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Confronting White Fragility and Colorblindness

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Show Notes

As the world reacts to the Black Lives Matter movement. we discuss how emotional management can help white people handle white fragility and why families should stop the cycle of raising colorblind children.

We provide additional resources for our listeners to read, watch, and listen to for themselves and their children.

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Episode Transcript

Robin Hutson  0:01 

Black Lives Matter, and we weren’t sure at first if there was an episode that we could create that would contribute anything to what’s going on in the world. We thought that we should just stay silent and amplify voices of color to the members of our podcast group. But during the week I read from a black colleague that those who have platforms that reach white people should be using them. So we have been fumbling and mumbling through a few episode takes searching for a contribution to this conversation playing out right now that’s bringing desperately needed light to areas swept under the millions of rugs in white households for too long.

And we discovered that Lynn’s specialization in the emotional management of families has a lot of relevance here. Because stopping generational patterns in white families that silence conversations about race is ultimately no different than disrupting patterns of anger or grief or worry and learning to externalize the emotional reaction of defensiveness coming from our white fragility is no different than externalizing our anxiety in order to manage it, and showing cultural humility and seeing a person for all that they are, isn’t that different than Mr. Rogers’ lessons of validating other people’s emotions so that we can create real connections. So, that we know the majority of our listeners are white women we’ve recorded an episode with the intention of giving white listeners a conversation that they may be needing right now, or, one that they should be having with others.

Lynn Lyons  1:37 

Yeah. And Robin, that’s exactly why we need to have this conversation because I think it is very difficult for us to talk openly about it. And we’re not experts at other people’s experience, that there are conversations now that I have been having that I want to continue to have that make me aware of how ill-equipped I feel to address this, and be able to have conversations because silence is not going to work anymore. And I’d love you to say more about it because this was really something that you brought up as we were having a conversation the other day about how we as women, and we as white women, we have learned that being silent is polite.

Robin Hutson  2:21 

I grew up in a culture where women absolutely did not speak of this. The mothers and the friends of my mother’s and their generation did not speak of this. And now my generation, who are mothers, not that many are speaking of this. I wish more were, and I think that if there is a shift that happens, I’m holding out that it becomes impolite not to talk about this, and that there is a paradigm shift because it is not a polite topic or an impolite topic. This is about people dying.

Lynn Lyons  2:57 

Yeah, and I think it’s so important for us to recognize that it really is about talking amongst ourselves about this— that it’s not the job of black people in this country to educate the white people about what they need and what they’ve been going through. We need to listen to those stories and hear those stories. But it’s not their job to fix this. And it’s not their job to give us the language to talk about it.

We have to step into this, and we have to, like you say we have to look at how it was spoken about in our families and how we’re talking to our children about this. This notion, I think, I’ve been struck and I think you’ve been struck too by the conversations and the resources that I’ve been looking at, and some of them have just been amazing and we’re going to post them so that you can have these resources as well about this idea of colorblindness and this generational cycle of colorblindness and what happens when we say to kids in our families and in schools, “We don’t see color.”

When you deny something that is so much a part of who somebody is, and their culture and the way our culture deals with this, that you are basically saying, “I am not going to… I am not going to validate or recognize or have a conversation with you about this incredibly important part of your experience.”

Robin Hutson  4:27 

Right. The opposite of being colorblind is to have cultural humility. Right. And to have cultural humility takes self-education as well, right, that’s the goal to become culturally humble, and to know the boundaries of your own experience.

Lynn Lyons  4:45 

Part of my hesitancy and part of my silence and part of my not wanting to bring these things up, is because I am fearful that I’m going to say the wrong thing, that I’m going to unintentionally offend, that I’m going to step into it in a way that makes somebody feel worse or embarrasses myself. So, there’s all that hesitancy. And I think when somebody says you can be culturally curious, which means again that I have to do the work myself, I have to discover this myself and I have to read and I have to learn that that gives me more permission to be involved in this process, rather than to expect that I’m going to get it right, because I’m not going to get it right.

Robin Hutson  5:28 

Because there’s not necessarily a right, and I think that’s… it becomes pretty powerful when we think about, we have to get uncomfortable, figure these things out and to push ourselves and once we do, we’ll probably never be comfortable about it again, right? There’s no… and we shouldn’t be… the discomfort that we have in this conversation is the price we pay of being white and having racism benefit white people.

Lynn Lyons  5:56 

I think that if I think about this in terms of how we grow and how we learn and how we connect with people.

I think that in terms of getting uncomfortable, this is something that I talk about all the time. And if we’re talking about anxiety, if I’m talking about mental health, if I’m talking about allowing kids to develop all the skills and all the experience, we want them to develop, I am not talking about staying comfortable.

