Updated: Jun 24
TL;DR Sometimes past hurts cause our silence, but speaking up for justice is more important than self-protection
I have been MIA for a few weeks as I’ve been quietly watching, listening, and observing what is going on in my home country of the USA.
I live in Hong Kong now, which has been protesting for over a year. The HK protests have made me feel sad, afraid, hopeful, proud, and curious of how they would progress (spoiler - not great). But I’ve always remained optimistic that these protests would still achieve more than we could ever imagine (and in many ways they have)...
Despite energetically supporting them, I never felt like I could physically support the HK protests because although it is my home, it’s still not my culture -- so I felt uncomfortable joining a fight that wasn’t really mine to fight.
But now there ARE protests in my actual culture and it’s strange to consume them from afar; stories, images, and voices which feel so familiar but also so distant. I will admit I’ve been so caught up in HK politics that it took me a while to really engage with what’s been going on in the USA.
As a Highly Sensitive Person, I have been Deeply Processing the American-turned-Global Anti-Racism protests and allowing myself to fully absorb the “conversation” the past few weeks.
But I haven’t wanted to join it... until now.
I have been SILENT because in the past I have learned that joining a conversation on race too early can be really disrespectful.
However, sometimes silence is mistaken for apathy...or worse, violence.
Which is why I must make clear how much I fully support the American Black Lives Matter protests and the global Anti-racism protests. I believe that Black lives not only MATTER, they are valued, needed, and appreciated.
So why not just come out and say that?
Well, it’s complicated…. But maybe you’ve felt this way too
You see, I have been hurt when I thought I was saying the “right” thing.
And worse, I have hurt others.
So now, (for better AND worse), I hesitate before I speak about race.
Before you judge me or blame my White Fragility, know getting hurt was a pivotal moment of my own Growth, and I hold no anger about the interaction I'm about to describe, but only gratitude for how it helped me become more aware, empathetic and compassionate as a result.
But perhaps a bit too silent...
First, a bit of background
Although I was raised in a fairly diverse Chicago-suburb, as a young person, the majority of my friends looked like me: White.
It was not until I traveled globally that I was both exposed to and befriended people of different cultures and races.
I made friends easily in each culture I lived in. I befriended Latinos while living in Peru and Costa Rica, Black people in Kenya and South Africa, and people from over 40 countries while living in Spain.
I had convinced myself I could not be racist because I was a “good person” who authentically and kindly interacted with everyone.
But I also learned that it’s ALWAYS easier to make friends with other races/cultures OUTSIDE of your home country because there is no underlying socio/historical context (or in layman's terms: BAGGAGE).
For example, I had a much easier time making friends with Black South Africans than White South Africans, because White South Africans were annoyed that I couldn’t speak Afrikkans, so they ignored me. My Black South African friends welcomed me warmly: seeing me less as a threat, and more as a curiosity. They wanted to know all about American pop-culture (it was the Obama era) and what it was like to be White in South Africa (because I was a safe person to ask -- with no cultural baggage attached).
I know it sounds a bit cringey now, but I came away feeling good about my own Black-White relationships as a result of living in South Africa.
But whatever “street cred” I thought I ‘earned’ in South Africa didn’t carry over when I returned to the USA.
Having friends all around the world made me feel like a “Super Anti-Racist”. But when I returned to the USA for my PhD courses, no matter how many friends of other races I had, the American baggage of racial tensions remained.
This came to a head during the doctoral sessions where my multi-racial classmates and I were put into workshops that were supposed to be (and really could have been *if they were facilitated better*) helpful for better racial-relations.
If you have ever been to one of these workshops -- regardless of your race -- it’s ALWAYS uncomfortable.
It was for me because I THOUGHT I entered into the conversations with the “right” Anti-Racist perspective. But it was only a matter of MINUTES before this (benevolent, but naive) perspective was shattered.
3 Strikes (well 4 really), and I’m OUT!
The first comment I made was meant to be funny (my usual go-to when I am uncomfortable). But a Black classmate reminded me that I might THINK I am being funny, but not everyone is laughing because I was also (naively) asserting my White dominance by making a joke about the situation.
I was open to being called out. That was part of the exercise.
So I decided to forget being funny, and try being empathetic instead.
I shared a comment about how living in Spain as a foreigner helped me empathize with Latinos coming to America. I made a few general remarks about how the difficulty of learning the language, dealing with new customs, making friends etc. had taught me how hard this was for immigrants in the USA.
This comment was met by a Latino classmate reminding me that it’s actually not alike -- because I was considered an “expat” not an immigrant, and my White privilege allowed me to easily assimilate into Europe and avoid the kind of hate Latin American immigrants feel in America.
At first, I was a bit hurt by the dismissal of my experience, so I tried a rebuttal about how I PERSONALLY didn’t hate immigrants (remember I still thought I was Super-Anti-racist), and I shared examples of me teaching free English lessons to immigrants in my hometown, and speaking Spanish in public to any immigrants whose first language is Spanish.
This was met with another Latino classmate telling me it is racist to assume that all Latin Americans can’t speak English.
Strike two for my “benevolent” comments.
Fair enough, maybe that was racist.
I was still open to being called out.
I explained I thought I was being kind by speaking Spanish-- it’s like when someone spoke English to me in Spain (I was so relieved).
