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What to do when white people derail conversations

19 Apr 2017

At what point do you make an everyday stand for your marginalised self, at the risk of losing something you want or need?

I sat listening to a conversation and became increasingly frustrated. Looking around the room I saw my expression mirrored on at least five of the fifteen or so brown faces that met my gaze. The room was filled with WoC. Except one. The one, self-identifying white woman present was derailing the conversation to enquire:

“How could you all possibly believe that institutions are racist! What do you mean when you say people in the UK are as racist as in America? Please explain to me… I still don’t understand… Can we just go over that point again…?”

This carried on intermittently. I’m sure many of you reading know exactly the kind of repetitive and naive, yet politely worded, line of questioning we were subjected to. Subject being the operative word. The main topic of the informal event we were at, created for predominantly WoC, had been sidelined. We, the women of colour, had given up the power we held in our own space and become the (removed and slightly unsightly) object of discussion in the mind and ignorant words of the speaker.

“Engaging politely with white so-called allies, especially white female ones, is often something black women do far too willingly”

How and why had we let this happen? Did we let this woman – who we believed to have some power in the institution we were occupying – assume a bigger role than she deserved? Is there a deeper answer to why we let a conversation derail so catastrophically?

I was observing the situation, as quiet, overly-polite English people do in a roomful of strangers; others were engaging in an increasingly simmering debate. Afterwards, making conversation around the room, I realised most were as frustrated with the constant stalling as I was.

Engaging politely with white so-called allies, especially white female ones, is often something black women do far too willingly. The majority experience outnumbered hers and you’d perhaps assume that some power was in our numbers. However in reality, power dynamics aren’t as straight-forward as numerics in this capitalist, racist, patriarchal (I could go on) society.

Let’s step out of this scenario. It was a pretty small moment but a pretty significant one too, because it’s in these smaller, everyday encounters that we live most of our lives. They are the pixels that eventually make up the picture of who we are, what we stand for and how we are perceived. Sure, we will all undoubtedly have at least one dramatic racist experience we can recount to everyone, to shocks of horror. Realistically though, unless we are *lucky enough to be* (read: living in an alternate reality) surrounded by woke people and those actively unlearning problematic behaviours at home, work, school and on the sidewalk, the majority of both the blatant and micro-aggressive racism we will face is from the hands of well-meaning, friendly and apparently ignorant faces.

For some, speaking out on a daily or even ad-hoc basis could mean losing a safe space, work or money and this could be devastating. For others, often those who make their money in socialist or third sector jobs, it may not be overly concerning to put their concerns forward, as there’s less personal risk.

We often deem things as too insignificant to speak on, but I think that’s where we are going wrong.

We can get too used to letting it go, thinking “Next time – when it’s a bigger deal – I’ll speak out”; then risk creating a habit out of marginalising ourselves by what we think is an infinitesimal amount. Regardless of race, we all have to play the game of capitalism if we want to live well. It just happens, or rather was made to happen, that the black female gets a double whammy because the rulebook wasn’t written with us anywhere in mind.

“Regardless of race, we all have to play the game of capitalism if we want to live well”

I tell that little derailing story for several reasons. One: as an admission of regret – that was one moment I wish I had been better prepared to shut down. The greater benefit would perhaps not have been in the name of comfort, but rather to have gone with my gut, as I was far from alone in my frustration.

Two: as a question – I/we will have conversations derailed time and time again; should we perhaps have a pre-packaged witty or sardonic shut-down in hand for those days? (Fave one so far: when told a x-phobic joke, just keep asking the joker “Wait, why is that funny?” whilst appearing fun and flirty.)

Thirdly and finally, as a reminder: though I’ll stop short of thanking that woman for her entitled behaviour, on my way home that night, annoyed that the event had been nearly overshadowed, I wondered if perhaps it was important that I experienced those unwelcome disruptions. If only to drive home a point made in a talk by Toni Morrison, that I had not thought about for a long time. A reminder that “the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being… none of that is necessary… there will always be one more thing”.