It’s hard to talk about racism without talking about defensiveness. That instinct that shuts down meaningful reflection by insisting “I’m not prejudiced,” or that knee-jerk rejection to criticism by someone in a marginalised group that you’re not a part of, is a very strong one. For everyone, learning to recognise that universal tendency in ourselves can help us make progress.
“Defensiveness is a way that we protect ourselves from threats — threats to our psychological safety, or to our self-worth, or to our wellbeing,” said Toronto psychologist Dr Taslim Alani-Verjee.
For a lot of people, being told something they did or said is racist operates as a blow to their self-esteem.
“No one wants to acknowledge that they’re racist,” Alani-Verjee told HuffPost Canada. “We reject the person’s claim, usually bring up all of the reasons why we’re not racist in the process. And we end up potentially silencing or further marginalising the individual who is bringing it up.”
“Calling me the n-word or wearing blackface, those aren’t the ways that I face racism day-to-day.”
Heather Effah, a social worker and colleague of Alani-Verjee, says one of the biggest barriers to understanding is the way people bristle at the word “racist,” because they think it can only mean something very overt and extreme that they don’t identify with.
“For many people, the word ‘racism’ is linked to these overt methods — you know, lynching, and calling someone the n-word and other racial slurs. Nobody wants to be called racist by that definition,” Effah, who is Black, told HuffPost Canada.
“However, in my experience, calling me the n-word or wearing blackface, those aren’t the ways that I face racism day-to-day. Those overt methods aren’t the only issues that Black people are referring to when we use that word.”
Defensiveness is expressed in different ways. People might refuse to listen to criticism, or reject it outright. They might say they “don’t see colour.” They might talk about fighting racism on social media, but privately use their privilege to punish Black people who challenge them. They might start crying and talking about their own feelings, pivoting attention away from the injustice.
This is the defining idea of Robin DiAngelo’s bestselling book, White Fragility. She describes white fragility as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”
People of colour who benefit from white supremacy and hold anti-Black beliefs or other prejudices can also harbour this fragility.
“When someone has experienced racism, they may hold the belief that they cannot also perpetuate racism. But this is not at all the case,” Alani-Verjee said. “Many people of colour have racist beliefs about other people of colour, and we especially see this towards Black peoples.”
It can be hard to confront racism, in other people or ourselves, because defensive behaviour uses the momentary need to feel better as a way to block any real progress.
Here are some ways to deal with defensiveness in conversations about race and racism, whether the defensiveness is coming from your racist uncle, or from yourself.
Ask yourself if the person is actually willing to listen
Many people don’t understand that we live in a white supremacist society because they’ve never had to think about it before, and it’s uncomfortable to sit with. They’re compassionate in lots of ways, but still have blind spots. Other people are just flat-out unwilling to listen, or to consider viewpoints different from their own.
Understanding the difference between the two will save you a lot of grief.
“If I’m not getting any indication that that person [I’m talking to] is going to be ready to listen or engage in a constructive conversation, those are the times where I decide it’s not going to be worth my energy to work myself up,” Effah said.
Focus on impact, not intent
If you’re Black, and someone’s racism is targeted towards you, and you’ve decided you have the emotional capacity to take the conversation on, Effah suggests explaining clearly how it made you feel.
The best approach is “meeting defensiveness with the total opposite — with kindness and calmness where possible,” she said.
“Express the way it made you feel, and name the issue by asking a question about why that was said or done.”
Of course, greeting hate and hurt with rationality and politeness isn’t always something that’s going to be feasible, and it’s important to recognise when you don’t have the energy to deal with it, she said. (More on that later.)
If you’re not Black and are trying to be an ally, Alani-Verjee suggests starting by acknowledging that you don’t think the person you’re talking to is a bad person, but that what they’re saying is hurtful. Then explain why.
It’s best to avoid flat-out telling someone they’re a racist when they use demeaning language to talk about protesters, or focus more on looting than on the killing of Black people.
“It’s usually not an effective way of bringing attention to the problem, because what we are generally going to get in response is defensiveness or aggression,” Alani-Verjee said.
