White Silence & Emotional Immaturity: An Interview with Ann Jealous & Caroline Haskell, Part III
Lynn Burnett: What are your thoughts about the widespread fear of discussing racism, amongst White people?
Ann Jealous: I see both the fear of discussing it, and the desire to discuss it. When permission is given, by whoever’s listening, the fear doesn’t seem to be nearly as intense as when there’s no permission. For example, one time I was at a dinner party, and I was the only African American there with about twelve White people. Someone mentioned that I was writing a book about racism… which honestly, I might not have chosen to mention myself in this situation. But suddenly all of these White people couldn’t wait to talk about racism!
It was like there was this lock, and then somebody came along with the key. They all felt like permission had been given to open up this topic and talk about it. So I think there’s a culture of fear around opening up that conversation… but there’s also a deep need to talk about it.
Lynn: The very fact that it’s bottled up, and that there is fear, is exactly what creates this intense need to actually talk about it.
Caroline Haskell: Right. The way I look at it, fear is one of the strategies that has been implemented very successfully, to keep this whole thing in place. We, as White people, often create this kind of cocoon to not look at the reality of racism. But I do think that if there’s enough support and mutual responsibility — and frankly, emotional maturity — we can come out of that cocoon.
Lynn: Do either of you want to comment more on the topic of emotional maturity?
Ann: Well… what does it take to really grow up? That’s a big question.
Caroline: And to know yourself. I’m thinking especially of White antiracist spaces. White antiracists are so needed! And yet there’s so much work to do, amongst ourselves. We need to know ourselves. We need to have self-awareness and self-care. It’s so easy to reject our need for self-care… which once again often feels like this performative thing, like our denial of self-care is how we prove our antiracist credentials. Choosing instead to walk the path of self-awareness and self-care takes emotional maturity, and that’s what we need to do to be effective.
Lynn: I hear you saying that one of the ways that racism hurts White people is that it creates a deep emotional immaturity. And that that can persist, even well into the antiracist journey.
Ann: One major component of maturity, or one characteristic of a mature person, is that that person takes responsibility for their actions. And that if a person is involved in or benefits from a system of oppression, that they’re willing to examine that. If you are not able to see, or willing to look at, your own personal involvement, or willing to change your behavior… and especially if you just point your finger at other people and say “those people” are the problem… that’s pretty childish.
Caroline: With emotional maturity, simply naming an emotional challenge is a first step. And to be able to name something, you have to be able to sit with it.
I’m still thinking about your story of slowing down as you walked across the schoolyard. That’s how we have to do everything. Because if I don’t know that I’m acting a certain way because I’m afraid or I’m ashamed or I’m feeling guilty, if I haven’t done enough work on myself, then I’m just constantly acting out. We need to slow down to develop self-awareness and change our actions.
Lynn: Something’s coming up for me, as we’re talking about emotional maturity, and responsibility being a big part of that. As a White man, one of my concerns is about how few men show up in White antiracist spaces… I think it’s hugely important to mobilize White men. I find myself wondering if there’s a potential power around using the language of responsibility with White men, since that’s culturally resonant. I wonder if the language of responsibility could potentially call more White men into engaging with antiracist work.
Ann: Because they’ve been conditioned to think that to be a man is to be responsible? I think that’s a great idea to explore!
Lynn: Let’s circle back to this fear of discussing racism, which leads to widespread White silence. How does White silence harm society as a whole?
Ann: Racism is not going to end until White people get noisy about it. So that silence absolutely has to end.
Caroline: This makes me think back to working around HIV and AIDS. We had huge stickers everywhere, saying “Silence equals death.” Silence also equals death when it comes to racism. Silence is, by far, one of the biggest ways that any system of oppression can stay in place. Everything stays in place if we will not talk about it.
Lynn: I want to close out by thinking about how racism harms White people in very material terms, such as by hurting democracy or the economy. And how White silence actually maintains the material inequities that also harm White people.
Ann: When you look at preventing an entire, large group of people from actualizing their potential, by keeping them away from educational opportunities, by keeping them locked into poor neighborhoods with poor healthcare and all the problems that come with poverty and racism… then you have a society that doesn’t get to benefit from the gifts that all those people could give to the world, if they had been given the opportunity to actualize themselves. That is over-the-top huge. The loss of wealth and knowledge, the loss of skill and potential is vast.
Instead, we fill the prisons with people who had nowhere to go with their ingenuity, creativity and smarts but to the streets. We have a system that removes so much potential from our population, and it does it methodically, it does it legally, and it does it with the approval of the majority of voters. It’s overwhelming to even think about it.
We have no clue of what we could be as a country, if we didn’t have this horrible system. We have no clue of what we could be, if we didn’t have all this historical trauma. It’s so pervasive and insidious and harmful to everybody who lives in this country, regardless of whether these people know it or not.
Caroline: And all of that is happening in the context of denying that it’s even going on, or not knowing that it’s going on. So the educational piece is huge. And that education needs to be for adults, but it needs to begin with three-year-olds and all go all the way through grade school. And only then are we finally going to have a generation that actually understands the world they’re in.
Ann: But instead we’ve got people removing books from libraries and erasing history from textbooks…
Lynn: Ann, what you were saying so powerfully made me think of Langston Hughes… his poem that says, “America has never been America to me, but I swear, America will be.” The potential of what America could be, if everyone was free to pursue their potential.
Ann: Yes! Oh my goodness. When I went to the African American Museum in DC, it left me thinking, honestly, “Where would this country be without us?” To be there, surrounded by the art and the films and the music and the clothing and everything that Black people have created… And there were children running through the museum, and I wept. I wept because I thought, “If we had only had this then!” I’m so grateful that we have it now, and grateful for the people who’ve created it.
Lynn: And I’m so grateful to both of you, for all of your good work, and for granting me this interview. Shall we close on a final thought?
Caroline: White people are capable of so much more, when it comes to working for racial justice. So let’s mobilize our skills, keep calling more White people in, keep motivating them… and let’s all get more effective!