By Shanti Elliott
“For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.” — Audre Lorde
“You don’t buy it, do you?” I said to my co-teacher, Marcus Campbell.
I was smiling anxiously.
He was not smiling.
“And I do,” I said. “I’m trying to train myself not to, but I still do.”
We had just shown a video to our class of graduate education students. The video highlights a racial conflict between representatives of First Nations people and a group of Canadian reporters. One of our students had blamed the conflict on “white entitlement.” Although we can’t see the reporters in the video, we know they are white because of the response from the First Nations speakers facing the camera.
Marcus asked our class, “Where do you think entitlement comes from?”
The first response came from Leann, a 23-year-old white woman: “Ignorance.”
In the video, a white female reporter phrased a question in a way that drew a pained and angry reaction from the First Nations people who had called the press conference. Like Leann, I believed that the white woman didn’t know she was causing pain. Marcus did not believe this.
This difference of perception created an opening for me to explore how racist complicity can form and spread within and between white people. I am a white female and Marcus is a black male. By analyzing my own response to this moment in my teaching through the lens of what Mab Segrest, in her essay, “Of Soul and White Folk,” calls an “anesthetic aesthetic,” I want to learn about emotions and historical consciousness in antiracist pedagogy. I center this inquiry on a graduate education classroom discussion of a moment of conflict in which strong emotions, rooted in histories of trauma, reshape a context that is raced white. The interchange in the video puzzled the white reporters because it registered as neutral to them — and most likely to most white audiences — but which evoked a history of oppression to First Nations people in the space.
Here’s what happened. On June 30 of this year, during Canada Day festivities, First Nations women leaders held a press conference to demand that the government prioritize its investigation into the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The leaders emphasized that extreme violence targeting Indigenous women meets with public indifference. In so doing, it continues the legacy of settler colonialism and ongoing systemic racism. In the newsclip that we viewed in class, a white female reporter asks, “How can he [Prime Minister Justin Trudeau] be blamed? You don’t think anything he’s doing is helping the situation? Is he an improvement over [former Prime Minister] Stephen Harper?”
The women leading the press conference were outraged by the implication of these questions. Spokesperson Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, quiets the reporter, saying, “You don’t know how to communicate,” and demands that the reporter change her tone. She reminds the assembled reporters that they are guests in this space and they must speak with respect. She observes that racist behaviors in the room are continuous with a history of racism in the Americas: “You haven’t changed, because you haven’t started your own healing journeys!”
When things quiet down, she asks if anyone else has a question. A white male reporter speaks up, promising to speak respectfully. But his question is basically a rephrasing of the previous one: “Are things better now than under Stephen Harper?”
Ms. Wabano-Iahtail observes that the reporters are playing out the customary patterns of white fragility — the white man defending the white woman’s right to her question. “Who,” she then asks, “defends our rights? Five hundred and twenty-four years of genocide; who has stood up for us?”
The reporters are pushing for a narrative of progress. They don’t acknowledge the wracking pain of the Indigenous people in the space with them, people who have seen many of their daughters killed and generation after generation decimated, belittled, colonized. The trauma of oppression is present in this room, active in this moment. Ms. Wabano-Iahtail cuts off the reporters: “No! Stop talking! This press conference is over!”
Ignorance as Oppression
After watching the video of this anguishing interchange, our class processed what we had seen and heard, taking note of the importance of tone and place and historic relations between white people and Indigenous people in North America. The students had just read Paulo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and they were paying close attention to humanization and dehumanization, both within the press conference and within themselves as they watched.
We sought to discuss the people, words, and history in the video with respect, conscious that we were watching the video out of context. We were trying to counter the conventional emotional distance of the classroom with our personal responses of outrage and love.
Expressing strong emotion in a setting like a university classroom, where the unspoken norm is coldly intellectual can feel awkward, unnatural. But Ms. Wabano-Iahtail’s rebuke to the reporters made us realize that a response that avoided touching the historic and present trauma of the First Nations community was racist. She traced out a boundary that had been invisible to the white reporters, and in doing so forced us as listeners to pause and reflect.
When students broke into small discussion groups, I checked in with Marcus about Leann’s comment that entitlement comes from ignorance. The video had been upsetting; it had reminded him of other press conferences he had watched on TV over the years in which black people on either side of the microphone had been publicly disrespected. These memories had been painful. Then, when hurtful behavior was ascribed to ignorance, no one had spoken up to challenge what this really meant.
