Last year I had a formative experience that deepened my understanding of the dynamics of racism through an interaction between myself who identifies as white, and a peer who identifies as a person of colour. Although painful in multiple ways and for all sides involved, I appreciate the experience as an opportunity for my awareness to grow and for me to do what I can to notice and take responsibility for my impact and actively contribute to a deeper collective awareness of this issue. Writing about the experience feels like an important process for metabolising what happened, and for engaging with the impact of my own unconscious centring of whiteness.
The experience happened in a study context, where a student on my training was practicing facilitating a relationship process in front of a small group of students and two of our teachers. Myself who is white and a fellow peer who is a person of colour volunteered to be the ‘clients’ for the process, to explore our relationship. We began to speak about recently getting to know one another. I felt increasingly uncomfortable and finally expressed my sense of inadequacy around my peer who has a lot of personal and professional experience and awareness in understanding racism. I was feeling a lot and shared how I admired my peer and felt insecure around them. The person facilitating us, who is also white, froze and had difficulty framing what was happening. The group around us started whispering and finally one of our teachers intervened, saying NO! to the continuation of a wider pattern that was repeating in the school, revolving around centring the experiences of white people when it comes to racism. The person I had addressed felt touched, noticing they had not yet experienced a teacher intervening in this way in this context when a racist dynamic was playing out.
I realised in the moment that I was othering my peer, relating to them only based on their race, rather than as a whole person. I was more concerned with my own awkwardness and lack of power, projecting the source of my discomfort onto the other person, than noticing the ways in which I was making myself the centre of the interaction, paying little attention to the power I held through being part of a majority group that centres itself all the time. I didn’t consider what it might be like on the other side as someone who is impacted by racism on a daily basis to be drawn into an unsolicited conversation about race without consent, and in front of a majority white group.
Sitting with shame
The following day I had a strong impulse to address the issue of unconscious racism more deeply both in myself and the student community, and to ensure this experience would lead to positive lasting change in the school. While I believe this impulse is useful and I have followed it up in various ways, it was only later that I realised I had not given space to my shame. Spending the last couple of years working on understanding my whiteness and building my resilience to be able to hold and stay in uncomfortable conversations, I’d been marginalising my feelings. In my desire to build resilience, I had internalised a belief system that said ‘don’t be fragile’, even in all-white contexts exploring with peers how the racist culture we have been socialised in lives in us.
White fragility, a term coined by white sociologist, Robin DiAngelo, describes common recognisable behaviours and reactions exhibited by white people when confronted with the discomfort of engaging with race and racism. While I find this framework useful for identifying behavioural phenomena that is often un/consciously weaponised by white people to maintain their control of a situation, I am also reflecting on the need and importance of giving space to the complex feelings that come up for white people when confronted with our part in personally and collectively perpetuating a dominant system of violence and oppression. When we have never been taught about this previously, (when we have been lucky enough to be born white and falsely taught that racism has nothing to do with us), it takes some getting used to and requires care and attention. This is not to say that those of us who are white should stay identified with the need for care or demand to be made to feel comfortable by those around us, especially people of colour. But acknowledging and giving space to our feelings and personal history, which are likely to be triggered when challenged and faced with discomfort, is an important piece in the process of building capacity and compassion for addressing racism.
I believe that marginalising my pain, grief and feelings of insecurity, stemming from difficult past experiences, contributed to my fragility taking over in the interaction with my peer. Not giving these feelings space in my own time led to them erupting unconsciously and becoming yet another racist burden for my peer to hold. Through this experience I’ve been learning that part of taking responsibility for my power – both where I identify with lacking and having it – entails tending to my historical wounds. Taking care of and consciously centring these parts of myself means I will be less likely to un/consciously expect to be taken care of and centred by others. This feels like a growing up process, developing an internal parent who can take care of an internal child. The intention is not to get rid of discomfort – discomfort is likely a needed and appropriate response that supports waking up to a collective reality that leaves many people of colour perpetually uncomfortable, at best. Instead, through tending to my vulnerability consciously I develop my muscle for holding difficulty and complexity, recognising I can be both vulnerable and responsible in how I hold and enact power.
Processwork has a term for this kind of work, ‘burning wood’. The term is a metaphor likening our emotional triggers and wounds to dry kindling. When this kindling builds up and remains untended it is more likely to catch fire when we become activated. The practice of burning wood is one of taking a deep interest in that which affects and touches us, getting to know ourselves, the depths of our personal history and tending to our strong emotions when they arise. In such moments, slowing down, witnessing and making space for safely exploring the rising and burning of our emotional undercurrents can support a process of expression and release. Sometimes it might be helpful to be supported in this by someone who loves and cares for us, even if they are an imagined figure or entity accompanying the process. Taking a deep interest in ourselves in this way supports us to develop a more humane relationship to ourselves, and by extension to others. Rather than burning up or disappearing our passions, this can actually support our access to personal power, freeing up energy which might otherwise be spent on containing, trying not to feel, or reacting to strong feelings. It makes sense to me that this power will also support me on my ongoing journey in understanding and owning my part in racism, and moving towards fundamentally interrupting and transforming this in myself and wider society.
Exercise for Burning Wood around Shame:
- What do you feel ashamed about?
- Feel it, give space to the sensations, notice what they are like, where and how you experience them in your body. What is their quality? Get curious about them, let them move through you.
- When did you feel this in the past? When were you shamed? Was there a time when you experienced lack of compassion, no-one to support you?
- Invite the personal or collective story that made this experience so hurtful. Practice compassion for the part in you that was hurt. Let it express what it needs to express through words, images, movement, or however else it wants to emerge.
- Consider how bearing witness to this part in you is an antidote to oppressive dynamics within and without.