Lee Mun Wah is a SF Bay Area “diversity trainer” (his words, not mine) and documentary filmmaker (perhaps best known film for The Color of Fear). My style of facilitation is very different from Lee’s, and I have actually felt unsafe in his workshops. Still, I think there’s a need for a diversity of facilitators to help diverse people reckon with their own identities, the diversity of the world and their aspirations for equity and justice. So I read his newsletter from time to time.
In the latest edition, he shared this story and perspective:
Recently, I led a workshop in which I shared a very personal life experience as a Chinese American child growing up in Oakland, California. After I finished sharing, a European American man, Michael, in the front row, raised his hand and declared that he had a story he wanted to share. I was surprised and shocked. Like so many other minorities in a predominantly white audience, I hesitated. Why? Because at that one moment I had to decide: Do I tell him truthfully how I felt about what he said or do I play it safe and listen to his story? Each of these scenarios carries a price to be paid both personally and professionally for someone who is a minority. If I tell the truth, I might be labeled as overly-sensitive or, at the very worse, invalidated, trivialized, or not invited to return. If I listen to his story, I leave feeling not heard and angry at myself for not telling him the truth. The latter experience is not my first reaction, but rather one that has been ingrained in me as a means of survival from my family and the history of being a minority in this country. There is a price to be paid if a white male is made to feel uncomfortable, out of control, irritated or angry.
For those of you who know me, you know that I chose to tell him the truth. I told him that before he shared his own story, I needed to hear how he felt about my story. He was obviously surprised and explained that his story would illuminate how he felt. Once again, I felt unheard. But, I also felt he was being evasive. I could also feel the discomfort of the group and the sense that we were entering uncharted ground. But I persisted. “No, I want to hear how you felt about my story as a child.” He paused and looked upward trying to ‘think’ about how he felt. After what seemed like forever, he said, “I don’t know how I feel about what you said.” I shared with him that not knowing how he felt was a white privilege. That perhaps his not knowing revealed a white history of being able to go “numb” whenever the pain or experiences of minorities are shared. And then just as I finished, a white woman blurted out, “I still want to hear his story.” Once again, I was at a crossroads and it took all my courage to tell her that before I could hear his story, something was missing for me as a person of color–how did she feel about what he said or what I had shared? How did the rest of the group feel about what either of us shared?
It was at this point that Michael interjected and thanked me. He shared that he had never thought about how he, as a white man, had often bypassed how he felt. And that perhaps what he was really hiding was that he had difficulty sharing his emotions and maybe even hearing someone become emotional. That this numbness was something he seriously needed to look at. He also thanked me for my courageousness in confronting him. His admission was the turning point of the discussion, because soon afterwards, two women from South America shared that they had similar experiences to mine when Michael wanted to share his story and how often they, too, had been ‘talked over.’
This ‘disconnect’ is something I have often experienced time and time again whenever whites are confronted with reflecting upon their own racism. There is either a long silence, a change of subject, questioning the integrity of the speaker, or wanting to interject with their own story.
What is needed from whites is an authentic emotional response to what they’ve heard from people of color, an acknowledgement of what has been shared, a sense of genuine curiosity, taking responsibility and a willingness to reflect and to change. Maya Angelou once said, “Some may never remember what you said or did, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” The truth is always there. Saying it out loud…that’s the hard part.
What strikes me first is the masterful facilitation. I know what it feels like to be in dialogue with a group, trying to help them to their best thinking and action–and feel like I just got hit upside the head or punched in the gut, intentionally or not, because, after all, I’m in the conversation, too, and it’s not about theories or other people–it’s about us. I also know what it’s like to feel haunted by what I did and didn’t say in those moments. And to realize that I got lost in the weeds, thinking that what we were doing was more important than what was happening. So I really appreciate this example of being able to discern, call out and persist in naming what is important to name.
I appreciate Lee pointing out how leveraging other people’s stories instead of listening to them is an everyday act of dismissal that may be so subtle that we fail to recognize it (which is the definition of a microaggression). This happens a lot in social conversations I find myself in, a kind of one upmanship to entertain, in which the response to your story is my story, her story and his story and then back to you for another round of narrative shock and awe without much, if any, recognition of how these stories or the story-telling process have made us feel. Sure, we laugh, exclaim or nod but isn’t that more punctuation than any sharing of what the act of listening has been for me? I sometimes think about it internally, but so far I haven’t named it. I haven’t said to my friends, hey, you ever feel like we’re just throwing stories down just to throw them down? And does it sometimes feel more like we’re performing than connecting?
Now to be clear, I’m not saying my friends and I are just a bunch of self-absorbed people who don’t care about each other. Rather, my point is that what happened in Lee’s workshop is familiar to me as an acceptable behavior that gets practiced every day, making it all the more likely to be our reflexive response when the story isn’t just a funny retelling of our crazy day at work, but a personal disclosure of a life-shaping experience.
Given the layers Lee and Michael had to peel through to move from “what’s the big deal?” to why their exchange was a big deal, Michael’s self-reflection is powerful. And if you’re having trouble reading Lee’s language about what “is needed from whites” by people of color, consider this: yes, an authentic emotional response to what they’ve heard is what all people need from other people. And that need is informed and shaped by our social identities because we aren’t just essences of humanity trying to connect. We’re that and the bodies, families, histories and experiences we’ve been born into, in a world in which people see us differently and systems treat us differently. Lee is not saying that white people don’t need an authentic emotional response to what they’ve said. If anything, Michael’s numbness suggests that experiencing authentic emotional feedback would help him learn to appreciate and offer it back.
In naming how race persists in shaping the dynamic between not just Michael and himself but entire groups of people, Lee offers us another opportunity to recognize and challenge a system of racial privilege. Because ultimately, if we don’t name how race matters, then we can’t do anything about it. In Michael’s case, if he doesn’t name how race informs his numbness, he’s less likely to regain his feelings. And on a societal level, this scenario has me thinking about how we teach social justice: through the lens of white numbness (and, I would add, wealth numbness) we can swap a lot of stories about injustice from a distance. How much more effective would our conversations and efforts be if we acknowledged how its feels to hear about injustice and how trying not to feel anything defines our responses?