They Are So Very Controlled (Podcast)

Edited for clarity transcription of the main content of this podcast

Heather: Hey so I’m really happy to welcome Peter Wicks. One of the workshops I run is on tone policing and I learnt about it from Layla Saad’s book Me and White Supremacy. It’s around how there’s kind of this white middle class politeness that shuts Black, indigenous, people of colour down by saying, “Oh, if you’re angry about something, we can’t hear you unless you are speaking politely to us.”

But, in addition to that, I have noticed, as a mixed heritage person, (Latina from my dad’s side and white, European heritage on my mom’s side) that, in some spaces that are just Black, indigenous, people of colour and some spaces that are white spaces (white, middle class, Western spaces), there is a huge difference between the two.

With the BIPOC spaces, everything is really relaxed and fun and we swear and just kind of say what we’re feeling. And in the white, middle class, Western spaces, it feels so… controlled. And I wouldn’t necessarily say performative. (You do hear that word a lot to describe people who want to look anti-racist, that kind of thing.) This seems broader. It could be a space with all white people, and it’s still very controlled.

What do you make of that? I know you’re in those kind of spaces as well.

Peter: I have to think really carefully about this…(laughs) One thought that I have is that when we are trying to control the way that we’re communicating, there has to be some kind of fear mechanism in play. It’s like we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. We’re afraid of expressing ourselves in a way that is not in conformity with some kind of role. Now, obviously, that can sometimes be a good thing if the alternative is that you’re going to say something that’s really harmful. Then better to be controlled. So, I guess the question for me would be, actually two questions: One is “Why do we need to control ourselves and the way we express ourselves to avoid saying something harmful?” And, secondly, “At what point does that actually become part of the problem?” So, when is it better to keep a control, keep a conscious control, on how we are expressing ourselves and when is it better to just loosen up and say whatever comes into our heads?

Heather: So, when you mentioned fear right away, it made me think of the White Supremacy Culture Patterns that come up that I mention throughout many workshops. They have their own workshops, Tema Okun’s work, and we look at it in great detail in that particular workshop and the Cult Dynamics workshop. And so there’s so much fear, as you say, of getting things right. Another pattern is perfectionism. We don’t want to seem to be wrong and, if there’s a lack of reflection in the culture, then possibly there’s that lack of humility and curiosity, which would make it okay to make the mistake. It would make it okay to not have to control it so tightly. So, remind me, again, the two questions that arise for you?

Peter: What is it that makes us dependent on control in order to avoid saying something harmful?

Heather: So, for that one, could it be that people have an experience, or a generational experience, of being ostracised if they do the wrong thing?

Peter: For sure. And, of course, it can be other kinds of trauma. We learn from our childhood or whatever and it will play out unless we keep quite a tight rein on how we express ourselves.

Heather: Yeah, okay. So when I look at this wall of (laughs) white, middle class, Western people who are so tightly controlled, it’s a lot of fear… And then your second question…

Peter: So, if there are times that it is good to be controlled because the alternative might be worse. How do we know when to keep that control and when is it better to actually loosen up?

Heather: How do you answer that question for yourself, when you’re in those spaces?

Peter: I think it will depend very much on how relaxed I am. So this is not like me having a thought about when is it good to loosen up, and when is it good to keep control. It’s more, When in practice do I loosen up? So when of course I’m feeling good and relaxed then of course I’ll loosen up because the fear mechanism just isn’t there. Whereas if I’m feeling a bit cagey then it’s almost impossible to loosen up so in one way or another I’m going to be paying close attention to how I express myself.

Heather: I feel that way as well. That I feel a kind of confidence in, a groundedness in, myself, where I am going to be myself and, probably for both of us, there isn’t a danger of being cut off from people in these spaces, from people we need. Whereas, for someone else, the ramifications of doing the wrong thing could be larger. And I’m thinking more in terms of people with less power and privilege who need to be in those spaces. They will need to keep in control.

But I don’t want to think too much about them. I’m thinking about the white, middle class, Western people and about how they’re so controlled. We talk about nervous systems a lot and regulation of nervous systems and it could be that, if you’re not well regulated in your nervous system, then you won’t have that confidence and that grounding in order to just be yourself. And so you’re in a more controlled state. There’s maybe some group think that goes on where, if you’re not very well grounded, and you see everyone else being really controlled, you will see this is the way, this is the culture of this space, is to remain very controlled. So you probably won’t take that chance.

Peter: Right. And if you do, you might just get slapped down. If the culture of the whole gathering is there are certain kind of rules to be respected and then you contravene those rules, it’s probably going to cause stress for other people. So it may actually be better not to, unless there’s some particular reason why you’re thinking, “Oh no, I really need to interrupt this.”

Whereas, in another setting, where it’s all much more spontaneous, well, then it makes sense to be spontaneous yourself. There’s a kind of conformity which may actually be healthy, because it’s adaptive. Unless you’re supporting or condoning an approach which is unhealthy in some way.

Heather: We always have to remember the power and privilege that is involved in a space. There always will be. Even if it’s all women, there’s going to be some kind of power dynamic going on.

First of all, the observation of how I would want people listening or watching to recognise that that space that we’ve been describing will be deeply unattractive to some people. If you are trying to welcome more people into that space who have not been raised in that culture, I can attest that it looks like a very scary space (laughs), because people don’t seem very authentic in that space. So I would want to point out that people need to recognise this.

And that’s where the tone policing comes in because then it feels like anyone coming in who wants to say something, and isn’t going to be performative, well, it will really feel performative. Because it won’t feel natural to control everything in that way.

