What is antiraism? Where am I at with my antiracism journey? And how can you be antiracist too?
2020 was a huge year for The Black Lives Matter movement. After covid, it was the biggest news story and cultural phenomenon. In this episode I unpack the concept of antiracism and speak to my own journey, ending with a call to action.
You’re listening to On the Couch with Carly. Carly’s Couch is a safe space to talk. I’m a psychologist but I’m not your pipe smoking, tweed-wearing stereotype.
Hello, and welcome to another episode of On the Couch with Carly. Today’s topic is a interesting one for me, and I have to be very honest that I have been struggling to put this episode together. I recorded a full 36 minutes of talking a couple of weeks ago, and when I listened back to it, I felt uncomfortable and I haven’t been able to bring myself to record another episode.
I think the reason is because I am scared of getting it wrong. I am scared of doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing. Not so much because I’m scared of criticism (although I honestly don’t know who can be more critical about myself than me), but because I really think that this is important and I want to be a role model. I want to be an example of how I think we should be in the world as white people.
So lemme just tell you a little bit about the episode that I recorded and why I felt uncomfortable….(I just realized I still have my mask on, that’s hilarious. I’m going to take my mask off. OMW this is a post-covid podcast, where one forgets that they’re wearing their mask. But I’m leaving this in because I think this is important. This is our life we live, this weird life.)
So here I am, mask off…mask off. This is me revealing something about myself and this process. Last time I tried to address this, I sat down and recorded an episode and my intention was to demonstrate that my anti-racism work, and the way I understand anti-racism (and being a white ally) has shifted and changed as I’ve learnt about racism. As I’ve learnt about unconscious bias, as I have been growing and evolving as someone who has been recognizing my privilege. etc. etc.
Although I think all of that is valid and my intention for sharing my story with you is to show that we are all on a journey, there’s no ultimate end goal. We have to learn humility. We have to learn that we’re going to get it wrong. We are evolving. So what we know today is not complete, we might learn something tomorrow. But also that there’s a shifting cultural narrative and as that changes we have to adapt and meet the moment.
The whole point of my initial thinking around this episode would be to link to the first episode of this season, which was around 2020, the year that’s been. Just to say for me, after corona and the pandemic, the single most important thing that has come out of 2020 was the black lives matter movement.
Following the murder of George Floyd in America and how that has had a global ripple effect. We are all still keeping our eyes open around racism and racial prejudice, much more than before that and I really value that. I wanted to show how my eyes were opened after that, even though I considered myself an ally before. I have come to realize that I was falling short until I was re-educated last year, and how I have taken this re-education really seriously and how I see my role differently.
But what I was finding as I was speaking, listening back to myself is that it was very much about me. It was very much about my development, myself, my feelings and I realized that made me feel uncomfortable.
I don’t want this to be about me and my experiences. I also don’t want this to be about me trying to prove that I’ve got it right and that I’m handling my internalized racism better than others, or that I’m aware more than others. I’m really aware of this pitfall of any kind of promotion of one’s anti-racist work. It feels like it can lead to an example of performative activism and I don’t want to do that.
I am very nervous to put anything out there that isn’t genuinely helpful for others and genuinely adds to the space. I want to feel that there is a contribution that I can assist others. Me, telling my story yes is useful, it is helpful to see how other people have been humbled along their journey and how they went back to the drawing board and realized that that’s not the way to do things, and to say that I’m not doing okay and that I’m going to change it.
But what I found was that the conclusion of that episode sounded like: “So, I’m doing well now, thanks. I’ve got this under my belt.” I’ve been mulling over it and asking myself what is the solution here, what can I actually offer to this conversation that isn’t about me taking up more space?
I’ve also been wrestling with this concept of anti racism as self-improvement for white people. Something that Rachel Cargle has said that she is strongly against. Being an anti-racist is not self improvement for white people. I’ve really been struggling and grappling with that, and working out how not to feel good about taking on anti-racism work, or being an anti-racism activist on Instagram for example, like how can you not feel good about yourself for taking part in something like that.
It’s not that you shouldn’t feel good about yourself but feeling good about yourself shouldn’t be the primary objective, right? This podcast that I recorded felt too self-promoting, it felt too much about me going on about what a “good white” I am. It’s such a trap especially in South Africa.
