I’ve had some recent experiences in my apprentice ally-hood, some good, some disatrously bad. Let’s begin with the latter.
Just minutes ago, a colleague I’d earlier overheard having a conversation with a brown person who cleans here, commented on the smell in the air, and said it smelled of perfume. I said that I thought it was the smell of the cleaning of the floor. The colleague then went on to say they hoped so, but that “in many foreign countries cleaning the floor isn’t so important, but spraying the air is”. I said come on, that’s not what’s happening, and went outside for a break.
When I came back in, I said to my colleague that I thought that was a flat out racist remark. The conversation didn’t go well. At all. Perhaps the low-point, from my point of view, at any rate, was when they claimed that now it was I who was being racist, making assumptions about them.
What to learn from this? There have been so many times when I’ve not called out, and I am glad that I decided to do it this time. It feels like a move in the right direction, on the way to a firm policy of ‘if you see (hear) something, say something’. It’s an important resolve to have.
On the other hand, I’m shaken. The confrontation was utterly unpleasant, but more importantly, I think I really failed. I failed to have any kind of impact. I doubt that my colleague will go away and consider the issue (I asked them to, to no apparent avail). It seems reasonable to believe that anything further I say about racism will be diregarded by my colleague in the future, and perhaps, if they discuss the matter with others, that will spread.
Immediately before speaking to my colleague I considered writing an email instead. I can’t tell whether that would have been better. It might have allowed for more time for reflection, but on the other hand, words on paper or screen are more serious, more threatening than a conversation. It could harly have gone worse than in fact it did, though.
Here’s my current thought: I should have waited longer, perhaps until tomorrow. That would have given me a chance to formulate more carefully what I wanted to say, to find a good way to open the conversation in a non-confrontational manner, to anticipate reactions, and figure out how I wanted to respond to them. I was ill prepared.
Not that I’m sure about that either: there’s something to be said for addressing it when it happens. I’m flatly unsure what to learn.
To the positives, then!
Of which there have been a good few lately. In recent weeks I’ve had several occasions to tell colleagues and friends about the experiences my brown family had here in Norway, usually in response to the question of why we’re moving away. Overwhelmingly, it has been a positive experience. It feels good to answer these questions truthfully. A first reaction is in a significant proportion of the cases surprise. That is a symptom of part o the problem here. But colleagues and friends have all listened, and taken what I say seriously.
And not only that. Just on Friday I had a long, neuanced, thoughtful discussion with two colleagues on white privilege, particularly on the idea that when people from groups subject to discrimination tell about it one should just listen, about the idea that these people enjoy a significant epistemic privilege with respect to their discrimination, about limits to that idea–does it apply to religious groups, for example, and how should we think about cases where ethnicity, culture, and religion overlap, as with Jews–and so on. It was good to experience three white people discussing this for hours.
That could sound terrible. I don’t mean that the discussion wouldn’t have been enriched by the viewpoints of the people who understand it best–of course it would have. But it was nice that it didn’t have to be prompted or sustained by a person telling about their own experiences, that it could occur without that. (No pats, just nice.)
Some steps forward, a step back.