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This is ASHA Voices. I’m J.D. Gray.
We know it can difficult to talk about race, but today’s guest says, that shouldn’t stop us from having those conversations.
Oluo: “A conversation should be a chance to lighten the burden off of people of color, and to look at what you can do to be part of a solution. So expect discomfort.”
That’s the voice of Ijeoma Oluo. The best-selling author spoke as a special guest of ASHA’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, or OMA, at the 2019 ASHA Convention. She delivered OMA’s 50th Anniversary Address.
Joined by former ASHA President Elise Davis-McFarland, I spoke with Ijeoma at the Convention. We discuss the difficulty of addressing race in conversation, and also talk about microaggressions. Not familiar with the term? We’ll break it down for you later in the episode.
In honor of Black History Month, we’re turning over our entire program to just this one conversation.
I’m J.D. Gray, and this is ASHA Voices.
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Support for ASHA Voices comes from ASHA’s online conference Innovative Methods for Preschool Assessment, Collaboration, and Treatment. This continuing education opportunity begins February 19. Learn more at on-dot-asha-dot-org-slash-preschool.
ASHA Voices is also brought to you by ASHA’s Speech-Language Pathology Practices Unit. Contact ASHA to connect with our clinical issues, healthcare, and schools teams by sending an email to s-l-p-info-at-asha-dot-org
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In Ijeoma Oluo’s book, So You Want to Talk About Race, she uses a tone that is both conversational and frank to address complex issues surrounding race and racism in America.
Joined by former ASHA President Elise Davis-McFarland, I spoke with Ijeoma at the 2019 ASHA Convention.
Gray: You’ve mentioned before that sometimes these conversations can make people uncomfortable, and that might be a reason that they avoid the conversations. You’ve said that that could be not a sign to avoid it, but an opportunity to make progress.
Ijeoma Oluo: When we decide not to have these conversations, what we’re saying is, “I would rather the people impacted by this just continue to carry this burden on their own.” A conversation should be a chance to lighten the burden off of people of color, and to look at what you can do to be part of a solution. So expect discomfort.
Things that are causing harm to people are going to be discomfort, especially when you have the chance to find out that you may be part of that harm. But you can’t grow and learn to do better if you don’t listen. If you avoid these conversations, whatever harm you may be participating in or ignoring or being a bystander to is still going to continue, whether you see it or not. So you have to make a conscious choice to be part of a solution.
Elise McFarland: Since you’re talking about conversations and communication,
I heard you say in one of your presentations that, very often, people don’t have the language to talk about racism. I’d like for you to say a little bit more about that. Tell us what you mean by that, and also what can be done about that.
Oluo: Yeah. I think it’s really important to recognize what a powerful tool of oppression it is to deny people the language to describe what they’re going through. And when it comes to systems of race and systemic racism, we’ve been systematically denied a way to talk about what’s happening to us. So a lot of the terms that we hear, terms like “privilege,”, terms like “white supremacy,” a lot of these terms were coined and defined by people who were suffering from systemic racism to try to name what’s happening to them.
But when I travel around the country and I ask people, “Where in school did you learn to talk about intersectionality? When did you learn to talk about the school to prison pipeline?”, they say, “We didn’t.” But these things are happening, and what happens when we deny people a way to talk about what’s happening to them is it doubles, sometimes even triples, the negative impact of that abuse, because you are being harmed and you live in a world that acts like it’s not happening, and then you are made to feel like you’ve gone crazy.
You’re made to feel like maybe you’re the problem and like you’re completely alone. And people, because they aren’t naming it and talking about it, people that you love may be participating in that harm. It’s really important that, when we’re talking about these things, what we’re doing is we’re validating lived experience of people of color, and we’re looking towards solutions.
Once we name something, then we can start talking about solutions for it.
McFarland: I think all of us have had situations in which, in terms of our lived experience, it becomes very clear that our lived experience as African Americans, as people of color, is very different from the lived experience of white folk. But then, when you begin to try to talk about that, one of the things that very often happens is that people don’t realize that they are benefiting from white privilege. They think that, because we live next door to each other and we’ve been to the same schools that, in many instances, our lives are pretty much alike.
What about the failure to own up to or even realize the differences? In terms of communication, what if anything can we bring to that, can we do about that? How can we bridge those gaps in terms of communication and discussion?
