The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues
SEPT 2020 Issue
Critics Page

Peace by Understanding

 Jacinda Martinez, <em>Sunflower</em>, 2020. Courtesy the artist.
Jacinda Martinez, Sunflower, 2020. Courtesy the artist.

How do you invite people to talk about whiteness and racism and antiracism?

Consider how the invitation lands in the first place, so that it’s heard by people who come from really different places. Often people think they “will not do it right” when they enter conversations about race or that “it doesn’t matter” how the invitation lands and thus don’t think about how to create meaningful productive spaces that are humanizing and joyful.

Consider white affinity spaces, organizing spaces, education spaces, whatever they are. At their best, they offer entry points to know other people suffer. What if we are inviting people into a more complex story celebrating joy even while reckoning with suffering? How do we help people think about anyone else’s joy?

Consider what is missing inside white resentment and the refusal to accept the invitation. We immediately draw comparisons. “Oh, they are suffering? I’m suffering too.” Versus recognizing an element of joy in someone’s life. They are celebrating despite their struggles, just like you are. And this is how we celebrate despite our struggles. We don’t see enough of that. Tell me a story about your joy.

How do you bring white people into dialogue to actually have spaces for them to fail?

One foundational element of white supremacy is the delusion of aspirational perfectionism such that failure or any signaling of not being perfect, strong, manly—there is no room for that. If the goal is to dismantle white supremacy then it is essential to dismantle this expectation of not making mistakes.

What if a part of the approach is about access to tools—especially language tools—to get messy, to be able to fall on your face, to have a trust fall, to have enough generosity and perspective and compassion and empathy to allow the productive struggle? What if white people could understand the ways in which white supremacy is bad for them, does violence to their lives?

James Baldwin wrote, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” Often, white people don’t have the skills to deal with the pain they will face. This involves looking inward and reckoning. It also involves interrogating the language that we use, what it reinforces.

How do we keep the reality and language of race central in antiracist conversations?

When talking about racism in general—and specifically anti-Black racism—the language and understanding is lacking. There is an intentional scarcity framing that pits white poverty and desperation against Blackness. Therefore, questions arise such as: “Why don’t you care about poor white people?” That question takes away from the need to address the insidious violence of racism. That question is such a pivot—which does not mean those struggles are not real. Rather, it removes racism as the central topic and makes it into a competition of who has it harder. These “whataboutisms” deflect the discomfort of talking about race. We understand that all of this inequity exists. We can talk about all inequity while still acknowledging how racist ideas inflict specific levels of harm.

White people need language that they can practice in a place where they can fail in order to learn to do antiracist work. This is one way to prepare white people to show up and say yes to the invitation. There is no room for moralizing against people who do not yet have the language, who get busted for saying the wrong thing, and never come back to learn more.

What does it mean to cultivate empathy and develop peace by understanding?

Empathy is powerful because it leads to understanding shared humanity. This involves moving away from the notion of “goodness” and being a “good white person.” The word “good” falls short of what everyone actually desires, which is to be whole. White people need to understand they are already whole. This conversation is not a threat to your wholeness. We must destabilize the good/bad binary because it derails meaningful conversations about race.

Empathy is an active thing versus the passive emotions of guilt, shame, blame—which center the self and immobilize us. Empathy is generous enough to hold space for complexity. Empathy is abundance. Not only can we change—and others can change around us—but rather we change together. With empathy, white people can hold space for other white people to express their pain without relying on people of color to hold it, fix it, solve it. At the same time, empathy does not redirect a conversation away from the responsibility inherent in having privilege. Everything is so charged right now. The need for peace by understanding is vital.


Elizabeth Bishop

Dr. Elizabeth Bishop is a writer, researcher, professor, youth advocate, Nietzschean, and surf monk. Bishop is the author of two books, Becoming Activist (2015) and Embodying Theory (2018). She lives in Brooklyn with her dog, Messy.

Carolyn Eanes

Carolyn Eanes is an educator, writer, activist, and organizer. She teaches English at a high school in Brooklyn, NY.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues