I have this friend who’s, well, colorful. He’s a simple fellow, tells you exactly what he thinks, makes me laugh like hell, cusses like an unrepentant sailor, and is as openhearted and generous to his friends as anyone I know.
He’s also a racist.
His attitudes toward people of color have always felt like a thorn in my finger: sharp, painful, dipped in poison. I know I should say something direct, but confrontation is my weakest suit. Instead (in my better moments at least) I deflect: my responses don’t confront him, but they do let him know I stand somewhere different. When he says, “This neighborhood’s changed since the blacks moved in,” I say something like “Oh, that’s cool” or “So it’s more interesting now.”
In today’s zeitgeist, such an approach would brand me as complicit in racism. Perhaps that’s true. But there might be another way to think about it.
All of this came to mind when a TED Talk appeared in my inbox yesterday. The speaker is Sarah Corbett, an activist and introvert, who explains that traditional activism is typically loud, quick to react, assertive, confrontational—an introvert’s version of hell, in other words. She goes on to describe ways in which introverts can engage in activism.
At about the 7:10 mark of the video, she uses the term intimate activism to describe a style that’s nonconfrontational, that involves lots of listening and bridge building, that speaks directly when needed. It allows introverts to serve as (in Corbett’s words) “critical friends, not aggressive enemies.”
It’s like she designed it just for me.
OK, so I’m still not good at the “critical” part of “critical friends.” But I hear Corbett validating an insight that keeps nagging at me: name a social problem of our time, and there’s more than one way to contribute to the solution.
In fact, there may be as many ways to contribute as there are people. When you contribute from your strengths—no matter how inadequate they may seem to you and others—you may make an impact that can’t be made in any other way.
I’ve been wondering about this ever since riding in a car with my friend this past fall. For the hundredth time, he made a disparaging comment about people of color, and for the hundredth time I deflected. And he said to me, quietly, “Are you OK with them?”
I didn’t say much: something like “yes” or “absolutely.” But in his question I felt something shift, something important and deep within him. Maybe all my “lame” responses had, over the years, made a not-so-lame impact.
What I’m trying to say is that every form of activism has value. All those folks who call people out and march in protest and speak loud and angrily in news reports—we need them to do what they do best. But it’s a mistake for me to try doing what they do best. Doing what I do best, on the other hand, might just make a difference.
What about you? How do you address big social issues like racism when they come up in your life?