Friday, August 7, 2015

Authentic Relationships and Racism

In order for a relationship to be authentic, both people need to have permission to say and do things that will make the other uncomfortable.

Many, many well meaning folks say, and perhaps they're right, that only authentic relationships across race can heal racism. (By which, I assume people mean, convert white people to the reality of racism so that healing can begin.)

So it may be meant very well when we try to walk around having "authentic relationships" with every person of color we see.

Here's the problem: it only works if the people of color we see are safe and free and able to make us uncomfortable.  And for those of us who are white, particularly those of us who are white and have class privilege, 95 percent of the people of color we interact with are paid to make us feel comfortable. 

We can never have an "authentic" relationship with the cashier, the wait staff at our favorite restaurant, or even, in most cases, our coworkers.  Someone else is paying them to keep us comfortable.

Even worse, if we try to have "authentic relationships' with people who are paid to keep us happy, we make their job harder.  Now they have to figure out how to make us feel like we're really connecting, give us all the good feelings, without the economic freedom to tell us what they're really thinking. 

We cause harm, but increasing the burden of their work. 

Here's how we end up with the "but my Black friend...." phenomena.  Is your Black friend a coworker, who's reputation for professionalism depends on not telling you off when you said that ridiculous thing?

Then we white folks walk around thinking that all the people of color we interact with are able to tell us the truth about racism, and they're mostly telling us it's all just fine and we're nice people, and we're completely unable to understand that 95% of them are unsafe and economically unable to tell us something we don't want to hear: that race is a brutal reality that affects them in ways we can't comprehend, and our blithe inability to understand it or how we benefit is infuriating.

And then one of those 5% of the people of color who just don't care anymore, or aren't paid to be the ones to keep us happy tell us the truth, and it is so drastically different from our general understanding that we don't know what's wrong with *them.*

We cause harm, because we are less able to hear reality when people of color do share with us.

If we want real relationships with people of color, we need to find peers, or people whose physical safety and economic stability don't depend on our happiness.  We need to give them permission to say things that will upset us.

And guess what?  They don't have to be our best friend if they don't want to.  Their "authentic relationships" are not commodities we get to claim and own cause we want them. There will be a cost to them to do talk about racism with us, and they get to decide if they want to bear it.

We cause harm when we expect that people need to be friends with us in order for us to be less racist.

When someone does show us their anger, does make us uncomfortable, it may be because they just can't take it anymore, and don't care what the consequences are.  That's a desperate act, and well worth listening to. 

Or, it may be a great gift.  It may be their faith in us that we're worth telling the truth to.  It may be an offer of a real friendship.

Maybe, maybe it would just be better if we decided to do something about the brutal reality of racism, just cause it's the right thing to do, even if we don't have a Black best friend.  What do you think?

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