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, to different degrees, for everyone involved, the experience has been an opportunity for my awareness to grow, to notice and take responsibility for my impact, and contribute to deeper collective awareness of racism. Writing about the experience feels like an important process for metabolising what happened and engaging with the impact of my own unconscious centring of whiteness.
The experience happened in a study context, where a student was practicing facilitating a relationship process in front of a small group of students and two of our teachers. Myself who identifies as white and a fellow peer who identifies as 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 had tears come and shared how I admired my peer and felt insecure around them. The person facilitating us, who also identifies as 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 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 insecurity, 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, making them the problem and 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 next day I had a strong impulse to address the issue of racism more deeply 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 important and I am following it up in various ways, I later realised I was jumping to action and ‘fixing’ without giving space to feeling and experiencing my shame. Spending the last couple of years starting to learn about whiteness and build my resilience to be able to hold and stay in uncomfortable conversations around race, I’d been marginalising my feelings. In my aim to build resilience, I had internalised a belief that said ‘don’t be fragile’, including in all-white peer-led contexts exploring how the racist culture we have been socialised in lives in us.
White fragility, a term coined by white sociologist, Robin DiAngelo, describes common behaviours and reactions expressed by white people when confronted with the discomfort of engaging with race and racism. This framework is useful for identifying patterns of behaviour that are often un/consciously weaponised by white people to maintain their control of a situation. At the same time, I am also reflecting on the need and importance of giving space to the complex feelings that come up for those of us socialised as white when learning about 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 getting used to and requires care and attention if change is to be sustainable. 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 phase in the process of building capacity and compassion for addressing racism.
I believe marginalising my pain, grief and feelings of insecurity contributed to my white 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 – requires 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, cultivating an internal parent who can take care of an internal child. The intention is not to get rid of discomfort – discomfort is a needed and appropriate response. It supports me to stay awake to the reality of a collective system I am part of that inflicts ongoing discomfort and violence onto those who have been negatively racialised. 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 what 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 igniting 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.