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Building a Bridge

December 5, 2020

How can we engender change? Be this, in one human being, within a family, in a community, a society? And if changes are made, how do you integrate these into the institutions that manage our lives? And if an institution implements some changes, how can they integrate these, so that it flows into being, and not stumbles like Frankenstein’s monster, an amalgamation of uniquely disparate parts?

Integration of change is what helps a person feel (and to be) whole.

If you want to change a habit, like smoking, it would help if you adjust your other habitual patterns to support that change. Why were you smoking? What was it supplementing? What resources are you putting in place to help catch you when you’re stressed or surrounding by smokers, and when you inevitably slip into another smoke? What if you want to set-up a support group to resource yourself? And if this group begins to grow, and other substance abuse issues become relevant? How do you accommodate new members and different habits? What if you tackle the tobacco industry, to change the system that sell cigarettes? Do you set-up camp outside the factory or head offices, demonstrating daily, getting news coverage and expanding the movements? Do you invite those who might benefit from your movement to engage? 

Tobacco companies rely on smokers to smoke in order to make profit. Though if smoking is exchanged for racism, ie, tackling racism on a personal level, to communities and institutions, then would the case be different? If a system is inherently racist, is it not relying on that statuesque, that imbalance of power, to function successfully? 

According to DiAngelo, all ‘white people’ are inherently racist, because this is the system they come from. This has evoked a lot of anger and controversy in the US, especially as DiAngelo’s framework positions American history at its bedrock. Much of her argument applies to the UK, and I imagine, in a contorted, ‘reversed racism‘ way, to countries created and colonised by Britain and other European powers. We look to the West for standards of living, from education and the arts (discarding vernacular learning material and losing oral and traditional music) to beauty (nose jobs and Brazilian Blowouts!). Often, even after many decades, these changes remain superficial, like attached limbs. I may pass for Spanish, dressed in a flowing dress with long flowing hair, study in an American University of [insert name of a capital from a Developing Country], sip a glass of wine or grab a Happy Meal at McD’s (bit of an odd combo!), but scratch beneath that skewed Western model, my inner working system remains as imbued in racism, sexism and whatever forms of marginalisation my family, community and I have come from. 

How do I integrate changes so that the facade flows with the interior? This is something I’m grappling with as part of a diversity student group at my therapy training college, so both the personal and family examples, as well as the community and institutional ones are relevant. 

I’ve taken action in the form of classical activism; placards and letters, petitions and rallies, almost all in the context of anti-sanctions and war. That’s what it took for me to hit the streets, as a 19 year old, to talk (in my odd Americanised Arabic accent) to complete strangers in Sheffield town centre. I felt utterly conflicted when my halls of resident cohort refused to sign my petition, in support of lifting economic sanctions. They didn’t have a reason beyond: as this is my government’s decision, it must have value. I wasn’t angry towards them. I was confused and disappointed. Being with them after that, I was careful to exclude the parts of me that might come across as ‘overly foreign’/ aggressive/ overtly Arabic/ Muslim etc. Our friendship became stunted, as I wasn’t able to bring myself fully in, and in time, unsurprisingly, was lost.

I also found that the Socialist Party folk, who instigated these passionately fuelled actions, blew with the newspaper headlines. When Iraq wasn’t on the front pages, they moved on to the next hot topic, and I moved away from them too. I’ve since worked with burnt-out NGO workers, who seemed unaware that were barking instructions on the very people they were meant to be helping, who raged at an invisible system and were utterly fed-up. I worked in charities that patronised the underprivileged; cultural centres and art organisation who championed the underrepresented, and that’s all well and good, but how do we change the bigger structure that holds all this together? How can we hold our anger/ fear/ guilt to really meet the other, to engage in productive steps forward. 

What I didn’t like about DiAngelo’s book is the immense shame it roused in people, who are the very same who need to wake-up, to enable, to ally with the Undepriv’s and Underrep’s. That shame triggers rage or worse, from my perspective, silence. Neither are conducive to real change, as both are likely to lead to various forms of disengagement. That’s the fragility; the threat that I may destroy the very system that sources my power. It’s a big ask. Why should I put myself at a disadvantage to help you? 

What I do like about the book is how DiAngelo sets deeply productive steps to inform, to engage, to move forward (and I need another post to do those justice!)… though the bridge onto that path remains unstable. 

Personally, I want more events/ workshops/ initiatives that explore white privilege/ guilt/ fragility/ history in a creative, open, brainstorming way that invites safety and authenticity. I want to hear someone share their lived experience of how they went to a majority white school, hangout with white friends at university, and now works in a majority white workplace. How? My background is so fundamentally different- I didn’t have meaningful relationships with white English people until Uni (!)- so I am sincerely curious to learn. For the conversation to move from the periphery, we need to really engage the majority. I believe that for a ‘white’ person to open themselves up to examination, to go to that uncomfortable place, and be with their inner fragility, we (the other side listening) need to also hold ourselves, to be present; holding the intergenerational anger, the daily micro-aggressions, the need to blame and scapegoat. Another big ask.

Maybe that’s why it’s easier, for both sides, to polarise, to Other, to separate. I am this, and you are that. There’s safety in here too.

I don’t have a nice, rounded ending to this post. 

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