Being a Being of Transformation

How to get beyond microvalidating whiteness

We (i.e., white people in the US) tend to forget that we’re involved in intercultural communication when interacting with people of color — even when they’re also American. Each group experiences “American-ness” distinctively, depending upon factors of racial and socioeconomic history as well as particular culture. Some of the features of American-ness are broadly shared across all groups; other features are not. The differences show up in language, entertainment, spiritual and/or communal practices, and a host of institutional and social routines. In particular, the #BlackLivesMatter movement is reminding whites about the salience of a very specific deeply-embedded difference. Whites are responding to the mirror being held up to us in a range of ways, from passivity (which manifests in a range of attitudes and behaviors) to aggression (obvious in the blatant discourse of white supremacy in media and politics).

The Passivity of Microvalidations (some examples)

Last week I posted a brief overview of the concept of microvalidations, including an image and summary of white people’s progressive journey from white fragility, through white fog, to appropriate whiteness.

I’ve been asked both for more concrete examples of specific microvalidations and also for guidance on alternative responses. The first step is to recognize that microvalidations are a form of participating in the subtle perpetuation of white supremacy, and then to catch yourself in them. Here are two examples:

  • confirming reactions to people of color in authority positions or receiving positive visibility: For instance, a white person remarks that a person of color “only got that position (or opportunity, etc.) because of affirmative action,” and you say nothing or nod or otherwise suggest that’s possibly true. This supports the ideology of white supremacy by presuming that a white person was/is better qualified or somehow more suitable. Acknowledged affirmative action beneficiaries usually have skills and talents that equal or exceed those of other applicants — that’s how they reached the final stages of selection in the first place.
  • agreeing with (or saying nothing about) an un-racialized perspective of white people: For instance, a white person suggests there’s no such thing as a typical white person and you don’t disagree. That silence supports white supremacy by feeding the myth of white individuality. Yes, every person has some unique characteristics while also every person is conditioned by their membership in social/cultural groups. There are typical, observable patterns of white behaviors, attitudes, awarenesses, and unawarenesses: white privilege is why we do not know — or have to worry — about these patterns or their consequences.

Both of these examples illustrate microvalidations as the response to either a microaggression (ways that whites dehumanize others) or to the evidence of white fragility/white fog (white inability to process their own racial group membership). The first example above (about affirmative action) is a microaggression; the second (denying racial attributes) may be indicative of white fragility but I would address it first as an indicator of white fog.

Responding by Calling In

There are many things which could be considered when someone says something that contributes to the maintenance of white supremacy — however, it is important not to let those considerations become excuses not to say something. The principle should always be to say something that calls the presence of white supremacy into visibility. Based on that principle, there’s a continuum of responses which everyone is going to have to develop through your own trial-and-error practicing. Keep talking about and sharing your experiences and questions, successes and flops. This is a collective-level experiment in societal transformation: none of us alone is going to alter trends, but many of us together may help, in Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s words, bend the arc of the moral universe closer to justice.

Calling in is a phrase coined by Ngoc Loan Tran in a short internet article to social justice activists. The label and activities of calling in have been championed by Loretta Ross, who recently convened a conference, Calling In the Calling Out Culture, where participants cultivated key skills:

  1. Distinguish when to call someone IN vs. OUT
  2. Understand the difference between violence, abuse, and triggering
  3. Avoid verbal bullying or misuse of social justice language
  4. Challenge political purity, shaming, and public mocking

Essential skill…setting a foundation for transformation

As mentioned above, first you have to recognize white fragility and white fog in what people say. If this is new to you, in the beginning, you’ll probably often feel anxious about saying something back. This will recur in certain circumstances even after you gain experience and confidence. That anxiety (or other emotions, such as nervousness, fear or anger) is a sign that you’re onto something. In other words, some part of you is aware that here is a moment when change can happen. There’s no guarantee how things will turn out, but as you keep trying you’ll start to realize which are the more effective kinds of things to say and which aren’t. You’ll develop your own internal monitor and criteria.

If you do feel anxiety, that’s an indication that you feel vulnerable, too. Now you’re in a similar space as the white person who is showing signs of white fragility or white fog! Try to relax your own emotional reactivity. Recognize your own visceral sense of identity threat: “I’m not the kind of person who…..” or “If I say something, will they ______? (fill in the blank with whatever you fear). This is how you transform yourself, so that the energy you send back to them with whatever you do say is an appropriate amount — compassionate but not microvalidating, soft but on point. Remember this is a one-to-one or small group situation of interpersonal communication, probably with someone you already know and will have more chances to talk with. The right amount of energy changes in every situation, moving along a continuum with calling in and calling out at the two ends. Sometimes calling out is the appropriate energetic response, but even this can be done calmly and without rancor. Calling out done well, that is, with commensurate and clean energy, can result in a white person ‘getting it’ and experiencing being called in to defeat white supremacy.

Resources

There’s a Facebook group, White Nonsense Roundup, where over 24,000 white people are supporting each other in confronting the evidence of white supremacy that surrounds us in our daily lives. I’m grateful to #WhiteNonsenseRoundup and their members for helping to develop the concept and examples of microvalidations, and for modeling ways to call each other in to this important social justice work.

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