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Session 13: Transcript

Mar 24, 2021

Session 13: Transcript

Session Topic: Lightning QA for Allies Guest Melanie West

Carrie Sawyer: Hi, this is Carrie Sawyer from the Inclusion First Project, where we are answering all your questions around anti-racism and allyship today, I am here with an amazing co-host and we are going to be hitting the lightning Q&A round where we answer two questions from the weeks that were from the questions this week that were submitted. And so my amazing co-host is Mel West. Mel, please introduce yourself. 

Melanie West: Hello. It's so wonderful and exciting to be a part of this project. I can't tell you how much of an honor it is. Let me just tell you a little bit about myself. My name is Melanie West. I am a Ph.D. candidate in ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego, where I have taught ethnic studies the 101 series for two years now, two classes per quarter. And it focuses on early American history, which I think is really important to these discussions because I think we often forget how a lot of the conversations we're having now are entrenched in really important historical trends that are continuing to affect us to this very day.

Carrie Sawyer: Thank you so much. We're so excited that you're here and you're lending your expertise to the questions. So let us jump right in. I'm going to read the first question. Ok, so what are the most uncomfortable topics for allies or persons not of color? As a person of color, what are some techniques I can use to effectively engage in these crucial conversations with allies who aren't educated? How do we disarm allies so that they don't feel attacked or guilty during the discussion? This is a really deep question. What do you think about it?

Melanie West: Yeah, it's a really wonderful and beautiful question and so pertinent to what's going on right now in the world. And I would say for the first part of the question because there's a couple of questions in a single question. So for the first part, what are the most uncomfortable topics for allies or persons not of color? When I hear that question, it reminds me of a really amazing clip I saw on Instagram by the absolutely brilliant author Sonia Renae Taylor, who wrote the book, The Body is Not An Apology. And she talks about in that clip how white supremacy and the violence that we're seeing right now in terms of whiteness and racial discrimination is actually not about people of color. It's actually about white people. And that we should refocus the conversation there. And I think that's a really uncomfortable conversation for allies and people who are not of color to have. But I think it's a really necessary way that we really need to refocus the conversation, because if we think about white supremacy actually being about white identity and about white people, then it begs the question, what is whiteness, and what is the utility of whiteness and what is the historical origin of whiteness? And then here I'm going to put on my Ph.D. hat. We go back and look at the genealogy of this term and its construction and its history. Then we see that racial categories, obviously race in and of itself is a social construction. But whiteness, in particular, has a very important and particular social construction within the Supreme Court in the early days of the United States. And so we see this history in which citizenship and the ability to collect resources or the ability to be legible to the nation revolved around needing to possess whiteness and revolved around needing to construct whiteness, because to be able to inhabit this category, you have to define the category. And so the category was defined in the Supreme Court and begin the basis of creating a lot of the racial discrimination that we see today by creating a system in which citizenship, the ability to own property, the ability to engage in rights, and certain privileges in the United States began to revolve around and coalesced within the ability to be housed within the identity of whiteness. And so then we see the construction, the social construction of an identity being based on racial discrimination and exclusion and in a really, really important way.

Melanie West: And if you go back and look at this history, it's also really important to note that a lot of people who are now considered under the umbrella of whiteness were not considered that before. So, for instance, Irish people were not considered white when they first came over to what is now the United States. And they had to fight for that category and a way in which they fought for entrance through it was actually through anti-black violence. And why did that come about? Because it was away in order to construct a division between them and a deeply marginalized identity, but also an identity that was central to whiteness, being able to construct itself. Because you can't say what you are unless you say what you're not, and through the institution of chattel slavery, blackness came to occupy what was very much considered the nexus of what whiteness was not and what could never be whiteness. And so if populations could distance themselves from blackness, that was an easier way to argue themselves into whiteness. But this is just to highlight the ways in which this social construction of this category that we know of whiteness is again based on racial exclusion, but also particularly in violence and antiblack violence. And then that moves us into a very uncomfortable but very important conversation that I think allies and non-persons of color as the question said, need to have in terms of thinking about divesting from whiteness. If this is a social construction, if this is something that was made by people, what is another way in which people now can understand this history take responsibility and accountability for how it affects people today and even the privileges they didn't ask to have from it and then begin to divest from that and say, well, I want to move into a more ethical way of being in relation to others. This identity is not serving me. It's based existentially on something that invalidates other people at a cosmic, in a cosmic way, or into a cosmic cause. I'm tripping over my words there. But in the end, ultimately, it begs a really important question that does necessitate a sense of being uncomfortable. But I think it's a very important sense of being uncomfortable because then it brings us to a place of transformation and in terms of encouraging people to move into this place of transformation in an effective way and to have these crucial conversations with people who might not be educated about this because we often do not learn this in our basic curriculum. And K through 12, I would just say encourage people to read more. There are a lot of articles and stuff online. We live in a very important historical moment in which there's a database on almost every phone. You know, you can Google a lot, but also you can have, I think, conversations that don't have to be based on hostility about this as well. And I think that's one of the best ways that we can disarm allies who might feel attacked or might feel guilty in these discussions by saying, I'm not trying to attack you. I'm trying to talk about a historical and structural phenomenon that is far larger than our lifetimes in our individual bodies that have created structures that we have never asked to inherit but have inevitably now structured and affected our lives in such poor ways that we have to have this discussion. And it doesn't mean that someone was born bad or evil or is doing something wrong. It just means that the system was made in a really flawed way. But we absolutely have the power to change the system and make it better.

