Nurturing ‘white vulnerability’: why we POCs need to stop shaming white tears, for our own sake

A big part of the learning process in writing this post was on how to properly recognize the need for un-shaming white emotions while making sure POCs are not being made responsible for them. I wrote a new article based on some criticism and concerns I heard from my community. You can read the new post here.

NOTES & EDITS: I newly added section on the difference between naming and shaming a problem (Jun 13th 2017). Finally, I added a section on tone-policing as it was a question brought to me by a community member. 

‘White tears’ is an ever popular term being used in social justice media these days. As a therapist I have long thought about this and have come to some answers of my own. And I am honestly a bit afraid to voice them, in fear of what fellow POCs would say.

First off, I want to say, I know from my own experience, how frustrating it is when white-bodied people go into reactive, or even angry denials of racism. I don’t condone this type of behaviour at all. But that isn’t the part of the white tears problem I am focusing on here.

The part I am really concerned about is the tendency in social justice communities to treat white people expressing big emotions about racism in the presence of non-white people as inappropriate, because it draws energy and space away from non-white people.

A frustrated part of me asks my own community, when did we begin to treat nurturing space as such a scarce commodity? How have we let capitalism override our compassion? At the same time, I can’t deny that it is a fact that there is a difference of financial privilege in non-white people accessing emotionally safer spaces. And as a POC therapist this inequity is of a great concern to me.

But I think there is something else going on as well in the phenomenon of shaming white fragility.

As a culture we live in an environment that is repressive towards the embodied expression of emotion, especially sadness and grief. The truth is, there is very little safer space for anyone to break down and cry. And I believe we need to consider this in how we understand ‘white tears’.

We need white people to cry. Crying is one of the primary ways the body flushes out old behaviour patterns by discharging locked up emotional energy. As a POC, it is a lost opportunity to always forego these moments in which we can show white people that they can feel safe around us. It is true that POCs are not responsible to help white people process their emotions about racism. At the same time, the moment a white person is experiencing that acute pain of being white is the perfect time for us to help them reorganize how they feel towards POCs, for our own sake.

And if we cannot hold that space, which is totally OK in it of itself, especially as many of us are understandably exhausted by the emotional labour we do, I think we can certainly do better than using language that shames vulnerability.

There is a difference between naming and shaming a problem. Yes, I believe it is important to name white people’s hypersensitive and defensive reactions to racism. But I am afraid here we have stepped over the line by using language and imagery that stigmatizes natural emotional processes.

I do understand that a lot of my ideas could fall into what is usually called tone-policing within radical communities. Yet I start to wonder, why shouldn’t it matter how we say things in social justice contexts? In relationship how you say something is the most important part of communication. Does it not disempower us as POCs to abandon our emotional self-responsibility?

The truth is, asking anybody to take their emotions somewhere else, especially from a place of frustration, can trigger immensely painful memories, especially from childhood, of not being seen or heard. When a white person feels the intense shame of colonialism in their body, they aren’t just processing their privilege shame. They are also being brought back by their body to that young vulnerable place where not being loved felt like death itself.

While POCs are certainly not responsible for these childhood feelings and no white person is entitled to our emotional labour, it is extremely valuable for us to keep in mind that they are there. When we use labels such as ‘white tears’ we continue to allow white bodies to project their childhood trauma on to non-white bodies. And we all know that the repressed emotions of white bodies are some of the most dangerous things in the world to non-white bodies.

When I really look at the phenomenon of ‘white tears’, I don’t think the problem is just the tears themselves. The problem is also our social discomfort with expressions of emotion. I believe this happens because we are not taught how to create mutually nourishing containers for vulnerability. We have been taught that if someone has emotions we A) need to be completely responsible for them and abandon our own needs, or B) need to shut them down because it is unsafe to us.

The shaming of white fragility happens in the context of body-negative and misogynistic attitudes towards emotion.

Thinking about this makes me ask further questions, as POCs, how much of the shaming of ‘white tears’ is our own (completely valid) fear of being vulnerable in the presence of white bodies? Many of us POCs had to stuff our feelings to protect our families from breaking up in a world that is not friendly to non-white bodies. How much of our hostility towards white people’s emotions comes from our own projections of this repressed anger?

I believe that asking ourselves these difficult questions and compassionately attending to our own wounds is something that we can call ourselves to do. And as POCs we can leverage an incredible power by healing ourselves and, if we feel called to, making ourselves consensually emotionally available for white bodies.

