I don’t remember when I first heard of Ring Theory and I don’t remember what brought it up. But I do know that it stuck with me, and that I rely on the concept frequently.
Ring theory is a framework of thinking to help people navigate supporting someone going through grief or hardship. The general concept starts with concentric circles (rings). Think of throwing a rock into a still pond. The rock creates the center ring, then concentric rings move out from that point, increasing in size. Ring theory says that the person directly experiencing the grief/hardship is the center ring. The person closest to them is the next ring, and so on moving out from there. For example, if a person is diagnosed with cancer, they are the center ring. Their partner, child, parent, etc (the person spending the most time/care with them) is the next circle. Their close friends/family are next, then acquaintances, etc.
The main concept of Ring Theory is that you must give “comfort in” and “dump out.” Using the example from above, the person with cancer may only receive comfort (from all rings), and can dump out to all the rings. The person closest to them must give comfort to them, but must turn to the outer rings to dump. The folks in the next ring can only comfort those in the rings inward from them, but can turn to the outer rings to dump. So, if your partner has cancer, you can comfort them. But you cannot complain about the time or emotional toll caring for them is taking on you. You can, however, turn to those in rings out from you to vent how much time and what an emotional toll it is taking from you.
I think this is a concept many people can understand and relate to. And, as I said earlier, it is a concept that I find applies in many situations beyond grief/hardship. As folks in the United States (and beyond) are walking in the racial reckoning, we need to embrace Ring Theory.
“Comfort In. Dump Out.”
So, what does this have to do with white folks, social justice, and anti-racism? I would like us all to remember (and use) this theory whenever we are engaging with race or racism. Put black folks in the center when situations and conversations address race and racism. Black folks are center, white folks are the very, very, very outer ring. What does this mean? (Say it together): white folks, we cannot dump in. EVER.
Before moving further, for the purpose of using Ring Theory with race and racism, comfort is the wrong word. So we will be replacing it with: shut the fuck up.
This is my proposal for anti-racism ring theory:
Shut the fuck up - In; Dump - Out.
What does this mean in action? Well, every time (as a white person) you are interacting with a Black, Indigenous, or person of color and the situation surfaces racism, you shut the fuck up. You listen, you learn, you (can) validate. You DO: center that person(s) and their voice, lived experience. You honor what is being told to you (or what you are reading) and understand that even though that might not be your experience, it is real and valid. You use the power of the internet to learn from folks being paid to use their voices (or are at least making the choice to share their experience, research, knowledge), you read books, listen to podcasts, watch movies that help you expand your knowledge and understanding. You take accountability for harm you have caused and actions you have taken to marginalize. You move power and use privilege to make change.
You do NOT: question, invalidate, or tell folks they are wrong and/or misconstruing something. You do not complain about how Black, Indigenous, people of color have it easier when talking about affirmative action, or with anything to do with reparations (this is simple wrong, learn more). You do not claim “reverse racism” if you feel you’ve had a hard path or know someone who has. You do not talk about how hard it is to be white, or about any “what about me’s” (we call this white tears. Black, Indigenous, and people of color do not need nor care about our white tears).
So, what do we do while we struggle with learning that whiteness is a race? What the US was (and is) built on racism? Where do we dump all of that energy, all of those questions, all of our tears? On other white folks. We dump on other white folks.
As you are the person closer to the center (Blackness), you can dump, vent, teach, take a nap. You do you. It is not your responsibility to teach or deal with folks from the outer rings, to be clear. That is a choice you get to make.
Note: this is all very distilled down. Yes, when in action, all of these concepts are much more interconnected. But at its core, the more intersectionalities one lives and experiences, the more of a central ring they are. The fewer, the further out. The basic idea remains. As you interact with folks in more central rings: shut the fuck up, listen, learn, do your own work, use your power and priviledge to upend systems of oppression.