For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.
- Audre Lorde
“You don’t buy it, do you?” I said to my co-teacher. “Nope.” I was smiling anxiously. He was not smiling. “And I do. I’m trying to train myself not to, but I still do.” We had just showed a video that highlighted a racial conflict, and a student had blamed it on “white entitlement.” My co-teacher asked our class, “where do you think entitlement comes from?” The first response to his question came from Leann, a 23 year-old white woman: “Ignorance.” In the video, we saw that a white woman’s words were causing pain to First Nations people. I believed, and Leann believed, that the white woman didn’t know she was causing pain. My co-teacher did not believe this.
This difference created an opening for me to explore how racist complicity can form and spread within and between white people. I am a white female teacher, and my co-teacher is a Black male. By analyzing my own response to a moment in my teaching through the lens of what Mab Segrest calls an “anesthetic aesthetic,” I want to learn about emotions and historical consciousness in anti-racist pedagogy. I center this inquiry around a graduate education classroom discussion of a moment of conflict, where strong emotions, rooted in histories of trauma, re-shape a context that is raced white. We were considering the video of an interchange in a context that may register as neutral to a white audience, but that evokes a history of oppression to First Nations people in the space.
On June 30, during Canada Day festivities, First Nations women leaders held a press conference, to demand that the government prioritize its investigation into the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Indigenous leaders emphasize that extreme violence targeting Indigenous women meets with public indifference, continuing the legacy of settler colonialism and ongoing systemic racism. In the news clip that we showed in class, a white female reporter asks, “How can he be blamed? You don’t think anything he’s doing is helping the situation? Is he [Justin Trudeau] an improvement over Stephen Harper?”
The Elders leading the press conference quiet the reporter: “you don’t know how to communicate;” and demand that she change her tone. One of the leaders, Ms. Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, reminds the assembled reporters that they are guests in this space and they must speak with respect. She observes that racist behaviors in the room are continuous with a history of racism in the Americas: “You haven’t changed, because you haven’t started your own healing journeys!” A white male reporter speaks up, promising to speak respectfully. His question: Are things better now than under Stephen Harper?
Ms. Wabano-Iahtail observes that the reporters are playing out the customary patterns of white fragility: the white man defends the white woman’s right to her question. “Who,” she asks, “defends our rights? 524 years of genocide; who has stood up for us?”
The reporters continue to push for a narrative of progress. They don’t acknowledge the wracking pain of the people in the space with them, who have seen their daughters killed and their mothers and grandmothers for generation after generation erased, belittled, colonized. The trauma of oppression is present in this room, active in this moment. The Elders cut off the reporters: “No! Stop talking! This press conference is over!”
Ignorance as oppression
After watching the video of this anguishing interchange, our class processed what we had seen and heard, taking note of the importance of tone and place and historic relations between white people and Indigenous people in North America. Students had just read Paulo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and they were paying close attention to humanization and dehumanization, both within the press conference and within themselves as they watched.
We sought to discuss the people, words, and history in the video with respect, conscious that we were watching the video out of context. We were trying to counter the conventional emotional distance of the classroom with our personal responses of outrage and love. Expressing strong emotion in a setting like a university classroom, where the unspoken norm is coldly intellectual can feel awkward, unnatural. But Ms. Wabano-Iahtail’s rebuke to the reporters made us realize that a response that avoided touching the historic and present trauma of the First Nations community would be racist. She traced out a boundary that had been invisible to the white reporters, and that forced us as listeners to pause and reflect.
When students broke into small discussion groups, I checked in with my co-teacher about Leann’s comment that entitlement comes from ignorance. The video had been upsetting; it had reminded him of other press conferences he had watched on TV over the years, where Black people on either side of the microphone had been publically disrespected. These memories had been painful. Then, when hurtful behavior was ascribed to ignorance, no one had spoken up to challenge what this really meant.
