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By Melia Smith, Phoenix-based development professional

In the throes of the holiday season last December, the careful balance between read and unread emails in my inbox was starting to take a turn. As I conducted my daily reckoning of my inbox, one message jumped out at me, demanding my immediate attention. It didn’t have a subject.

I recognized the handle right away though; I knew who it was. A riff on her name, she always used the same version of that handle for her social media accounts.

I took a deep breath and rolled my eyes.

Out loud, to no one, I said, “I literally do not think about you ever. You just don’t know when to quit do you?”

I opened the message, and it was exactly what I expected. It had a Trump-losing-the-election flavor to it. The ALL CAPS. The double spacing after the end of each sentence. It was full of half-sentences and grammar errors so egregious that I started to grind my teeth. It was an outright assault on any and all punctuation standards. It was full of empty threats of taking me to court. It was the digital equivalent of a ransom note made out of magazine clippings.

And there, buried within the word salad of accusations, was an unhinged: “I’m not a racist, YOU ARE!”

I bark-laughed at my screen before taking screenshots and filing it in a folder of correspondence I’ve been gathering, should I need to file a protective order.

A protective order. How did we get here?

 

 

Thinking reverse racism is real isn’t just a fundamental misunderstanding of racism — it’s the willfully ignorant belief that racism is nothing more than prejudice or bias.

Back in September, CCF published an essay I wrote about my experience with racial gaslighting at a former organization. Writing that essay was cathartic and ended up being a critical part of healing from the experience. The response I got from friends, colleagues, and family was overwhelmingly positive. I was simultaneously affirmed and crushed by the number of people who reached out to thank me and tell me that they’d had a similar experience, tell me that reading my essay helped them feel less alone or less crazy.

A few days after it was published, my neighbor (who is white) and someone I had considered a friend, reached out to congratulate me — or so I thought.

She started off by saying, “You should be very proud of the article and your achievements in spite of your gaslighters and ignorant road blocks.”

I started to type a response of thanks — when another message, a different kind of message, quickly appeared.

I hope you’re not racist against all white people now?!” she quipped.

I frowned at the text and wondered how, at this point in time, after the year that we’ve had and with all of the antiracism resources available to us, how after reading my essay this person still thought that reverse racism is real.

(Thinking reverse racism is real isn’t just a fundamental misunderstanding of racism — it’s the willfully ignorant belief that racism is nothing more than prejudice or bias. It’s the willfully ignorant belief that racism is only overt, like through lynching and saying the n-word. It’s the willfully ignorant belief that racism against white people is an actual documented occurrence perpetrated at the local, county, state, and federal level.)

(Believing reverse racism is real legitimizes the objective falsehood that the same discrimination that is exercised against BIPOC communities is also excercised in the exact manner against white communities.)

I groaned and texted the thing that felt safest: “LOL of course not.” I added laughing emojis.

(BIPOC folx need to be skilled in the art of choosing battles when it comes to engaging with unintended or willful ignorance. We make important calculations, sometimes without even thinking about it, asking ourselves: Is this a battle worth fighting right now? Do I have the energy to sustain its violence? Will I be safe in the aftermath? This neighbor was my friend, and I decided that there would be another time to unpack this. I didn’t have to do it right away.)

 

 

The next morning my neighbor texted to tell me she’d read some other essays that I wrote and … she had some thoughts.

Things deteriorated from there.

I gave up 45 minutes of my life to a stream-of-consciousness attack and accusation Blitzkrieg that jumped from topic to topic. She kept telling me about — and then deflecting — every time she was confronted with something that conflicted with her reality or that didn’t align with her sense of victimhood.

She went as far as pulling screenshots of excerpts from two specific essays and accused me of talking about heras if I’d written essays about the death of two Black men with her specifically in mind.

Those essays were actually written from a place of me trying to process my own grief. And while she didn’t deserve that explanation, I explained it to her anyway.

She didn’t want to hear it. The story she’d already sold to herself was that all of this was ultimately about her.

By the time she ineptly tried to argue that she, in fact, doesn’t experience white privilege because she doesn’t come from money, I knew what I was doing wrong. I hadn’t removed myself from what was from the start, a futile and one-sided conversation about the impact of the truth of my experiences on her (the audacity).

 

 

For BIPOCs like me, building a plane while flying it isn’t just unsafe, it’s just not possible. This conversation was impossible.

One of my former CEOs used to describe overseeing the chaotic state of our organization as “building the plane while flying it.” I thought of this as my neighbor’s texts came through, one after the other, each more bewildering than the one before.

She was trying to have what she thought was an honest and authentic conversation about race and was unknowingly saying ignorant and hurtful things. She not only didn’t have the basic language to talk about race in a way that doesn’t perpetrate violence, she didn’t actually care to have that language, because she didn’t approach this discussion with humility. She approached it with outrage.