I attended this webinar on Saturday with a group of women. It was hosted by an incredible woman called Mayuri Govender. She runs an Instagram account called @breakingbrownsilence and she has also just launched her own consultancy firm called “BBS Consulting” OR “BDI Consulting”. She runs diversity workshops and talks about all this anti- racist work, unconscious bias and tokenism-all the things we know the buzz words of but we don’t really know how to unpack it together. Mayuri facilitates these processes.
I had a real experience with this workshop. I had an embodied, real lived experience. And I thought this is the end, this is what I want share, this is what I want to bring today. It’s something that feels more meaningful, it doesn’t feel like “ Look how good I am”. It feels like sharing of shame in a way (a confession, if you will). That’s the orientation of today.
I’m really excited that in the next episode I will be having Mayuri on the podcast. We will be having a chat about all these things, and about anti-racist work and the toll that it has on one’s mental health. We will also be talking about how to take care of yourself while you are a brown person or person of colour who is navigating this world, or is already putting themselves out there as someone who is doing the work. I think it leads to you getting more flak, you have to have difficult conversations when you say to the world, “I’m standing up to these people.”
So yeah, that’s next week. But today, I just want to talk about what I learnt at this webinar. I think it’s so important, it meant something to me. It’s given me a grounded feeling of: “What is this work? And why do we need to do it? And what relevance does it have to do with my work as a psychologist?” So here it is. That was 10 minutes of preamble.
So what I learnt and what I’m connecting with at the moment is this idea of prejudice, bias. The idea that we are designed to think about things in categories, to categorize things and say: “These things belong in this category and these things are excluded from that category.” This is developmentally needed. We need learn to do that in order to manage existence, to manage life. But what happens is that we also encode information via our emotions and this is when it becomes really interesting. Whereas, when we’re calm and feeling at ease we have a much greater capacity for understanding the nuances and seeing the grey, not just in black and white. But when our system has a perceived threat or danger then the system responds in a black or white way. There’s neurological basis for this. Mayuri speaks about the amygdala in the brain, which is our emotional centre. And how our threat system is activated when we are told that something is dangerous or something is not safe for us.
What’s really tricky is that these categories that are considered unsafe or dangerous are often taught via the culture. So whatever culture you’re in, and I don’t mean your culture as in Jewish, Muslim, Indian. But I mean the society you live in and the structure of that society.
There are certain messages you’re getting all the time or you’ve been given all the time. That tell you about what’s safe and who’s unsafe. Depending on what understanding you have about the world, you’re going to have interpreted certain categories as unsafe.
Now we know in South Africa for example we were really overtly taught that black people are dangerous. “Die Swart Gevaar”. “The Black Danger”. And all over the world there’s this anti-blackness rhetoric, part of it is taught through fear. The fear is encoded in the messaging of separation, of saying: “Black people are different from white people, are different from Indian people, are different from coloured people” for example in South Africa. Even though we might not consciously think: “I’m afraid of black people”. We have absorbed these messages into our subconscious.
And this is what Freud always spoke about(Mayuri mentioned Freud, go Freud!), is that the unconscious is like an iceberg what we can see is usually just see the tip. What we have awareness of, what we can see and gain awareness into is just a tiny amount. And what’s underneath the surface is actually much bigger. So we can’t access our unconscious thoughts, and feelings, and drives and desires, most of the time. But they are very much in charge of our behavior and actions or thoughts. And often our feelings. For how we automatically respond with an emotional reaction.
So just to clarify what I’m saying is….Racism is an emotional issue-we can tackle it with thoughts and we can address the intellectual side by understanding the history, by understanding what it means. But if you really want to tackle your own racism, your own biases-you need to connect with your emotions. You need to connect with your sense of perceived threat. What I realized is what threat is about someone taking away something from you, or someone threatening your existence, or someone harming you, or making your scared.
The question I have for you, and it’s a difficult question: “When do you feel like being inclusive makes you feel threatened?” We had this really fascinating discussion about transgender for example. This is not in terms of race but in terms of transgender, some people are uncomfortable to include transgender people. It’s difficult to use different language, like having to use language that is inclusive of all gender identities and not just the binary identities of just male and female.