And then, separate from that, even if it stayed a white, middle class, Western space, (white people are my people, too, you know!), I don’t want people to have to be so controlled. I want people to experience what I get to experience in the BIPOC spaces, which is just based on love and being relaxed (and I can only speak from my own experience in these spaces, and there’s more than one), it feels like there’s a general understanding of something. And that’s what ties us together and that’s what makes this space safe. And there will be tensions, and people have called each other out on things. And I say “called them out”. There are different definitions of what “calling out” is but if you’re in a space and you are able to say, “What you just said sounds like you are blaming me for whatever”… (I call that “calling out”, you might call it, I don’t know), but it’s not a nice, very controlled naming of something. It’s more like a “I need to tell you what I just heard and it was painful”. So I want my white people, my white, middle class, Western people to be able to relax and connect with people in a way that they don’t need to be deciding what they are about to say, how it’s going to look, being so careful. How do we support people in being able to create that own space for themselves?

Peter: I think part of the problem with this demographic, the white, middle class, particularly the quite highly educated. And what do we mean by highly educated? We mean that we’ve been to university, we’ve been inculcated with a lot of language-based learning which keeps us very much in our heads, very cerebral. We find it very difficult to express what is within, in an authentic way. So, in a way, I think the way what you observe about those gatherings is actually a reflection of a much deeper problem than can’t be solved by changing the way we interact in those gatherings. We need to do work in really getting much more connected, mind and body. There’s a lot of work, and it takes a long time.

When there’s fear, maybe we need to get better at expressing that fear. Like, if we are freaking out, maybe we need to learn to express that, even physically, instead of being so controlled. Because the fear will be there, I think. It’s difficult to get rid of the fear. Maybe we shouldn’t be trying to.

Heather: So that’s a good point. To just name where we’re at and model that. In my workshops, I try to include somatic exercises that I’ve learnt from Resmaa Menakem. When he’s doing a one-to-one with someone and they start talking rapidly, he’s, like, “Pause”. He notices we’re getting into our heads and he wants us to notice what’s going on in our bodies. Maybe that’s one simple intervention that could be made in these spaces that could become part of the culture. At the beginning of the meeting, you’re reminded that this is what we’re going to do. And I know that in some spaces there are skilled facilitators who could then stay aware of that. I mean, sometimes they’re not even aware of this going on. But if you had people who had seen it modelled and then could interrupt people, like when someone’s having their turn talking, it could become part of the culture that they’re interrupted to allow that person to feel what they’re talking about and allow everyone to kind of like (sighs) “Okay, breathe. Look around the room.” You know, regulate a bit. And this could serve as a way to co-regulate as a community. What do you think?

Peter: I think that all sounds good and I was also thinking that, when we’re talking, we need to try to articulate what we are feeling. And we can do that with body language, we can make that part of what we are saying. So, for example, if someone says something that causes us to feel a certain way, we can talk about what we’re feeling in response to what the other person has said so that there’s more of a connection between the conversation, between the words that are being used and what is actually going on somatically in the people, using those words. I think would help things to go a lot more smoothly.

Heather: So we need to practice a kind of vocabulary of feelings. This reminds me that I recently did a course on nonviolent communication for people of colour. They use a list of feeling words. I’m trained in the white supremacy culture and I don’t know how to describe my feelings (laughs) very well at all and, so, getting into a habit of looking at that list and saying, “What am I feeling? How would I describe it?” And that’s like just exercising a muscle on how to describe feelings. And we could even use the excuse of the normal gathering to talk about something but really the goal is to periodically practice describing what we’re feeling during that meeting. It’s like learning a new language, right?

Peter: Right. And also about feeling safe to use that language. I think a lot of people find it very discomforting to talk about feelings. Somehow, of course, the more we do it, and the more we hear other people do it, the more we’re gonna feel safe doing it ourselves. But that’s like a threshold that we have to go through. But, at the beginning, you’re probably gonna have to say, “Yeah, right, for this part of the conversation we’re just all going to talk about how we are feeling” and not necessarily in the sense of doing a “check in” but this is what we’re going to be discussing, we’re going to be discussing how we are all feeling. Perhaps in relation to a particular issue that is controversial or whatever. I think, in that way, the habits develop and people start to get more comfortable with that style of expression.

Heather: So let me try to pull out what we’ve been saying. If we were going to make suggestions, it would be, I think:

  1. To recognise that the way the current culture is in those spaces — the white, middle class, Western spaces –is not attractive to everybody. So any idea of making that space more welcoming, you’d need to keep that in mind.
  2. To circulate a list of feeling words and have people practice using those words. In facilitated spaces, those faciltators could practice interrupting, make it part of the culture that people do get interrupted to pause and go into what’s going on in their body and the feelings that are coming up. That would be for the person speaking and also for everyone listening because we can get very tense with that. And that would start to chagne the culture, perhaps, which would be regulating for the people in that group and also might one day make that gorup more welcoming to people who don’t find that space comfortable.

Peter: And it would certainly be more authentic. Because what makes a space inauthentic? It is when there are feelings that are not being expressed because ,for one reason or another, participants don’t feel safe expressing them. So it’s like we have to increase the range of feelings that people feel safe to express, including anger, for example. That will make it more authentic and, I think, that would also make it more attractive.

Heather: Absolutely, yeah. Anger is one of those tone policing things. Especially when someone has just been the target of a racist comment and to expect them to put on this kind, middle-class demeanour in order to call someone “in” isn’t realistic and is oppressive. So we need to get good at being able to hear anger so that we can still be able to listen to what the content is. Okay good. Thank you for that.

Peter: My pleasure.

Heather: And I’m sure there’ll be more conversations to be had along these lines and I just want to point out that you’re a white man and the “highly educated” kind. I just did the quotation marks in the air. And your accent does confuse some people but you are from England. Speak soon. Great. Thanks, Peter.

Peter: Speak soon, Heather. Thanks.