Oluo: Yeah. That’s a very common issue, and I’d say one of the biggest issues preventing productive conversations on issues of race. What that stems from is that part of the way in which racism flourishes and continues is that people made whiteness invisible. No one wakes up everyday, most people don’t wake up everyday and say, “I really want to harm people of color. I really want to benefit at their disadvantage.”
And so we make it invisible. We say, “This is normal.” Right? And so when we look at our pop culture, our books, we look at everyday life, what’s considered the normal way of life is actually whiteness, and the aberration is people of color.
One exercise I like to tell people to do is to just go through their day and look at what they’re interacting with and start saying “white.” So watch a television show and say, “This is my favorite television show written by white writers, with six white stars, one black star. I read a book today written by a white person, and all of the main characters were white. I watched the news and everyone was white,” just to see how quickly you get tired of seeing white, and how what you see is normal is actually whiteness and how often that excludes and ignores the lived realities of people of color.
Then ask, “How can you really say, if you are a white person, that you know what life is like for people of color? And if you’re a person of color, how could you ever expect to feel represented and heard and to know that your issues are being addressed in a world that is overwhelmingly just saying ‘white’ over and over and over again?” I think what we have to recognize is that, even people with the absolute best of intentions, are going to come out tainted with this overarching narrative, and that we have to start looking and saying, “You know what? We are all part of different collectives. We have all been fed this story. We act not only as individuals, but also as a group, and it has a real impact on the lives of others.”
And finally, I say it is really important to just agree to believe people, to really believe people of color. There are things I have lived that white people will never live. There are things I have lived as a woman that men will never live. What I need is for someone to say, “You know what? I respect you and I trust you, and I know that you’re telling me the truth.” I would rather bet on people and be wrong than call everyone a liar.
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Gray: We’re going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we’ll discuss microaggressions. What they are… where they live… and how we all might be able to play a role in making them disappear.
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Support for ASHA Voices comes from ASHA’s online conference Innovative Methods for Preschool Assessment, Collaboration, and Treatment. From February 19 to March 2, this continuing education opportunity will explore topics and share strategies for improving outcomes. You can earn up to two and a half ASHA CEUs for participating. Learn more at on-dot-asha-dot-org-slash-preschool.
ASHA Voices is brought to you by ASHA’s Speech-Language Pathology Practices Unit. The S-L-P Practices Unit assists ASHA members with schools, health care, and clinical questions. Contact one of our expert teams by sending an email to s-l-p-info-at-asha-dot-org
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(Music: ES_Forest Pond With Stars – Polar Nights 44100 1)
Gray: We’re going to return to the conversation with author Ijeoma Oluo and former ASHA president Elise Davis-McFarland.
During Ijeoma’s Address at the ASHA Convention, she talked about microaggressions.
What are microaggressions? In her book, So You Want to Talk about Race, Ijeoma describes microaggressions as quote small daily insults and indignities perpetrated against marginalized or oppressed people because of their affiliation with that marginalized or oppressed group end quote.
Ijeoma links microaggressions to health issues like raised blood pressure, and she emphasizes the stakes behind these actions. I asked Ijeoma to tell us more about microaggressions.
Oluo: It’s really important to recognize that things are called microaggressions, but it doesn’t mean the impact of them is small. They’re called microaggressions because they’re the everyday ways in which people of color are made to feel unwelcome and unsafe throughout the world. These are things that, oftentimes, people who are perpetuating them against people of color don’t realize that they’re doing it. But the cumulative effect is incredibly strong. This is often in comments that people will make, and oftentimes when you’re talking about speech, it’s around language, word choice, accent, and it may seem like a compliment.
It’s just everyday little things that might be jokes, snide comments, comments about someone’s hair or their appearance that let them know, “You don’t actually belong here.” Every time that happens, your body responds to threat. Your body responds to a sense of danger. Your heart rate elevates a little bit. You start breathing a little faster. You get on guard. That is a natural physical response to the thought that you might be facing someone who’s hostile to you. When that happens occasionally, no big deal. But when it happens every day, multiple times a day, and you can’t predict when, what you do is then you wander around with an elevated response.
Your fight-or-flight response is constantly active, and that wears on you. It has real long-term health impacts for people or color, whether that’s psychological impacts and physical impacts, as well. It hurts people of color.
