guest post authored by Emily Heaphy
I am a White person who has been learning about and working to be anti-racist for about 25 years. I grew up in a predominantly White town in western Massachusetts. By the time I graduated from high school, I had some sense of how sheltered I was and how homogenous my town was. I knew I wanted to learn more about race, though I didn’t know how that would occur. Since then, I have done a number of things to learn about Whiteness, racism, anti-racism, but this important part of myself has barely intersected with my identity as an organizational scholar studying high quality connections and positive relationships at work. What I want to do here is to consider some of what I have learned about how high quality connections matter in my own efforts at being White and anti-racist.
What are high quality connections? They are those meaningful moments when you are mutually engaged with another person, and you experience a sense of positive regard and vitality. In these connections, you can express more emotions, both negative and positive, in a constructive manner (we called this ‘emotional carrying capacity’). Your connection can withstand strain and function in a variety of circumstances (‘tensility’). You have a sense of expansive possibility (‘connectivity’). What’s more, these moments of high quality connection don’t have to be in long-term relationships. They can occur in one-time interactions, or they can be part of enduring relationships. My own and others research has demonstrated the impact of these high quality connections on our physiology, health and well-being, and learning, among other outcomes. This concept, at its core, has an emancipatory promise – that small moments of connection matter, that they are impactful on individuals, relationships, and organizations. Below I explore some of the implications I believe high quality connections have for White anti-racism.
High Quality Connections and Emotional Carrying Capacity
Working to be a White anti-racist involves personal discomfort. It involves coming to recognize that actions you personally have taken were racist, even if you didn’t intend them to be so. It involves recognizing that racism is part of the fabric of our society, that you benefit from that racism, and that people of color are being harmed by that racism every day. It means coming to terms with the fact that your success, such as it is, is due in part to the color of your skin and nothing else. It involves bringing up race and racism and Whiteness when other White people don’t want to talk about it. It involves living with the consequences of disrupting the status quo when speaking up or acting up about racism. It involves wondering, how have I been like Amy Cooper in my daily life? Will I even recognize it if I am? None of these are comfortable experiences or pleasant emotions. This discomfort is what leads, historically, to silence around racism and White privilege.
So where do high quality connections come in? I am grateful for the high quality connections I have with many people in my life who I can talk about those feelings of discomfort, work through those feelings, and not get stuck in the inaction associated with shame, guilt and embarrassment. Here are three examples from one recent week.
In a conversation with a White co-author and friend, this meant talking about how we felt about the police and extra-judicial killings of Black people, affirming our decisions to protest with our families, our respective experiences with and learning about race in our lifetimes, and our acknowledgement of and fear of our own internalized racism. It meant talking through the emotional experiences of talking to our young, multiracial kids about violence against Black people. It meant admitting our fears and our inadequacies. It meant encouraging each other to show up at protests and committing to learning more. As White women married to men of Asian descent, we asked ourselves, how do people of Asian descent fit into this whole picture?
With a close friend who is African-American, it meant reaching out about the most recent racist killings of Black people, but then respecting her signal that she didn’t really want to talk about it with me just yet. A few days later, when she asked how I felt as a White person, I shared my feelings, actions and responses when she asked – on her terms. And I listened to her expectation that because racism is a system upheld by White people, White people have to act to change it – and what was I doing? She could ask me. I can name and articulate my feelings and actions. This required the vulnerability of a high quality connection on both of our parts.
When a long-time White friend mentioned on a parent email listserv that she was waiting to tell her White kids about the most recent spate of African-American police and extra-judicial killings until school was over, I replied in a way that I hoped would encourage her to action. I told her that while every child and family is different, I do not believe there is a “good time” to talk to White kids about racist killings, and we had been talking about it for years with my 9-year-old son. In our high quality connection, I could encourage her to move from a place of silence to action, even within her own family.
These are just three of a number of examples from one recent week. These connections, along with the not-always-easy emotions, have spurred myself (and perhaps others) to anti-racist action.
High Quality Connections and Tensility
On a recent Saturday night, my family had a socially distanced backyard dinner with another family. Our families moved to the town at the same time two years ago. My family is multi-racial; the other family is of Indian descent. We talked about the police killing of George Floyd and the protests that night in Minneapolis. The other couple had looked into whether there was going to be any rally or protest in our town, and suggested we have a rally on the town common with our friends. We quickly said “yes!” Right then then and there, we created a Facebook event, and committed to inviting all of our friends in the area to come. No sooner had we published it than an acquaintance let me know that another group had scheduled a silent vigil for the same time. We were not imagining silence, but communion, chanting and protests. Immediately, we questioned how to respond – cancel, postpone, change the time or not? These discussions went on into the night in text messages, even after we had gone home and were trying to make decisions about how to proceed.
So where do high quality connections come in? The four of us – the two couples – can be described as having high quality connections. The characteristic of the high quality connection that matters for this story is tensility, or the ability to bend and withstand strain. Organizing an event – any event – involves lots of decisions, adapting to the evolving situation, and ideally remaining committed to the organizing purpose. We all were taking somewhat of a risk to create a “Justice for George Floyd” rally in a still-new-to-us, and predominantly White, town. We were all taking a risk in inviting all of our friends and acquaintances. Would anyone respond to our last minute invitation? Once we learned that there was another rally, we had to make a lot of adjustments and decisions. As four strong-willed people, we didn’t always have the same perspective on how to adapt. But – and here is where the high quality connection comes in – I (and I think we all) had total faith that we four organizers and friends could handle it. We hold each other in positive regard, we feel mutually present with each other, we experience feelings of aliveness together. We had faith we could commit to the decision, show up and support each other and whoever else showed up.
In the end, we got about 25 friends and neighbors to show up – to a rally that was estimated to be 1,000 people! We were a drop in the bucket. But because of our high quality connections, we did help to fill it. And what’s more, the event strengthened our connection quality to each other, and to all the rest who showed up.
The Absence of High Quality Connections
In my years of attempting to act in an anti-racist way, I have also made mistakes, big and small. In spite of the very real pain these mistakes have sometimes caused me and my family, I have been determined to try to learn from them. In reflecting on these experiences, I realized that one reoccurrence was that I had not done the work of coalition-building before trying to get a group to change. Or rather, my White privilege had led me to believe that I did not need to build a coalition ahead of time. The two people in my life who I am closest to are both people of color and extremely effective at navigating organizational politics. Having had many conversations with them about such dangers over the years, I realized that they would never have entered a strategically fraught space without having had several previous conversations, so that the outcome would be pre-determined before any formal discussions began. This had made me reflect deeply on the folly of acting alone, and without connections, and especially high quality connections.
I believe this is a critical lesson for White people trying to act in anti-racist ways. Our White privilege, like mine in these instances, made me believe I could act alone. Too many of us, I fear, in this moment of anti-racism are reading alone in our houses but not reaching out to take collective action. But if there is one thing that we can learn about social change, it is that it never happens as a result of one person but as a result of many people acting together in struggle toward a shared goal.
At the heart of many effective social movements are what we call high quality connections. There is singing, there is culture, there are shared emotions, all of which help nourish and bolster the collectives who are pushing through the hard and sometimes frankly dangerous work of making social change. This is not something that our specific research community has explored, at least that I am aware of. Because high quality connections have gained such traction in the research and practitioner world, I think those of us who are interested in pursuing an anti-racist agenda owe it to ourselves and our communities to more fully realize their emancipatory promise.