I was once given some advice and it went something like this, “Never discuss politics or religion and you’ll have friends for life.”
What this loosely translates to me is, “never discuss topics that people disagree on, instead ignore them in an effort to avoid feeling uncomfortable by having to challenge and examine long-held, possibly misguided beliefs about social inequality. Strategically dodge and dismiss any conversations about the reality of systematic oppression and the privilege that comes with being white at all costs, especially to the detriment of critical thought and positive social change.”
In order to approach some of the conversations that we don’t necessarily want to have, we must first gather a general idea of what people are actually talking about, and alternately not talking about. I’ve found that the quickest and most effective way to understand this is not through the narrative of mainstream news, but rather through the lens of generally unfiltered, personal opinions expressed on various social media platforms, in the form of concise tweets and regularly uncensored statuses. It’s a fairly simple way to gather a broad composition of which topics are emotionally charged within groups of people. Recently, the most prevalent complaints I’ve discovered in my news feed are related to race, coming from white people specifically. Often, when I have attempted to present a differing view, I’ve been met with staunch opposition and the same, formulaic argument that, “my parents have worked hard for everything they have.” Yes, except under the umbrella of whiteness, which hardly makes it equal opportunity.
Entering a dialogue about this topic can be tricky because it calls for sensitivity and understanding, but it’s extremely necessary. Since we barely scratch the surface of social justice in our public education system aside from the generic, “treat everyone how you’d like to be treated, share your things with others,” the topic of oppression and privilege becomes our responsibility to explore and understand thoroughly and holistically.
We can do this by engaging conversations about our individual experiences as well as educating ourselves about the design of fundamental and historical systems that favor certain groups and exclude others, creating an unfair advantage. Acknowledging certain social patterns that call for change is something that we personally have a hand in and an obligation to address. This specific guideline pertains more to race, although it can be interchangeable for almost all “taboo” topics.
1. Be Open-minded and surrender the belief that you’re right.
I cannot stress this point enough. We are always learning and as a result, we are always recognizing how vast the landscape of things we that do not know ultimately stretches. Admit that you aren’t familiar with some of the issues facing certain groups of people. Take ownership of your lack of awareness regarding certain behaviors you may illustrate that are potentially insensitive and offensive, such as donning articles from other cultures such headdresses and bindis, or other culturally appropriative choices. Making the decision to actively break down the walls of our socialization and long indoctrinated truths through a genuine and open dialogue be a very difficult process. Be willing to look at all sides of an argument and challenge yourself to be honest about which stereotypes you may carry or uneasiness you may feel about specific topics. It’s important to have humility and a willingness to be wrong, to be uncomfortable, and to examine our beliefs, enabling us the empowering choice of diversifying our thinking.
2. Don’t take things personally and resist the urge to blame.
It is important to remember that our opinions are not our identity. When someone questions or challenges our beliefs, they are not attacking us, they are simply pointing out an inconsistency with their own experience. I’ve heard the argument “well it’s not my fault – fill in the blank,” so many times when discussing social issues. A big part of understanding oppression is that it is a deeply-rooted, historical issue that is no one individual’s fault, but if we ignore it and continue to subscribe to the benefits of it unknowingly, then it becomes our fault. We are a collective world population and because of this, one individual’s issue, becomes everyone’s issue.
For example, a person who is mentally ill and decides to take the lives of others and their own, such as the tragic recent shooting of two police officers in New York, (something I’ve seen countless posts about) is indicative of not only the shooter’s individual issue, but also a sliver of a much larger problem concerning our attitudes towards and services for the treatment of mental health, the light in which they are represented in the media, and the toll that (potentially warranted) mistrust takes on the lives of police.The shooting of unarmed black men and the consequential aquittal of the police officers responsible, reflect not only the victims, but our relationship with and understanding of authority as a whole, grievances and outrage with racial inequality, and resentment towards the perpetuation of disproportionately delivered violence in our society. It is not one person who has failed, it is the design of our collective system that has failed us, and therefore we must resist our urge to blame one another and instead focus on changing the structure.
3. Be empathetic and mindful of your approach.
When we engage in certain conversations, we have to keep in mind where the other person is coming from. Approach all conversations, difficult or not, with respect and be mindful of what the other person’s boundaries are. Gauging how receptive someone is to a certain conversation is vital. If someone becomes defensive and aggressive, it may not be the best setting for the conversation, or it has to be revisited a different time. Sharing a different point of view or educating someone about something shouldn’t feel like a scolding, nor should you begin to feel that you’re preaching or being preached to. We need to be compassionate and understanding, actively listening, and creating a space where their thoughts and opinions are validated, honored, and exchanged equally. There is nothing worse than being dismissed or unheard, which is one of the most fundamental issues of oppression…the lack of visibility, interest, or accurate representation the exists within it. We have to be sensitive to where everyone is coming from and the events and experiences that have made their life uniquely different from our own.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Please, please, please ask questions. It is important to frame the questions we ask in a sensitive and constructive way, but don’t ever refrain from educating yourself because you’re afraid of sounding stupid. That’s the entire reason you’re having the conversation in the first place. Asking questions is one of the biggest vehicles and components of critical thought and the basis from which innovative solutions for a better future are created.