Avoiding conflict can hurt more than facing it.
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your identity. This is why habits are crucial. They cast repeated votes for being a certain type of person.”
~James Clear, Atomic Habits
I am two people: the courageous creator and the coward.
Conflict scares me, shuts me down. My heart races and my throat closes. My decolletage turns a bright, splotchy red. My brain shuts down. My instinct is to run off…seek shelter.
Conflict makes me feel as if I’m 6 years old all over again. When I was a child, if someone were to ask, “Who did this?,” I was first to answer (even before knowing what the transgression was), “Not me!” My objective was to hide from blame and consequences.
And most of all, to hide from being the subject of someone’s anger, disappointment, and judgment.
So I got really great at avoiding conflict, tough conversations, and made damn sure that I excelled in everything I tried so I wouldn’t disappoint or feel that I had let others down. I crafted artful masks from which to hide behind.
When someone did or said something offensive, I’d pretend I didn’t see it or hear it. Even when the horrible thing was happening directly to me, I disappeared right in front of your eyes, believing I could ghost it. It’s not happening, if it doesn’t land…catch me in its net.
How to stop avoiding conflict
In my 20s, I stopped avoiding conflict and started making brave choices to stand up for myself and stand against injustice. I took my passion for helping others find their voices and their agency and launched two nonprofit organizations. I stood up for those who were beaten down by a system designed to exhaust them. I made sure that residents of my hometown had humane access to services. I stood up at a conflict-addled public meeting, packed with attendees, and spoke my truth.
Even when my throat was closing and my heart threatened to leap out of my neck, I did the courageous thing. Spoke the words that had to be said aloud. I sat in the witness stand in court, and made an articulate, passionate argument on behalf of my husband being awarded custody of his two children. I went to court again on behalf of one of my Literacy Council students so that he could have a chance to change his life.
Even though I now have nearly 30 years of solid advocacy work under my belt, I remained two people: the courageous creator and the coward.
What to do when avoiding conflict shows up again
As the news of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and David McAtee broke, I was outraged, sickened, saddened, and silent. What was the right thing to say and do? Would I get the wording right? Would I be able to make an authentic difference?
All my old ghosts showed up. Avoiding conflict. Perfectionism. Fear of judgment. Fear of being called out…that I don’t know enough to have the audacity to speak up. And God forbid, that I could get it wrong and end up causing unintended damage.
After several days of standing in place, I realized that I could go through the very same process I went through to pierce the membrane of immobility around my creativity: I could educate myself, do the hard work, adopt a willingness to try and fail miserably, and gain the confidence to speak up.
These murders reveal, once again, that racism and prejudice towards Black people is ever-pervasive in America, and I have much work to do (deep appreciation to Amélie for this wording). I have been engaging the courageous creator part of me to do much more in order to be a true ally of Black people for the long haul (and not perform actions that are hollow, checking-of-a-box efforts).
Rooting out racism and being an ally
I have lots of listening and learning to do. I have ordered books that have been recommended to me by Black leaders (White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi), and am donating to organizations and individuals doing essential, anti-racism work. So far, I have made donations to Black Lives Matter, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and to the Black Women Thriving Research Fund via Every Level Leadership and The Adaway Group.
Those are just the first steps. I want to root out my own unconscious racism, and I am seeking advice on whom to hire to help me. Throughout and ongoing, I commit to using my voice and reach to help amplify the important work being done to dismantle systemic racism.
The coward can no longer stand. She must go the way of the blinders of privilege. I choose to make courageous, vulnerable, and visible actions a habit, so that I fully become the creator who will never be silent or in hiding again.
There is no such thing as a silent ally.