/ 14 June 2020

White noise: Black people will always struggle to breathe and be heard

Racism Is Not Ignorance – It Is An Assault On Our Freedom
We will never survive as a nation or as humans if we put up racial barriers to isolate ourselves from one another, economically, socially and politically.


I confess I am the eternal optimist, but the work I do in the diversity equity and inclusion or antiracist space, however, is where I concede defeat. The hope that through “courageous conversations” we can heal the wounds of our racialised past, embrace our diversity and empathetically work towards equity and social justice, is dashed during every workshop.

Facilitators working in the field know that the work is challenging, but very few sustain the combative interactions that ensue with a sizable number of white participants. As a result, a number of very skilled facilitators quit and others stay within the safer space of “teaching” diversity as opposed to doing process work.

Robin diAngelo, a white woman in the United States also involved in antiracist work, has recently offered a framework of understanding the white experience and her book White Fragility has certainly struck a chord.

DiAngelo says that white people are fragile when it comes to discussions about race. White fragility, unlike the images of weakness and brittleness that the words conjure up, is powerful and has the ability to stymie processes, disrupt agendas and maintain the racial status quo.

So, for as long as white people struggle with courage and humility, they remain robbed of the opportunity to fully understand racism and its many manifestations, see their complicity and be part of the solution. And since confronting racism, like marriage counselling, is only really effective when all parties are represented and working towards the same goal, our current situation leaves me disheartened.

With the globe reeling in disbelief at yet another killing of a black person in the US, this time at the “knee” of a white man, paradoxically bound to a professional oath to serve and protect, the clarion call for courageous conversations about differences resurfaces.

Similarly, when a white academic in South Africa is accused of producing publications deemed offensive to black people, or a white teacher suspended for telling her learners she would “give them something to protest about” and “sit on their necks” in an effort to make sure they completed an assignment, the need for interventions are amplified.

Courageous conversations

Having courageous conversations is, of course, not new. Every labour dispute, relationship counselling, child custody battle and divorce proceeding — in fact every interaction where there are differences of belief systems or where emotions are high — are deemed courageous. Yet for some inexplicable reason, courageous conversations among different, historically labelled race groups did not attract much attention after the Civil Rights Act in 1964 in the US nor the fall of apartheid in 1994.

One thesis is that we were all caught up in the euphoria of the momentous transition and, much like a bridal couple, the idea of conflict — abuse or divorce  — is psychologically blocked because it is antithetic and intolerable. Now, many years and various legislations later, it is clear that without having raised our collective consciousness about the effects of our racist histories, we continue to embody the master design that assigned value and simultaneously dehumanised. The demonstration of the destructive power dynamics have since mutated, lynching has been replaced with knees on the neck.

Dialogue is widely accepted as having the potential to repair and transform. The first I came across was the teaching of the late Steve Biko who strongly argued for the need to do the psychological work, to undo the damage inflicted by apartheid and racism.

He stated: “Whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with blacks. They must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior.”  

White fragility

So, armed with the knowledge of creating psychologically safe spaces for courageous conversations, facilitators of antiracist work start out hopeful and somewhat naïve. Naïve to assume that all it takes to forsake privilege is to talk, naive to ignore that for someone used to 100%, 98% will feel oppressive, and naïve not to pay attention to who commissioned the work, why and the budget (usually low) and time allocated (usually no more than a day), as well as the choice given to participation.

The emotionally draining work was seldom spoken about until DiAngelo lifted the veil, in particular of the challenges white people bring to antiracist conversations. It takes the mere suggestion or accusation of racism for white people to engage in what is described as weaponising hurt feelings, being indignant and defensive.

Of her book DiAngelo says: “Very few white people will think they need to read this book. I know my people really well, and we will do whatever we can to mark ourselves as “not racist”.

She asserts that if you’re a white person in America, you’re a racist,  and without a lifetime of conscious effort you always will be: “Racism is a white problem. It was constructed and created by white people and the ultimate responsibility lies with white people. For too long we’ve looked at it as if it were someone else’s problem, as if it was created in a vacuum.”  

In South Africa much work still has to be done to raise our consciousness of the ways in which we have all been systematically indoctrinated to believe in white superiority and black inferiority.

