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Why asking people to be "respectful" when addressing harm is problematic

This is going to be a controversial one. 

If you haven’t watched Brené Brown’s Facebook Live discussion on #Charlottesville, please do.

I loved a lot of what she said in the video. Naming privilege, white supremacy, power, and accountability — I think it’s what most of America, most of white America, needed to hear, and I appreciated her firmness. 

There was a few minutes of heartburn for me, though. 

She talked about shaming as an inefficient way to impact people, and that we should approach people who cause harm with more respect and civility so we can actually engage them. I think the discussion needs to be a lot more nuanced than that. 

I agree shaming is not always (and may never be) the most “efficient” way to create change. I know, because I’ve been on both sides of the coin. I’ve dragged and shamed people. I’ve been dragged and shamed. For innocent, unintentional mistakes. Mistakes nonetheless, harm nonetheless. 

At Awaken, we, too, advocate for having both compassion and criticality when trying to call folks in. To meet people where they are. To subscribe to the belief of incremental awakening rather than a rude one. 

AND. 

We educate folks to take accountability for causing harm. This includes understanding the needs of the person harmed, even when the harm is communicated in a way that is tough to swallow. 

Brené Brown gave an example of when she was called out by one of her fans for unintentionally using the word “gypped” without knowing the anti-semitic nature of the word. She noted how ashamed she felt, and how the fan should have talked to her with more civility and love. She suggested a phrase like “I loved your work, you changed my life, and I’m sure you didn’t mean it but the word you used made me feel…”

Here’s where I disagree. 

When someone reacts to what you say or do with an intense emotion, before asking them to please be respectful, try to understand where that emotion is coming from. Because the moment you ask for civility from someone you just harmed (albeit unintentionally), you’re putting the burden of emotional labor on the person you just harmed. You are asking them to put their raw emotional reaction aside to communicate in a way that makes you, the person who caused harm, want to listen. You are asking to have your dignity intact, when you just stripped the other person’s. You are asking them to disregard their history of being treated without respect so you can listen better. Do you see the problem? 

Whose needs are you prioritizing -- the person causing harm and their need to be humanized or the person harmed and their need to be heard?

We can debate the “effectiveness” of such approach all we want, but we can’t deny the reality that we, as a nation, have been putting a lot of burden on marginalized people to do the emotional labor of helping people understand and listen. 

It’s like a paramedic telling a person in extreme pain “Please do not scream. You’re making me not want to treat you. Talk to me nicely and I will diagnose you.” NO. You ask them, “How bad is the pain? Where does it hurt?” 

I wish Brown, instead of asking people who are harmed to be more civil to create change, advised her audience (the same audience she urged to name privilege and white supremacy) to learn to work with shame. In our journey to social justice and equity, we will never stop making mistakes. And therefore, shame is unavoidable. Instead of shutting down when we feel ashamed, we should try to understand where the anger, frustration, agitation, exhaustion, and impatience of marginalized folks come from before writing them off. Actually, I was surprised by her not arriving at this conclusion after her spot-on narrative on privilege. 

I wish she urged folks to understand and sit with the anguish and pain marginalized people feel, and to practice listening before reacting. 

We need all sides to try (let me be *crystal clear* — I’m talking about uniting the left; I’m not talking about reaching the alt-right fascist / KKK / Nazis. Don’t confuse this with the whole “both sides” bullshit spewed by Trump).

Dragging and shaming as the sole tactic will never bridge the gap. I get that. 

Demanding “respectful and civil” engagement from exhausted marginalized people so it’s easier for privileged folks to partake in the movement — that’s also not going to work. 

We need all sides to try. 

So when you ask people to call you in respectfully, you also have to ask the folks causing harm to understand the anger. When it comes to bridging the distance between people harmed and people causing harm, both sides have to give a little — but I’m asking people who caused harm to do a little bit more emotional labor. 

Ok tell me…was I non-shaming enough in this post? 

About Michelle Kim

Michelle is an entrepreneur, activist, speaker, and a coach passionate about empowering individuals and organizations to create positive change. She is the co-founder of Awaken and owner of Michelle Kim Consulting.

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