When White Fragility Comes Knocking

1 Oct

daughter, Leni, and me

My daughter Leni is in her second year in college. Snce she’s been ten years old, she’s wanted to become a dentist, and that is the path she is on with her studies. But even before age ten, Leni, like me, paid attention to race. She has been the muse for a number of my blog posts, like my favorite, Is Poppy A Black American?, inspired by Leni, when she was five, asking if my father was Black. She also wrote two posts of her own here: We White People Think White Culture is Cultureless and Proud Mama: My Daughter Leni Writes Her First Post for Wendy Jane’s Soul Shake.

Leni is currently taking a class in college, called Race and Power. Of course I was glad about that, even though a week before she started back to school, she made some comments to me during a discussion about race, something to the effect of, “you’re an older generation..us younger people, we all get along. You think differently because you’re thinking of the civil rights era, and it’s not like that anymore,…we all are more accepting of one another, it’s just normal for us to get along..”

I countered, “Well, I wonder if your friends, and peers of color, would feel the same way because while I understand what you’re saying about ease of getting along and acceptance for everyone across race, ethnicity, and gender identity, what about the microaggressions and racism that young Black people and people of color still experience on a daily basis, that you don’t?”

“Yes, I know that happens..but I don’t want to be the white person who thinks they know everything about race, and I won’t speak on that because that is not my experience,…and I’ll listen when a Black person or person of color explains something to me, but I’m not going to listen to a white person, explaining to me about race and racism.”

I know my Leni, so while there was much more we could enter into conversation about, I knew she wouldn’t hear it right then, so I let it go.

Fast forward to the second week of Leni’s Race and Power class. I get a phone call from her. Most of the time she calls me while walking from one class to another, or when she’s washing her face, or some other task or downtime thing. That Mom call to fill the void. But Leni also calls when she needs her mama for support. In this call, she shared how one of the Black students, a young woman in the class, mentioned she noticed the white students in the class were not commenting. Leni explained she felt bad about that, but that in that session there wasn’t anything she wanted to say, or if she had, it was already said by another student, and she didn’t want to repeat it.

I could relate. Whenever I go to a public event where there is a dialogue or Q & A involved, my fear of public speaking kicks in and these sentences loop through my brain, over and over:

“Wendy, you’re shy, so you should practice getting out of your comfort zone and say something, ask a question,” then, “I can’t think of anything to say or ask,” or, “I can’t think of how to phrase it so it doesn’t come out awkward,” or “you’re not that important, so don’t put all that pressure on yourself thinking it matters if you ask a question..”

Still, I encouraged Leni to contribute to the conversation in her class, and to not be afraid to share her opinion.

The following week I got another call from Leni. She told me she felt uncomfortable at times in the Race and Power class that day. She said that when a white person was sharing their opinion on the day’s topic, a Black student, kept shutting her down, saying, “no, no, you’re wrong. That’s not how it is..” I said, “okay, she is speaking her mind,” and then I asked her if the professor is intervening at all, directing the conversation happening in class. She said, “No, she doesn’t say anything. She lets the class talk.”

Leni continued to say that she was worried about saying “the wrong thing,” or students of color shutting her down, or thinking she doesn’t understand, or that she’s racist. I brought up the matter of white fragility and how those thoughts and worries are a part of white fragility, and talking about race for white people> I added that being uncomfortable is a part of it, too, because we worry about being seen as racist, or worry if a Black person becomes angry. But I always remember the question I heard about having conversations on race for white people that asks, “are you more worried about being called racist than you are about breaking down racism and structures of white supremacy?”

Again, I encouraged her to get uncomfortable. That it was okay to be uncomfortable. That it should be something white people allow themselves to be. That it’s necessary if we want to be able to have honest conversations, and take any steps in breaking down racism, and the structures of racism.

“Yeah, there’s like only four white people in the class…,” Leni continued.

“Well, now you know what it feels like for Black people to be, and speak, in majority white spaces they most always find themselves in. It’s good for you to experience that situation,” I said.