Whereas DiAngelo draws on research largely done in the US, it speaks to the experiences I continue to have in the sessions I facilitate here. Most of my work is usually commissioned after a complaint of racism. The brief is to create awareness of racism, with the expectation that it is possible to do that with a few slides before lunch.

Once the process has been explained and terms negotiated, which include the insistence on at least a full day, even though the work is best done over a longer period, the question about how to name and position the workshop particularly to the white people becomes important. The aim at the start is to minimise resistance or “white fragility”.  Then the design is carefully considered with efforts to allay fears of being blamed for apartheid.

This process of re-centering (once again) the experiences of white participants is discomforting but understood to be necessary if we want a dialogue. Despite the effort made to protect “fragility” it is not sufficient. The predictability with which the white participants respond to the routine question of “What is it like being at the session?” can be determined with high degrees of accuracy.

Negative feedback

Responses range from the untimely nature of the session given their huge workload, making it clear that they are making significant sacrifices, to others assertively stating it’s a waste of their time. Those who make their discontent clear upfront are often the ones who don’t make it back after the first break. I am particularly concerned when those who leave occupy senior leadership positions — gatekeepers in their companies.

As we go through the agenda, the levels of discomfort and the challenges directed at the facilitator intensifies.  The process of unpacking our collective history and bearing witness to pain suffered and the many ways in which the past is still very present, is painful for all.

Many white participants, however, rather than allowing the process to inform, assume guilt and then either blame the process or the facilitator.  For the black participants the sessions are generally experienced as painful though extremely welcome. Many describe relief at being able to speak about experiences that they had no opportunity to raise in the workplace.

Below are some of the responses by white participants in anonymous surveys post workshops:

“I’d like to voice my dismay at the facilitator’s obvious belief that the only way for transformation to be achieved is to remove white people from leadership positions. I understand that previously disadvantaged South Africans want answers and change now – but what will be achieved by reversing privilege?

“Inequality issues in South Africa are systemic — it will take time for these to be addressed and for equal access to resources to be achieved. In the meantime, it is everyone’s responsibility to be aware of these issues and tackle them on a daily basis. I feel this workshop missed the opportunity to help us do just that, and instead left us dejected, puzzled and quite frankly livid.”

“The exploration of diversity was too narrow in that the workshop focussed almost exclusively on racism. The facilitator may not be fully aware of her own bias/issues although this might have been a deliberate tactic.”

“I disliked the workshop immensely, and not because I’m fragile as the facilitator wants us to believe if we don’t agree with her ideas.”

“There was little in this workshop which celebrated the vibrancy of living and working in a diverse society, and little about the way it was delivered to inspire me to create a more diverse one. The workshop would have better lived up to its name if it had not so relentlessly pursued an agenda based entirely on race (and a simplistic, dichotomous and polarising view of race at that), and would have come closer to its aim of inclusiveness if it had paused even slightly to acknowledge the gains that have been made in this area, by individuals, and by South African society at large.”  

My integrity and skills as a facilitator, of course, do not get spared. It is important to state there are some who, despite the pain, show gratitude and speak of the ways in which it has shifted their thinking.  Sadly those are the minority. Black participants, on the other hand, experience huge relief at being heard and feel affirmed:

“I liked that the facilitator ensured that it was a relaxed environment where everyone felt comfortable to express their opinions.

“Not everyone attended the workshop with an open mind.”

“Them (white participants) leaving the group prior to the end left me with feelings of discomfort, uncertainty and criticism of them for not following the process through.”

“To some extent it cemented my own racial prejudices.”  

Racism requires white people to understand white supremacy, white privilege, structural racism, systemic privilege and internalised dominance. Then, an in-depth understanding of the systematic exclusion, oppression and dehumanising of everyone else is also critical.

Since white people are perceived as too fragile to participate in conversation critical to addressing racism, no amount of global protests demanding the end of racism is going to achieve it. This means that breathing is always going to be a problem lest the next incident result in a global revolt.  My hope is that white people dig deep and find the courage before then.

Dr Sorayah Nair is a clinical psychologist and founder of Business Health Solutions which offers diversity training to effect change at the organisational, leadership and individual level.