I said I was trying to be a “Good American” to foreigners.
That’s when another classmate chimed in and said it really annoys her when White people want badges for being the “Good White Person”...
So with that third strike, I decided to just SHUT UP and respectfully LISTEN to the rest of the stories of my classmates.
They were emotional. Unbelievable. Disappointing. Hard to hear.
But I listened.
I didn’t cry (which I usually do!), but just REALLY listened.
I allowed their words to sink in and permeate my soul.
I felt moved by the session despite my initial fumbles.
I felt like we were making real progress.
But then, the fourth and final strike was the one that has silenced me to this day.
Right before the end of the session, I wanted to benevolently thank my classmates for being so brutally honest and I started my phrase with, “I just wanted to say that I know….” but I was interrupted by a Black classmate who said,
“You don’t KNOW anything Katie-- you are a blonde-haired, blue-eyed White person who has so much privilege you think just because you travel the world--which is privileged in itself-- that you KNOW what it is like to be a minority. You DON’T KNOW ANYTHING and the way you are coming off right now is condescending.”
And just then -- the class ended.
I didn’t know what to say.
I was actually hurt.
The facilitator did not debrief us, but simply left our class upset and divided.
I know their intention was for us to air our racial grievances, but it would have been nice to be given a guide for rebuilding our friendships afterwards.
I was hurt, but I could also tell my classmate was angry, and despite being shocked by her comment (I initially thought she was my “friend”), I also realized her anger was probably justified… maybe I DIDN’T know anything and my naive fumbling made it even worse.
“It’s not you...She hates the idea of you”...
Later another friend who was also Black took me aside and apologized for her friend’s comment, but explained two things that I never forgot:
1) “She doesn’t hate YOU, she hates the IDEA of you. You embody a “White woman”-persona of hundreds of other White women who’ve disrespected her”.
2) “No matter how many “Good Deeds” you think you’ve “earned” by being nice and helpful, remember you’ll have to prove yourself again and again in each new encounter. You don’t earn a “Good White Person” badge in one place and carry it over to the next”.
She left by saying “Don’t try to talk to her, you will make it worse. She is tired of having to educate White people about racial issues. I suggest you just “Do the Work” yourself."
I was SO grateful for her comments.
The beliefs I had about being a “Good White Person” and a “Super Anti-Racist” were instantly shattered. This experience launched me into Phase one of Transformative Learning -- a disorienting dilemma. (See more about the phases in this Blog).
I was disoriented about not fully understanding what I did wrong.
That tortured me.. And inspired me to “Do the Work”.
I wanted to learn more about how I was coming across to non-White people (Phase two) and had to really practice Phase three: Critical Self-Reflection, so I could question all my beliefs and assumptions to understand where I went wrong.
Critical Self-Reflection makes a HUGE difference
(Never heard of Critical Reflection? Read this Blog)
I started with asking myself about my experience with other races, how I may have been inadvertently insulting people by thinking I was funny or empathetic, but missed the point.
I recalled times I accidentally made things worse ... and luckily times when I DID make things better. I tried to notice where the line was -- sometimes it was REALLY blurry, sometimes it was so obvious I can’t believe I missed it.
I read about, had conversations with and LISTENED to people of color to really understand their lives (Phase four of Transformative Learning) and tried to piece together how to DO better.
I learned a lot, but I always knew I would keep learning.
So why have I still been silent THIS time?
Well firstly: I have been cringing at the thought of writing about myself during this time because:
It’s not about me.
I have been afraid...
No matter how much I have learned and Grown and no matter how much I think I am Anti-Racist, sometimes I still F@#$ up and say not only the wrong, hurtful thing (and in turn will get hurt by saying it).
I still hear the phrase “You DON’T know anything Katie” echoing in my head and really second-guess myself before I say anything.
And I am only sharing this vulnerable, somewhat cringey story because I know that some of the strongest Anti-Racist allies have also been silent lately because we don’t know how to speak out (without accidentally F@#$ing up SOMETHING).
It’s not about me.
Look I know I just wrote a LONG story about ME, but really I know this NOT about me.
I am 100% supportive of Black Lives Matter and I want justice, equality, and respect for Blacks and minorities all over the world.
I always have and always will.
Maybe I got my feelings hurt last time I had a difficult conversation, but it transformed me.
-When it is important to LISTEN and not make jokes. I now ask questions instead of filling the silence with uncomfortable laughter.
-How to validate other peoples’ experiences by listening and commenting on THEIR experience, instead of trying to compare/contrast by sharing my own experience.
-That I still may inadvertently insult other races no matter how sensitive I think I am being and that I NEED to be aware of their feelings and apologize if I do.
We are all going to F@#$ up, but let’s at least try
This piece is for anyone (White or not) who has been silent because you’re afraid of F@#$%ing up.
But “Do the Work” and you will Grow.
I still am learning, I am fumbling, I am tripping up.
But please know I am STILL authentically TRYING by:
Passively reading books, watching films, taking online courses
Actively having hard conversations with people of other races/cultures
Standing up for injustice when I see and hear it
Continuously questioning my assumptions and critically self-reflecting
Trying to be an ally for anyone fighting for justice
And you can too.
And I don’t want a badge, OK?
Dr. Katie T. Larson