I was beginning to think I’d lost my humanity. I push the dog. Scream at the kids. I roll my eyes at people I overhear talking about things I disagree with. I feel overwhelmed, incompetent, exhausted, and afraid a lot of the time. Maybe you can relate to some of this. I’m glad to report I’ve begun to find my humanity again.
Last December, I invited folks with a White identity teaching in student affairs preparation to do a training together. We used Sandra Kim’s online program Healing from Toxic Whiteness. We also held virtual discussions every couple weeks to process what we were learning together.
I’ve learned many things from the training and the community we’ve built. It’s honestly helped me to reconnect with my humanity. Kim explains how we’ve actually been socialized to interact with each other in dehumanizing ways. For example, we don’t listen to each other. We think we know what someone is going to say before they start. We often think we know how things will end and react prematurely. We plan out a whole conversation from beginning to end before it happens. I see this too often in myself.
In the training, Sandra Kim explains the compassionate activism approach. She explains how colonialism and White supremacy have led most of us to know only certain ways to interact with each other. We know how to judge ourselves and others. We know how to ignore the pain of people of color and other people in minoritized groups. We know how to talk at each other but not listen to ourselves and each other.
A piece of losing my humanity is using coercion in daily interactions. As I’m writing that I’m thinking it makes me sound pretty awful. Before this training I would have denied that I’m coercive. I certainly never decided, “I want to be coercive. Let’s get started.” But as Sandra Kim explained, sometimes we’re so passionate about something, or we so much want the pain to stop that we coerce ourselves and others.
Let me give an example of coercion. One day a colleague made a comment that landed on me as very racist. I was sure that the person hadn’t meant it to be, but because of their background, they weren’t aware of the impact that it had on me and probably others. I was nearly sick to my stomach thinking about how I could approach this person to bring it up, but I felt I must. I imagined the conversation in my head—what I’d say and what they’d say. Over and over and over. I noticed the pit in my stomach and the tightness in my chest. I was a mess for hours as I stewed what to say and how to say it. As I noticed what was going on for me, I figured out I was mostly worried the person wouldn’t agree with me because either (a) I wouldn’t be able to explain how the comment was racist or (b) because I wouldn’t lay out an effective argument about why they should feel the way I do about it. This is the coercion that I mentioned.
As a teacher, that philosophy of coercion and control informs my curriculum, lesson plans, and interactions. I’m usually thinking “how can I get students to the place I want them to go.” That’s teaching, right? There are all kinds of tools we use: incentive, requirements, and evaluation. It sounds funny when I write it out here—teaching is about control–yet I know it to be the ways I often think about my teaching.
Sandra Kim explains a method of compassionate activism which, instead of control and coercion, includes elements of consent along the way. It begins with the self. Using this method I can ask myself, “Do I want to talk to my colleague about what they said?” instead of doing it because I worry I’ll be a bad person if I fail to talk with them.
In that scenario, I followed the steps that Kim explains in the training. First, she explains how important it is to do that self-work which involves not coercing or shaming oneself. It also includes paying attention to pain and how that may motivate us as individuals to move towards or away from different interactions. Only then, once the self-work has been done and one has addressed within oneself the “emotional charge” then an individual has much greater capacity to connect with another person. In my situation, I needed to notice and pay attention to how I was taking on the responsibility to change another person’s mind and I was fearful that I would not be a good person or ally if I failed to do so.
In order to connect with others, Kim explains we need to ask the other person to share more about their internal reality. We also need to invite their participation rather than expect it. Expecting their participation ignores their agency as people and is dehumanizing. It also has a likelihood of being ineffective as people who feel pushed into a situation often resist. In the situation with my colleague I described earlier I finally went to talk with them. I went only after I realized that I didn’t have to coerce them into believing what I did. I realized I only had to talk and listen to them. I thought to myself, “That’s easy. I can do that.” In that way I had also released the emotional charge inside me that was swirling. That kind of human connection—talking and listening– is natural to me and aligns with my values. Once I was able to work through my own emotional charge, I had much greater capacity to listen to and have a human interaction with my colleague. I’m pretty sure that if I had talked to my colleague before coming to clarity about what was going on inside me, I would have been talking at him instead of interacting with him as a human.
There’s another layer to the situation. There are the power dynamics. I’m not always tracking those from my mostly dominant social positions as a cisgender White woman teacher, who doesn’t have a disability, from an upper-middle class background. I hardly think I’m being coercive when I’m talking about my passion for social justice to students. I hardly feel like I’m being coercive when I talk in the classroom about how important it is that we notice how some groups’ needs are met and others are often not. I’m just passionate. But taking this course, I’ve noticed that it sure does feel like coercion in the classroom with students and at home with my kids. When I talk about it with passion and no invitation on how other people feel, amidst that power dynamic, it can feel like my way is the only way. And the students and kids in these situations get turned into the objects of my lessons. Anyone like to be the object of a lesson? Doesn’t sound appealing to me.
So, now I’m working this philosophy into my life and my teaching to be on the lookout for my coercive efforts. To pay more attention to how my positions of power may be playing out. I’m focusing on being a better listener and inviting, rather than expecting, people to engage with me. Offering invitations rather than expecting people to engage with us is not the same as allowing people to abuse us or bully others. Kim states that as individuals and groups we can set boundaries about behavior that is having a negative impact in certain spaces and that we can do this still in a humane way, acknowledging the other person’s reality. It’s a slow process for me to unlearn engrained habits. It’s worth it because my humanity is priceless. And importantly, in my fullness I am so much more capable of being present with people and advocating for justice.
Bio: Stephanie Bondi is on a journey to find more of her stolen humanity. She teaches at University of Nebraska – Lincoln in the student affairs program and is mom to Rylee and Reece. Contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @s_bondi