the default setting. Even saying “the right things” doesn’t necessarily offer protections. While I am not completely safe either, my whiteness provides a sort of “shield” of protection.
I’ve had a murky awareness of this for a while. The murky started to become less so about 7 years ago. I was in Istanbul, Turkey as part of a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation; our delegation leader had been denied entry into Turkey, so our group had to figure out how to get to one of the airports so we could fly to eastern Turkey and meet up with our other delegation leaders. I had been in Istanbul for a few days and had been there before, so I had some familiarity of the area; I was also very willing to ask people for help. They’d always been friendly to me. As our group was discussing our plan, some delegates expressed concern about us getting lost.
I confidently told them, “People here are so friendly, they’ve always helped me and sometimes gone out of their way to help.”
A black member of the delegation quietly offered, “That’s not everyone’s experience here.”
“That’s not everyone’s experience. I am not received very warmly by people here.” This was one of many awakenings I’ve had on racism and privilege. I still don’t have a f—ing clue. I don’t know what I don’t know.
I am back in my bubble now, trying to step out of it, trying to notice the things I’m not meant to notice. Trying to speak up when I see them.
Last week I noticed and I spoke as much as I was able to in the moment. I was with a newly arrived Honduran father and daughter at an event where free immunizations were being given. Toward the end of the event, a Black woman and two or three white people approached me. The Black woman spoke, “Do you speak Spanish? These folks would like some translation.”
I looked at the white people. They were holding some boxes with the logo of a local charity. “We’d like to ask those mothers if we could put their kids in these boxes and take some pictures. We think it’d be really cute, so people could see who their donations were benefiting.”
I could feel the lump in my throat form, my back tighten. I couldn’t clearly name my unease, but I knew it was there. I paused and replied, “I’m feeling some discomfort about that. I’m not sure what it is, but I don’t feel good about it.”
“So we should get someone else to translate?” one of the white people asked.
Feebly I replied, “I guess so.”
I wish I had said, “No, please don’t put the brown children in boxes and take pictures of them for social media.” But I didn’t.
The white people with boxes left, I guess to find another translator. The Black woman stayed. She thanked me for voicing my discomfort. I reiterated, “It just didn’t feel right. It felt like…”
“Exploitation?” she offered.
“Yes! And a bit white savior-y.” She nodded.
Even after that clarity, I didn’t go and address it with them. I have no idea if they took any pictures. I did check the organization’s social media feeds and didn’t see any of the pictures they were hoping to take, so I hope they never actually took them. I was prepared to ask the organization to take them down if there were pictures posted.
And so I continue to learn, sometimes partially responding the way I hope to, sometimes only getting clarity after the fact, sometimes regretting not having acted. Practice makes better, never perfect.
I wanted to wrap this reflection up neatly with a final conclusion.
There is no conclusion.
The work continues.