Racial Inequity: Engaging Bystanders in Dialogue

Updated: May 8

Part 4 of 5

Unless there has been a high-profile media case eyes glaze over or people go quiet if I raise the issue of racial inequity.


How do I engage other white people on this when I am so passionate? How do we move from onlookers to active allies? This feels key to understanding what tips us from passion-fuelled protest in to sustained action, rather than inertia. How do we engage those in the stands, who are you watching with good intentions, but don’t enter in to the stadium (to borrow a metaphor from Brene Brown) to fight alongside us.


What I’ve learnt in my personal journey is that it’s action and impact that count, not intentions.  Good intentions from the comfort of my sofa have kept things as they are – I’ve seen that from my own experience.  I had to move to action to do more and be more – transparent, clear, vulnerable – in relation to progressing racial equity.  Yes, it feels exposing but it also feels like it creates some energy in others.  I wonder if it’s the difference between getting a pamphlet through the door proclaiming the rights of a good cause, with hearing the personal testimony of those that are going through the experience.  It’s about our felt connection and experience rather than vicariously or passively, that creates a relationship, bringing the human and humanity to the fore. 


It took me years to recognise that I had been passive in relation to racism.  I mistook my lack of racist language and behaviour for support.  I understand now that isn’t enough.  I have stated my intentions clearly before, but had not acted on each awkward moment, not even always recognising them at the time.  I hadn’t been consistent. I hadn’t realised my being part of a response was required.  


I’m not saying I get it right all the time, I’ve been in a few conversations recently where it’s only after the fact, as you decompress and sense-make that you realise an opportunity was missed, a silence was unheard, certain language was unchallenged.  But I know that each of these experiences is a learning opportunity for me and others involved.  We have to realise this isn’t about rightness or perfection, but commitment, care and perseverance.  We need to recognise our mistakes and learn from them.  We don’t unlearn the habits of a lifetime in one conversation and it takes sustained effort and courage to keep returning.  


So what helps in this space – what can I actually do? Establishing a practice of reflection, forgiveness, compassion and care – for yourself and others – is essential.  I have also learned to listen and to speak with rather than on behalf of black people and people of colour.  And I recognise the importance of recognising when I need to get out of the way.  Not always an easy one when we’ve often been trained and rewarded in our careers to be noticed, to be lauded. But necessary. Notice when you have the spotlight, and pass the focus. Invite others in and notice when others are skipped or silenced. Give credit where it’s due and don’t accept it as your own.

If I’m in action, how do I not let my passion feel overwhelming to others?  This is something I admit I am still learning.  I’m learning there are boundaries – in energy, emotion, motivation – and they vary for different people.  It is a deeply relational practice that requires alertness and mutual empathy.  It feels a thin line between passion and responsibility and what people perceive as activism or fixedness.  I have seen it myself, particularly on social media sites, where it can feel as though only one frame is applied to a situation – whether gender, race, sexuality – when of course so much of this is far more complex than through a single lens. I want to learn to recognise, value and understand the many differences – the intersections of diversity – and how they interplay. I don’t think this is a single set of rules we all need to learn but more principles to follow to help us navigate complex situations.


We have been stuck before, we don’t need more stuckness because people are afraid to step in to the conversation.  I am experimenting with whether movement occurs through inspiration (some), condemnation (none), learning (yes), and what I’ve found most impactful so far is when others connect with your personal journey – the mistakes and the learnings – where they recognise themselves in you.  I can only encourage that we step in to this with an open heart to learn, to broaden our perspective, to loosen our attachment to what we think we ‘know’ and to explore together.  These conversations are hard but we make leaps when we do it together rather than in isolation. 

It can be hard to stay open and open-hearted when we feel this so deeply.  Action can so easily tip in to activism that is perceived by others differently, perhaps threateningly.  In action I feel invited in, valued for what I bring, engaged.  In activism it feels like the arguments have become ossified or stuck so we no longer can hear the experience of the other, or demonstrate compassion.  We have to learn to listen well, particularly when we don’t recognise the experience, or disagree.  We’re seeing this play out at a national level with COVID-19 in the UK just now, again particularly on social media which somehow seems to feel safer to people to share more, even when it can feel unsafe to speak or challenge in person. Is this a skill we need to learn – safe challenge?


Only through curiosity, compassion and action will we move forward.  If you recognise yourself as a bystander in this dialogue, please join us.  We need you.  I can promise you it’s worth it.

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