Carrie Sawyer: And I love I mean, I love so many things that you said in this idea of, you know, we're not, like, attacking. Right. This isn't that's not the energy that we're coming from in the conversation. Really, the way we're coming from is this idea of how can we connect? How can we understand? How can we relate? How can we listen? How can we learn and not just like listen to respond, but listening to understand, to ask those questions and to kind of let down those walls of vulnerability like it's ok to look dumb, it's ok to not know the answer. It's ok to ask something that you're uncertain about or unsure about. And the importance of doing this with people I believe that you have a relationship with as you're having these conversations and because having a little bit of trust and connection already really helps because then you're assuming positive intent of that other person versus it being like two strangers, like going at it in a message board or on a Facebook post somewhere. Right. So really avoiding that, but having these meaningful conversations with the people that you know. And I feel like, you know, some of the literature talks about the idea of even acknowledging that you, a white person, have a race that's white like that's just an uncomfortable thing because whiteness is normal, right? Like that. It's been normalized. It's invisible to us. And so having that called out can be very jarring. Right. So, like know that in and of itself is uncomfortable. But being ok with that discomfort and knowing that whenever you're learning something new, whenever you're climbing these new mountains and hills, there's that discomfort that exists and leaning into it because on the other side is a plateau. On the other side is a rise. On the other side is a rest. And the learning and growth that comes with that as well. So I think that that's really interesting. And I love the historical context. I think that's a great layer to add into this because a lot of people feel like, oh, this isn't my fault. I didn't have slaves, I didn't do this. But yeah, here we all are benefiting or being oppressed by this system and. So knowing like, how do we get to this moment and now that I know that, is that ok and what can I do to adjust, to change, to disrupt, to redefine so that we can move forward in a place where we can actually be proud of how we interact and how our systems support people versus oppressing them and how we can connect in ways that have nothing to do with this arbitrary power struggle of race and skin color and shade and things of that nature. So, yeah, it's I mean, all of these questions are so multilayered, so deep. Do you have anything else? I see you like nodding to anything else you want to add to the discussion on this question?

Melanie West: No, I think that was a really important condition that you put in. And you just said it so eloquently that I don't want to reiterate it this beautiful way about how I think when whiteness is also normalized. It's really hard then to have a self-critique, especially a self-critique within the historical review because a way in which it's been normalized is to efface a lot of its historical origins and to create a context in which it cannot be investigated because it is seen as natural. So then when we start to deconstruct the perceived naturalness of that identity and we come into the building blocks and how traumatic a lot of those building blocks are, when you really look at the historical construction of this identity, I think that that's a really hard and I think very understandably uncomfortable space for people to be in. And so I just want to emphasize, you know, if you are someone in this question that they've described as an ally or a person who is not of color, and this is a really uncomfortable space for you to be in terms of this conversation, I just want you to know that that's completely normal. There's so much empathy that I have for you in that. But I also want you to know that the discomfort you're feeling is the first step to divestment. And so don't pull away if you're feeling uncomfortable. Often when we feel uncomfortable, it's the first step to a breakthrough. It's the first step to a really beautiful transformation. So do your best that you can to lean into that discomfort and don't make yourself feel guilty about it. If you're feeling uncomfortable, it means that you probably put yourself in a position to learn more and expand and grow.