I couldn’t have a stable and safe conversation with her because I couldn’t do all of the work for the both of us — the work of having the authentic conversation she so desired and the work of protecting myself from her ignorance by correcting her ignorance.

She didn’t want dialogue, she wanted absolution.

She wanted me to know just how wrong I was about her, maybe even apologize to her — which is unbelievable because none of the personal words that I shared were about her at all.

For BIPOCs like me, building a plane while flying it isn’t just unsafe, it’s just not possible. This conversation was impossible.

My neighbor’s reaction was a masterclass in how violent white fragility can be. One of the (many) problems with white fragility is that when it comes to telling the truth, white fragility makes space for one truth: the truth of white feelings.

 

 

I had to move.

My neighbor’s texts became increasingly hostile and unstable, ending with an unprovoked five-inch-long scorched-earth monologue, bereft of sense or compassion, a dialogue so wild, I am still actually afraid of what she is capable of.

I think a lot about what might have happened if this had happened to me in the workplace, if a coworker had responded to me with such violence. The thing is, it does happen. This kind of thing happens all the time.

So I packed up the apartment I’d lived in for the last four years and moved, unable to sustain the threat of spiritual, emotional and psychological violence from someone who is now basically a stranger to me.

Last June, Ja’han Jones wrote on Instagram: “White people are trained to express rage through ignorance. The ability to ignore racist horrors committed before your very eyes is not a passive trait, but a carefully honed skill. All the things you don’t know — all the things you’ve claimed not to know but which have persisted for centuries — demonstrate you are heirs to a violent tradition of white ignorance.”

My experience was a reflection of toxic white fragility and white supremacy and the willful ignorance that accompanies them, and they were expressed through verbal, emotional, and psychological violence.

And this is not uncommon.

I think a lot about what might have happened if this had happened to me in the workplace, if a coworker had responded to me with such violence.

The thing is, it does happen. This kind of thing happens all the time.

Every day, BIPOC folx are navigating situations in the workplace where the fragility of white people is weaponized against them. And as a result of our workplace cultures being built through the systems that promote this fragility, the outcomes of these situations favor the perpetrators of the violence.

My first essay was public and loud, but the quiet and simple act of saying to a white colleague “Hey, that was racist,” presents the same opportunity for the kind of harassment I experienced. The mix of willful ignorance and white fragility insulates perpetrators from their acts of racism — the perpetrator’s individuality is valued over rectifying the actual hurt they cause. The hurt they cause is justified through yes they did/said something racist, but they’re a good person, they didn’t mean it.

At one point in the breakdown of our relationship, my neighbor had actually messaged me, “I’m sorry I’m not holding a Black Lives Matter sign.”

It wasn’t the open hostility of the fake apology that was the most annoying. It was the fact that it lacked self-awareness. The apology was disingenuous, not only because I know she didn’t mean it, but because it was a botched attempt to absolve herself from participating in work she was making every attempt to not understand. She offered it up as a slight. but instead it reinforced her commitment to her own ignorance. Even her apology, in all its counterfeit glory, was violent.

 

 

As I wrote this piece, I had to dredge up our texts for the receipts and was surprised by how raw the hurt still was …

That experience is a real life example of how dangerous it is for BIPOCs to be on the receiving end of white people’s misguided belief in the extent of their personal accountability for racism.

(They were not there in the time of slavery, their parents raised them right, they don’t see color, they are not biased, but I’m not a racist, forever and ever amen.)

All of this, however, is a demonstration of how accountable they actually are — their unwillingness to see racial oppression and then openly acting like not seeing it makes them innocent is proof of their racism in itself.

As I wrote this piece, I had to dredge up our texts for the receipts and was surprised by how raw the hurt still was as I read them even though I had processed this so many times with friends, in therapy, and with colleagues (who I felt embarrassed telling, but who I felt should know, in case something happens to me.)

I am reminded of the time I heard someone describe systemic racism as death by a thousand papercuts. Imagine getting a papercut every few minutes and being acutely aware of each and every painful slice to the skin. It would consume you. It would be all you could ever think about.

And eventually you’d find a way to numb yourself so that the papercuts are bearable, so that maybe you wouldn’t even notice them — because you might even get used to them.

This is the existence of BIPOC folx within a system that refuses to deal with the ignorance of white people. We’re able to get by, only by numbing ourselves to the cuts — until someone throws salt on all of those wounds and reminds us that yes, they are there and they fucking hurt.

Melia Smith

Melia Smith

Melia Smith (she/her) is a development professional, specializing in start up and in-transition environments. She currently oversees development at a homeless services agency in Phoenix, Arizona. The coronavirus pandemic has forced her to have hobbies outside of TV; currently she enjoys calligraphy and watercolor art, reading, and scrolling through Instagram for pictures of dogs. She agrees with Dr. Tressie McMillan-Cottom about the absurdity of LinkedIn, but you can find her there anyway, as well as on Instagram @notesfrommelia. Read more essays from her on an irregular basis on TinyLetter.

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