An analogy I like to use is, if you’re walking throughout your day and someone, a couple of times a day, is going to walk up and punch you in the arm and you don’t know when or where, it’s going to hurt. It’ll hurt the first time, the second time.
By the 50th time, you’ve got stress fractures and you can’t heal. You don’t know where it’s happening, and you run around flinching all of the time, afraid that someone’s going to punch you. And then, one day, someone walks by, and they’re not even trying to punch you. They’re just gesticulating wildly, and they hit you in the spot that just broke, and you scream. They turn to you and they say, “I didn’t mean to. Why are you so sensitive?” But you walked by everyday seeing that person get punched and you didn’t say anything, and you didn’t think I should be more careful.
You are responsible for how you’ve added to that person’s pain. We need to be looking at the way in which we perpetrate microaggressions against people of color in a similar way. We need to know that we are not just acting alone. We are adding to cumulative, continuous harm that’s being done to people of color.
McFarland: I’m sitting here thinking about the microaggressions that I always expect to experience when I come to a convention, and that is the … I’m on the elevator, the elevator door opens and the white person standing there hesitates to get on. If it’s me, that’s one thing, but if it’s an African American man or a man of color, the hesitation is longer. I’ve even seen folk back away and not get on the elevator.
Oluo: I actually had that happen to me in Portland. I was on with a family, and it was so funny. It was a white family, and I had just driven four hours and I was getting ready to go to my hotel, and this little girl goes, “Oh, no. No, I don’t want to be on the elevator with her.” Now this little girl could’ve been saying it for any reason, right? But her parents are adults who live in the world and recognize that their white daughter is saying this to the one black person on the elevator. Instead of saying, “Honey, that’s rude,” or “Sorry,” they go, “You know what? We don’t get to choose who we ride the elevator with.”
And then they got off on the next floor, and I got off. My room was right next to the elevator, so I got off and went in my room. 30 seconds later, I hear them get back up on the floor. They got back on the elevator and got on the floor and got off there. It’s a constant reminder that your very existence is unwelcome in many spaces.
McFarland: Most definitely.
Gray: These conversations about race and microaggressions, they create opportunities for people to recognize them, people on the giving end of the microaggressions.
These conversations can maybe allow them time for reflection and to say, “Okay. What am I saying? How is that affecting people?”
Oluo: Yeah. I think one of the most important things to do is, when you are confronted with the way in which you’re acting that’s harming people, or even when you have these thoughts that pop up in your head that maybe you don’t act upon, instead of going, “Oh, I didn’t do that. You’re being too sensitive,” or “Oh, I’m the worst. I’ll never do that again. Oh, my god. Oh, my god. I’m so sorry,” pause and think, “Why did I do that? Why did I think that? Where did that come from? Where did I learn this?”
So the family that I interacted with on the elevator could’ve paused and thought, “Why does our daughter think about this? Do we have any people of color in our life? Why is she so uncomfortable?”
Start looking deeper and start asking, “What does this say about how I’m interacting with people? What does this say about what I’ve learned and what I may be teaching and what messages I may be putting out there?” Take the opportunity to dig deeper, because it’s never just the action. If you pause to get on an elevator with people of color, even if you get over that initial fear, if you don’t investigate it, it means that … A mayor talking about stop and frisk? You’re susceptible to that.
Someone talking about crowd control, someone talking about rowdy students and they’re ending up kicking out students of color, harassing students of color, you’re susceptible to all of that messaging if you don’t pause and think, “Why am I nervous around people of color? What messaging has sunk into me? What do I need to eradicate out of myself?”
If you just shove it away and act like it doesn’t mean anything more, you will continue to show that nervousness and that fear in many other, much more damaging ways throughout your life if you don’t take the great opportunity to examine it.
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Gray: We’re going to take a quick break.
If you are enjoying the conversation, check out the January-February issue of the ASHA Leader magazine. In it, you can find articles and resources that discuss race, language, and culture. Speech-language pathologists might take special interest in the issue’s feature articles. It looks at African American English, or A-A-E, and the authors discuss looking at A-A-E with a perspective that can help prevent misdiagnosis during speech and language assessments. You’ll also hear those authors on the next episode of the podcast.
