I am still mulling over the Zoom vigil for George Floyd last night that I attended.
One Black woman recalled her experience with a hostile White female officer on I-35 on the Oklahoma-Texas line. She was a college student attending a Christian college at the time and had just dropped her father off at church. A police vehicle began menacingly tailgating her and when she pulled herself over, the racial slurs and berating began, with two more White officers also pulling over and overseeing and apparently approving the encounter. It was horrific the things needlessly said and done to her. The White officers' taking out their angst of unknown origin on a random Black driver struck me as gross and pathetic.
When this Black woman returned to her dormitory that night, her three White roommates noticed her distress. She told them what had happened. Their response?
"She (the officer) must have been having a bad day; that's why she acted that way."
Putting a positive spin on someone's story in such a way that lets the perpetrator off the hook is a form of toxic positivity.
At its root, toxic positivity is a self-soothing mechanism, NOT a co-soothing mechanism, used for calming one's own discomfort when confronted with stressful information or information incongruent with one's experience.
These White girls, for example, may not want to believe that an officer could be so nasty, racist, and violent, and use positivity to reinforce their belief.
Outside of social justice crises, I also see toxic positivity on a nearly daily basis when people would rather downplay the negative aspects of their relationships, communities, culture, or life situation by saying "Best to remain humorous. What can you do? It could always be worse."
(Don't get me wrong: Humor can be an amazing tool for change, but if not paired with an ability to address the issue, it can be undermining.)
Back in April whenAfrican expats in Guangzhou, China were dispelled from their homes and left to sleep on streets, one Indian friend attempted to minimize any mention of the incidences, saying "It happens everywhere." In Italy, where she now resides, she said, she gets snide looks from the locals. Rather than holding China accountable for its hatred, she would rather equate her uncomfortable supermarket experiences with being forcibly evicted, neutralizing the weight of the injustice.
Toxic positivity comes from an inability to contain discomfort and confront inequality. People who over-rely on positivity are often unable to advocate their rights, boundaries, and interest or those of their dependents.
The antidote to toxic positivity is active listening. Active listening is the act of unconditionally endorsing another's point of view so as to truly hear them. The result is validation for the speaker and understanding for the listener.
Silence is violence. Let's learn to radically listen.