The Conversation After Charlottesville: An Action Plan

My head is spinning over Charlottesville. I spend my early adulthood in Washington, DC, and frequented Charlottesville when some close friends relocated there. I found it peaceful, and I would romanticize a quiet life free of city noise and politics.

My memories have been turned on their head after the events of the weekend. As an attorney in the diversity & inclusion space, a number of individuals have approached me on what can be done by the majority of us who awoke to another work week with fear and heavy hearts, unsure of what to say to our children, let alone those family members and colleagues who don’t hurt in the same way.

In my experience, politics involves three distinct factions: (1) those who think like me; (2) those who don’t think like me, yet are willing to listen; (3) those deeply committed to their own racism, misogyny, homophobia, and overall fear and hatred of others. We need to distinguish our audience before proceeding, and allocate our time where it can do the most good.

We’ll begin with the latter:

(3) In the words of the Honorable Maxine Waters, “I ain’t got time for that.” On a practical note, there is not much we can say to individuals committed to their own racism. Someone deeply entrenched in these values will not otherwise be convinced. Not by you, and not in the limited time that we have.

That’s not our conversation. Walk away.

On a related note, children stop throwing fits if you stop paying attention. Tell the media, too. We might not have the current administration in the White House if a year ago someone had made the ethical decision to not provide a platform to a candidate that enticed violence at political rallies, made fun of a reporter with a disability, and called the language of sexual assault “locker room talk.” Stop giving idiots coverage.

(2) Here we go. This will be uncomfortable and you will suck at this at first, because any time we do something new, it will be uncomfortable and we will be bad at it. Do it anyway. You won’t become an athlete if you only go to the gym once. And we need social justice athletes right now.

This problem seems big. And it is big, but no matter who we are we have a platform. Take the opportunity to begin conversations where you can:

  • Begin a discussion from a vulnerable place. “You’re a racist” may be accurate, but it won’t entice someone else to listen. Saying “my heart hurts because I love someone black” or “I’m afraid and feel unsafe because I’m Jewish” are honest and more likely to garner empathy than leading with some version of “you’re a terrible person.” Such conversations require us all to drop below our anger into our fear, and that can be risky, and leave us naked and afraid in the presence of someone who does intend harm. This is a calculated risk. Don’t do it with everybody. But if this is a relationship that you value, take the risk.

  • Ask questions. If someone says “all lives matter” ask why they said that instead of “black lives matter.” What assumptions are behind their statement? We all hold assumptions, and we all hold biases. But if we are unaware of them, they will take us down from behind. As you encourage others to look at their assumptions, look at your own.

 Listen before responding. Don’t formulate the response in your head as the other person is speaking. You’re not here to “win,” and despite your aspirations, you’re not going to fix this today. If racism were easy, we’d have fixed it. The goal is to foster a conversation and to make two millimeter shifts. We are gradually focusing a telescope, and that is a process. Allow for the unfolding, and do so without expectations.

 At the same time, it is important to know and enforce your own boundaries. If you don’t tolerate racial slurs or stereotypes, say that plainly, and act accordingly. 

  • Steer the conversation towards empathy. If you are speaking to a friend or family member, and you are invested, ask them about a parallel experience that may allow them to see the events from someone else’s position. 

Cultivating empathy may take you to new depths of vulnerability about your own experience. After the election, I was having dinner with a friend who told me I was being dramatic, and that my life as a white woman wasn’t going to change. The garbage was still going to get picked up on Tuesday. 

I elected to share that in college I had been sexual assaulted and raped within a six month window, and that the “grab ’em by the pussy” comment made me feel unsafe and unvalued in a way no one else in a leadership position ever had. I also did not want anyone else to experience the years of shame and self-blame that I had. My friend got it. I took a risk, and it was worth it. He held space then, and continues to do so when I express my fear surrounding this administration. 

(1) Safety in numbers. We need people who think like us. We need people who “get it” and allow us to feel safe and supported, so that we may spring from safety into the vulnerability required for these conversations. Lean on those who think like you, but don’t spend every minute there. Ask for their love and support, and call and hug them often. But more than that, allow them to provide you the courage to be the social justice warrior our country needs right now.

And a special note to my fellow white people:

Check any initial defensiveness at the door. When holding space for friends of color, Jewish friends, or anyone who has been victimized, do not get defensive. Especially not today. Not everything is about you, and we need you to hold space without a “Not all white people do that” or “I doubt she really meant that.” When you say that, no matter how well intended, you invalidate the other person’s experience. Honor the other person’s experience. Hold space for them while they hurt.

Victim-blaming is a real response because we don’t like to admit that we live in a world that is random. That terrifies us, and reminds us that despite our best efforts, bad things could happen. Therefore, we attempt to create order out of chaos. But neither deflecting the other individual’s experience (“You’re exaggerating”) nor dismissing it all together (“That didn’t happen”) will heal these wounds. Check yourself. And just don’t.

Now go. Because we don’t have time to linger.