“I know what it’s like,” I could feel her eye roll over the phone, “…I was a minority in my high school, and well I wish it was like that. “..In my Multicultural Studies class, I was in the minority, but we all got along, and we could talk about things…I just wish we could talk about things in this class without getting angry.”

I brought up the need to be careful about tone policing, or the telling of Black and Brown people to not get angry when talking about race. She knew what I meant, but I suppose was having a hard time feeling it in practice.

I understood Leni, because I have felt all of the feelings she is now experiencing, on my journey to educate myself, and learn from others, about the construct of race, the history of racism, and most important, to make cross-racial connections to discuss race, without the fear of being thought of as racist, or just another white person who doesn’t get it.

I am still not good at making my voice heard about anything within a group setting, and it’s been years since I’ve been in a classroom setting, so I asked my friend Diana, an Anthropology Professor, with a focus on Carribbean culture, for her advice on how Leni might be able to share her perspective in class. Diana’s advice was for Leni to preface what she says with something like, “…what I share is from my perspective, which is shaped by my lived experience and who I am, being a white, Eastern European Jewish woman, with a small percentage of Native American heritage…I know it is different from other people’s experiences, and I appreciate being able to listen to, and learn from other people’s perspectives…”

I offered that to Leni, which she seemed to think could help, but she still worried about things “coming out wrong,” and being thought of as ignorant and racist. “Well, you just have to say what you mean to say. You may stumble. You are human, and what you say may not come out perfect, and you may say something that someone in the class finds offensive, and you will have to hear from them, how what you said made them feel..It’s all a part of learning and growing and understanding one another. I think people will see that you care enough to be a part of the dialogue. It’s important to not withhold. It’s important to be a part of the conversation.”

If only I always practiced what I just preached to my daughter.

Last week I had an awesome day in Boston. I really did. I went up to attend the National Organization For Arts and Health (NOAH) Conference, saw Leni afterward and had pizza with her, and then went solo to the Lizzo concert!

Throughout the conference, I noticed something I’ve not unseen since childhood, though admittedly it’s on a much more consistent, conscious basis now. That thing is noticing how white a setting is. From the thousands of attendees of this merged conference of Arts and Health and Healthcare Facilities personnel–to the introduction of a Board of Directors introduced by the lead Conference organizer, a sea of maybe thirty, mostly white men and a smattering of white women, to the break-out session presenters–people of color were a true minority.

I remember the words of Nina Sanchez, Director of Enrich Chicago a collaborative of 30 Chicagoland arts and philanthropic organizations committed to ending racism and systemic oppression in the arts sector, who said at a lecture here in Providence, “once you see it, you can’t unsee it”–the pervasiveness of whiteness, and how it shows up in spaces, not just in skin color itself, but in how the centering of whiteness shows itself in whose perspective gets shared, whose voices are included in decision-making in institutions, and who is left out, who feels safe, and comfortable, and who doesn’t.

It’s the latter I need to focus on and share right now. Of course I thought about how the make-up of the Board of NOAH is homogeneous and white, and as I knew already, the field of Art Therapy, and what is considered the main stream art world, is overwhelmingly filled with white people, because, like many fields, it links back generations to inequities in education, and who is supported to pursue what education and career goals, and who is not, which links back to redlining, bigotry and discrimination, which links back to Jim Crow laws, which links further back to slavery.

At the Conference breakfast keynote, I sat down at one of those big round tables with a few other strangers, and shortly afterward, a woman, who was Black, sat down next to me. I introduced myself to her, and somehow we got on the subject of how I had recently attended the University of Florida Arts and Medicine Summer Intensive, a two-week professional development program focusing on Artistic Practice and Arts Administration for utilizing the arts in health and community settings. I shared with the woman, who was there representing a youth arts organization based in Chicago, that I found the Intensive both inspiring and useful, and she gave me her card, as she was interested in hearing more about the work I do in a psychiatric hospital setting. I was also interested in hearing more about her work, and shared that I thought I had even heard of her organization somehow. We went our separate ways after the breakfast, but I found myself sitting next to her in an afternoon break-out session which focused on case studies where arts engagement practices either went right, or went wrong.