And it really just sort of smacks me right in the middle of the forehead when I think that when it comes to this, I have to be willing to be uncomfortable and to stay uncomfortable. And I think that that’s what we as white people have been unwilling to do. At least I know for myself, this is really about stepping in and being uncomfortable.

Robin Hutson  6:40 

Right, and as you know as a therapist, there’s really only positive things when we push ourselves to areas of discomfort. That is powerful growth. And that applies here too. I think that the concept of, you know, you talk about being uncomfortable and, I signed up, I’m with a group of friends, discussing White Fragility, that book that is highly recommended, our white feelings of defensiveness and others and how our own opinions of racism are uninformed because of the role that we play in it. And, so obviously, reading these books is a great example.

But the other thing where I think your training is so relevant is once white people start down this path, they will likely get defensive because they will be affronted with truths that are very uncomfortable. And externalizing that process of saying, “This is my white fragility being offended right now, and I just have to push on through it.”

Lynn Lyons  7:37 

I have to notice my defensiveness, and I have to notice what comes up for me, and I have to get a little bit of distance from it and allow it to be there. It’s sort of the same things that we talk about with so many of the other difficult emotions that come up. It’s allowing it to be there and not using that as a signal that this isn’t something that you shouldn’t go into or go towards.

Robin Hutson  8:00 

I think you used a phrase the other day that we’re just fumbling and mumbling a lot this week. And I think that’s very true. I think that fumbling and mumbling is expected, of course white people are going to feel awkward, defensive, and guilty, and so many other feelings in this process, and we just have to step back and recognize that all of those feelings still are a fraction of the pain that black people feel being oppressed in this system.

Lynn Lyons  8:32 

That’s right. And it’s okay for us to feel that, it’s to be expected. The goal, I think, that I’m reaching toward at this point is that I am going to push myself to say things and have those conversations that normally I would avoid with white people that I know well. I know that I don’t confront things or that I don’t speak up about things in certain situations because I don’t want to have that uncomfortable, or I don’t want to have that confrontation with that other white person. And I am going to work very hard not to do that anymore. Because it’s just been a pattern of being, like you said, being complicit, being silent, being polite. I just don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t want my children to see me doing that. It’s too important. And I think we need to consciously make that decision to change the way that we address those situations.

Robin Hutson  9:27 

So, in addition to doing our own reading, so that we’re not burdening the people of color in our lives to ask them to educate us, I think that one of the easy ways in addition to books, social media can be very powerful. And there are a lot of great pages dedicated to talking about race that I will share the links to.

The other thing to consider doing is putting our money to causes right now. And then there are also fantastic lists of books and ideas to discuss race with our kids that are age appropriate.

And I think a challenge, you know, Lynn, you and I’ve talked about this, for people who like to learn and be curious and this is something that there’s no certificate you get that: “You’re now a good white person.” And there’s no magic club you get to become a part of when you do this work, it has to be done by yourself. And, you know, with your family, and that makes it challenging for people to want to commit the effort for but that doesn’t make it any less important.

Lynn Lyons  10:32 

And there’s no end to it. I think that that’s something we have to think about, too, because one of the things… I was talking to my son today, my older son, and one of the things he pointed out is “How will we continue with this?” I think it’s a daily thing. I think it’s something that we need to pay attention to on a daily basis. And like you say it isn’t that you’re going to get some award at the end, there’s not some way that we get to the end.

It sort of reminds me sometimes of the way people talk about grief when they haven’t really been in grief is that people want closure. And people who have gone through loss and grief say, “Closure really isn’t the right word. There’s not an end to this. We don’t close it up. We don’t say okay, well, good. We’re done with that grief.”

And I don’t think that we’re done with this. I don’t think that there is going to be a closure. It’s going to be an ongoing process, every day, paying attention.

Robin Hutson  11:45 

I want to put into the links, a very helpful video, a TED talk called Bad White People. Because it talks about the silencing of, and the distancing, so many white people have done since the civil rights era, of overt bigotry and extremism, and wanting to label racism, as that (as opposed to acknowledging the complex system that racism is— from internal biases, systemic institutions, to these personal feelings.) Racism is a big bear.

And I think that it’s important to understand where the silence came from. And there’s a very powerful moment when he asks a majority white audience, if they are comfortable screaming white power, after he had asked black members of the audience and Latino members of the audience if they would stand up and yell black power and Latino power, which both did and then there’s this terribly awkward silence when white people are asked to stand and say white power and, of course, no one says anything. And what I loved about that exercise is that this has been a huge elephant in the room where we all know these horrible truths that we just live in denial about.

And we’ve created these systems of denial or other ways of not addressing it. I think a positive aspect that can come out of this is if the barriers of conversation finally come down where white people will start talking about this with each other.

Lynn Lyons  13:30 

I think you make such a good point in that the way, that if you consider yourself and view yourself as a progressive white person, that you still, and I can absolutely see this in my profession, is that you still don’t talk about it. You still don’t acknowledge it; you still don’t ask questions about it.

