The Confederate Flag, Intent Vs. Impact, and Therapeutic Spaces [Ask Dr. Breeze]

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For several years now, I have received scores of emails that have asked me for advice on certain situations. As of yesterday, I decided to create a Ask Dr. Breeze section of my Sistah Vegan Blog.  Simply send me your questions and Post them to the blog and try to offer a response. The most important thing to remember is that these responses are my take on the situation; it is not the end all be all and simply 1 perspective out of billions. What I can provide is a critical race feminist framework + my own embodied experiences + engaged mindfulness (Ahimsa and Zen Buddhist based) when offering my wisdom.

Here is the first email to kick off the series. At the end, I offered my two cents but also wanted to open it up to others out there who would like to compassionately weigh in. I definitely will not be publishing comments that are cruel and troll-like. 

Note: the person who wrote the email below is a Black identified woman.

Dear Breeze, 
On another note, I would like to kindly ask your opinion/input on a situation. I just started attending a therapeutic group that is using “The Artist’s Way” book by Julia Cameron for a ten weeks. Hence, the center should foster a safe space for healing as they are a counseling center. When I attended my first session this past Wednesday, a man came in late and he had a prominent confederate flag patch on his leather vest. When I saw that, I was immediately uncomfortable. What is alarming is that both facilitators never said a word, and one of the facilitators is a black woman. I wanted to bring this up to the group but felt maybe I should wait since it is the first session and just let the facilitators know.  Also, I didn’t want to create an environment (for me) where the other people in the group who are all white may try to tell me that I am wrong for feeling the way I do as he is not a racist, etc. So, I let the two women facilitators know how uncomfortable I was and that he consciously wore this flag to the center with intent. One of the facilitators asked if I wanted to bring this up to the group which I said I didn’t have a problem doing; I stated I don’t feel I should have to educate people on what the flag represents and symbolizes as it should be evident especially with all the media attention and recent [Charleston] tragedy . Additionally, I said I should not have to defend myself against this as again, it is evident. 
Since both facilitators are interns, they said they would speak to the clinical supervisor. I received a voice message today that the center spoke with the man with the confederate flag and he will not wear the vest and “he understands,” and would like to have a one on one with me to ‘EXPLAIN’ what it means to him since he is from the south. I feel like the center is defending this man’s (racist beliefs) and I am suppose to deal with it when they are suppose to foster a safe environment for healing and transformation. I don’t feel the space is safe in this group with the malicious intent of this man deliberately wearing a confederate flag patch after everything (that the flag represents)  that has transpired recently. How can I be my true authentic self and divulge personal information to grow  and heal in a space with hatred etc.? I feel like they are making excuses for him and “I” have to deal with it since “I” have the problem.  I read your post “SO, THE CONFEDERATE FLAG HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH CONSCIOUSLY SYMBOLIZING SYSTEMIC VIOLENCE OF WHITE SUPREMACIST BASED RACISM.” 
I responded by saying that I don’t feel safe and comfortable in the group and I would rather not partake in it. I also said that I shouldn’t have to be the one who has to remove myself and miss out on my healing because of this. I did mention the Swastika being a word of ‘good fortune’ but that doesn’t mean people should be wearing it (as you stated in your article). What I don’t want to do is get in a debate because there is nothing to debate about. Your thoughts would be appreciated along with any another research that I can present to the center. Long sigh
Thank you Breeze! 
-M

M-

Since post-Charleston shootings, it’s more obvious than ever that the Confederate flag symbolizes white supremacist based racism and violence for a significant number of Black people living in the USA. But yes, not everyone may have that association/trigger. The man wants to personally talk to you because it’s probably very important to him that he clarify his intentions (i.e. “No, really, I’m not Dylann Roof. I’m not a racist.” 

However, this is more about impact than intent. Requesting that you enter that space with him will be a space saturated with the socio-historical dynamic of systemic racism and white supremacy by default.  Whether he is conscious of it or not, he would be white-mansplaining the meaning of the flag for him and the impact on your would be negative. If he ‘understands’, it is  strange he needs to explain  versus simply apologizing for the unintended impact.  Many [white] people who display the confederate flag really do believe, “It’s not about racism but just the deep meaning it has to my Southern roots and pride.” Images like the below, sprung up quite a bit, post-Charleston.   

Source: http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/images/u/us-csah.gif
Source: http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/images/u/us-csah.gif

He may sincerely feel bad that he wearing it caused you to feel unsafe and perhaps it’s important for him to clarify that he is not a Dylann Roof. He may not have been malicious at all (you stated you experienced it that way), but once again, it doesn’t matter about intent, as one can have good intentions and still have bad impact– especially if they are coming from a place of ignorance and privilege(we all have done that). However, it’s up to you on whether or not you want to enter that space to listen to him. I have personally felt it to be painful and heart-breaking to hear those in privileged social locations explain their beliefs that have negative impact on those not part of that privileged social location.  I’ve heard white people explain to me why something is not racist, despite the social science and legal studies research showing the negative impact that ‘something not racist’ has had on non-white groups. I have had cisgender men explain to me why something isn’t misogynistic, despite the rigorous research showing otherwise, in terms of impact. At the end of these dialogues monologues, I have never felt like that person was being an ally or dismantling the very systems of oppression they were benefiting from; just being apologists.

I’d imagine that most mainstream healing and trauma places in the USA are not trained to handle these situations, unless they really are targeting a certain population (i.e. healing and transformation spaces for Black queer women for example). Most staff don’t have experience in [un]conscious bias training and facilitation around the Big 8 or 9 social identities/processes that comes out of systemic oppressions (i.e, race, class, gender, ability, etc). It could very well be that the interns knew the symbol was problematic but simply didn’t know how to handle it.

I think, if anything, these difficult and painful situations indicate the necessity to not just have a national dialogue about systemic racism/white supremacy’s impact, but how individuals can become change-makers by intervening. Remember, most of us in privileged social locations are not trained or even literate enough to know we are upholding systemic oppression (i.e., racism is lynching black people. It’s not institutional, systemic, or structural. Sexism is a man sexually harassing a woman at work; it’s not institutional, systemic, or structural.)

May you find the right healing space for yourself.

Best,

Dr. Breeze

Want to to send your questions in for the Ask Dr. Breeze series? Go here to submit your questions and we’ll post it anonymously! 

About the Author and The Sistah Vegan Project

Dr. A. Breeze Harper
Dr. A. Breeze Harper

Dr. Harper currently manages the Staff Diversity Initiative’s Multicultural Education Program at UC Berkeley and is the founder of the Critical Diversity Solutions. Check her profile out on LinkedIn. Inquire about Dr. A. Breeze Harper lecturing or giving a workshop at your organization, school, or business.

Ask Dr. Breeze: Nutritional Healing for the Stress of Being the 'Token Negro'

In this video, I answer Dianna’s question about nutritional healing and necessary support to combat the stress of being seen as the ‘token negro’ or ‘affirmative action’ case in a largely white environment. This video is part of my new series, “Ask Dr. Breeze”, which I will showcase on the Sistah Vegan blog, but also its own website askdrbreeze.com . Dianna also refers to an earlier video I recorded last fall, that was about recipes for racial tension headaches.

Resources

  1. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life
  2. Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia