A Seat at the Table (April 2014)
Updated: Sep 22, 2018
In conversations about race, I believe that everyone has a place at the table. The conversations can be very difficult to participate in, the information can land hard against the ear and the heart, but for true change and impact, there is a place for everyone at the table.
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a design student who had to do a creative project by interviewing an expert about something he was interested in but in which he had no experience. He is a White male married to a Korean-American female with a Biracial son. He found my website and used me as an expert in order to gain information on his interest in racial identity development and worldview of Mixed Race people.
We had a really lovely conversation where I probably learned as much as he did. Speaking to people who are interested my opinion or my work has been such a valuable experience. It helps me to understand my own experience (including differentiating between my personal experience and what I have learned through contacts and research about Mixed people in general) and to work through difficult feelings that still sometimes cause internal friction.
Throughout the conversation he made preemptive apologies for anything ignorant he may ask. At the end of the conversation we had a talk about how the interview went and things that came up for both of us. In his reflection, he shared that he sometimes felt he didn't have a place in conversations about race, that he should just sit back and learn, that he really had nothing to contribute. I was able to share some feedback with him about how I experienced him in a positive way, that his curiosity and openness was immediately disarming, and encouraged him to continue on this journey of learning. I told him that his participation in these conversations was incredibly important, not only for himself but for his wife and son. I felt truly blessed by this conversation and the opportunity for us to process it together. It was once of the best experiences I've had in recent history!
I've been thinking about this topic in a variety of ways before this conversation and certainly ever since. There's a lot of complex ideas involved in the way I think about it/experience it, so bear with me.
I have often heard the comment from well-meaning White people (often friends of mine) who think they have no culture, that true racism is over, that racism is a conversation for People of Color (racism is their issue to deal with that doesn't involve the input of White people).
I think that some White people just feel uncomfortable and scared. They may be genuinely interested in hearing the conversations about race and microaggressions and the complexity of racial identity, but truly don't feel like they have a place within the discussion. Part of me wants to gently invite them in and make the information easy for them to taste, savor, and digest, to ease them into the more difficult conversations, and encourage them to react and participate.
And then part of me rallies against the idea that I need to spoon feed anything to anyone, f- that! There is an element of internalized oppression and racism when I feel I need to package my experience in a way that makes White people more comfortable. We as People of Color need safe spaces to discuss our experiences openly, to empower ourselves in the full acknowledgement and acceptance of our experiences as truth, without the approval and/or input of White people, and serve it up on the plate as is.
Working through our experiences individually and collectively takes time; It also benefits from varying structures of conversation and feedback. I've been participating in a cohort through a local agency where I get to have weekly therapeutic conversations about race, gender, sexuality, and working and learning in the mental health field. We have discussed a lot what it means to be multicultural, inclusive, affirming, accountable, embracing... and how difficult that task is. There is reflection and work being done within subgroups about confronting racism - both outward and internalized.
What we found is that it's important for people to meet in larger multicultural groups (i.e. - People of Color, Caucasian. Transgender), but it is also necessary to meet in smaller, more specific subgroups. The smallest subgroups (i.e. - Black/Latino Biracial, Asian Lesbian CIS gendered female, Black Transgender Male Identified) are a way to process things with people who are more likely to understand the nuances of the experience, possibly the "safest" place. It's necessary to be able to process your experiences in a safe place, to know you're understood, to not have to educate and explain so much.
But I'm coming to understand that this is only part of the work. And I learned that in a difficult way that made my brain jerk to a stop. As People of Color, we were talking about how some of the White people were having their own cohort to address their racism and participation in racist structures. We were told that sometimes they report back in a general way about what they were working on. I, and some others, had a heated reaction, which surprised me. I wanted to know, What they were working on, what the specifics were, what kind of difficult conversations were they having, what ugly truths were they facing? Shouldn't they be accountable to us for the real work they're doing? What's going on in there?
But I quickly came around to the realization that I needed to examine how I would feel if the tables were turned. How would I feel if White people demanded to be privy to my private and safe conversations with Biracial people about the impact of racism on our lives? Like I said, part of me wants to invite others in, yet part of me needs to protect my safe spaces.
But what I think I've come down to is this: The work can't be done in a bubble. And the bubble is quite necessary. Both.
For real healing to occur, for the real work of undoing racism, there needs to be safe spaces to comfortably examine privately, and there also needs to be respectful, safe spaces to understand how we rub up against one another. What is the impact of my own racial work on you? What is the impact of yours on me? This is done in small spaces first. In communities of trust. I'm so grateful to be connected to communities where the work is being done.
And so I met this White man from Atlanta, the father of a Biracial son, who felt he had no place at the table. I respected this man very much, he followed his curiosity, he is aware that there is a part of his wife and his son's experience that he doesn't understand. Even though his wife has a bi-cultural experience through living in both Korean and American communities, even she felt somewhat lacking in understanding of what her son may go through in his identity development.
In some of my feedback to him, I told him that in my opinion, as the father of a Biracial son, he has a responsibility to get into these conversations, to learn and model for his son what it looks like to explore cultures outside of himself. I invited him to imagine how even though his son has "Korean eyes" and he feels that no one will mistake him for White, he may very well identify as White later in life... and how will you respond to that? Racial identity is complex and fluid, challenged by the outside world, difficult to grasp and understand, heavily influenced by our families and communities. How will you respond as a White person who "doesn't have a place" in these conversations? I encouraged him to find a way to take his place.
I find myself grateful today that I am finding my place at the table as well. Yes, I know my experience. Yes, I could be considered an expert at the things I know. But there's so much that I don't know, and I have some beautiful opportunities right now to explore.
My People of Color cohort is run by an agency serving LBGTQ youth. I'm developing relationships with many people of varying experiences and expressions of gender and sexuality. I've had gay best friends since high school, I go to Pride, I'm an ally... but there's so much I don't know, and I'm blessed to be able to learn. It's uncomfortable sometimes, and I'm now in a position where I totally relate to that feeling of, Well, I better just shut up and listen because I'm here to learn and I'm not the expert. Bullshit. I need to show up, be present. This is a sacred space, yes. But I am of value here, too. My experience, input, curiosity, compassion, and skills are respected and valued here, too. I belong. I need to just show up. I may have uncomfortable feelings. That's fine. I still need to be here.
I've also gone through some job transitioning over the past few months. And I've landed at a division of the agency I started with that is doing culturally specific work with refugee populations. I'm working alongside Hmong, Vietnamese, and Somali people who are committed to serving their communities. It's beautiful and I'm again presented with this space where culture is valued and knowledge is shared. I'm a beginner. But I also have the value of the expertise of my own experience. All I need to do is show up, be genuine, learn, teach, be. I'm so fortunate.
So I feel like I'm in this beautiful space in my life where I'm aware of what I bring to the table, but I'm being challenged and offered the opportunity to remember what it's like to be the beginner. I have to face my own fears and insecurities. I am rubbing up against that funky feeling when I try to figure out the politically correct way to ask questions and be respectful. But I have to remember my conversation with the White dad. I told him, Genuine curiosity from an honest and respectful place is disarming. I love sharing my experience when I know that the person is authentically interested. I just need to take my own advice.