Oluo: Part of that is that we live in a society that likes to pretend this is a meritocracy. We like to pretend that, if you do the right things, make the right choices, work hard enough, everyone can lift themselves up. But that’s not the case and has never been the case. While some people, with extraordinary effort and extraordinary luck, will be able to rise above mountains of systemic oppression to greatness, the truth is that most people will not be able to.
And even what they achieve will be a fraction of what they would’ve achieved without those barriers. What I try to do is I try to get people to look at systemic oppression, look at the history of it.
I think that a lot of what’s denied communities of color, especially black communities in need, is the ability to be proud of the fact that we still exist.
My own house, the deed on my house, says black people aren’t allowed to own my home. It’s been that way for 100 years. It’s important to recognize that, look at that and not say, “This means we’re doomed,” but say, “Wow. Look what we’ve done. We’ve built so much history, and we can do more, but we have the right to actually flourish. We have the right to do this without struggle. We have the right to do this without pain. We have the right for our everyday people, not our greatest, not our brightest, not our strongest, to live because we’re human beings.”
Oluo: But it’s really important that we know our history, that we educate our real, full history, and that we recognize the way in which we’ve been programmed to see that this is our fault, to see that these things don’t exist, to see that our communities haven’t been torn down time and time again.
I think that what we forget, because our definition of success doesn’t seem to match up to white definitions of success, that our survival is beautiful. It should be more. But the amount of strength and resiliency it’s taken to still be here, to still hold each other, to still hold our babies, to still sing songs, to still have stories is amazing. We just have to celebrate it more, and I think we have to build space to celebrate what we’ve done.
And we have to just welcome it and say, “We are still here and that is a beautiful thing. We deserve more to honor what we’ve done.”
McFarland: I don’t think anybody would disagree that we need to have our own standards. We need to look at ourselves and our culture and decide what is positive, what is good, what we need to celebrate. But given that the system that we live in, that can be very, very difficult, and there are so many things that mitigate against that. That’s certainly something that … That would stand us in very good stead if we were able to do it, if we are, and when we are able to do it.
Oluo: Absolutely. And I agree with you. I don’t think we can just imagine a different world and be in it, right? It is very tough because we are battling overwhelming messaging and systems that control our lives, that say otherwise. But what I definitely want to remind people of, the system we live in right now serves nobody. While it does active, real harm to us, it doesn’t serve the average white person either. This system is broken, and we have to start imagining more.
I think that what we forget- what I have to remind myself as someone who does this work, is that I am fighting for every individual black person, every individual person of color. This means that, even though I will not see the end of this system, if I do one thing that gives one person one day, it is worth it. And I think that when we value that and say, “You know what? Even a day of laughter, a day of joy, a day of feeling heard is worth it, and we will celebrate that,” I think the more time we can spend in that space, the better off we will be.
We can feel very defeated when we look at the whole system and say, “But we can’t fix it all.” But I think we are worth recognizing that every day of joy we have is worth celebrating and fighting for, and that’s what we’re fighting for.
Author Ijeoma Oluo…. Her best-selling book is called So You Want to Talk about Race. She gave the 50th Anniversary Address for ASHA’s Office of Multicultural Affairs at the 2019 ASHA Convention.
To read about the many ways O-M-A helps ASHA members address culture and language, and diversity among professionals and those with communication disorders or differences, visit asha dot org and search for multicultural.
A special thank you to Elise Davis-McFarland for joining me in this conversation.
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ASHA Voices is produced by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association and comes from the team behind the ASHA Leader magazine.
Support for ASHA Voices comes from ASHA’s online conference, Innovative Methods for Preschool Assessment, Collaboration, and Treatment. In it, you can explore key topics and get strategies for improving outcomes beginning February 19. Learn more at on-dot-asha-dot-org-slash-preschool.
ASHA Voices is brought to you by ASHA’s Speech-Language Pathology Practices Unit. Connect with clinical issues, healthcare, and schools teams by sending an email to s-l-p-info-at-asha-dot-org
Production assistance comes from Pamela Lorence. I’m J.D. Gray, and this is ASHA Voices.
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Next time on ASHA Voices …
We continue our pair of shows in honor of Black History Month with a conversation on African American English. Listen in to find out why some of our guests call the subject: taboo.
And check out the January-February issue of the ASHA Leader magazine to read more on the subject.
That’s next time on ASHA Voices.