Though we start our class with readings that help us talk about the difference between intent and impact, I, like many of my white students, am still ready to see racist attitudes as emerging from ignorance. “I’m not sure how to get through this block,” I said to my co-teacher. “My default response is still to assume ignorance.” I have acted, spoken, and thought out of ignorance countless times. I have made a habit of dismissing the impact of other white people’s behavior by calling it unaware.
From thinking to thinking-and-feeling
I am learning to resist the gravitational pull of my assumptions. This means fighting my natural response; it means believing others’ experience more than my own judgment. Since my mind doesn’t want to do this, I have to tell it that it doesn’t really know. An emotional lurch quickens the process. Conflict, grief, anger – the feelings that are hardest to face fling me past my limits.
It’s only when I force myself to listen to the pain of a person like Ms. Wabano-Iahtail, when I force myself to remember the historical, generational, lifelong, constant trauma that Latina/o, African American, Native American, Asian American, and Middle Eastern people carry, that I’m able to shift my perspective and realize that attributing racist acts to ignorance has the impact of minimizing their suffering. The Indigenous Elders’ repeated command, “Stop!” helped me to stop.
When I stop and push myself through a slower thinking-and-feeling process, I realize that people who come from historically targeted backgrounds have inherited a pain that flares acutely when it meets racism. When the racism is denied, questioned, or ignored, the pain spreads. In the press conference my class watched, the focus was on the excruciating issue of violence against Indigenous women, and the government’s inadequate response. The reporter’s question about whether matters had improved under Justin Trudeau’s government passed over the trauma the Native leaders were feeling, voicing, and acting on, regarding this issue and related matters of residential schools, the Indian Act, and so many other ways in which the genocidal history of white supremacy has continued to impact First Nations people in Canada. As I think this through, I begin to hear the disrespect in the reporter’s question, the dehumanization it allows and perpetuates. This takes me a long time.
The colonialist mentality, a Black student in our class pointed out, still dominates, prescribing not only policy but interchanges like the one we were watching. “I don’t know if it sounded this way to you,” he said, “but to my ears it sounded like the reporters were saying, ‘haven’t we done enough for you?’”
I recognized it once he said it, but I hadn’t articulated it. I had watched the news clip many times by the time I showed it in class, and I felt troubled and confused. Moments like this make me question my own responses. How did my student hear a colonialist message that I didn’t? Why is my co-teacher pained by watching scenes like this in a way that I am not? Why do I accept ignorance as justification for racist behavior? Why am I ok with my own confusion? What’s wrong with me?
Amnesia, anesthesia, contradiction
In her essay “Of Soul and White Folk,” Mab Segrest talks about the “anesthetic aesthetic” that blocks dominant culture people from pain, awareness of their own responsibility in systemic violence, and their own consciousness. She studies the emotional atrophy of slave-owning white people, as an example of white numbness in the face of violence against people of color. “Necessary to the slave system was the masters’ blocked sensation of its pain, an aesthetic that left him insensible not only to the fellow human beings he enslaves, but to the testimony of his senses that might have contradicted ideologies of slavery.”
Inner contradiction, denial, and systemic violence blunt our feeling capacities and our health: “the affective void from which feelings and perceptions have been blocked in oneself and cast onto Others is the space where addictions arise.” The damage of disconnection and distance, Segrest says, isn’t just direct, physical, or historical. It is hardwired in white people like me and there is much in white supremacy culture that maintains it.
Recovering our human connectedness through focused inner work and outer action helps us to heal ourselves and our world. “Action expands perceptions because it shifts and enlarges our point of view and our capacity and motivation to process bigger chunks of reality.” Though we have inherited a destructive disease, white people can reverse the racism that “encodes itself in our consciousness, closing the doors of our perception.” We become more whole as we sit with the pain that we have for so long pushed away. We can reclaim our souls, planting our mental and social processes within the affective life of feeling, respect, and mutual responsibility.