Carrie Sawyer: I love that. That's beautiful. Thank you, Mo. ok, so let's do question number two, I can read it, is that ok? Ok, ok, ok. I'm like this. It's I just love, love, love the academic historical perspective. And I just want to get as much as that for myself and for our listeners and viewers as possible, because this is just like a different angle than what we've been going. I think there's a lot of really interesting and really, really critical stuff that just again, helps people to think about this in a different way, potentially go in a different route as you're investigating and you're looking for resources, how you're constructing this mental model in your mind. So thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You're amazing. Ok, so. The next question we're going to talk about today is I'm reading How to Be An Antiracist by Dr. Kennedy and it's taught me that it's best to point out when people, you say, do something racist because they may not realize that what they are doing, saying or using is racist, but how is the best way to have that conversation without making that person defensive? And so we've got the same theme of discomfort and defensiveness and being closed down to the conversation. So what do you think about that? What is the best way to have this conversation to basically call someone? You know, we've been saying call someone out. But really what we want to do now is call someone in. So the fact that what they're saying, doing, thinking, speaking is racist. But without if you came at me like, hey, you just said something racist, like, oh, no, I didn't like I didn't mean to like whatever. So you automatically go on the defensive on this topic generally. How do we call someone in at that moment? And is that the right way to go? What do you think?

Melanie West: I think putting this question around the politics of calling in is such a beautiful way to have this conversation because I think it really gets us away from the violence of disposability. So instead of having this conversation in such a way that it's like you messed up, you did this, you're never going to come to the party again. Your phone numbers cancel, you know, have the conversation from a place of love and warmth and also a genuine concern. And so one of the places that I like to start with, if I'm going to call someone in and I think it's something that a lot of people who are being called out ask for is often we get in these conversations where someone feels very violently called out and they're like, well, why don't you give me the benefit of the doubt? You know, why didn't you wait to see if I had all the information before you punished me for something that I might have done from a place of lacking that education. And so when you're trying to call someone in, how I like to start is I don't know if maybe you knew what the gravity was behind what you said. And so I just like to have a conversation with you because, you know, I just want to make sure that you understood the impact of what was said. And then it opens up a, I think, a different space in which someone can say, especially if they didn't know, oh, my gosh, I didn't know. Can you explain it to me? I didn't realize the impact of what I said. I didn't realize the impact of my actions at this particular moment. And then it can create a more supportive space where then maybe they will feel less attacked when you would like to educate. Because I think when someone is trying to educate another and they're coming from the space of calling out rather than calling in, they can't even receive that education because it doesn't feel like an education. It feels like punishment, right?

Carrie Sawyer: Yeah, absolutely. And I love the words that you used. What was the impact? And so we have this discrepancy between what my intent was, which likely was not racist, to what my impact was, which was actually perpetuating like racist ideas. Right. And so helping people to realize that regardless of what their intent was, this was the impact. This is how I heard it. This is how it affected me. This is maybe a little around what it meant and what it means and the associations. And then we can talk from that space because that's like the reality. Like you dropped a rock. And here's the result of that rock. Right. And we're going to focus on that versus letting people hide behind the shield of like, oh, I didn't mean it. So let's not even go there. Right. But instead really diving in. And again, I think the relationships are so important in this being able to call someone in it and again, creating that safe space. And I wonder a lot about, you know, Dr. Kennie talks about doing it in the moment, which sometimes I feel can be appropriate, and then other times maybe not. And also depends on the person. Like, some people never want to be called out publicly and they won't be able to respond in a positive way. They'll shut down immediately, whereas other people can. And so really understanding what's the best way to have this conversation? Is it when it's just two of us? I can kind of bring it up right then. Are we in a public forum where I might want to pull you aside later and be like, hey, when you said this and this meeting, this is kind of what the impact of that was to me. And let's go ahead and talk about that. So I think that it really depends on what's the best way to do that and when is the best way to do that? Definitely, as soon as you can, because people are memorable, especially if it's not memorable to us or an important moment. We're not going to remember it. So maybe not waiting weeks to bring it up if you're going to take someone to the side. But absolutely kind of judging where is the best way? Because I feel like in these conversations around race, because we're so uncomfortable in them, we're not used to having other muscles that we're building. We really want to set ourselves up for success when we have them, you know, being in a place where we feel safe, not being hungry or hangry, not being tired and stressed, like really setting ourselves up for success. And so definitely understanding what's the best way for me to reach out to that person will also help in minimizing the defensiveness that they feel. Because. you're able to really kind of get into two of them. And then I think, you know, we're talking about the impact that these words or whatever happened has on the person who's calling it out, but then also being a good listener when they're explaining to you, again, that whole like listening to understand versus listening to respond or to argue or to prove your point, because we're our goal here is connection. You want them to connect to your points and you want to able to connect to them as well so you can move forward with a shared understanding, even if that doesn't equal agreement. Still, this shared understanding moving forward. And so in doing that, you need to listen and like dig in like ask questions like, oh, tell me more about that. Like, what did you mean by this? Like, why do you think this, do you have any examples just so you can get more information, become that detective and then use that information to frame parts of what you're sharing and enjoying your experience in your argument around what you're talking about. So just pulling in those listening skills as well. It was another thing that we really aren't taught or socialized to do well is listening. And this whole reemergence and resurgence of the civil rights movement gives us another opportunity to work on our listening because it's such a key component of it. So.

