The Questions That Opened Me Up: A Skill Set

Kristina Daniele || April/May 2021
This story was co-funded by Pipe Wrench subscribers and fellow contributor Hannah Campbell.

“White America now knows a little bit about pervasive suffering: what it is like for one’s freedom and joy to be muffled by fear and uncertainty, panic over scarce resources, and the omnipresence of danger.”

Those words floated off the page and into my consciousness with the grace of a feather and the weight of a boulder. I’ve been struggling with and around a particularly bad low. I thought I was fine — until I found myself crying on camera to my therapist with my husband sitting next to me. It was only then I realized I’d lost control. 

I share this because like many things, depression colors the ways in which I experience the world. My overactive brain, my bisexuality, my almost limitless levels of empathy, my dark-skinned-Blackness, and my cis-woman-ness have created thick, tightly woven walls of protection against endless worries, anxieties, fears, insecurities. Like nesting dolls, our identities are layered and intersectional. No one is just one thing. No two people experience the world in the same way. 

We know this and we say that we understand it, yet empathy seems to be in short supply. And make no mistake: lack of empathy benefits Whiteness as an institution, which is designed to uphold itself. To keep them from having to be us. We who are not White are encouraged to seek approval and acceptance. When we belong we are protected, even cherished; we become them and therefore worthy of respect. This is in-group bias: people empathize with those who belong to their group. We struggle to grant others the same grace we grant to those with whom we relate. At its biological roots, it’s a defense mechanism, a way for small groups to protect themselves from outsiders. 

Let’s split this.

If everyone brings something, we’ll have more than enough to share.

I am often in awe of what the human body can do to protect itself and to present as more “like you” than not. Take Code Switching: alternating between languages, dialects, or behaviors depending on the audience. Black people — and at various levels, all marginalized people — live in a constant state of adaptation. We learn to communicate in different ways because we are judged harshly when we do not. We are multilingual, yet even in our ability to do this, we are often granted superficial acceptance that doesn’t acknowledge us as whole, complex people. Whiteness wants only what is familiar. Comfortable.

White America now knows a little bit about

pervasive suffering: what it is like for one’s

freedom and joy to be muffled by fear and

uncertainty, panic over scarce resources,

and the omnipresence of danger.

Seeing in the Dark,” Breai Mason-Campbell

Delving into the unknown teaches us how to adapt. How to exist outside our comfort zone. Life over the last fourteen months has allowed some of us to experience pain we may never have before. Many people have had to adapt, in unforeseeable and challenging ways. For the first time in a very long time, maybe ever, we are all us. 

How do we move forward with this newfound understanding? How do we convince ourselves to stop prioritizing assimilation? Can we acknowledge that others have the right to live and move through the world in their own ways? Aren’t respect and empathy more important than acceptance and conformity? Shouldn’t we all be able to share (or shed) our layers without fear?

One answer is something that many of us do without thought: asking questions. I’m an educator and an author. My primary focus has been in helping teachers, parents, and students develop the skills necessary to engage in deeper discussions of difficult topics. In doing so, I encourage them to make connections by asking questions. 

We rarely get to be fully complex humans with

ups and downs, heartaches and successes, joys

and pains. We only get to be that which allows

the social hierarchy to stay firmly in place: our

stereotypes. Anything else has to be worked for,

but then we become the exceptions.

A Dinner Party for Modern Times,” Shanna Tiayon

In education, we teach students to make Text Connections to relate to others (for our purposes a text is anything that is being studied or observed — a movie, a book, a person, an event, etc.). At its core, this is a literacy skill, and because the pandemic has led us to consume more media than ever before, it’s a great time to intentionally practice it. Not feeling silenced is a privilege. Asking a child to imagine what it would feel like puts them in touch with their own feelings, which is a gateway to being in touch with the feelings of others. That’s where empathy is born. 

“White girls can cuss their mothers out in church. But when I am upset, hurt or afraid, I am making noise, an unwanted thing.”

When I read that, I felt it with my soul. Why? I’ve never had her experience at church. So I asked myself questions like, “Hmm, have I ever been upset, hurt, or afraid? Have I been silenced when angry? How would I feel if I were unable to tell someone about my feelings?” I never had Breai’s exact experience, but I do remember feeling silenced by my mother when I was upset because she did not want me to “act a fool in front of these folks.” The memory is clear as day now, but before reading the sentence above and before questioning myself about how it felt, I didn’t remember it as vividly. The questions opened me up to connect with what I was reading on multiple levels.

Questioning with Kids: Where to Start

There are three kinds of Text Connections:

  • Text to Self: connections between your personal experiences and the text.
  • Text to Text: connections between two or more texts.
  • Text to World: connections between real events in the world and the text.

When watching television, movies, or even listening to other people speak, I encourage my child, who will be fifteen in a few weeks, to join me in a self-questioning process, to expand our boundaries and challenge biases. Here are some of the questions we’ve used — I encourage you to use them with your children, your students, and yourself.

A few simple questions: Do you have Black

neighbors? Who do your children play with?

Who comes to dinner at your house? How do

you make your money? Who benefits?

Who suffers?

Seeing in the Dark,” Breai Mason-Campbell
  1. Have I ever experienced the death of a loved one? How did I feel about the loss?
  2. Have I had to part with something of sentimental value? What made it difficult to do so?
  3. How do I grieve the loss of something important to me ?
  4. How many layers are there to my identity? What are the components that make up “me”?
  5. What does “freedom” mean to me? 
  6. Have I ever done something new? How did I feel? Was it by choice? If not, would I have chosen it? 
  7. Have I ever been afraid to try something new? Why? If not, why wasn’t I afraid? What prevented my fear?
  8. Have I had to suppress my thoughts or feelings? What prevented me from sharing? 
  9. How would I feel walking around an unfamiliar neighborhood? Would I be afraid? Why or why not?
  10. What fears did I have throughout the last year of the pandemic?
  11. How has the pandemic changed my  life?
  12. What helps me when I am afraid or in pain?
  13. When I am hurting and need help, do I worry about how I express myself?
  14. In what ways can I show concern for those who are going through life changes?
  15. Have I ever had to behave in a way that felt different from who I believe I am?

I, too, long for this feeling of “us” to last. I hope it’s not momentary. Maybe we can continue it by learning from, and in spite of, our own experiences.

Kristina Brooke Daniele has been, variously: the founder and publisher of Epiphany zine; a New York City teaching fellow; a blogger; a mother and sister and wife; and the founder of Moms of Hue, a space for women who wanted intelligent conversation about issues of importance to parents raising children of color, and then We of Hue, which provided a platform for both women and men parenting children of color. She is currently the marketing and business development manager at incluu, a DEI consulting firm focused on building brave spaces for life.