On the Obligation to Risk Conflicts

by Anke Heiser

I recently participated in a ‘Dialogue for Peaceful Change’ training in Fredericton, New Brunswick. It was an opportunity that allowed a lot of Righting Relations members, and others, from across Turtle Island to come together on the traditional unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik and learn together how to analyze and resolve conflicts. We were a group of Mi’kmaq, Ojibwe, Wolastoqiyik, Anishinaabeg, Sto:lo, Wampanoag, racialized and white immigrants and settlers with roots tracing back to China, Columbia, India, Uruguay, East-Africa, Ghana, Barbados, and Germany. I was one of the very few white and few non-Indigenous people in the group, a composition similar to what I have experienced before in the Righting Relations network context.

I have been in settings before where I was one of the few white people in the room and I have been wondering about my role and responsibility in this position. When I started to think about writing a reflection about the ‘Dialogue for Peaceful Change’ training I felt compelled to look at this question more closely. The content of the training and my experience of the week overall have given me new insights and new angles from which to scrutinize my participation and role in this context.

I become more quiet in a group in which I am one of only a few white people. I don’t want to dominate the space as a member of the dominant white settler culture. I want to be respectful and learn from other perspectives. I am certainly aware that the fear of making a mistake, involuntarily hurting someone and/or provoking a conflict has an influence on the way I participate, too. I am conscious about growing more silent in these settings and I have noticed a similar behaviour in other white people in similar contexts. However I was still surprised when one of my co-participants commented about my firm and animated demeanour in a role play which, to her, didn’t reflect my behaviour in the big group. I wondered ‘How does she perceive me in the group?’

Stepping back out of respect and with the intention to avoid dominant behaviour can reverse itself into the other extreme: the withdrawal from the collective group process.

If I withdraw myself too much from the group process I am in danger of becoming a spectator. I can become the one who doesn’t contribute to the conversation, who doesn’t participate in the emotional relationship building, who doesn’t do the work.

By stepping back too far in this space, I risk to become the white person who lets my Indigenous and racialized colleagues do the work. It suspiciously reminds me of the role of the colonizer who only exploits the work of the colonized and doesn’t give back. To what extent is this withdrawal – consciously or unconsciously – also a form of preempted white fragility? If I don’t fully engage in the first place, I don’t risk to be called out for my potential mistakes.

How do I find a balance between not dominating the space as a white settler and not withdrawing myself from the relationships and the collective process?

The following perspectives that were expressed at the training, and which I paraphrase here, had a huge impact on me and point towards possible answers:

‘Conflict is inevitable. Peace might be our goal, however even if we reach peace or even only a peaceful moment it will never last because conflict is everywhere. We need to go through conflict to get to peace.’

‘Conflicts have the potential to be a source of growth and transformational change.’

On a cognitive level I know that conflicts are everywhere: In our relationships with people, within ourselves, and globally. However I haven’t embraced conflicts as a ubiquitous reality in my daily life, and on some level have shielded myself from acknowledging conflicts’ ever-presence. I certainly haven’t sought out conflict as a strategy to get to peace.

Up to now, I have not experienced a lot of occasions where I could witness conflicts as ‘being a source of growth and transformational change.’ Instead, I am aware of conflicts that have led to a chilling in friendships, an estrangement within relationships and the division or collapse of activist groups. I have also experienced conflicts in organizations that resulted in suppressed hurt and remaining distrust as they were not resolved in a sustainable way.

Thinking of conflicts as a potential source of growth and transformational change is very empowering, and liberating. If I acknowledge the fact that conflicts are ubiquitous, there is no advantage and no excuse anymore to try to avoid conflicts or to be scared of them, for example, by withholding myself from the group processes in groups where I am one of the few white people. The obvious undesirability of either dominance or extreme withdrawal in these groups makes me feel obliged to actively try to find a balance in my participation if I want my commitment to radical social change to be reflected in my actions. The promise of growth and transformational change makes me want to go through conflicts and get better at resolving them, especially now as I have begun to acquire the tools and the confidence to resolve them in a sustainable way.

Are we at Righting Relations ready to deal with conflicts that arise from us trying to authentically and courageously juggle the entirety of our intersectional selves? Are we at the point where we can dare to take these risks or is that still a vision that we are working towards?

Writing this reflection has sent me on an insightful journey. In the past I have chosen to be more silent in settings where I as a white settler was in the minority. Until now I had not considered that as a consequence of modifying my behaviour in this way I had potentially interfered with opportunities for growth and transformational change within the particular group. I am only beginning to have a notion that I have a responsibility to find a balance between respectfully making space and allowing my own voice to be heard as well.

I would like to thank everyone with whom I have spent this very special week of training. Your presence, stories, and wisdom have touched and transformed me.

Until we meet again,

Miigwetch Anke

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