The question is why is that? Why do we resist being inclusive? Why is it hard? We can say any change is difficult and we resist. But I unpack it a little bit further, I recognise that we’re holding on to something that we feel is ours. We feel that if we open up, if we let down those perimeters and include more than we think should be in this category then we’re going to lose something-something special or safe, something that is protected because it’s got these perimeters, that’s it gonna be taken away from us.
For the most part that is not even true, what we’re really saying is : “Welcome to the party. Let’s all hang out together here”. This is what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says: “She doesn’t decide that one feminist is better than the another because they performing x instead of y.” She says let all the feminists come to the party. Let’s make this a big, noisy, loud, rambunctious affair. Bring them all in, we can all party together. We can be in this space together.
And Mayuri actually mentioned how when she does diversity training in work environments, and essentially they are asked to supply food for other race groups then they say: “Won’t the white people feel that they not getting enough of their food. Now they’ve got to eat other cultures food”. But the alternative to that is: “ Wow they get to experience all this other food. How great to have a diverse range of food. How great to be exposed to different flavours or more variety and options. So that’s the sort of why. The why is that we need diversity. We need to be exposed. We will benefit from having a more inclusive environment to exist in. But my feelings and my work that I’m doing on myself and where I think I will be useful in this podcast is to think about why that is hard for us?
It’s all good and well to say: “This is why you need to be diverse. This is why diversity is great. This is why we should be so much more inclusive.” Yes of course. But it’s not always that easy. It’s easier said than done, and there’s a reason for that. The emotional systems built in for our survival, built in to protect us when something is threatening, and that we have to act and guard ourselves- those systems are gonna work whether our intellectual prefrontal cortex minds knows that it’s useless or not, there is an emotional centre that is going to take charge and we need to think through that. We need to deal with it. We need to emotionally connect with it. So that’s what I wanna do today.
This is where the work gets more in depth, that is where we start to unpack what gets us threatened. What makes us feel uncomfortable? There’s different kinds of biases. There’s different ways that we discriminate against some over others. For some people, it’s around race. We are inherently or because of our social training, we automatically fear or respond with prejudice, with fear around people of colour. Sometimes there is a hierarchy of that-people who are darker are scarier or black people are scarier than Indian people. Some white people will feel that way.
Others will feel more prejudice along the lines of socio economic status. They don’t see their black doctor who is highly educated, and speaks well and drives a Mercedes-Benz as someone that they have to fear. But they might recoil when they see a black person walking down the street who is in tatty clothes, who looks as if they may be homeless, they immediately think threat, threat.
I want to acknowledge that although these prejudices and biases are problematic, and we need to work through them. I also want to acknowledge that for the most part we never gonna be free of bias. No one walking this planet is totally free of bias, I don’t believe. There’s so many ways that we select certain people than others to trust and feel less safe with certain groups over others.
I want you to think about your prejudices, your biases. I want you to think honestly about who you automatically do not trust or feel unsafe around because of the colour of their skin, the language that they speak, their lack of education or the kind of education they have, or the clothes they wear, or the country they’re from, or the way they speak English, or their gender, or their body size or their attractiveness level. We’re doing this all the time, we’re judging people based on things we perceive to have a hierarchy.
There is a hierarchy(we know there is) because white western bodies are at the top of that hierarchy-we have to acknowledge that. So this is not random, you’re not likely to just choose who you’re most threatened by. There is a system that we are subject to, there’s a system that we bought into along the way. Not due to our volition, it’s impossible to free ourselves from this system-for most of us.
I want you to first of all give yourself permission to connect with these biases and prejudices, to see it and say: “Okay, this is me, I see myself in this.” The hardest thing is to get to that point of admitting it. And we can’t admit it if we’re in an environment where that is going to used against you and you going to feel persecuted.
So I think, one of the most beautiful things about Mayuri’s group is how safe she makes it feel. She talks about a safe and brave space, and I think that’s what we all need. We need to find groups of people who are relatively like-minded, who are relatively in similar stages of the journey, who come together to connect with these parts of us that are not great. We don’t want to be like this but we are aware that they’re happening and they’re happening automatically. And to create safe spaces to connect bravely around these topics. To own these things, to voice them, to share them-as I said in the beginning a sharing of shame. A kind of confessional space.
