Days after the “Unite the Right” rally occurred in Charlottesville this past August 2017, my sister sent me a link to the podcast “It’s Been a Minute” with Sam Sanders. Tom and I sat down together to listen to the episode titled, “Charlottesville and White People.” Sam introduces this podcast explaining that, in the wake of an event like the Charlottesville rally, white folks tend to rely too heavily upon oppressed communities for answers, tools, and next steps. Instead, Sam argues for the need for white people to begin to bear the burden of white supremacy’s pervasiveness in our society. And for Sam Sanders, this starts with white people having conversations with other white people.
I agreed with Sam’s idea. Engaging in dialogue with other folks who are white in order to expose our own complicity, acknowledge our white-washed histories and realities, and strategize about how to dismantle systems that benefit white people at the expense of everyone else is the responsibility of white people.
But something really shook me about the podcast as Tom and I listened. Tom noticed it too. Sam Sanders took a number of callers who were reporting on conversations they have been having with their white acquaintances, friends, and loved ones after Charlottesville. One caller was a teacher, and another was a 39-year-old veteran. To my dismay, a few of the people calling in to report about their “race conversations” spent most of their time on air telling Sam about the activity on their Facebook and Twitter feeds. One person was so exasperated about the number of reactions to something she posted about racism, she told Sam that she wouldn’t be able to to sustain this level of activity once the school year begins.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was: the “conversations” many of us are having about white supremacy and systemic racism are occurring in the comment sections of our Facebook posts. Instead of sitting down with a friend at the pub for a difficult heart-to-heart, we are staring at a screen, reading a few words, and “reacting” with a mad face or a heart. And when we feel especially enthused, we thumb in some of our pre-edited thoughts to be skimmed not just by the Facebook “friend” we are responding to, but also the hundreds of other pairs of eyes scrolling through their feeds.
The idea that online discussion is eclipsing face-to-face conversation is deeply concerning. Sam is absolutely right: white folks need to start talking to one another about our history and our privilege. But I remain convinced that this work must be primarily face-to-face. Why? There are a many elements inherent to face-to-face dialogue that also happen to be crucial for social change. Consider what gets left out when we keep the conversation online:
Vulnerability. When I post something online (like this blog post!), it is often the product of a well-edited thought-process. Because I can type something out and then revise it before it goes live, I have the privilege of publishing a filtered version of myself and my ideas. This privilege disappears in a face-to-face conversation. Why is this a good thing? you may ask. In an in-person encounter, I am left to draw on my own original resource: my real self. This is a lot scarier, because I might blurt out something ignorant or silly that I can’t erase after saying it out loud. But, this is actually a gift to the person I am dialoguing with, because I am revealing my vulnerability. Instead of hiding behind a barrier or a screen, I am presenting my conversation partner with my whole self, with all of my imperfections and insecurities. Vulnerability opens the door to the next element which is also an online rarity…
Empathy. When I am vulnerable, I am not on the defense. When I am not on the defense, I am much more able to receive my conversation partner as they are in their vulnerable state. Vulnerability motivates me to understand my partner’s viewpoint, because I am not blinded by my defensive barrier. Empathy takes time, patience, and careful listening. Empathy requires me to ask my conversation partner clarifying questions, rephrasing what I have heard my conversation partner say in order to gain further understanding. The task of empathy is the bulk of good dialogue. But in many cases, this is a difficult skill to practice online. When I post an article with a comment about why I think it’s important, that might be the beginning and end of the conversation. Others will comment and I might reply, and we may even argue back and forth a few times. But as soon as I read someone else’s comment and decide I disagree, I can rebuff, and just keep scrolling.
Intimacy. Intimacy, or, genuine connection to another that I experience when I allow myself to be vulnerable and practice empathy, is also hard to come by in online. Part of the reason for this is the reality that lots of communication occurs beyond the typing and reading of words. When I have the privilege to dialogue with someone in person, I not only hear the words they speak, but I can look in to their eyes, read their body language, interpret the tone of their voice and maybe even reach out and touch their hand or shoulder. The opening that vulnerability creates, and the extended listening that empathy facilitates, allows me to touch and be touched by my conversation partner on a deeper level than I often experience on social media. I feel bound to this person I have just shared with, and perhaps, I even become responsible for and committed to them.
Conversion. Lastly, face-to-face conversations change us. Sharing one another’s viewpoints in an vulnerable, empathetic, and binding way leaves lasting impressions on us beyond the moments of interaction. We process our encounter days and even months after it happens. And sometimes, we find that our perspective has been altered.
Now, I am not saying that every time I encounter someone and have a face-to-face conversation with them, that I will experience vulnerability, intimacy, empathy and conversion to the fullest degree. Dialogue can often be difficult and painful, especially in the context of white people having conversations with other white people about the racist structures we perpetuate and benefit from. Further, dialogue is a long-term commitment that extends beyond just one conversation. But we have resources we can rely upon for practicing the skill of fruitful dialogue. Cardinal Bernardin, for example, drafted a list of principles for dialogue which serves as the backbone of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative’s work. Another resource I find extremely beneficial for sharpening skills such as empathy and listening is the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg.
According to Pope Francis, dialogue is a mandate for Christians and it is the foundation of peace and the common good. We need dialogue to dismantle racial injustice, and we need vulnerability, empathy, intimacy and conversion if we are going to make real and lasting change that extends beyond posting provocative articles on our social media outlets.
As the title of this short blog piece suggests, I deactivated my Facebook account in August after the string of white supremacist rallies occurred across the country, because I was hit hard by the realization that I need to get to work. And this work is the uncomfortably vulnerable work of having lots of conversations with folks like me who are white. I got off of Facebook as an intentional move to open myself to more discussion on a face-to-face level. I am not necessarily trying to prescribe this same action for everyone. But, I can report that so far, it has given me more time, focus, and energy to do this work of encountering my neighbors in-person, and, it has increased the opportunities to experience vulnerability, empathy, intimacy and conversion on a daily level.