Melanie West: So beautifully said, and I think that that listening part, I think goes both ways, too. So what I would also encourage is if you're on the receiving end of being called in, you know, somebody says to you, I don't know if you understand the impact of what you said, you know, I would also encourage you to do your best to also listen from a loving space as well.

Carrie Sawyer: I love that you brought up the other side of it because we're talking about we're calling you in. But what is it like on the experience of being called in? And I think it's one of those things where we have to get used to being called in without getting defensive. And whenever, like, defensiveness is normal, it's natural. It's a protective self-protective mode. Right. But when you become defensive, when you start just justifying things that you did, you already know that you're like in this like auto mode. And you can even just take a pause there. Like, why am I defensive? Why am I justifying? Because there's something underneath there that is trying to come out and you can stop and pause and just listen again. Listen, as an observer, I'm just listening to what this person is saying. I'm not judging it. I'm not taking defensive. I'm just listening. But that defensiveness and that justification-like mode we go into is a big, big sign like, hey, there's something here that I can investigate further, put a pin in that and go back later and really dig and do that self-work to understand why was I defensive? Like, what is what they say and what were they were saying? Was it wrong as their position or experience are valid. Of course not. So maybe there's a little opportunity for us to do that self-work as well when we're being called in and it's going to happen to all of us. It doesn't matter if you're white, black, green, or purple. Right. That's just the work that we're doing this time as we all strive to be allies, as we expand the reach and the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement to other isms and other groups. Right. So we're all going to be in the same boat together. And it's just so important that we just hang onto that right. And that connection and in learning how to be together in this new way.

Melanie West: Yes, definitely. And the last thing, I would add, is if you're feeling defensive, because I love that you brought that word defensive, I would encourage you to move from thinking about it as being defensive, as a way to also be kind to yourself, but to rather think about why am I feeling uncomfortable? And then to ask yourself, am I missing an opportunity for growth? Because I really want to emphasize again, discomfort is one of the biggest signs that we have that you have been presented an opportunity for growth. So if you're immediately pulling away from the discomfort, just ask yourself, why am I shutting my door to an opportunity to grow?

Carrie Sawyer: I love it. Thank you so much, Mel. Any parting thoughts before we wrap up today?

Melanie West: And I would just say that this was such a wonderful experience to have and for whoever is listening to this and that it helped, I'm so happy to be on this journey with you as well. Because, you know, I and Carrie, we're also growing and expanding every day. We're leaning into our discomfort as well to be better. And I hope that you join us on this journey.

Carrie Sawyer: Yes. Thank you so much, Melanie. You're amazing. And thank you so much for your contributions to our Q&A Lightening Session today.

If you are interested in getting more answers to questions, you can find more information about the Inclusion First Project at We are right in the middle of a campaign this August to collect five hundred questions on anti-racism for allies, and you can find out how to submit your question there. And also feel free to join us every Tuesday this August at four p.m. Pacific Standard Time. We do an hour-long version of this with amazing co-hosts like Mel and others just answering your questions and modeling how to talk about race and giving you tips and frameworks that you can take back into your life. So thank you so much for being here today and we will see you next time.

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