Oh friends, it’s Tuesday and you know what that means: you get to meet one of my people in the writing world! Heather Caliri is a fantastic writer and editor, and someone I also get to call friend. While she doesn’t have a traditional book out in this world yet, she will one day. So for now, enter into a conversation of color, as she learns and grows in her journey, just like many of us.
The other day at Disneyland, my roller-coaster-averse family decided to ride Indiana Jones together—the first time for my two daughters, 11 and 7. Standing in line, my husband started to strategize.
“You should ask for one of the back rows,” he said. The “Jeeps” for the ride have four rows—and sitting the first one is a lot more intense.
He stood behind me, our daughters sandwiched between us. I’d be the first to approach the Disney staff member, and thus the obvious choice to ask for a back row.
“Can we switch places?” I said, the idea of asking the crew member for a special request twisting my stomach.
He grinned at me, then nodded, well-aware of my social anxiety.
I hate talking to people out in the world; I used to refuse to order pizza over the phone. Even with people who are paid to get me what I need, I feel afraid to speak up.
So let’s just say that I’m as surprised by anyone that I’m able to talk about race in today’s fraught climate. In fact, though these conversations are tough, and make me nervous, I’ve realized I’ve gotten less socially anxious the more I’m willing to have them.
This is bizarre to me. I mean, tramping over taboos about political discussions goes against every rule in my born-in-the-Midwest playbook. Yet I’ve almost come to crave hard discussion about race these days. Because avoiding the topic feels worse than bringing it up.
Shame Is Toxic
I’m ashamed to say I have kept quiet when people I know say racist things. It’s hard to know what to say in the moment, and it’s awkward to speak up.
I used to tell myself that speaking up was unnecessary. After all, I wasn’t the one saying troubling things. Better to let it drop.
But you know what feels worse than awkwardness?
- Feeling ashamed that I made a poor, cowardly choice. It sucks.
- Even worse, knowing that every time I as a white person keep quiet, I make the world a less-safe place for the people of color I know and love.
I’m still learning how to speak truth in love in these awkward moments. I’ve told someone I felt troubled by their viewpoint—and invited them into conversation about it; I’ve looked shocked and expressed bewilderment at a ‘joke’ that was not funny. And I’ve strategized with friends about improving my responses and being readier to speak up when I’m at a loss.
Preparing myself mentally for these conversations feels better than pretending they don’t happen.
Because as tough as painful awkwardness is, it feels better than numb complicity.
Awareness Begets Life
Like many of us, I come from a dysfunctional family. For years, dealing with that dysfunction head-on seemed impossible. I didn’t know how to relate to my family members in more healthy ways—I only knew that when I opened my mouth, I might say the wrong thing, hurt someone, or make the chaos I grew up with worse.
But as I’ve aged, and gotten more therapy, the less I want to stay “safe”. “Safe” meant sacrificing my integrity and emotions on the altar of numbness. I’d agree to ignore the painful undercurrents in every family conversation—and in exchange, I’d get to—well, ignore all my pain.
It wasn’t really a great bargain.
I speak Spanish, and studied abroad in Latin America. My church has a Hispanic service, but for years I was too afraid to go. I was afraid of—well, of the awkwardness of being a wealthy white woman in a poorer, brown gathering.
But every time I saw one of our Hispanic congregants, I felt ashamed. (Needless to say, this did not make me very friendly or welcoming.)
When I finally showed up in that congregation, knees knocking, the pastor spoke frankly about the stereotypes and hostility Latinos experience in our town. It had been my worst nightmare to be the lone white person in the midst of an uncomfortable conversation. Yet to my surprise, I felt braced by the experience, not harmed. All that shame, all that energy spent avoiding my fear—
And here my pastor named it as casually as, well, one would order a pizza.
The truth is, my brothers and sisters in that congregation were very unfazed by the racial reality around them. That is not to say that it did not do them harm—but it certainly did not surprise them.
Learning how to be more hurt by it—and less surprised—feels good. It means that when the women in my Bible study tell me about the discrimination they faced at the DMV, I could know them better as friends. It means that when news headlines pop up about DACA or refuges, I feel but a deep grief—and a need to do something—not the dull resignation I used to feel.
These days, I’m a lot more afraid of numbness and disengagement than I am of offending someone. And I’ve found that people of all political stripes surprise me. I think all of us actually want to be able to manage these hard conversations with courage.
Racism Hurts People—Me Included
Before I began engaging with topics of race, I assumed that racism affected only brown people. I wasn’t all wrong—structural racism kills black and brown bodies, and limits the flourishing of many of my brothers and sisters.
Still though, I didn’t realize how my lack of engagement with race—my fear, my blindness, my complicity—robbed me of gifts I desperately needed.
As I started reading more art and literature by people of color, I came to know the world more richly.
As I heard new-to-me stories and learned our collective, terrible history, I was inspired by examples of fortitude and perseverance.
As I began to see how I was affected by issues of race, I realized how much shame and fear I’d been carrying around—shame that could turn into active engagement.
As I began to seek community with people of color, I found friends and connections that I was hungry for.
I’ve come to see that the discomfort I feel about engaging with race is like the stretching and strengthening of muscles. Rather then letting my fears and shame accumulate as anxiety and avoidance, I can engage my courage, compassion, and actions to release that toxic energy from my heart.
It’s a lot harder than ordering a pizza. But using my voice and caring for my neighbor is a much better bargain than living less than alive.
It’s an honor to hold Heather’s words in this space, and to also enter into this journey of entering into conversations of color alongside her. She’s the real deal folks, and here’s what she’s also got for you: Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety,” for free here.