Unlearning Silence: A Grammar Lesson

In my last post, I explored the role of silence in white supremacist systems. In the time since I published that piece, a lot has happened. Like many, I would wager, I am currently reflecting on experiences of white silence and violence in my life. As an educator, I seek to be part of the solution, use the tools I have to offer, and share them with others.

To this end, I am applying a kind of sentence diagramming to communication I have received over the years. My method draws on and combines analytical approaches that have been developed by Black activistslegal scholars, and anti-racism researchers. By diagramming the language commonly used to shut down conversations about racism, I am able to deconstruct how white speech and rhetoric, which are also foundational to legal discourse, tend to rely on a tactic known in psychology circles as DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender).  

I do this for two reasons. 

First, both exchanges I analyze below were life-changing for me because both extended from and led to interpersonal violence with women with whom I had been very close for more than a decade. In both cases I tried to tell a white woman friend that her racist behavior and speech were damaging to me. In both cases, the response to my message relied upon the rhetorical devices of DARVO. In the time since these episodes, I have learned how to spot the patterns of white violence early and often in order to exist safely in both professional and social settings. 

Second, diagramming and deconstructing this language is a step towards my own healing. I do this in public because too often placing emphasis on protecting privacy becomes a way for abusive people and systems to go unchallenged and unexamined (think, for example, about legal measures like NDAs or claims of defamation). I share this to help others see the way racial violence exists in everyday language even between the closest of friends. The white speech analyzed below is oriented toward avoiding accountability, to be sure, but both cases are also examples of a violent rejection of discomfort and self-examination. Such forms of avoidance and rejection reinscribe an individualized understanding of race and racism (or inequality more generally). Ultimately, the forms of silence produced by white violence preclude an understanding that an individual’s behavior is but an instance of something systemic rather than something outside the systemic.

I hope by sharing these exchanges and providing post-mortem forensic analysis, so to speak, I will help others see these patterns for themselves, identify this white language for what it is—violence—and hopefully find healing, too.

Example 1: Cara and Chad

Context: Cara and I were roommates in college and we both belonged to the same sorority. About a decade after we graduated, in June 2011, the two of us were coming home from a night out. In her intoxicated state she became angry at our Pakistani cab driver and yelled at him “my husband could buy you and your whole country.” I was horrified. I tried to address the episode with her later in 2011, but Cara was unwilling to discuss what happened with me. The exchange below is from August 2016.

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Though I did not hear back from Cara, later that evening I did receive this message from her husband, Chad:

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I have broken down Chad’s message and analyzed below (powered by Scapple):

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Example 2: Brittany

Context: Brittany and I have been friends for approximately 10 years. We met while I was living in Boston in my 20s. For the past 10 years, I have considered Brittany one of my closest friends. I sent the following e-mail to Brittany in April to address some tension that has been building in our relationship since around 2015.

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This is the response I received three days later:

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I have broken down Brittany’s message and analyzed below (powered by Scapple):

In the process of deconstructing this language I noticed a few interesting patterns I’d like to highlight. While Chad’s message used the second person “you” to attack me, Brittany’s used the first person to center her intentions and deny responsibility. In both cases, the language is repetitive and meant to shift blame and thus avoid accountability. There is clearly room for a gender analysis here, though I won’t go into it now. The deny “sandwich” effect was also something that became clearer through the graphing process. Both Chad and Brittany’s messages open and close with language that is meant to deny that any harm occurred, which is a fairly textbook example of gaslighting.

P.S. Here’s a graphic I have found useful when practicing repair and relational ethics in my own life.

The Gottman Institute on Twitter: "The four step #apology: 1 ...

*A special thank you to the brilliant team of co-thinkers and collaborators who helped me with this project: Cosette Creamer, Lalita DuPerron, Daniel Fishman, Travis A. Jackson, Emily A. Johnson, Josie Leimbach, Julia Logan, Lynae Sowinski, and Hannah Shaw.

Cover image via Charis Books & More

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2 Replies to “Unlearning Silence: A Grammar Lesson”

  1. Very enlightening friend. A lot of individuals will be having theses types of conversations. And true identities will be revealed. Friendship will cross unfamiliar territory and reveal hidden truths. There is a saying, that says your Mommas can always tell our true friends. Divine motherly instinct given my a supernatural God.

  2. This blog is “giving me life”, as my kid sister says. I enjoy all of it so far, but especially the July writing; enjoyable, but it’s as serious as can be, felt like “Minor Feelings”. That’s a tough undertaking, to be critically important and fun to read, and speaks of the author’s great talent. Beside enjoying the style, the content is most important: taking a close look at considered (but not considerate), somewhat fervently typed, defenses of white privilege and its mistakes. The use and precision of the infographics are most helpful in understanding what goes through the mind of a white person accused of making the mistake of not showing a friend respect in their identity, enough to cause Rumya distress as it was happening and afterward. Whether intentional or not, the mistake might be offending that person who in their life experience had felt labeled as “other”, or pretending such events didn’t happen, during or afterward, or never considering any of it in the first place. But more important than the mistakes, in this piece and in the world we live in now, are the reactions and APOLOGIES. Apologies are more important than any excuse about why a person shouldn’t be offended. But defusing the apology and the fear of it is the key to critical and compassionate acceptance of historical trauma and its repercussions, especially among people with generational privilege and anger issues (like white people in the US). Great read, I will be watching this blog closely as I pursue my yoga teacher training as a white woman of privilige and attemot to keep the question “Am I guilty of EMOTIONAL AND SPIRITUAL BYPASSING?” in my mind forever). No one is exempt from ego, least of all me, and I can’t imagine the question ever being inappropriate, even to a master.

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