I feel inspired by that because we need to own these emotions so that we can be free from them and the only way to do that is to take it out of that threat/fear zone and make it safe. Right?
I also wanted to say that something else that stuck with me during the course is that we are likely to exhibit these biases and prejudices when we are ourselves in a vulnerable state. So when our physical and emotional selves are under threat or are worn out, we are going to most likely react based on prejudice or bias. I thought that was really interesting.The most important thing for you to understand is that it’s going to happen and you need to give yourself a chance when you’re in a less threatened state to work through some of these things. So when it comes up and you’re put in a vulnerable state that you know that you have tools to work on it.
What I really wanted you to connect with today is to think about your own prejudices. One of the things I’m recognizing is that I have socio economic status prejudice or what I usually refer to as classism. I’m really grappling with it and I will tell you how it shows up for me… When I’m trying to manage the competing thoughts and feelings I have around homeless people, or beggars or people who are living on the streets, who I on the one hand feel pity for and feel empathy for but on the other hand there is a part of me that feels that maybe I’m under threat. I’m unsafe or I maybe I need to watch my bag or my phone, or whatever it is that I’m with at that moment because something might get taken from me. Something that I have that they don’t have, is under threat.
When those moments happen I am much more likely to act from a place of prejudice. Instead of seeing an individual/person in front of me, I’m seeing a homeless person. I’m categorizing. I’m generalizing. Or instead of seeing a person I’m seeing a drug addict. I automatically see this person as unsafe, doesn’t know what they’re doing, doesn’t know how to make logical decisions-basically just danger, danger danger.
And emotionally I’m responding from that black or white place. This is either safe or unsafe. This is either danger and I need to make that immediate decision. Emotionally what I’m doing is I’ve got this alert threat that is happening inside of me. I’m not seeing the world in nuance then. I’m not really capable of recognizing that this person might have value to my life, I just want to get away. I just want to be away from that. So, I’m really noticing that and grappling with that and it’s very tricky for me.
I want you to know that I’m not resolved. I’m not managing it. I’m not better than anyone else at figuring this stuff out. I am in the process of figuring it out. I don’t think that that’s bad, I’ve come to realize the fact that I’m figuring it out, that I’m open and honest about these struggles and that I want to share this and ask for help around this, is okay. It’s good enough for now. As I learn tools along the way, I’m going to share that.
One of the take homes from the workshop was about diversifying your circle. That means truly, actively joining forums and networks-in person and online where you’re mixing with people from different ethnic, cultural, religious backgrounds that are different from yours and actually listen to and experience other people’s lived experiences because that’s the key. There are other people, people that are “other” to me and I need to not see them as other. I shouldn’t see them as different but really get to know them, to really be curious about their lived experience. And to value what they might teach me because that is the opposite of threat, actually leaning in and valuing and feeling that richness of abundance, of having more not less.
So that’s really my message that I’m leaving you with….There is so much for us to benefit by opening up, being inclusive, by listening to other people’s stories, that not a bad thing. It shouldn’t be something we do solely as an altruistic act (I don’t believe in altruism BTW) but that it’s something that will benefit us. And that we need to learn about others, we need to include others in our world.
There is a intentionality which is important to recognize, not to do it from a tokenism standpoint, not to do it because it’s good to have a mix of friends or I need to have this black friend to make my friendship circle complete. It looks good on social media that I show that I have a black friend, that sort of thing. Eek, No! It’s not that.
There is something to learn. There is something to gain. I am really curious about you. I do really want to know what your lived experiences are like. Of course, I do, I’m a psychologist, my job is to learn about people’s lived experiences in depth, and I love it.
That’s my biggest joy from my work is learning another person’s existence. So that’s where I’m at on this journey. Next week we will be talking to Mayuri and I’m so excited. I can’t wait to share her with you, and you with her, and just to get the real pearls of wisdom because I have just be babbling on about this. But she really knows what she’s doing with regards to this. She’s super.
So until then, thanks for listening to me. I appreciate it. Please send me your comments and ideas: info@onthecouchwithcarly/ carly@onthecouchwithcarly and you can message me on Instagram: @onthecouchwithcarly.
Thank you so much and I’ll be with you next week. Bye.
This podcast is recorded at Edible Audio in Cape Town, South Africa. Edited by Edible Audio. Original music by Alex Smillie.