Though we start our class with readings that help us talk about the difference between intent and impact, I, like many of my white students, am still ready to see racist attitudes as emerging from ignorance. “I’m not sure how to get through this block,” I said to Marcus. “My default response is still to assume ignorance.” I have acted, spoken, and thought out of ignorance countless times. I have made a habit of dismissing the impact of other white people’s behavior by calling it unaware.
From Thinking to Thinking-and-Feeling
I am learning to resist the gravitational pull of my assumptions. This means fighting my natural response; it means believing in the experience of others more than in my own judgment — at least when it comes to these racially charged moments. Since my mind doesn’t want to do this, I have to tell it that it doesn’t really know. An emotional lurch quickens the process. Conflict, grief, anger — the feelings that are hardest to face — fling me past my limits.
It’s only when I force myself to listen to the pain of a person like Ms. Wabano-Iahtail, when I force myself to remember the historical, generational, lifelong, constant trauma that Latina/o, African-American, Native-American, Asian-American, and Middle Eastern people carry, that I’m able to shift my perspective and realize that attributing racist acts to ignorance has the impact of minimizing their suffering.
Ms. Wabano-Iahtail’s repeated command in the video, “Stop!” helped me to stop.
When I stop and push myself through a slower thinking-and-feeling process, I realize that people who come from historically targeted backgrounds have inherited a pain that flares acutely when it meets racism. When the racism is denied, questioned, or ignored, the pain spreads rapidly. In the press conference my class watched, the focus was on the excruciating issue of violence against Indigenous women, and the government’s inadequate response. The reporter’s question about whether matters had improved under Justin Trudeau’s government glossed over the deep trauma the First Nations leaders were feeling, voicing, and acting on, regarding this issue and related matters of residential schools, the Indian Act, and so many other ways in which the genocidal history of white supremacy has continued to impact First Nations people in Canada. As I think this through, I begin to hear the disrespect in the reporter’s question, the dehumanization it allows and perpetuates. But this takes me a long time. It was not my first reaction.
The colonialist mentality, a black student in our class pointed out, still dominates, prescribing not only policy but also interchanges like the one we were watching. “I don’t know if it sounded this way to you,” he said, “but to my ears it sounded like the reporters were saying, ‘Haven’t we done enough for you?’”
I recognized it once he said it, but I hadn’t articulated it. I had watched the newsclip many times by the time I showed it in this class, and I felt troubled and confused. Moments like this make me question my own responses. How did my student hear a colonialist message that I didn’t? Why is my co-teacher pained by watching scenes like this in a way that I am not? Why do I accept ignorance as justification for racist behavior? Why am I OK with my own confusion? What’s wrong with me?
Amnesia, Anesthesia, Contradiction
Mab Segrest, as I mentioned earlier, writes about the “anesthetic aesthetic” that blocks dominant-culture people from pain, awareness of their own responsibility in systemic violence, and their own consciousness — how they think and feel about systemic violence. She studies the emotional atrophy of slave-owning white people, as an example of white numbness in the face of violence against people of color. “Necessary to the slave system was the masters’ blocked sensation of its pain,” she writes, “an aesthetic that left him insensible not only to the fellow human beings he enslaves, but to the testimony of his senses that might have contradicted ideologies of slavery.”
Inner contradiction, denial, and systemic violence blunt our feeling capacities and our health: “The affective void from which feelings and perceptions have been blocked in oneself and cast onto Others,” Segrest writes, “is the space where addictions arise.” The damage of disconnection and distance, Segrest argues, isn’t just direct, physical, or historical. It is hardwired in white people like me and there is much in white supremacy culture that maintains it.
Recovering our human connectedness through focused inner work and outer action helps us to heal ourselves and our world. “Action expands perceptions,” Segrest writes, “because it shifts and enlarges our point of view and our capacity and motivation to process bigger chunks of reality.” Though we have inherited a destructive disease, white people can reverse the racism that “encodes itself in our consciousness, closing the doors of our perception.” We become more whole as we sit with the pain that we have for so long pushed away. We can reclaim our souls, planting our mental and social processes within the affective life of feeling, respect, and mutual responsibility.
Shanti Elliott is an educator and activist with 25 years of experience supporting antiracist work in schools, universities, and organizations. Her 2015 book, Teaching and Learning on the Verge: Democratic Education in Action, is available from Teachers College Press. A version of this article appears on Elliott’s blog, millmuse.wordpress.com.