Knowing my power, burning my wood

Unconscious power

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.

Burning wood

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.

No-one left behind – Cultivating resilience for difficult work

“Without love, our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed.”1

bell hooks

I recently participated in a weekend workshop organised to examine our part in societal dynamics of privilege and oppression, with an emphasis on race, and to explore working towards collective liberation. Although difficult, the workshop was a big learning experience for me and I feel compelled to write about it. This too has come with its challenges as I am new to writing about social justice issues and making this process public. What follows are reflections that include concepts from Processwork and thoughts expressed by other workshop participants, to whom I am indebted for developing my learning from this experience.

One could say that the workshop fell apart, with several people of colour and one white person leaving midway. The absence of those who had chosen to leave greatly impacted the rest of the group. Although the experiences of the remaining (and absent) participants were diverse, there was general consensus around a sense of sadness and frustration that so often when people come together to address issues of social injustice, the same patterns inherent to those issues are repeated. Yet again we had not managed to create a safe and inclusive enough environment while engaging in these difficult but necessary conversations.

Trauma in the field

Working on themes of power, privilege and oppression is difficult work, and will trigger traumas in all of us, whatever the degree. Often in this kind of work, love and kindness become marginalised, both towards one another and ourselves. In Processwork terms, when doing this work the themes of external and internal oppression will be present within the shared ‘field’ and felt by those engaging with it.

As a person who is white, with many privileges and feeling like I still have so much to learn about social justice issues, I felt strongly impacted by a self-critical voice influencing my interactions with other participants and with what was happening between us. Following a Processwork understanding, this voice was not only internal, but also a manifestation of the wider dynamic of oppression within the field. This critical voice inhibited me from connecting with my feelings, which reduced my ability to relate to myself and others.

No-one left behind

The fear of ostracisation from the group often prohibits open and honest interaction. The tendency in a group to evaluate one another and project judgements onto individuals repeats the dynamics of a competitive society that isolates us from one another and sets us up for distrust and division. To project onto and scapegoat individuals can be shortsighted as this doesn’t take into account that we are in this together and that one person’s unconscious behaviour is symptomatic of a wider dynamic of which we are all a part.

This doesn’t mean that our experiences and responsibilities are equal or the same. Working towards collective liberation means that it is essential for those of us with more privileges to be held to account and develop tolerance for discomfort and self-questioning. One way of developing such tolerance is through practices of radical inner work, making time and space to connect with our experience, which can relieve others from having to take care of us. But it is also a myth that we can provide all the love and support that we need for ourselves.

When someone in a privileged position behaves unconsciously, a commonly repeating pattern is that the onus of awareness raising or compassion falls onto those who are most affected by structural oppressions. To counteract this pattern, it can help when others sharing the privileged position hold one another to account whilst remaining empathetic, aware that any one of us could be the one to behave or have behaved unconsciously at another moment. The question remains, however, of how we can facilitate deeper relationship to do this work across our differences and social positions.

Building a container

What emerged from the disintegration of the workshop was a shared recognition that feeling more connected to one another is essential for doing this work. This takes time and is difficult to achieve in a weekend-long workshop. Nevertheless, it is useful to reflect on what kinds of practices support this work to be sustainable in the long-term, even when our opportunities to come together are limited.

To make a conscious effort to slow down, make space and cultivate a sense of togetherness helps to form a container for holding difficulty. Slowing down gives the opportunity to check in with our bodies and take care of our needs in the moment, which might include needing to step out and be alone. Interactions that mainly take place through conversation privilege the communication styles of those who find it easy to talk. Balancing these interactions with other shared activities – such as cooking, moving and visioning together – offers grounding and the chance to share and experience different aspects of ourselves.

Cultivating a container for being together is not about flattening difference or engendering a harmonious status quo. It supports the expression and valuing of our diversity of gifts and experiences, so that they can enhance one another. It emphasises the importance of relationship for being able to deepen this challenging work and facilitate more related interaction. I appreciate how the learning from this workshop reminded me of the value of creative processes in supporting this. Making space for creativity and relationship enriches our connection to our hearts, with much scope for cultivating our resilience to go deep, be challenged and lay the ground for honest conversation and community healing.

1hooks, b. (2008) Love as the Practice of Freedom, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, New York: Routledge, p. 243