A few years ago or so I made the decision not to talk, on-demand, to white people about racism. This was truly one of the most liberatory political decisions I have ever made. I wrote about this decision then. I reasoned that getting involved in arguments or debates would be akin to making my existence and my lived reality ‘subject to agreement, disagreement or approval from those whose very existence and sense of self, is still rooted in the erasure of the violence they inflict upon me’. A powerful statement, I still believe. A statement that has guided my praxis.
Looking back on how my non-engagement has gone down tells us too about power. Overall, I would say that boundary I set for myself has been respected. Overall. There are still those who struggle with me refusing to make myself available or of service at their request. Clearly experiencing my setting up of such boundaries as transgressive or contemptuous. Perhaps something about white entitlement to Black and Brown bodies and minds. These entitled souls have however been in the minority. There are too situations where I still get pulled into circular conversations or debates that lead to dead-ends, almost despite myself. That pull can be hard to resist. But these too are few and far between. I think I have simply become better able at using silence and non-engagement as tools of resistance.
It’s been said that the ultimate power, is the power to define and name the world. Some people refer to this as definitional power. Naming the world and with that defining our experiences, the phenomena and structures that impact on and shape our lives has important epistemic consequences. Epistemic as a reminder simply refers to our capacity to know, access what is and communicate the same to others. For these reasons, it has long been argued that naming, particularly naming names that stick, has been and remains the province of the powerful in society. And that because of power asymmetries and their resulting unequal epistemic credibility, our ability to give names to what is real to us, is limited.
What is named is therefore fundamentally linked to who is doing the naming. Naming is central to us making sense of the world. It is a way to master our environment and to share with others experiences that matter, so that the experience that matter can be further shared, studied, understood and communicated by name to those that matter. Naming clearly allows us to reclaim our right to language, to knowledge and to understanding the world we inhabit. It renders us expert in our own experiences of the world.
Naming and self-protection
In the piece I mentioned earlier, I described the rationale to arriving at that decision not to argue about racism. It was based on the games power plays to avoid confronting itself, in these conversations. My decision was always rooted in self-protection and the sadistic enactments I refuse to be subjected to. So again, I have on balance been able to resist getting drawn into race debates and conversations, when I did not feel I would be seen, heard or held. What is named we can therefore further say is also fundamentally linked to who is doing the listening or who is in the room.
Along these lines, I have been paying attention to the things we don’t say about the world. The things we keep silent, the things we choose to keep to ourselves and more centrally, the things we give no name to; often because we do not believe we will be believed or we do not expect anyone to hear us, see us or hold us, if we speak. Because of these expectations of non-engagement or of non-engagement in good faith, on the part of our interlocutors, we make the decision that not speaking at will, will allow us to retain our sense of autonomy, agency or subjecthood. Our sense of personal power. We consequently choose to meet white silence with silence, we might say.
Following on, if naming is an act of power and our capacity to name is subject power plays then, refusing to name may be envisaged as a counter-power move? Silence may therefore be thought of as a form of resistance. I am talking here about refusing to engage as another form of communication since even being non-communicative and the total absence of communication or silence is still communication. It is still communicative. It is a purposeful communication or purposeful absence of communication which is similarly rooted in defiance.
I think there gets a point when silence about violence becomes a way of coping with the violence if not a way of protecting the self from further violence or silence in the form of expected incredulity or scepticism, endless argumentation or entitled demands for attention or education, their associated embodied manifestations and psychological and physical costs. Indeed, why give names to experiences, when naming will not make them real. When naming may well render what’s real more precarious. When naming may in fact reduce your epistemic power.
I have been confronting this reality during some of the training I deliver. When I speak and name a particular instance of violence and the Black and Brown bodies in the ‘room’ simply look at me, often in complete silence. Appearing almost dissociated from my words. It was only after a few of such experiences and some probing attempts that I realised this silence was a form of refusal to name. Refusal to commit to a particular reality in a particular space. No doubt in part out of self-protection.
But also more to the point here, as a preemption that they would not, be heard, seen and held by peers or others in the room. This observation led me to thinking about knowledge production and engagement as relational practices. And to question whether we can ever know outside of relationships. Whether we can hold onto our sense of what is and what is real if we are not heard, seen and held by those who matter in our lives and the fundamental failing in mirroring that whiteness entails.
In analytic thinking mirroring is a form of (transference) communication. Important objects (or people), act as mirrors in our lives. They reflect back to us a sense of who we are, our sense of worth and value, our sense of what’s true and what’s real too. We use these objects as compasses to navigate the world. To form not only a sense of our identity, a sense of our morality, a sense of our goodness. In the same way we often use literal mirrors as tools of self-affirmation. And of course our history of mirrors or of being mirrored as well as on-going mirroring experiences, is believed to have long-lasting consequences on how we relate to ourselves, on our capacity to feel seen, heard and held in relationships but also our capacity to see, hear and hold others.
Mirroring is central to communication wether or not we follow a more analytic understanding. At its most fundamental mirroring involves a meeting between the speaker and their interlocutor. It requires that the interlocutor reflects the speaker through reciprocal attunement and engagement in their words, perhaps even in their world. Hence, when we mirror others we reflect them through our own words and gestures. More importantly, we reflect their emotional and psychological state. Whiteness entails a fundamental failure in mirroring. We speak but we are not heard. We speak but we are not seen as speaking. We speak but we are therefore not held. As we speak of racism, it becomes impossible for the white mind and body to stay with what is brought into the (epistemic) exchange physiologically, affectively and cognitively. Either the mirror is broken or its reflective function is out of order. So ask yourself….why would we want to willingly engage in such skewed exchanges? Why would anyone continue to expect that we should? Why would the price of us not being mirrored continue to be a price worth paying for white folks to maintain their distorted sense of self? It’s easy to imagine but in any event, it continues to be something I am not prepared to do.
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