Many Rivers to Cross

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.

Author: Aron DiBacco

Aron thinks about conflict, communication, and how to help move the world in the direction of inclusive equity. She does these things through teaching, facilitating dialogue, social science research, and writing.

9 thoughts on “Many Rivers to Cross”

  1. I wonder if it’s possible for people to consider saying, “I feel whitesplained / mansplained / cissplained, etc”, rather than always assuming ill-intent or ineptitude on the part of the other. As you know I’m quite passionate about gender issues in communications, so I would not make this suggestion lightly.
    IMHO, if we are to find any workable way forward, we must acknowledge sincere well-meaning efforts, however imperfect or *human* those efforts may be. In fact, I see our feeble humanity as all the more reason for that acknowledgement. If we wait until everyone is enlightened before we’re satisfied. we’ll never get anywhere at all. Granted, there’s plenty of long-standing, valid anger that infuses all of this issue. Still, I don’t believe that some acknowledgement for bridge-building efforts is too much to ask for.

    That was a long-winded way to say, hugs to you, m’friend, for your genuine efforts in that endeavor, whether or not that is always well-received.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hear you, and I get that from many who have been beside me in the work for years, but I do think learning from their frustration is part of my job.


  2. What a super interesting dynamic you describe here in this set of exchanges between this woman and yourself. I really appreciate the clarity with which you identify your own space, subjectivity, and conversational moves and decision-making. And I deeply appreciate your attentiveness in the situation you describe. The conversation could’ve gone downhill so easily had you been less attentive and knowledgeable. I was also very curious as to why the woman asked you (more than once) how you were doing. I wonder why she asked. I wonder why she cared. I wonder what her agenda was in asking. (All 3 of these.) What a cogent way you chose to say you didn’t trust she was the person to unpack anymore of that with (at least not at that time)…Anyway, I really appreciated this blog post, the very interesting dynamics of the exchange, your insights and honesty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My sense was that she was positioning herself as the expert who could help me. Again, useful to see it from the other side!


      1. I understand and I truly do appreciate your efforts, especially when that is difficult.
        However, IMHO, in our efforts to dismantle the structures of privilege by humbly listening with respect, I sometimes hear people going to the other extreme: respecting *themselves* less.
        I’m not saying you’re doing that, but I’m hearing lots of people in these situations believing they have no alternative but to “shut up and listen”. Dismissing their own truth as having no validity whatsoever.
        This is about building bridges after all, honoring truth at both ends. Easier said than done, I agree.


  3. The takeaway for me here is that all anti-racist work is grounded in actual relationship. I also am not clear on the connection between your action and implicit bias in this situation. Are you?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely about relationships. I met her in the context of a multi-day, 60 person training, which can create a sense of relationship where there isn’t actually history. As to the implicit bias concern, I’ve seen it in my self before, but haven’t yet found it around this interaction. The error I am looking to correct moving forward is thinking I might know something about the person I just met because of people I met before. (Usually, this is a good way to explore and build relationships, but racial identity is a toxin which changes everything.)


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