I was speaking with an acquaintance recently, and he shared with me that he has discovered the beauty of small talk. He had been talking about how much he hates small talk when someone had pointed out to him that small talk fosters social cohesion; it is a way for us to find commonality and connection with each other. Now that he has placed it in this context, small talk is no longer a pointless annoyance for him. He is able to see how it functions in social space and is therefore able to enjoy it for what it is.
This conversation reminded me of the ways that whiteness in middle class US culture trains us to disconnect from each other, seeing ourselves as individuals not part of a larger whole. White folks in particular are socialized into seeing ourselves as exceptional, a worldview that causes us to think we’re better than others, even if we would never say it out loud. This superiority plays into how we perceive other white people as well as people of color. Distancing ourselves in this way, “I’m not one of those racist white people”, allows us to disengage from antiracism work as something other people need to do. We feel safe in our perception of ourselves as a good white person, and we don’t feel the need to challenge our understanding of systemic racism and our role within it.
In the context of intentional conversations about racism, this distancing can often result in derailment; we start talking about others, veering the conversation away from our complicity in racist systems towards the problem of other people’s racism. If we’re talking in this way in a group setting, such derailment takes time away from others’ learning, delaying everyone’s growth and understanding.
None of us alive today will ever be done with antiracism work. We won’t solve this problem in our lifetimes, but white people owe people of color the attempt. If you’re thinking that you’ve reached a comfortable level of “wokeness”, I urge you to challenge yourself to find the edges that don’t feel comfortable. That’s where your work is, not dwelling on others who are not as far along.
© 2019 Judy Blair LLC