I got to have my first “hard” talk the other day, the first one since this new wave of civil rights movement started. It came up suddenly at the end of a massage session, when I was applying some finishing rubs to the soles of her feet, still tuned into the pulse of her vital energy.
She was describing the stressors in her life, stingy bosses, nagging landlords, fear of illness. She brought up the state of the states, so far away from our island refuge. I nodded knowingly. Everyone is feeling it, no matter how far removed.
Then she surprised me and said, in her faded middle eastern accent. “The black people are really going crazy up there.” I paused my kneading for an imperceptible second and glanced the length of her body at her upturned face, eyes still closed. I couldn’t see her expression under the blue paper mask, covering half of her tanned, sharp features. Her curly hair sprouted fierce around her slender shoulders, and I could get no read on her intent behind the comment. Could not decipher what kind of person I might be dealing with.
She sighed and tapped lightly at her chest, her heart fluttering with arrhythmia. I kept on with her feet, pushing my thumbs into the muscles of her arches. But I had lost the connection to her body. My motions were mechanical now. She’d hit me with opposition, and pushed me back into my mind. I worked silently, wondering if I would engage.
Was it worth starting a debate, in such a setting, her bare feet cool in my hands. I, as the practitioner, in the power position. Would that even be ethical?
I could just nod. Bite my tongue. Let her opinion be her opinion. It is my nature to turn away from conflict, from unproductive drama. To save my energy for something more important.
I thought of clients on kayak tours. Educating them with a smooth, calm cadence about the importance of environmental preservation, even as they tumbled out of SUV’s holding fistfuls of plastic water bottles and wrapped snacks. How I slipped in comments about reusable water bottles, how I quietly collected trash from the marsh, all while making sure not to target, not to offend. Hold your opposition closer.
I thought of my Grandpa, how he would make these provocative comments, casting out the hook, to see who it might snare. I remembered my love for him, my desire to pull him towards a more common ground. How I pretended to ignore his obvious intentions, and treated his question instead as genuine. Not a racist, just someone wanting to learn. How I innocently explained my reasons behind progressive views, tactfully implying a love for all people, that when laid out in such a kind, gentle way, no one could, in good conscience, refute. Yes, I played him. But we never argued, and mostly he softened.
I looked up from my thoughts, my fingers working into the ball of her foot, the heart pressure points. True, I do not like drama, but neither do I bite my tongue. Avoidance would be simpler, but there was a way to navigate this. I pulled from my Jedi mind tricks.
“Yeah,” I said, tenderly, kindly. “Things are crazy up there right now.”
I agreed with her, creating a bond.
Then, phase two, “I’m glad it’s happening, shaking things up. Things really need to change.”
I pulled her along into my approval of the protests, acting as if this was the original intent of her statement, as if we were in agreement from the start, assuming the best.
“But I don’t know what they are so upset about.” She opened her eyes slightly and looked down at me. “They have all the same opportunities now, they just need to work for them.” I kept my eyes down, soft, non-reactive. Her tone was not fierce. She was not triggered by the discussion, which assured me that she was just, in fact, uninformed. I relaxed. This would be one of those “nice” hard talks.
“Well,” I tried to explain, my own knowledge rudimentary and limited still. “I think it’s worth a little more research.” I brought up slavery, and unfair advantages.
“Yes, but that was centuries ago. I think they are just holding on to the past.” Her accent reminded me that she, as an Arab immigrant, understood discrimination well. In her own way, she was indeed very well informed.
“Well, yes, slavery ended in the 1800s, but then came a slew of other laws directed at keeping them as second class citizens.” I countered, calmly, still the massage therapist. I recommended the movie “13th”.
“It gives a good summary of the history of oppression since slavery.” She watched me and listened as I worked and spoke. Spoke like a woman informed, sharing my viewpoint as fact, not fight. She asked the name of the movie again, and we wrapped up our session, rescheduling for a few days out.
As I backed my car through the gate onto the narrow, dark street, I realized that in these months I had not yet discussed race with someone from a different angle. I wondered why I’d treated it so tenderly, so cautiously. Had I played into “white fragility”? Or had I just learned over time that love keeps minds open more than debate. Avoiding drama without avoiding confrontation.
But also, I was tender because I have no right to be fierce. I hold no racial trauma in my own bones. All I hold is empathy, and the responsibility to be a bridge, between compassion for those oppressed, and tenderness to those who don’t understand.
I suddenly missed my Grandfather. How would our discussions play out these days? How would we have pushed and pulled, and danced around our differences and egos to come back to some common ground, as far as that may be from our individual truths.
But pushing never worked. Because no one can be pushed into understanding. They must be sprinkled with it, dipped in it, guided to it, and nudged at the most. But pushed, and they always resist more.
So my job here, as I see it, is to be a patient, loving guide. Persistent but gentle.