A Powerful Tool For Racial Justice

old white man sitting on a bench

A Powerful Tool For Racial Justice

Your invisible shield of detachment

I answered my phone and heard the weariness in his voice right away. My business partner, a Black man and also a cherished friend, told me he had just experienced a painful racial incident. We had planned this call to discuss an upcoming project, but he was drained from the encounter and needed to talk about it.

As I listened to his story, I felt my throat tighten. Another ignorant White person had hurt someone I love, and I couldn’t make it better. I vowed never to walk away from an opportunity to raise awareness about race. Even though I knew I might be met with denial and defensiveness, I had to keep trying.

After a long and very emotional conversation, we decided to talk about our project later, and we said goodbye. I sat for a while on the bench outside the store where I’d planned to shop after our phone call. I had my workbook on my lap, open to a page filled with handwritten notes.

An unwelcome opportunity

I was trying to calm my heart so I could do my shopping and get home, when an elderly White man walked up and asked if he could sit down.

He was breathing heavily and clearly needed to rest, so I invited him to share the bench. “I just came from the chicken place,” he said, gesturing across the street. “I’m supposed to meet my wife here.” Then he leaned way into my space and looked at my notebook.

“Are you in nursing?” he asked.

Well that was odd. “No, I’m not in nursing,” I said and started to stand up.

“So what are you in?” He sounded genuinely curious.

It was the moment of choice - the moment when we decide whether, and how deeply, to engage. The opening is there. The other person is listening. It is our chance to offer something of real value, something that uplifts, educates, or inspires.

But I couldn’t. I was tired and my heart hurt. I wanted to shop and go home. I did not want to talk to an old White man about race. So I used the most boring description I could think of, just enough to satisfy his curiosity without prompting more questions.

I said, “I’m in diversity training.”

That’s not what I’m in. It was a deception designed to allow a quick getaway. I didn’t say that I’m a rewriting coach, that I help organizations transform their race stories, or that I give talks about my unconscious racial conditioning. I didn’t say any of that, because it would have left me vulnerable to whatever awful thing he might say in response. And I couldn’t handle an awful thing on that particular day.

I was puzzled when he asked, “Diversity training? What is that? I’ve never heard of diversity training.”

“I teach people to appreciate differences,” I said. Short and sweet.

This might be okay

“That’s the most fascinating thing I’ve ever heard!” He paused for a minute, furrowed his brow, then continued. “I moved here just a few months ago and I’ve noticed that there are two realities. On the surface Blacks and Whites seem to get along, but underneath it’s a different story. What is that all about?”

I thought Okay, maybe this will be good. So I talked a little about the culture of politeness and the racial history of the South, and of Atlanta in particular. It was all completely new to him and it seemed that I might have misjudged him.

After listening for maybe five minutes, he said, “Let me tell you about myself! I’m the founder, owner and CEO of the world’s largest provider in its field. I just sold the company, and my wife and I retired to Decatur to be near the grandkids.”

I wondered how it was possible that he’d never heard of diversity training.

Then he said, “I’ve been talking with my son-in-law about this race discrepancy. He gave me several books to read.”

I realized I’d been holding my breath, and I let it out. It seemed that he was truly looking to educate himself about race.

But it wasn’t okay

“I think I’ve figured it out,” were the next words out of his mouth. And the alarm bells started ringing. Had I been in a less emotional state, those bells would have prompted me to immediately activate my protective shield.

But I was too slow, and his next words bit into my still sore heart.

“What happened is that after slavery there was a great migration. The law-abiding Blacks went to the North and found jobs. The ones with no respect for the law stayed in the South, and now we have the results of generations of their offspring.” He smiled, satisfied that he’d made his point.

Faces of Black men and women from the South rose up in my mind - beloved friends, respected colleagues, people whose presence in my life makes me a better person. I thought of my orthopedic surgeon, who in a few months would replace my knees and relieve me of decades of pain. His skin is very dark. He teases me about being the only white patient in his office. I trust him with my life.

I stayed with their faces in an attempt to ward off the rage, but it came over me anyway and left me mute. No amount of rational self-talk helps when that type of anger hooks me. It doesn’t matter if this man was simply ignorant or grew up in a different era. It doesn’t matter that I have vowed to embrace my role in white people’s awakening to racial truth. It doesn’t matter that I call myself a healer. The rage makes me incoherent, mean, and basically useless.

My invisible shield

I have a tool I’ve been refining since I started doing racial healing work. It’s my invisible shield of detachment - a personal force field that deflects the hook and the trigger while allowing the unobstructed flow of love, justice, compassion, and all the other attributes of our higher selves. It’s not detachment in the sense of disconnection or apathy; rather it’s the state of serenity that cannot be ruffled.

When my shield is up, I can continue to be my best self and do my best work even while feeling anger or pain, because the emotions contribute to my strength and give me clarity. When my shield is down and I am hooked, all I want to do is strike back at whoever hooked me.

That’s what happened with the old man on the bench. I no longer saw him as a fellow White person whose heart and mind have been constricted by racial brainwashing. I saw only an enemy who disrespected people I love.

I don’t know what I would have done if his wife hadn’t come along at that moment. “Let’s go,” she said when she saw him. “We’re late to pick up the children.”

The man had no clue that I was hooked. He told his wife, “This is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met! She’s in diversity training. It’s an amazing profession! You’ve got to hear what she has to say!”

The woman was already walking toward the car and called over her shoulder, “I’m sorry, nice to meet you, but we have to go now. The grandkids are waiting.”

So he asked for my card and said, “You’re going to get an invitation to dinner. You are the most fascinating person!” Then he followed his wife, giving me a little wave as he walked away.

It’s possible I will have another chance to help him examine what he’s been taught about Black people. Whether or not that happens, I need to get much better at protecting myself from the hook.

I know that many have spent their lives trying to master this condition of untouchable serenity. I accept that I will probably fail more often than I succeed. But I will not quit trying. I need to do the work I’ve been sent here to do, and for that I must have access to my best self.

Photo by Mykyta Martynenko on Unsplash

No Comments

Post A Comment

3 + 19 =