Safety in the Context of Anti-Oppression Work
I have been slowly working my way through Layla F Saad’s book, me and white supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor. Why slowly? Because each chapter has reflective questions which challenge readers to dig deep into their thinking, bias, default positionality and then to hold oneself to account.
Moving from The Basics to Anti-Blackness, Racial Stereotypes, and Cultural Appropriation to Allyship and finally to Power, Relationships and Commitments, Saad challenges readers to consider the truth just as the concept of race was constructed to uphold white supremacy (if you aren’t yet convinced of this, please listen to the full series of Season 2 of Scene on Radio: Seeing White and it will all be explained — YES IN CANADA TOO!).
It is very easy for me, as a Jewish person, to see myself outside of this fight and to be truthful, many Jewish people do. Dave Chappell has a joke about this in his 2017 Special, The Age of Spin.
Black people know about comparative suffering, and you know that it’s a f#$%ing dead-end game. Blacks and Jews do that s#$% to each other all the time. You ever played Who Suffered More with a Jewish person? It’s a tough game. Whenever you think you’ve got the Jewish guy on the ropes, that mf will be like, “Well, don’t forget about Egypt.” “Egypt?! Gd d#$%…I didn’t know we was going all the way back to Egypt.” (Note: I have removed any curse words and other offensive language but you get the gist.)
The thing is, any of us in this work, and we should all be in this work, must understand our places of privilege AND we must also understand the historical context from which this privilege was built.
Self proclamations of “But I am not a racist! I am a good person!” don’t go very far. Read Ibram X Kendi’s book, How to be an Antiracist, if you are unsure about that one.
What fascinates me here is that we must acknowledge that racism and other forms of oppression are not about good or bad individuals but about the systems that some benefit from while others are oppressed. And yet, in the midst of this reality, individuals must be held to account because yes it is a system, a legacy, a history but at the same time, it is at the hands of individuals that systems are upheld, policies are written and enacted, and decisions are made.
George Dei has long spoken of the saliency of race. This means that when we consider intersectionality, a term coined by Black Feminist, Dr Kimberlé Crenshaw, we must understand that race is the common factor that exacerbates experiences of oppression, violence and poverty. This is true for the Black community and the Indigenous community in Canada. This has been intentionally built, sustained and reimagined throughout our history. Within this intersectionality, we must all do the work to unpack our privilege while fighting for anti-oppression because it is precisely within these spaces of privilege that we can spend it in service to marginalized and oppressed communities. “When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change.” ~ Ijeoma Oluo
So now comes the idea of safety. This is a discourse that comes up all the time when we think about or plan to do the work of anti-oppression in the workplace. Many theorists have written about this idea. In terms of some of the books I have read in the last couple years:
“When you start to feel defensive, stop and ask yourself why. If you are talking about race and you suddenly feel the need to defend yourself vigorously, stop and ask yourself, ‘What is being threatened here? What am I thinking that this conversation says about me?’ and ‘Has my top priority shifted to preserving my ego?’”
“To refuse to listen to someone’s cries for justice and equality until the request comes in a language you feel comfortable with is a way of asserting your dominance over them in the situation.” ~Ijeoma Oluo So you want to talk about race
“You will be called out/in as you do antiracism work. Making mistakes is how you learn and do better going forward. Being called out/in is not a deterrent to the work. It is part of the work. And there is no safety in this work. There has been no safety for BIPOC under white supremacy. And the sense of perceived emotional danger that people with white privilege feel when being called out/in is so small compared to what BIPOC experience through racism.” ~Layla F Saad, me and white supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor
Whites often confuse comfort with safety and state that we don’t feel safe when what we really mean is that we don’t feel comfortable. This trivializes our history of brutality towards people of color and perverts the reality of that history. Because we don’t think complexly about racism, we don’t ask ourselves what safety means from a position of societal dominance, or the impact on people of color, given our history, for whites to complain about our safety when we are merely talking about racism. Robin Diangelo, White Fragility.
I think about the fear that has been imposed on Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities.
- fear for one’s life and your child’s life
- fear for one’s freedom and your child’s freedom
- fear for one’s future and your child’s future
- fear for one’s physical safety and your child’s physical safety
- fear for one’s emotional safety and your child’s emotional safety
- fear for state sanctioned removal of your children from your home
- fear of financial insecurity
- fear of police for you and your children
- fear of exclusion in school
- fear of speaking up
- fear of showing “too much emotion”
- fear of police
- fear of running
- fear of driving
Honestly…there is more.
What is this concern for safety about by often white educators?
- fear of being called out/in?
- fear of career limiting moves?
- fear of making a mistake or saying it wrong?
- fear of being called a racist?
- fear of facing our privilege?
- fear that our personal narratives will be disrupted?
- fear that what we have earned was given to us because of our social identity
- fear of being held accountable?
- fear of being attacked on social media?
- fear of discipline?
- fear of breaking trust?
- fear of losing privilege?
- fear of judgement?
- fear of loss of power?
I have felt some of these in my life but what has stopped me? Each time I hesitate I ask myself why and at what cost. Whose cost? Truly, the cost to me is my morality, my integrity, my professionalism. This is not comparable to the fear that is faced by Black and Indigenous families every day.
So we have to readjust the use of the word safety because in most cases, we are far more concerned with our comfort whereas Black and Indigenous folx and their children have a legitimate fear.
So why do we talk about it as if it really is about safety?
We have to be able to break through the ideas that we’ve had about ourselves, about others, about how society is set up in order to open ourselves to the conversation we need to have, and so discomfort should always be welcomed. I always tell people when I’m doing trainings that, you know, safety I’m striving for — but your comfort is not on the menu.
Ojo-Thompson goes on to say that “What’s so interesting about the body is that it doesn’t know the difference between a physical threat and a theoretical threat. What people are experiencing is a reaction from their amygdala: a reaction to what they’re hearing and a sensation of threat. So, it is so important when we enter into this conversation to be conscious of this-so deep breaths, you know, thinking happier thoughts, and just sort of stopping the train of thought to get ahead of it.”
Stop the damn train.
This is about our children and our children’s children.
The reason that Layla F Saad included the phrase, “become a good ancestor”, is because this work and the efforts we make are not always seen in our lifetime. Her commitment is “to live and work in ways that leave a legacy of healing and liberation for those who will come after she is gone”. (http://laylafsaad.com/about)
This is in line with Indigenous Ways of Knowing. “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” ~Chief Seattle
So if we move out of our egos, and move towards service, perhaps, just maybe, we can find a way forward. For our children.