Part 1: Old And Busted Social Anxieties…This Is Not My First Rodeo.
In response to the surge of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, some leaders in our community organized a first meeting of a new group: Racial Equality Action Committee Huntsville (REACHsv). I missed it the first week but heard some great things about it so I decided to try to go on yesterday. I clicked “attending” on Facebook and shared out the event to encourage other people to go, but also to hold myself accountable because this was stepping really far out of my comfort zone.
My comfort zone being my home, of course. By myself. With Season 4 of Orphan Black.
The meeting was being held at a guitar shop/small concert venue at our local (and famous) art collective. The art collective itself? I’m totally familiar with. The guitar shop? Never been inside. Enter the first Social Anxiety trigger: An event in a location which I’m unfamiliar. This causes problems to people with social anxiety because:
Where do I sit?
Will everyone stare at me when I open the door?
Will I have to sign in, meaning talk to people immediately?
I got to the collective early and sat in my car a bit and centered myself. I went to the store and immediately a nice lady started talking to me about the weather and – because my social anxieties were DEFCON 1 – I made some sort of attempt at humor as a response and used the word “oppressive” to describe the heat and then I went into “racism panic mode” (she was white, FWIW) and started panicking that I was using trigger language before I even got into the Racial Equality meeting and OH MY GOD I SHOULD GO HOME RIGHT NOW.
Instead, I went to the bathroom outside the store and took a few deep breaths. YOU CAN DO THIS, KIM.
I opened the door to the store (the scariest part of the whole evening because you have NO IDEA what’s on the other side) and there were just a handful of people there and plenty of seating. I found a seat middle of the room and all the way against the wall so that I could at least have one plane of No Human Contact to keep my anxieties calm.
And then I noticed a few people holding pieces of paper with numbers on them. Enter the next Social Anxiety Trigger: There is a system in place for this event of which I am unfamiliar.
What do the numbers mean?
Do I need a number?
Wait. Are those the group leaders? How do I know what group I’m in?
A nice lady (holding a number) introduced herself to me and I told her my name and then – quite visibly – retreated back into my Panic Attack Shell. I started remembering discussions from the previous meeting and I remember people saying the broke up into small groups and the numbers seemed to support that and I started panicking at this idea. I CAN NOT HIDE IN A SMALL GROUP. GET ME OUT OF HERE.
There was also a LOT of people just randomly introducing themselves to other people as I observed and I was building up this scenario in my head where at the PREVIOUS meeting they had all discussed the importance of introducing yourself or something and OH MY GOD WILL PEOPLE QUIT TALKING TO ME.
So I did what everyone does, and tweeted.
Meeting with unfamiliar group that met for the first time last week…social anxieties at code red…why do I ever leave my house?
— Zoot (@misszoot) July 24, 2016
I started trying to calm down as the room started filling and it seemed like they were going to get started. (The meeting was also getting started late and I had a hard out at 2 hours so that was worrying me that I’d have to leave before it was over.) I also saw a few people I knew, two of whom sat next to me so that calmed me a bit.
Once the meeting started and they explained a little how things were going to work, I started relaxing. First, they took discussion ideas from the group as a whole and we singled out the 5 most popular to discuss in small groups. The asked the leaders (the people with numbers) to stand up and then everyone to divide between those groups. And this? This is where we take my GENERAL SOCIAL ANXIETIES and evolve them into OH MY GOD I AM ABOUT TO DISCUSS DIFFICULT SUBJECTS LIKE RACISM WITH STRANGERS.
Part 2: New Hotness Social Anxieties – The Value of Being Uncomfortable
Preface: As the meeting started I noticed the room was still majority white and this bothered me at first. Like, “DAMNIT. I really wanted to hear from members of our black community and OF COURSE it’s mostly white people. I KNOW PLENTY OF WHITE PEOPLE.”
But the more I thought on this, the more I realized: Change has to come with the MAJORITY group, right? So while we can’t do it alone, there needs to be MORE White people or else nothing concrete is ever going to happen. So I take back my disappointment over that and am glad everything divided like it did.
HUMOROUS NOTE: As the groups were self-dividing (there was some confusing about groups which make that part a little strange) my group had nothing but white people at first and we were already cracking up about that. The leader said, “Well, White people…what do you think?” Which was hilarious. And then, even funnier was seeing us all celebrate when two black members joined we were all, “YAYAYAYAYAY!”
We discussed 5 topics and what we discussed specifically is not as important as the general takeaways. The biggest one to me: THERE IS VALUE AND NECESSITY IN DISCOMFORT.
This was SO IMPORTANT because I was fighting a crapton of discomfort that night just to be there. Some of the discomfort was typical for someone suffering from social anxieties, but some was just the discomfort of talking about racism with strangers, many of different races. So, I tried to really become one with my discomfort and see the value in it.
Also discussed – the importance of awkward conversations…WHICH I AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE. But here’s the thing. Let’s say you have 10 conversations, 9 of them are great and 1 is really terrible and awkward. Do you wish you hadn’t had then other 9 just to avoid the 10th? Because by avoiding them all – you miss out on the possible learning experiences.
BUT THEN I challenged myself further: But Kim, What if you only had ONE GOOD conversation and NINE awkward ones?
And that’s where I have to say: If I learned something important or walked away with a new perspective or enlightenment…then I have to value that one GOOD conversation over the total of the nine AWKWARD ones.
And that’s what I’m going to try to keep reminding myself. That in order to enact real change in myself and in my community, we have to all be willing to step out of our comfort zone. Be open to different parts of town (another place where my social anxieties accidentally make me contribute to system racism) or different restaurants or businesses or playgrounds.
And finally – another thing I’m glad I knew going into this meeting: The value of listening. Time and time again I see articles “For My White Friends” or similar that remind us that this is NOT OUR STORY TO TELL. And I saw a little about why that’s important last night. I’ve seen some writers of color reference the mistake a white person can make when making an issue about themselves. Sometimes by pointing out the wonderful diverse experience they had doing this thing, or by simply bogarting the narrative. This group definitely brought up tough subjects which was good because it was a safe place, but there are times where the voices we need to hear are the voices from people of color because their experiences can help teach us, and I saw how easily it is for people used to being the storytellers…to continue to hold that position.
I wish I had more time, especially with one woman in my group who actually taught about racism online as a social worker. I wanted to hear more of her experiences. She did share some resources about trying to encourage our educators to diversify their lessons. I was also introduced to this TED talk about that difficult conversation that we have to at least attempt once in awhile: WHAT YOU SAID MIGHT BE CONSIDERED RACIST or even worse, someone may have with US.
So I learned some great resources and listened to some great points of view. I heard many people agree that “I don’t see color” is not a true perspective NOR a goal to achieve. I also heard someone point out that “the 80 people here are not the problem” and that was almost depressing to me. Yes – I just spent 2 hours in an effort to work on racial equality with people who ARE ALL WILLING and – Is that a waste of time? Are we preaching to/with the choir?
And I’ve settled into: It was VERY worth it. If I can take my lessons and spread them, then the conversations may reach people who might have not otherwise heard them. So, yes. Those 80 people there are willing participants in the “Let’s Be Better” approach to racism…but maybe their friends or family or coworkers are not. So maybe they take their lessons or their perspectives casually into environments where other people feel safe and the word spreads that way? That’s what I’m hoping anyway.
Mark this night as entirely worth dealing with all of the social anxieties. So, if I put myself out there 9 more times and all 9 times are terrible, I’ll remember how good this night turned out and that – in the end – getting out the door 10 times for this one positive experience, is a balance I’m okay with.