About this time last year, I had an impactful (and surprising) discussion around race. Here’s how it went…
Them: “…I grew up here in the South in an Irish and Catholic family, it was really bad”
Me: “Indeed, Irish immigrants were treated very poorly.”
Them: “Yes, we were treated just as bad as black families”
Me: “Well, I wouldn’t say that…”
(at this point, I thought, “Here we go…”)
Them: “And I don’t know where all this hate comes from, that’s not how we bring people up in this country.”
Me: “It’s complex, we’re taught a lot that reinforces inequality. We’re also not taught many things that would show us other experiences other than white, dominant culture, at least in any real sense.”
Them: “I had a black friend so I learned about some things.”
(Inner nervousness about what comes next)
Them: “Well, I don’t know how to put it right but it was like I realized that my experience as an Irish was different because I could hide behind it. My friend couldn’t hide. When we were in public, my friend was only seen as black. People didn’t know I was Irish so they didn’t treat me like they would if they actually knew.”
In one fell swoop, this person inadvertently described one of the benefits of this thing we talk about called “white privilege,” the ability to hide, to blend. To not be a target.
Based on many conversations I’ve had before, I was expecting a different course. And because it changed course, I got less tense. I talked about my own experiences, we shared culture, approached things with compassion.
…and yes, addressed some of the misconceptions/differences of how the Irish experience differed than the African slave trade. But I’m not sure that would have happened without listening first. If I’d jump in with counterpoint arguments, they’d probably just get defensive and derail it all.
It reminded me once more of Dr. West’s words, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Sometimes that just means listening, something I’m trying to better learn myself, everyday.