And I think one of the things that’s been helpful to me over the last few days as I’ve been hearing and reading some amazing things from people of color in my field in particular is that it really is okay to ask questions and to make mistakes and to not be perfect and to listen and be open to hearing the stories that aren’t necessarily just the big dramatic stories of racism because I think that’s what, that is what we sort of think about, but how it insidiously impacts every moment of the day if you are a person of color in the United States of America.

Robin Hutson  14:29 

Well, one of the things that’s tricky is that in order to be an ally, you can’t ask the people of color in your surroundings to educate you and put the burden of your education on them. And so, the first time a well-meaning white person might approach their black friend and say: “Talk to me about this” and they receive a reaction of: “You know, this isn’t my responsibility.” It feels awkward, and you realize eventually —because, maybe not in that moment—you understand what you’re… you don’t understand the message that your friend is trying to tell you.

And the point is you have to do your own research, and you have to do your own reading. And you can’t put the burden of understanding what it means to be oppressed on the oppressed. That’s just perpetuating the oppression.

It’s critical that we take responsibility and that’s the challenge because if white people aren’t talking about it with each other, it makes that self-education process even harder, because then it’s required to do it alone in a vacuum. And so that’s where, if white people eventually lower defenses and feel that they can talk about this with each other and guide each other down this path of being an ally, I think that’s progress.

There are so many great resources right now in terms of the importance of talking to your children at an age-appropriate level, to talk to white children as young as two.

Like it is… and I think that… I can say that from the… I have a 14-year old and a 9-year old. And I recall the way that I wanted to talk about race with my firstborn, and I made so many mistakes that are so common. Please Google “Why being colorblind isn’t helpful” and why it is a distraction that will prevent you from doing really necessary work and having really critical conversations with our kids.

I think making sure that you don’t have a colorblind household—even if you think that you came from a tradition of families who have always been supportive of civil rights and supportive of anti-racism. Most likely you still were raised in a colorblind household if you’re white, and that… that is, that is like… such a key thing to take a bite of and to accomplish.

Lynn Lyons  16:56 

There was a really great resource, and we can put up the link, of talking in terms of schools and education teachers, and the whole idea of colorblind and teachers saying, “You know, when I teach, I don’t see color,” and the whole… and the responses, which we’ll put up the link because they were so much better than, so much more eloquent than I will be able to say right now but, basically, saying: “If you are saying to me, you don’t see my color, then you are denying an aspect of myself that is so important to me and so critical to who I am and to my experience in this country.” So, it really is, when you say you’re colorblind, you’re denying a part of me that I need you to hear about and I need you to acknowledge.

Robin Hutson  17:43 

All saying you’re colorblind is, is saying, “I’m going to shy away from confronting a truth that I actually know to be true. I’m uncomfortable talking about racism, so I’m going to pretend that race doesn’t exist to make myself more comfortable.”

Lynn Lyons  17:57 

I’m gonna, I’m gonna pretend we’re all white.

Robin Hutson  18:00 

Exactly, exactly.

Lynn Lyons  18:01 

And I think I was talking yesterday about, sort of, when I talk about anxiety, I talk about content versus process and that the content doesn’t really matter to me. But the process remains consistent. And I think that what we’re seeing now is that the content of this over these last several years have changed.

You know, the names have changed, and the states have changed and the exact circumstances have changed, but the process of the way that this happened, the way that this racist process continues, and so predictable, and so exhausting for people, that I think maybe we have gotten to a place where we’re saying, but it is the same damn thing over and over and over again.

How do we do better? How do we do better for our families, how do we do better for the people that we share this planet with? How do we do better in our own thinking and expression in our own acknowledgment of this? How do we do better?

That this is about connection, not perfection, that we’re going to make mistakes, that it’s going to feel awkward, that I know I have so much to learn and so much to do. I am going to work hard to connect with other people about this, so that I don’t feel like I’m doing it alone. And as we all go through this, of course, the goal of this podcast and the goal of what I do, and the goal of what Robin does, is that we do have a place and a sense of community as we start these conversations. That was our purpose in doing this today, is to let you know that we are wanting to start this process, that we don’t want people to feel alone in wanting to start this process.

And I know we’re not all starting from ground zero. It’s not like suddenly we’re realizing that there’s racism. It’s not that, but maybe it’s sort of starting this next chapter of our awareness. But we want you to know that if you don’t know how to start this process, or if you feel alone and wanting to start this process, that you aren’t alone, and we’re fumbling through this, too; we are not experts in this.

And whatever you can do concretely, whatever decision you can make, whatever promise you can make to yourself, to your family, amongst your friends and peers, that your efforts will be worth it. Because we cannot keep doing what we’ve been doing.

We just can’t keep doing it.

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