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  • Writer's pictureIlsa Govan

Norms for Anti-Racist Activism: Speak Your Truth & Listen for Understanding

I wrote and presented the following at an Episcopal Women’s Gathering recently:

I’m going to give a brief overview of our approach to anti-racism work by explaining the norms we operate under. One of the first steps in dismantling racism is self-awareness. For me, as a White person, this means the on-going process of interrogating the dominant cultural norms I’ve taken for granted as “just the way people are” or “just how things are done”. In contrast, the norms of People of Color are often referred to as “cultural”. In redefining norms, we seek to make conversations and actions more explicitly equitable. The following are adapted from the work of Glenn Singleton’s Courageous Conversations.

The first norm I’ll address is Speak Your Truth. It is important to speak only for ourselves rather than use the universal you, as in, “You know how when you’re driving and you don’t see a cyclist…”. The universal you assumes everyone you’re speaking with has this shared experience, and it’s use is particularly common among members of the dominant culture. It subtly implies the normalcy of the speaker’s experience.

I was in a workshop at a Women of Color Conference and made the statement that women tend to be indirect in our communication. An African American woman quickly responded with, “You’re not talking about Black women.” Without realizing it, I had taken my cultural norm and generalized it to the experiences of all women. When speaking your truth, try to say “I” rather than “you” or “we” or be specific about the population you’re referring to (this is a good time to practice not being colorblind.)

Being confronted like that made me very uncomfortable. It would have been easy for me to say, “But I’m here in this workshop trying to do this work, so give me a break. I’m one of the good ones!” or, “That’s not what I meant,”or, “She shouldn’t have said that in front of the whole group.” Focusing energy on how the message was conveyed rather than what was communicated robs me of the opportunity to learn from my mistakes.

Sometimes Speaking our Truth comes out with passion. For different people this may mean raising our voice, crying, standing up, or any number of behaviors. Too often we dismiss the content of what was said because of the way it was said. Instead we need to practice the second norm, Listen for Understanding.

When I was teaching 5th grade I gave the students an assignment to research and report on social justice activists. I marked points off of one boy’s presentation on Chinese Americans’ detention on Angel Island for presenting on an experience of oppression, rather than activism. That night, I received a long email from the parents that essentially said, “You don’t understand social justice from a Chinese American perspective.” Although I conceded (in my head) the parents made many valid points in the email, I felt email itself was an inappropriate way to approach me about such a heated topic. I didn’t respond in writing except to ask them to please set up an appointment to talk with me about their concerns.

They called me that night and began telling me why they thought I should change their son’s grade. I quickly interrupted and said I didn’t think the phone was the right way to have the conversation and asked if they could come to the school to meet with me.

It was toward the end of the school year and they were not available to meet before school got out. I refused to meet with them after the school year was over, as that would be during my summer vacation time. However, I assured them this one grade would not impact their son’s overall report card. Not exactly what they were looking for.

This is a story I hesitated to share publicly, as it so clearly illustrates the way I protected my privilege and dismissed People of Color. They were offering to give me a gift, to educate me about the ways Chinese Americans have advocated for themselves throughout history and how this was different from my perspective that was mostly framed by Black activism in the Civil Rights Movement.

I had to lie to myself to deal with the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing. I saw myself as a social justice educator. They were calling into question not just one grade, but a large part of my identity. At that point, it was easier for me to blame them for not approaching me the “right way” than to truly examine my biases and Listen for Understanding.

When put into the context of dominant norms, cultural differences, and social capital, Speaking Your Truth and Listening for Understanding to someone sharing his or her truth becomes more complex. Yet it is this complexity of experiences and ways of expressing those experiences that defines a multicultural society. If we want society not just to be diverse but also to be equitable, one step is to take a close look at ourselves, acknowledge our privileges, learn from our past, and advocate for reshaping our norms.

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