After hearing a touching anecdote about a pianist in a hospital playing a song for a man grieving his wife, which happened to be the last song they sang together right before she passed, to the counter, wrong case scenario of a contracted musician who got into a spat with a patient in the common area of a hospital, this next case study was shared.

The scenario, shared by an Art Therapist at a children’s hospital, was that an outside yoga practitioner was hired to facilitate some yoga groups on the children’s behavioral inpatient unit. The Art Therapist did not know of the work of the facilitator, as she was an outside person contracted by the Director of the program. On the day of the yoga group, the Art Therapist was called by a concerned nurse manager on the children’s unit. She said the young patients were becoming “disregulated,” or not in control of their behavior, and that the Art Therapist should come to the unit and observe what was going on. When the Art Therapist arrived, she said that “loud, rap music was playing,” and she emphasized the word “rap,” and continued “that the kids were using the yoga mats as light-sabers,” and that basically, the unit was out of control. There were some chuckles in the audience of about fifty attendees.

She went on to say how the music was inappropriate for this group of young patients, because of its language and subject matter. There was also some discussion about the yoga instructor not having experience working in this kind of setting. When I looked at the presentation slide that shared the names of the various scenarios presented, this one was called Yoga Rap.

Now, you might read this and not see anything out of the ordinary about it. And, part of that might be I’m feeling challenged to describe the tone of delivery of this scenario. But, what I do know, is I became really uncomfortable as this scenario was shared. As soon as the presenter mentioned rap music was playing during the yoga group, the tone was perhaps not incredulous, but close to it. I’ve heard this tone before, though. I’ve heard the implication that comes when rap music is mentioned in anecdotes like this one. It usually goes something to the effect of this genre of music being deemed negative, problematic, a promoter of violence, or is something to be made fun of, like, “yeah, imagine leading a meditative painting group, and playing some crazy, rap music for it..” or in this presentation, the inferred, “can you believe it, they played rap music in a yoga class?”

I wondered if the woman who sat beside me, or the one other person of color I spotted in the room, felt uncomfortable. I know I’m projecting here, because I cannot claim to know whether they were offended or felt unsafe in this room full of white people laughing about a yoga group paired with a music genre that, while appropriated by white Americans, and cultures all over the globe, originated, and is rooted in Black American culture. While I understood that this group example given did not work out well for the unit and population being served that day, I worried about the implication of this anecdote.

I thought, I needed to say something about this. All those voices that I mentioned earlier about what to say, how to say it, should I say it, kicked in. White fragility came knocking, and I worried about sucking the energy out of the room, and being met with silence. I worried about it coming off as attacking the presenters, and in essence, the NOAH organization.

During the Q & A session that followed the presentation, there were questions brewing about what kind of music is appropriate to use in what settings, and I imagined myself going up to the mic, and using humor as an icebreaker to talk about what was on my mind. To start off with something like, “well, before I make my statement, I just want to be sure we don’t give rap a bad rap…I mean, I know it was not the intention of this presentation to do so, and that clearly things did not go right that afternoon on the children’s unit during the yoga group, but I feel we have to be careful about how we talk about the different genres of music we use, so that all of the people we work with feel their culture matters and is respected. I for one, use hip hop and rap music often in the groups I facilitate on the psychiatric Adult Inpatient Intensive Treatment Unit where I work. And, yes, we do have some ground rules about music played. We say we must avoid music that has overtly violent or sexual lyrics, has profanity in it, or glorifies drug use because we do not want to trigger anyone, knowing those we work with have experienced a good deal of trauma, and are in a state of crisis, and in a fragile emotional state.

I was going to share, again with the thought to interject some humor, but also some insight into how music preference and impact is so personal and subjective, and would have apologized in advance for anyone who was a fan of Screamo music, about a recent group experience of mine. Just the other day when I facilitated a gentle stretch group on the unit, I asked a female patient what kind of music she wanted me to play. We had only two people in the group at that point. She said she liked rock. “What kind of rock, I asked?” “Heavy metal,” she said. Internally, I was thinking, oh, great. I do not like heavy metal, and. from my perspective, it doesn’t really go with doing the stretch group, just like it seemed the presenter didn’t think rap music paired well with yoga. I usually choose softer folk or r & b, or some relaxing instrumental music for stretching. But, I asked the question, so heavy metal it was. I asked what band, or if there was a particular song she wanted me to play. She said, “Lambs of God,” and named the song. I found it on Youtube, and pressed Play.

