I made a rookie mistake recently, offering an African American woman I’d just met an umbrella to protect her hairstyle as we ran from a building to a bus in the rain. I did this based on conversations with other African American women about how unconscious most white people are about the damage rain can do to particular hairstyles, but I didn’t know her and she did not like my offer.
Because of the context in which I met her, there was an opportunity later to have 1-to-1 conversations about race. She sought me out to let me know how my actions hadn’t worked for her. She told me that I had generalized about Black women and had assumed that she couldn’t take care of herself. I owned that I had made a mistake and thanked her for calling it to my attention so I could avoid it next time. She then leaned in, softened her tone, and told me there was this thing called implicit bias and I had acted out of it.
Though her tone and body language were that of supportive educator, this did not go over so well with me. What I tried to say next was that I was familiar with the concept, but that my mistake (which was real) was rooted in different issues (applying to her what other Black women had told me about themselves). She dismissed my attempt to share my experience as whitesplaining* and I shut down, said I agreed with her, thanked her again for her feedback, and waited for her next conversational move. That move was to gaze at me sympathetically and ask me how I was.
This is the point at which I need to mention that our collective day of talking about race had done its job and I began our conversation already in deep grief about the impact of racism. I didn’t mind this (I think it’s important to let these feelings change us) but I knew that if I opened it up I’d fall into howling sobs. I didn’t think it would be good white anti-racist behavior to pull attention to my process in a room full of People of Color in the middle of their own work. When she asked how I was, I was one thin onion skin away from totally falling apart and committed to NOT doing that there. Also, because she had just told me I didn’t understand my own experience I didn’t trust her with my messy material. Instead I said that she and I didn’t know each other and – though I was in the middle of some deep work – she wasn’t a person I felt safe unpacking that with. She then told me that she was a good person and her white friends trusted her.
Now I get on a deeper level why that doesn’t sell from the other side either.
I again declined to share my process and we moved on to safer subjects. She and I didn’t speak to each other the rest of the four-day training. Maybe at the next one we can use this experience to build more meaningful connection. Or maybe we don’t get to trust with everyone. And that’s okay.
*When white folks try to explain away racism and its consequences.