Susan Donnelly, MSW, LCSW has been a practicing psychotherapist (http://www.ridgewoodtherapy.com/) who has earned a reputation for empathy and a sense of humor. She is a SHARE, INC. volunteer and she welcomes your questions.
I am a Caucasian woman married to a Caucasian man. We consider ourselves liberal Democrats. Recently I accompanied my mother-in-law to a community senior outing and found myself in a conversation with another senior’s daughters.
Within earshot of some of the health aids that accompanied senior residents to this event, the Caucasian daughter of the senior who was talking to me assumed we were like-minded when she said, “They are not like us, you know. They weren’t born here and you have to watch them carefully.”
Clearly she was talking about caregivers of color. I am not certain if I was more upset that, as a white woman, she thought I shared her prejudice, or that the women of color thought I shared this woman’s lack of decency and perverted values. How can I handle the situation next time?
As a white person, I wish I could say that I have consistently handled situations like this as I would have liked. I experience racism as an attack, and an attack it is. I’m the type of person who freezes when attacked, like a deer in the headlights. A few minutes later I’ll think of appropriate things I could have said, but in the moment I tend to be speechless, something that brings me endless frustration.
I wish I could say that racism has gotten worse the last few years, but I really don’t think that’s the case. What has happened is that people seem to be freer in spouting their racist ideas – freer than they have been since the civil rights movement. White people are again wearing their racism on their sleeves.
This is where we can take a cue from the concept of Upstander/Bystander, highlighted by the Tyler Clementi Foundation. Bystanders allow bullying, meanness, and attacks to go on without trying to intervene. Like my shut-downs, it’s easy to find an excuse to “not get involved”. But that also means we are tacitly aligning ourselves with the bully. Upstanders, on the other hand, speak up when an attitude or a behavior is wrong. It is possible to confront someone in an assertive and even respectful manner without being aggressive or mean-spirited in return.
In the situation you describe, you made a choice not to engage the person because of the complicated nature of the circumstances. You do, however, have a chance to have conversations in the future with the parties involved. This is something I must do frequently when I miss my chance in the moment.
It is clear these days that all of us white people need to do our part to begin to shift the culture of racism that cuts so deeply in our country. Of course discriminatory policies must change, and that will only happen in the ballot box. But we should never think that we cannot make a difference on an interpersonal level.
As the saying goes, anyone who thinks a small thing cannot make a difference has never been to bed with a mosquito.