In the field of psychology, deflection is a method of changing the course of an object, an emotion or thought from its original source. It often derails a conversation in the interest and to the benefit of a guilty party.
Example: your sibling accuses you of taking their ball. You did, but you want to keep it, and avoid punishment, so you say something like: “You take things from me all the time!” This conversation slowly devolves into one about who is the worse sibling, and ends in tears. The bouncy contraband remains in your hands, unreturned and undiscussed.
Example: you live with your sibling, your parents, and your uncle. One day, running around the house, yelling, smashing things, your sibling accuses Uncle Sam of 250-odd years of slavery, 90-odd years of overt legal discrimination, and 50-some years of covert, state sanctioned violence.
Your sibling is right, but you cannot believe they smashed a flower vase on the floor. You respond in fury, condemning the ethicality and efficacy of looting, reprimanding them for violent protest. Your parents get home and take sides. One parent stands in solidarity with your sibling, in condemnation of Uncle Sam — and the other stands behind you; they loved that vase. And the glass! So dangerous.
You find yourself in a house divided. On one side, 400 years of race-based oppression. On the other, a broken flower vase. Perhaps you don’t even like Uncle Sam yourself. But for some reason, you’re caught up on that vase. It was expensive.
It had sentimental value. Deflection works, you see, by overstating the importance of a marginally relevant aspect of a conversation in order to protect something; usually yourself, or something else that is being attacked- something that has value to you.
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Deflection is a coping mechanism. It’s a defensive narcissistic tool used to preserve the ego.
In the real life version of the above scenario — with people protesting in cities across the nation in the response to the violent lynching of George Floyd, and others shifting the narrative to condemn looting and violence — the reason you may currently be standing behind a broken flower vase instead of a pile of dead black bodies lain before a countrywide network of injustice and inequality … is probably due to the way that systemic racism has forced you to craft parts of your life and identity around complicity and privilege.
If you care about the broken glass more than you care about the broken system, you are privileged enough to do so; you are deflecting on behalf of racist policy. And you are, by way of this deflection, an agent for racist policies and racist ideas.
I am not just talking to white people. This is America; everyone has the freedom to internalize and defend racist ideas. Anyone can support racist policies. Anyone can do absolutely nothing.
The key here is that there is no neutrality in systemic racism; the system doesn’t need your help to continue to function. There is no such thing as being “not racist.” You are either anti-racist, or you are complicit.
Perhaps you are deflecting because Uncle Sam likes you — or at least he doesn’t have a problem with you. Or maybe because you have found a way to deal with him, or avoid him, and you are just fine with the way that is going. Why break stuff? Why start a fight?
Perhaps you are deflecting because it is easier to continue to live your life as normal than to recognize that, while physically showing up at a protest may not be your preferred method, you should probably confront Uncle Sam in some way, for being such an awful guy for 400 years.
Perhaps you genuinely don’t want to be complicit; perhaps you even want to begin to live a life of anti-racism. In that case, confront yourself. Shift your attention from the vase, from your sibling, from the looting, from the Capitol building.
Focus on your own home, your own sphere of influence. Systemic racism is everywhere, all the time. Seek information, and act; neither knowledge nor action is sufficient unto itself.
Join groups, donate, care out loud with your time and your money. The time is now. Start your own protest, your own fight, your own battle. That’s the only way we’ll ever win the war.
Katie Leonard is a Denver native and incoming graduate student at the University of Denver. She received her bachelor’s degree in African American Studies from Harvard College in 2017.
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