In therapy, I was taught that the key to effective communication is through “I” statements. They are meant to relate the speaker’s needs and/or feelings to the listener, as opposed “you” statements, which are usually accusatory, blaming, and contain negative attributions about the listener.
Whites/people in positions of power have a long history of using “I” statements when communicating with minorities, but not in a therapeutic manner. “I need you to listen to me/do what I say/talk this way/behave this way.” And the “you” statements…oh, yes…the “you” statements. They continue to spew like spit off the lips of the ignorant and the hate-filled. As a nation, we really suck at communication with minority groups in general, and particularly people of color.
In the last ten days, I’ve heard a lot of well-intentioned white people using a lot of “I” statements, asserting their needs and feelings about the death of George Floyd, Amy Cooper’s ridiculous actions in Central Park, and, of course (and perhaps especially), the protests, riots, and looting. Mostly, they want people of color to know that they aren’t like those police officers. They aren’t like Central Park Karen. “I need you to understand that I have black friends, I had a black doll when I was a child, I work with black people…” and on and on, and people of color roll their eyes because they’re used to hearing how good we think we are, how we “get” it, when really, do we?
It was Breonna Taylor’s murder on March 13 that brought me back to the table, and by table I mean the place of learning about racism and white supremacy and acknowledging my role in it. It’s a table I never should have left, but because I am not a person of color, I have the privilege of forgetting about that table because I don’t live every day having to prove myself worthy of health care, justice, housing, or even my life because of the color of my skin.
I’ve learned more in the last three months by shutting up, listening, and reading than I ever would have defending myself with my personal experiences with the black community, and the only “I” statement I want to offer to people of color right now is: I was wrong. My silence equals complicity, and I am sorry.
My intention, when I speak of race, especially with people of color, is to be mindful of “I” statements that seek to assert my need for others to understand me. Instead, I will ask questions like “How can I…(help, participate)”, “What do you need me to…(understand, change)”, “Where can I…(donate, volunteer)” and “Who should I…(contact, read)”. I want to change what I didn’t know I needed to change, to see what I didn’t know was inside me to see, and to unlearn what my comfortable privilege has taught me.
A helpful resource for me has been the 1619 Project: “It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
A friend shared this resource today from Smithsonian Magazine, “158 Resources to Understand Racism in America.” I’ve only had a chance to read through it briefly, but links to the resources and articles are embedded in the chapters: Historical Context, Systemic Inequality, Anti-Black Violence, Protest, Intersectionality, and Allyship and Education.
Please, join the table. Stay. Don’t leave like I did. I truly believe we are on the brink of positive change in this country. It’s been messy and violent, and it will most likely get messier, but please, please, don’t give up.