Virtually Racist: Anti-racist work in the time of Zoom.

In our continued presence, blackfullas are the uncomfortable truth that this nation must reconcile itself with. We are the most courageous when it comes to conversations about race having copped the full brunt of its violence but also because we have nothing else left to lose – literally.Chelsea Bond

Courage and racial literacy are urgently required to reconcile with uncomfortable truths in the time of COVID19 and Black Lives Matter (BLM). However, reckoning with racism is optional for some as Chelsea Bond notes, but for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, racism is profoundly imbricated in all the systems and structures encountered, requiring continual exhausting negotiation (see Bronwyn Fredericks, Debbie Bargallie and Bronwyn Carlson). The luxury of not having to think about racism is not available to Black people, and people of color. The aim of this blog is to facilitate discussion and share my own learning about how “we” might be more critical and reflexive in our online gatherings. I will be deliberately vague about protagonists in the spirit of using my painful experiences to educate and call in rather than shame and blame. But, yes, you know I see you!

The racialised nature of the pandemic and of police brutality, and deaths in custody, have become more perceivable for white people, some of whom are engaging in reflection and discussion on race in new ways. Gary Yonge quips that Britain has discovered racism in the same way that teenagers discover sex. Reading groups have flourished as have a proliferation of book lists. My favorite Melbourne book store Readings has a list of Books to help you understand & fight white supremacy. However, whether we can read ourselves out of racism when we did not read our way into it remains in question. The contaminated barrel needs a systemic solution not the removal of a few bad apples.

For children of empire or people of color (this term and terms like BIPOC and BAME are contentious and complicated, and are a whole other blog post), it seems an incredible opportunity to be heard and to be believed. Hanif Kureishi calls it:

our #MeToo moment, a paradigm shift, with some significant acknowledgement of how unalike the experiences of black and white people are, and of how traumatic the infliction of racism is.

Virtual meetings are par for the course, and processes that we either never imagined or thought were too difficult to replicate online have become ubiquitous. I never thought I’d do an exercise class with parents that live in another country or State, but twice a week I do Yoga for seniors on Zoom. A couple of months ago, my partner and I hosted a thirteen hour online eightieth birthday for my Mother with a hundred people in New Zealand, Canada, the US, England, Lebanon, Myanmar, India, and elsewhere. Virtual care, virtual parties, and family gatherings have seemingly seamlessly moved from real life to virtual platforms. There’s now etiquette available to help us manage conversations on a screen with multiple others. But what I am curious about is how things that were difficult face to face are possibly made even more complex and difficult in a virtual environment. Things like anti-racist work. Here I see a gap. Where’s the manual about how to create anti-oppressive spaces that do not reinscribe social relations or that center whiteness? How do people from non-dominant groups working at the interstices of social justice and pedagogical spaces look after ourselves? How can we adequately intervene in online power relations?

In my recent Zoom experiences, the invitation has been for me as a person of color (I use this term to externalise somewhat, remembering that identities are both socially constructed and individually determined) to provide counselling, forgiveness, praise or absolution. Rather like a confessional, the interlocutor wanted to recount their own experiences of witnessing racism. This is despite being the prime beneficiary of the structural arrangements in a white settler-colonial nation, and as an identity which already occupies a lot of space. This centering is an Occupational Health and Safety issue for those of us who have made it our lives work to challenge oppression wherever the miasma of institutional racism lingers. While there are a plethora of memes about the Karen and Becky’s of the world, there’s also the ‘concern troll’ who feigns concern so that they can do this very thing – distract from the process and put the focus on themselves…stalling all the work. Often, they are a loudly professed “ally” who is all about themselves and their career ambitions as the ultimate savior of, advocate for, and “scholar-activist” on behalf of “vulnerable” [black] peoples (Kati Teaiwa). Taking up space, instead of making a commitment of allyship or being an accomplice willing to undo the mechanisms that allow for the continuation of racism (Ruth Herd).


“racism is not mine, it is yours. What you do is not called “help” when it is your mess we are cleaning.” Catherine Pugh Esq (2020)

So I have polled my Facebook pals and come up with some strategies for when as a person of color you get derailed on Zoom.

Tell the speaker to drink a cup of “shut up” juice* and move on

  • Ignore the speaker. Shut that down immediately and unequivocally, then avoid like COVID19 thereafter (erect walls with razor wire & border patrol much). Time spent on this BS is wasted.

Name the behaviour

  • “That’s an interesting anecdote. But the issues we need to focus on are …” (Tahu Kukutai).
  • “When you say things like X, it means other people can’t talk about Y (the reason everyone is here) and the meeting becomes about you instead. This makes people feel coopted/ exhausted/ resentful/ distracted. I can suggest somewhere you can go for a one-on-one conversation where it’s ok for it to be all about you (eg a counsellor) if you’d like?” (Alison Young).
  • “Thanks for being so prepared to be open and share your experiences. What we also need to work on is moving away from centering white experience. That something that we should all do in our own time. What we want to focus on here is …”
  • Say how you feel: “I’m tired. I deal with this every day. Please look after yourself. Bye”
  • Name it clearly and simply: “I feel that you take up too much space and need to leave room for others in the conversation. And I also feel like you want me to talk to you about race all the time and it’s exhausting for me.” If that doesn’t work – or you feel it’s too much to do alone – ask the moderator to help.

