Quick overview

All posts still in progress. If you have additions you want to suggest, please let me know in the comments or on twitter @schomj.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Acknowledging Whiteness, part 6: Conflict is Scary

I did a couple of quick twitter polls to see what topics people would be most interested in for the next installments of this series. The winners were: conflict is scary, silence is complicity, and colonialism. I'll get to all three, but first off: conflict is scary!

In part 5 of this series, I linked to a list of traits associated with white supremacy. None of these traits are explicitly based on the idea that whiteness is superior, but they are (often unspoken) characteristics of Anglo-Saxon and other Northern European cultures, and all of us are required to adhere to these characteristics whether that is our cultural background or not. One of the traits listed is Fear of Open Conflict, described as:
  • people in power are scared of conflict and try to ignore it or run from it
  • when someone raises an issue that causes discomfort, the response is to blame the person for raising the issue rather than to look at the issue which is actually causing the problem
  • emphasis on being polite
  • equating the raising of difficult issues with being impolite, rude, or out of line 
How many of you have witnessed this happen in libraries? *pause for everyone reading to raise their hand*

Conflict is scary because many of us white people were raised to view it as taboo.

I remember hearing my grandmother express disgust with people who challenged authority, whether it was challenging (her) religious leaders, teachers, doctors, police, or other types of authority (that she recognized). I remember being told by my parents to be quiet, to behave, to follow the rules. The purpose and power of those rules were never questioned. My elementary school teachers always said that I was "a pleasure to have in class" because I was good at being obedient and non-confrontational. None of them noticed that by 7th grade, I'd stopped smiling, laughing, or talking. I wasn't causing trouble, I was compliant, I was white, I faded into the background of "good kids."

So what happened between my early conditioning and now? Diabetes. Living with diabetes caused me to break rules by necessity. "Be polite and accept candy from strangers" became "you can't have candy, so you have to be rude and refuse that candy." The alternative to refusing candy was to accept the candy, and thus be non-compliant with my doctor's directives. That double-bind caused me to notice other rule-breakers -- who in turn were the first to notice my silence and to encourage me to laugh, cry, yell, take up space, be.

And at this point, we're about to cycle back to post 1, so I'll pass over my personal history and get back to libraries.

We are human. We care about our fellow humans. We white people are in positions of relative privilege. If we are afraid to speak up when we see injustices done to our colleagues and patrons of color, how do you think they feel? If we can see the risk of calling out a supervisor, a colleague, an influential member of the profession for accidental racism, do we think that people of color can't see that risk? Or do we think it's not our responsibility, because we don't feel the direct impact?

Being conditioned to fear speaking up for ourselves or others is a direct impact. That in itself is a negative consequence. 

As Angela Pashia notes in a description of a panel presentation at IACAL, in which librarians who call out oppressive practices at work discuss the emotional cost:
It's exhausting when you are the only one to "take a stand in a meeting or take a risk in speaking up about a problem, and are left hanging out there all by your lonesome… But then after the meeting, people want to come take your time to tell you how much they appreciate what you said, how much they agree, how frustrated they are by the situation. Great, so why didn’t you say that in the meeting? And why do you expect the person who did speak up to continue to discuss this one-on-one with you, demanding even more emotional labor?"

Bryce Kozla recently wrote a post describing a situation in which white people can use the phrase "takes all kinds" to redirect racist statements in a non-confrontational way. Sometimes we're not up to pursuing direct conflict, and this is a handy script to have ready for when you need it.

But sometimes direct conflict is what's needed. Some of the ChangeWork recommendations to overcome fear of conflict include:
  • role play ways to handle conflict before conflict happens
  • distinguish between being polite and raising hard issues
  • don't require those who raise hard issues to raise them in "acceptable" ways, especially if you are using the ways in which issues are raised as an excuse not to address the issues being raised (this is also called tone policing)
  • once a conflict is resolved, take the opportunity to revisit it and see how it might have been handled differently
What other ideas do you have?

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