To me the music was hardcore yelling. Much like the yoga group example given, I felt like I was going to “disregulate” my own behavior, and found the music highly irritating. The patient who chose it seemed happy to be hearing her tune. When I looked at the other patient in the room, and a third that had since entered, they both seemed not to be bothered, but when the song finally ended, I was relieved to say to another patient, “would you like to choose the next song, so we all get a turn to hear something we’ve chosen?”

And, I don’t know. Maybe this anecdote would be offensive to someone that really likes heavy metal. But what matters even more is that I let my white fragility take over, and I never made it up to the mic to say what I ruminated about in my mind, and before I knew it the presentation session was over, and I had wimped out, and became, what I felt, was complicit in perpetuating the rhetoric of putting down a genre of music associated with Black culture in a predominately white space.

Ironic, given each week my daughter Leni is calling me about her Race and Power class, and I’m telling her to overcome her own white fragility and speak up, and say the things she wants to, and feels she needs to say. That afternoon, I did not practice what I’ve been preaching.

Yet, it is a goal of mine to do so. And I do sometimes. Most of the time. I call it my “wondering aloud.” Like when I was at the Arts In Medicine Summer Intensive and we were talking about Art and Aesthetics and presentation slides slipped by with words like Inclusion and Equity on them as bullet points, but weren’t discussed, I wondered aloud in our group of eighteen cohorts and program staff, “when we define what art is and what aesthetics is, the talk and education is typically centered mostly on white, European art history and aesthetics, and so I wonder things like who gets to define what art is, and who is included in that, and while I appreciated all the online modules we were asked to complete on Cultural Competence, I wondered how this program and how the field addresses this”…and I remember I didn’t want to go there and bring up this example because I didn’t want to sound like I was calling the host’s program out, but it just came out, and I continued…”earlier two of the truly wonderful musicians that the hospital employs to do bedside visits, spoke of their difficulty connecting with a Spanish speaking patient, and so we know that representation matters, and so how does the field, and how do we think about and put into practice these culturally competent practices so that we see from a variety of perspectives, and everyone is included?”

Well, it wasn’t quite that eloquent when it came out that day. But I said pretty much the gist of all that. Right afterward, as is typical with me, I worried that I had said something that sounded like a put-down, a call out, an attack. I was raised to be a nice girl, to be respectful, to not hurt other people’s feelings. Saying anything that I feel is negative or criticism is really hard for me.

I had to ask my peers during break if what I said was okay. Several I had become closer to, including one man, who is Native American, said they felt it was not offensive, that it was good to make the statement, even though they felt it wasn’t directly answered.

I try my best to make statements like that more and more where I feel there is a lack of inclusion, when white-centering has taken over, and there is an obliviousness as to its impact. I know I have my own blind spots, and I know in this white-dominated culture in our country, white-centering is happening all the time. It is my mission to be a part of actively breaking that down, and that means speaking up is really important, so, I can’t help to be highly disappointed in myself still, for not speaking up that day in Boston.

But, I carry on, and will do better next time, and the time after that. I don’t share this to have anyone read this, and then tell me, “but Wendy, you do so much good, or you do speak up, or take action a lot of the time, so don’t beat yourself up about this.” I am not writing this for that response. I am writing to lay bare my imperfections, my moments of failure, to ask all of us white people to do better, to do your own “wondering aloud” when you know it is necessary. We white people can feel very comfortable when denouncing white supremacy, and highly overt racist acts, but we need to get better when it comes to the every day exclusions, the every day white-centering, the every day microaggressions, the every day inferences that makes someone from another culture or race feel theirs is inferior.

I asked Leni if I could write a post about both of our struggles to speak up and not give in to our own white fragility, and I was glad, and proud of her when she said, yes. It made me feel like we are in this fight together. And, if we are to be accountable to one another in this fight, I, as her mother, want to set a good example.

And…that’s a rap.

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