How Important is it to be Comfortable? Framing Discussions on Race and Privilege

Way back in August, when a handful of us Buddhist white people got together because we were all interested in discussing white privilege and racism, I don’t think any of us would have guessed it would take seven or eight months for the discussion to actually begin.

When we first met, sitting on the grass in upper Meridian Hill (or Malcolm X, depending who you ask) Park, our immediate task was to find someone to teach us. Naive as I am, I was certain that there would be no dearth of people in DC who would be chomping at the bit to lead us in our discussions about white privilege and oppression. I volunteered to find us a teacher.

Through the miracle of Twitter, I was in touch with the brains behind GAP Consulting LLC, Aisha Brown. It occurred to me in conversations with her that she might be the perfect fit and she agreed. I asked her to put together a proposed curriculum. In putting the proposal together, Aisha worked closely with me to understand the group and our goals and reached out to the leader of the POC community in our larger Buddhist community to see what the issues were from their perspective. The proposal she put together was amazing.

At our planning group’s very second meeting – inside this time! – I had copies of the proposal to share. I was excited that I’d found someone and I was eager to get working. I started to tell the group about Aisha, but as soon as I said her name, I could hear the needle go off the record and the wheels come off the bus. One person interrupted me to tell me they assumed because her name was Aisha, she was Black. I confirmed that she was and that’s when things got really uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that the group would not even look at the proposal.

The group came up with lots of reasons why they couldn’t possibly learn about white privilege from a Black person.

First of all, it’s not the responsibility of people of color to teach white people about privilege. We’re supposed to do our own work! I agree with this. As white people who want to fight racism, it’s our job to examine ways in which we benefit from privilege and institutional racism. It’s our job to dig into the ways in which we have adopted and act on racial stereotypes. Asking a person of color why some things are offensive or racist or what people of color think about something is thoughtless and insensitive – it puts them in the place of speaking for all the people who look like them, and that’s not possible, much less reasonable. I also think this approach runs the risk of getting permission to not change or examine behavior. If one Black friend says it’s okay for me to use the n-word and that’s as deep as I go, I could use that permission to continue in racist and oppressive behavior.

However, Aisha’s role was not to act a a representative of all people of color and I am certain she would be very clear about that. We were not asking her to teach us about people of color. She was offering to lead our discussions and work with all of our ugly, messy stuff. For us as a group to decide it wasn’t fair to her to guide us in conversations about oppressions and privilege is incredibly presumptuous. We were assuming that we knew better how to take care of her than she did, that we understood her needs and impact of her role better than she did.

Another reason we couldn’t possibly have a person of color teach us was because we wouldn’t be as honest with her in the room for fear of hurting her by voicing our racism. I was on the fence about this. On one hand, it’s pretty enlightened to realize brave to admit. On the other hand, it seems like a cop out. It makes people gathered for the expressed purpose of talking about privilege and racism look like, as my Daddy would say, they are “all hat and no cattle.” As if people are willing to say they are going to talk about race to a point. Enough to be a good white person, but not enough to be uncomfortable.

The issue of comfort came earlier up at the same meeting in a different context, when we were talking about how, when, and where we would like the meetings to be. As there will be when eight people come together, there were at least eight opinions on everything. One person, clearly growing a little impatient with the logistics discussion, said that perhaps we should realize that not only would we not all be 100 percent comfortable with how things went, but that other people – including the people we were striving to be allies to – didn’t have the privilege of carefully tailoring their environment for their comfort every day when they walked out the door.

Another reason, and maybe the one that bothered me the most, was that a person of color couldn’t talk to us about white privilege because they didn’t have it. How could she identify with what it’s like to have privilege? How could she understand the burden we carry?

It might sound reasonable on its face for a second. However, there are different types of privilege and being a person of color doesn’t exclude an individual from enjoying them. (Cis)Gender, class, and hetero privilege come to mind first. People of color experience these privileges. It would be foolish of me to compare or equate privileges (and about as much fun as comparing oppressions) and just as foolish of me to dismiss someone else’s experience of privilege because it’s not the same privilege I have. I don’t want to contemplate what assumptions the group may have made about Aisha based on knowing she is a person of color, so I am going to assign this reaction to panic. Hard to do with Buddhists, but that’s where I am with that.

In the end, the group decided on a more broad approach to seeking a teacher/facilitator. Everyone was given the responsibility of researching and suggesting someone. We ranked possible teachers according to our ideal criteria, including experience, availability, cost, Buddhist background, and, ultimately, race. It was rather unceremoniously decided weeks later that we would absolutely not consider a teacher of color. I wanted to ask the group which of them would contact Aisha and tell her we would not be hiring her because she is not white. My only out-loud resistance was to ask the group, point blank, in hopes that it would jar them, if we would only hire a white teacher. The answer was swift and certain and, it seemed, unashamed.

Yesterday, when we broke into two small groups to discuss ways in which we had ineffectively engaged issues out of our dominant group membership in a way that was real for the people in the room, I told the story I just told you.

I’m not sure my anger and frustration over this process is appropriate to discuss within the group and I hate feeling like “my stuff” is the center of a group’s attention. At the same time, I think it would be the perfect thing to engage people in the real-live, present effects of how we act and react. This group, and the planning group before it, has been so skilled in avoiding actually talking about race and white privilege that bringing it into the room seems to push all the air out. However, the objective act of a group of white people flatly denying a person of color a job opportunity based on her race seems too rich not to explore, no matter how uncomfortable it makes people.

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3 Responses to “How Important is it to be Comfortable? Framing Discussions on Race and Privilege”

  1. Heather Says:

    Wow, just wow. In my estimation, the average black person has a whole lot more to teach me about my white privilege than the average white person (unless that white person is Tim Wise, but he’s not exactly average). And yeah, if someone is willing to participate in a discussion group like this, then she doesn’t need the protection of those in the group. It sounds like the people in this group have some possibly well-meaning but definitely misguided ideas about their own privilege, how they should deal with it, and what it means about how they should treat a person of color. It’s amazing that none of them besides you was able to step outside themselves to see it for what it was.

    • dcmazzie Says:

      I think Tim Wise is pretty fantastic. I reached out to him to recommend local teachers and also to see what he thought about the group’s refusal to hire a person of color. He suggested we hire co-teachers, one white and one of color, which I thought was interesting.

      I think people in this group (and white people engaging in conversations about race) worry that the bottom line is going to be “you’re racist and a bad person,” which no one wants to hear. I can see how imagining a person of color delivering that message would be overwhelming.

      The really hard thing for me is genuinely understanding, and on some level agreeing, with the objections and also being totally furious about them.

  2. Lindley Says:

    I haven’t been commenting, but these posts have given me a lot to think about. Thank you.

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