When you say, “You’re racist,” you’re commenting on their intention. It’s then easy for them to say “Well, I wasn’t trying to be racist.” And just like that, the conversation’s shut down.
If your goal is to help this person understand why what they said or did was racist, help them understand why it’s hurtful or incorrect will likely be more effective than bluntly calling them out.
“We can never actually know what a person’s intention is,” Alani-Verjee said. “But by having a conversation about outcome, that allows for a bit more space in conversation. It doesn’t give permission, but it does allow the person to explain their perspective and hopefully to allow for a dialogue to ensue.”
It’s also helpful to remember not to let your outrage and frustration eclipse the point you’re trying to make, she said.
Instead, ask questions to try to get them to explain where their ideas are coming from. Simple curiosity can lead them to interrogate their own ideas in a way that being told what to think might not.
Take on only the emotional labour you have the patience for
If you’re a person of colour, and particularly if you’re a Black person, it’s valid not to want to engage in these conversations right now. It can be tiring to try to justify your existence to people who aren’t really interested in listening.
If you feel unsafe, Effah said, that’s obviously a sign that you shouldn’t engage. If you’re burned out, or have had a hard day, or are just simply not interested in discussing racism yet again, those are also valid reasons to bow out of a conversation.
“In my day-to-day life and in my work life, I practice mindfulness, and so getting in touch with myself and where I’m at in that moment helps me to understand, how much energy I have to give to that situation,” she explained.
“But if, say, I was already stressed out that day, if I already addressed something earlier, then that’s an opportunity for me to say, maybe this isn’t the moment I need to respond to.”
It’s just not feasible to rise to every challenge, or address every microaggression.
“I always make this joke that is only funny to me, because I have to find some form of humour in this, that if I responded to every act of racism everyday, I’d never get anything else done,” Effah said. “Sometimes I’m in the grocery store, and I just want to get my groceries.”
If you’re not Black and you’re trying to be ally, this is a place you can step up. Talk to your friends and relatives about concepts like structural racism and white privilege. And if you’re willing to keep going, even when these conversations are extremely frustrating and draining, that can be an act of allyship.
For instance, Alani-Verjee said, she’s a woman of colour, but she isn’t Black. “My experience of racism is going to be different, and so I might have a little bit more emotional capacity to have conversations than a Black person might have when we’re talking about racism towards Black folks.”
Be patient with yourself
It’s valid to have reached your breaking point in a past conversation; this holds true for everyone.
It can be frustrating when someone who is capable of compassion in some areas of their life seems unwilling to extend compassion to Black protesters fighting for their lives. If you have lost it and just yelled at them that they’re a racist, know that’s not super-helpful, but know it’s not the end of the world, either.
“We’re allowed to offend people and sometimes people just need to hear whatever it is that they need to hear. It doesn’t make us bad people for offending someone for offending us,” Alani-Verjee said. Acknowledge what happened, look for more constructive ways of getting through to people, and keep going.
Examine your own defensiveness, too
It would be hypocritical to focus so much energy on someone else’s defensiveness without looking at your own, too. As a separate practice from these conversations, it’s a good idea for anyone who wants to be an ally to examine some of their own blind spots, too.
“It’s important to recognise that we all have prejudices within us. None of us are protected from that,” Alani-Verjee said.
It’s important that we recognise that, she said: “even if you are the most woke of people, there’s room for improvement.”
A big part of that is being able to listen. It’s likely that even if you’re well-intentioned, you’ll end up saying or doing something unhelpful. (Again: impact matters more than intent.)
Listen to the feedback of people around you, and take it in. “If you notice yourself rejecting it, or having an emotional reaction to it, pause yourself and ask yourself why you’re having that reaction,” Alani-Verjee said.
One of the best ways to quell our own defensiveness is to accept some portion of responsibility, even if it’s something minor like “Yes, it’s true that I’m not an expert on this subject.” From there, we might better be able to look clearly at our own behaviour.
We all need to remember that racism isn’t only conscious hate, but also the summation of so many implicit, unconscious prejudices that can grow and solidify if they go unchallenged.
As the famous Scott Wood quote goes: “Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease.”