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.

Allies Are Trying… Very Trying

It’s dynamic, language and how it shapes how we do life. Back not so long ago, the word “Ally” had power. It stepped away from the idea that members of subordinated[i] groups (those from whom rights have been taken) needed rescuing by members of the dominating groups (those who took the rights), and toward the idea that members of the dominating groups ought to follow the lead of subordinated peoples by standing with and not for them. Then we lived inside that story long enough for two things to happen.

First, we started teasing out what this idea means, such as shifting from using it as a noun (to be an ally) to understanding it as a verb (allyship as a thing we do) or as a relationship. Second, our larger shared story asserted its relationship-shaping power and the word became (in some circles) mildly scornful, as in “ally performance” for when people aim to look right but not do right.

There is a Code Switch podcast which explores these concepts of ally and allyship. Like all their work, it is informative and deep and thought provoking and explores multiple perspectives. For some of the show’s guests, the concept of ally assumes inherent problems, like allyship is based on sympathy not empathy, or that allyship is “done to” a group/people, or that it requires compromises of the people “receiving the allyship”, or that allyship assumes that what is good for me is not good for you.

Seeking a better word for better action, some of us used “accomplice” to try to draw closer to expressing the action of challenging one’s own privilege in service of moving toward humanity-based justice. I haven’t heard it used in many places, and expect there are other words for this idea. I also expect that, with time, we’ll be back to the Ally problem for all these terms, that whatever language we use will eventually reflect dominant group blind spots and subordinated group frustration and we’ll be here once more, critical of people who do allyship wrong and our imperfect language.

The thing is, we really do need what that original version of Ally aspired to… that people given disproportionate access to resources work as real partners with those that access was taken from. I don’t know if we’ll ever settle on a word for it, but here is what I think it looks like:

  • Dominating groups will always include people who want to contribute to creating a fairer world.
  • When we members of dominating groups try to be part of the solution, many of us are going to start out in (or fall back into) the patterns that say we’re in charge. We can educate ourselves out of some of this, but it’s pretty much a chronic condition. This is our responsibility to handle.
  • Foundational principles include: That what we do is more important than what we say we believe; That we are likely to mess up sometimes; That people who point this out to us are doing us a favor; That sometimes we need to center our experience (e.g. whiteness when talking about racial identity) so we can learn how this stuff works, but it should not be centered otherwise; That we are harmed by socially unjust patterns, but people in subordinated groups are wounded and killed by those patterns so their needs come first; That we don’t know much about the lives of people in subordinated groups and should believe them when they tell us.
  • Finally, we should try until we do and not retreat when we get critiqued for trying wrong.

As my friends and I say, if this work were easy, it would already be done. And I am sorry for all the times our trying is … very trying.

[i] These issues of oppressing/oppressed groups are important in many forms of identity and always lead to language that is clunky and incomplete. Henry Louis Gates uses Dominant and Subordinated and that seems a good a model as any.

What I meant to study…

The last thing I did on my way out of my (unfinished) PhD program was write an encyclopedia entry for serious publisher on communication research of health care disparities. I may never know how they got my name, but I poured everything I had into this project and was delighted when it was accepted without revisions.  A few days ago (two years later) I received notice that the Sage Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods has been published. I’ll spare you all 1,700 words, but the opening paragraph gives you the idea:

“The concepts of health disparities and health care disparities refer to the differences in health and health care between population groups in which socially disadvantaged people have worse health outcomes and access to health care than other groups. Health disparities means that some groups (generally based on race/ethnicity or socioeconomic status) experience a higher burden of illness, injury, disability, or mortality than other groups. Health care disparities means that these groups have less access to care, health care coverage (insurance), and when they do have health care, it is typically of poorer quality than that of other groups. These issues are important subjects for communication research with regard to message development, dissemination, and effects, as well as patient–provider communication and provider cultural competence. This entry examines some of the underlying causes of health and health care disparities, reviews organizational and governmental attempts to reduce those inequities, describes approaches that can help reduce the disparities, and concludes with an overview of how communication research can play a role in reducing health and health care disparities.” (emphasis added)

Given that the whole thing costs almost $700, I’m unlikely to ever own my first published (non-journal) work, but I can share the PDF with you if you like, eventually. The online PDF version should be at by the end of May.