Use as a teachable moment

  • Time and energy pie-diagram. Time and energy are where power lies. Ask them about how much time and energy space they are taking. Ask them if it’s proportionate, compassionate, and aware. Ask them to ask other White people to carry some of this stuff for them, supportively, it’s their load (Karlo Mila).
  • Suggest a person to do the work and undertake a personal journey (in their own time. “Thank you for your contribution but this is taking a lot of important time from the class”.
  • Take the comment and run with it, asking a series of questions that expose the problematic effects of the comment. They will get hurt/embarrassed but the set up will mean they run to others for absolution.
  • Invite them to sit with their discomfort, in silence (also put this in the group agreement).

Create brave collective spaces

  • When acknowledging country at the start of the session, also develop group agreements that outline the purpose of the meeting.
  • Develop a process for people to handle their discomfort. I suggest people “lean into” their discomfort. Megan McPherson in her Acknowledgment of Country: adds “In this session, we may cover issues that may make you feel uncomfortable. I ask you to sit with this discomfort-this session is not about your discomfort, rather it is about reflecting upon your privilege and thinking about the ways you can activate your privilege and capacities, to live in Australia in better ways. I ask you this as a non-Indigenous person at XXX. It is not my Indigenous colleagues’ job to fix your discomfort about racism in Australia”.
  • Stay on purpose. This might mean, stressing the importance of putting off-topic issues into ‘the parking lot’ for people to pick up for themselves after the session.
  • Name the behaviors in the group agreement and the need for white allies to intervene and not allow it space. Revise before every meeting and participants agree before joining and revise subsequently.
  • Use a ‘microcosm exercise’ and ask the group to actively reflect on the how the very dynamics of the conversation in the room are a microcosm of how it works in the world, so to think about who talks, who is taking up space/time/resources, who is silent, who is doing the labor.
  • Invite another white person to practice solidarity, a colleague who has the competency to sit this person down and tell them that they are performing a type of aggression against you and to help them think about the impact their stories are having on people of color (Shiranthi Fonseka).

Manage questions or interactions

  • Provide time for people to discuss their questions and have them peer-reviewed as Eve Tuck suggests. Tuck’s twitter thread is the best thing ever written about managing Q and A sessions in ways that attend to power differentials.
  • Frame question and comment time in a way that asks people not to privilege their angst (Carol D’Cruz).
  • Have a person facilitate the Q & A (and triage the questions).
  • KaeLyn from Autostraddle has some great ideas including using a progressive stack to centre marginalized voices or people who are directly impacted by the issues you’re discussing. Marginalized folx could include people whose voices often don’t get heard first; people who do not share the dominant language in the room etc.
  • For the questioner, here is an amazing flowchart by Dani Rabaiotti, and a list of Do’s and Don’ts.
Academic etiquette: Tips on conducting yourself at an academic conference

Suspend engagement for repeat offenders

  • “If the first three sets of engagement with such people do not yield some movement of a shared understanding then I don’t engage. Almost always these individuals bombard you with their attention-seeking behavior at every opportunity that is made available to them. I have learned, that if I have made the initial effort and know that this person is not there to challenge themselves then holding back on giving them airtime is the best way to preserve your own energy” Tayyaba Khan.

Take care of yourself

  • Set parameters for yourself to maintain your own peace and energy. Also see Reni Eddo-Lodge‘s book, reference below.
  • Nice long hot bath & chocolates (Tee Peters).

After the event

  • Invite white allies to have an “after-party” where allies can support the person who feels uncomfortable (Shandra Shears Bombay).

For future events

  • Set boundaries for your own well-being before the event.
  • Create a structure where marginalized people will be given space first
  • Prime the moderator.
  • Provide the group with reading before the event.
  • Set boundaries about what’s appropriate and what’s not at the start.

It takes a lot of effort to make the future. One or even several demonstrations will not achieve that. The effect will be cumulative. Some things are now impossible, and other things have become possible. And so this moment of economic breakdown and capitalistic stagnation, when neo-liberalism is destroying the very ground on which it is built, is an opportunity Hanif Kureishi

Further reading

Deepest thanks to the following for their friendship and input into writing this piece.

Alex Bhathal, Sandra Shears Bombay, Esther Cowley-Malcolm, Sarah Craig, Shiranthi Fonseka, Bianca Hester, Tayyaba Khan, Tahu Kukutai, Jade Lillie, Debbi Long, Leah Manaema, Chris McBride, Rebecca McIntosh, Moata McNamara, Megan McPherson, Rebecca Monson, Laura Quin Ogle, Kat Poi, Zaky Shah, Kati Teaiwa, Nelly Thomas.