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If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say

two happy white women

Waking Up White, by Debby Irving, is a story of one woman’s journey from lack of “white awareness” to “white responsibility.” Irving grapples with the ways in which she was inadvertently taught in her family to avoid conflict, where speaking up and asking hard questions were discouraged.

She writes, “The admonition ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ served as a cultural signpost as I developed an acute sense of what not to say and what not to feel in order to remain valued.”

When it comes to disrupting racism, white folks often lean on their distaste and fear of conflict.  This is socialization at work. Tema Okun in her paper “White Supremacy Culture” includes “fear of open conflict” as a characteristic of white supremacy culture. Irving lists dominant white culture behaviors in Waking Up White, describing these characteristics like “conflict avoidance”  and “right to comfort”  as “behaviors that hold racial barriers in place.”

Yet, if a white person has ever sent a meal back at a restaurant, called customer service, or complained to their child’s teacher, then clearly, there is a capacity for conflict.  In those situations though, there is a differential in perceived power.  That same person might feel completely “unable” to speak up in spaces or situations where they do not perceive themselves as more powerful, like when confronting a City Council member,  challenging a peer’s behavior, or questioning their own parent.  This is the hierarchy/supremacy at work.

Irving goes on, “The culture of niceness provides a tidy cover, creating a social norm that says conflict is bad, discomfort should be avoided…”  It creates a cover for people in power, and in white supremacy culture, whiteness remains protected and comfortable.

Of course, white supremacy culture doesn’t just shape white folks’ behavior, but keeps Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in line by squelching expression, encouraging them to be “nice,” and driving internalized racism. At the same time, People of Color, especially Black folks, do not have the privilege of avoiding conflict by being “nice.”

In the 2019 book The Price of Nice: How Good Intentions Maintain Educational Inequity, edited by Angelina E. Castagno, contributing writers examine the ways in which the culture of niceness perpetuates harm and inequity in classrooms and education in general. Castagno explores niceness as a practice of whiteness that serves to mask structural dominance, thus protecting the racism and inequity embedded in the educational system.

In the introduction, Castagno writes about American education within which “…diversity and Niceness have been so intertwined that any engagement with  diversity is necessarily, almost by definition, nice.”  Within the education system, there is a  “desire to hear happy stories of diversity rather than unhappy stories of racism.” She continues, “Despite their good intentions and the general Niceness among educators, most schools in the United States contribute to inequity every day.”

Here we see the cost of niceness, civility, and “keeping things positive”: harm.

Castagno explains, “Within a frame of Niceness, oppressive actions are not actually oppressive; they are just hurtful. They are therefore assumed to be the result of individuals who have made bad choices or who just do not know any better. This framing diverts attention away from patterned inequity, structural oppression, and institutional dominance.” And when niceness keeps us focused on individual’s behaviors and knowledge, ultimately it “function(s) to maintain the structured, institutionalized power of the state.”

In this way, an individual‘s insistence on or compliance with the culture of niceness keeps systems of inequity in place.

Niceness is a particularly entrenched behavior for women. In the article “White Women Doing White Supremacy in Nonprofit Culture” by Heather Laine Tally, Director of Social Justice Leadership and Community Engagement at , she writes, “Breeding fear of conflict is a tried and true strategy for keeping women in line. This fear of conflict is reflected in white women’s communication patterns. Passive aggressive feedback, in-direct communication, or downright lying are ways white women retain a tight grasp on “niceness.'”

Avoiding the conflict that arises when naming a problem or challenging the status quo may make a white individual feel “safer” in the moment, but it comes at the price of perpetuating racism. An important component of antiracism is pushing back on this culture of niceness. Telling the truth and challenging the status quo does not harm people. Challenging the status quo challenges power, and all hell breaks loose when power is challenged.

In the face of racism, becoming non-compliant to the culture of niceness takes 1) awareness of how niceneess functions and then 2) continual practice. It’s only through repetition that white folks can push through their socialization as nice white folks so they can actually do the work of equity and inclusion.

Coming soon:

We are so pleased to let you know Inclusive Life is offering a revised and improved Embodying Antiracism in May. It is a 3-month conversation and course created for white folks who are ready to develop awareness of the culture of niceness and deliberately develop the analysis, skills, and stamina to dismantle white supremacy culture in their spheres of influence.

Be the first to know when registration opens.

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