Preface: This is only about interactions and conversations with people who are active, committed allies. This is NOT about conversations with anyone in the alt-right, or your sexist, homophobic uncle.
I see this dynamic play out over, and over, and I realized I really needed to write something about it.
The dynamic is this: someone with privilege (race, gender, class, cis, sexuality, ability, etc.) says or does something. Perhaps it’s an unconscious mistake, or perhaps not. What happens next is that the person without privilege gets triggered. And then they speak about what that privileged person just said, which then triggers the person with privilege, because, of course it does.
And with both people speaking while they are triggered, they continue to injure each other, and probably themselves, too. The person without privilege gets more jaded, and the person with privilege gets more wounded, feels more shame, and nothing changes. They each bring this same dynamic into other places and spaces, and… no wonder everyone feels like shit about the whole thing.
What’s most important for both sides of this equation is learning to get untriggered before you speak. It’s just as important for the person without privilege as it is for the person with.
Why is this? This is not about what’s right, or what’s polite, or whatever. This isn’t tone policing. This is about what’s effective, knowing what we know about the brain. One of the things we know about the brain is that when we get triggered – we’re in fight or flight mode. Our amygdalas are active. And what do they do? They actively hijack traffic from your pre-frontal cortex – that’s your wise, thinking brain. The amygdala does that because it’s not evolutionarily advantageous for us to be thinking when we’re in mortal danger. But it gets us in all sorts of trouble because in this modern world, we’re not all that often in mortal danger. And you might think you’re being brilliant in your riposte to what you are sure was the racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/classist comment someone made, but you’re not. You are actually not using your wise, thinking mind. Which means that whatever you think happened isn’t necessarily what happened, and what you say isn’t going to be effective. And how a conversation like that unfolds is never going to result in the outcome you’re looking for.
Why is it that what you think happened isn’t necessarily what actually happened? First off, as I said, when you got triggered, your brain turned off your wise mind – so you can’t effectively evaluate what was said or done in that state. Second, our brains are masters at filling in blanks – it’s really an important tool, but when it comes to interpersonal relationships, the way our brains fill in blanks is actually quite often wrong.
Anyway, if you keep doing this, it’s going to keep being the same thing, over and over. We can’t move forward with our amygdalas. That’s part of why we’re in the mess we’re in. Those of us without privilege don’t get off the hook, sadly. We still have to do our own work to do, too.