Why? Because the constant issue of white people taking up emotional space maybe pointing to a problem that needs to be addressed in the next phase of racism cessation work. I believe that on a societal level this is what problematic responses such as #AllLivesMatter (in opposition to Black Lives Matter) indicates. A huge unmet emotional need expressing itself. And again, the repressed emotions of white people are dangerous to us POCs.

To me this is where we can go a bit further than the usual anti-oppression frameworks we use such as ‘white privilege’. The concepts we have developed to do social justice work, mostly through the field of academia, have been very useful to dissect the socio-political systematic layer of our experience. But they start to show their limitation in addressing the more energetic, personal, interpersonal and transpersonal layers of our being.

If anything we need a much more holistic way of approaching racial justice work that includes an understanding of the body and childhood pain, along with the deep acknowledgement of the incredible gifts and hurts that come with being a POC.

I totally understand that looking at racism cessation work in this way takes an unusual amount of understanding and non-judgement from us non-white people. That said, I believe love is a weapon that we can muster the courage to use.

Because compassion is self-defense.

If you are a POC reading this, I want to let you know that the first person we can hold space for is ourselves. You might have felt guilty reading this post but it’s not our fault that we are emotionally spent. Our allies will be fine. They can take care of themselves. We just have to start letting them know we can see them too.

If you are a white person reading this, I want to let you know that your feelings are definitely important, even though sometimes it might look we have no time. When we feel safe enough, we will want to feel our feels with you. So even if we need to have some space of our own, please don’t stop trying to genuinely connect with us.

If this post resonated with you and you are a white person I would like to invite you to learn more abouut the Authentic Allyship Coaching Group (for white people).

6 thoughts on “Nurturing ‘white vulnerability’: why we POCs need to stop shaming white tears, for our own sake

  1. I think you’re connecting on important issues and white folk need to do their work without expecting POC to comfort, confirm or appreciate their reconnecting with their humanity and seeing POC as fully human self-determining folk not seeking their affirmation or validation. Addressing white supremacy, capitalism and colonialism is critical to allyship regarding racial oppression in a North American context. White tears, white fragility, white healing, white anger, white privilege, white terrorism can be addressed among white folk so they can step out more fully into the struggle to end white supremacy on a daily basis. Beware of detour spotting in the process and call each other out/in

    1. Hi Parker 🙂 I saw your request to join the group and I will reply to you this week.
      Thank you for you comment!

      What I want to do with my work is step forward and help facilitate the healing that is needed, in a mutual nourishing exchange unlike the ‘unpaid emotional labour’ that is asked of us so often.

      1. Hi Tada,
        As a Black American living in Vancouver, I would not fit the group you are seeking to work with. I’m glad to see you are seeking to support white folk in doing their work.
        I wish you and the group much success in the process!

  2. i feel like there is a conflation happening in this analysis – of the trauma white folks need to work thru and of their responses to their own white privilege and their realization of their complicity in racism/white supremacy.

    i feel like nurturing white vulnerability is not at odds with NAMING white tears the way it is framed here. i cry and need space held when i am working through my abusive/problematic behaviours and identifying my trauma at the root of those behaviours. at the same time, when im working thru guilt and my complex feelings around realizing my complicity in abled supremacy/ableism (for example) i dont feel it is appropriate to expect disabled folks to offer compassion as a norm. its appreciative if they do – and if they dont its well deserved.

    im upset at the dismissiveness of white tears and white fragility as ‘buzzwords’ – these are terms that are identifying and naming real things. yes white folks need to be more emotional – in ways that can still center BIPOC. certainly some degree of shaming exists around white tears, white fragility – at the same time i feel when we generalize a whole concept as ‘shaming’ i find this problematic. its like naming white supremacy and racism and then someone feels ‘ashamed’ or ‘guilty’ because i have named it and points the finger at be for being ‘blamey’ for simply naming something for existing. the shame and guilt i feel as a person with privilege comes from within. if there is shame around white tears and white fragility, it means that white folks havent worked thru what their identity and social location in the world and in their community really means. cuz if they did work thru it, theyd know that its about responsibility.

    in whole, i feel the analysis offered here coddles white people, ignores the reality of power and power dynamics, and gives white folks yet another excuse to not work thru their power and privilege OR their own personal trauma cuz the two are being conflated.

    1. Hi Vee 🙂 Thanks for your comment. I can certainly hear that you might feel my approach to the subject as letting white folks off easy. That’s something I asked myself repeatedly as well.

      It’s honestly kept me up at night wondering if fellow POCs would be very angry with me for thinking the way I do.

      And I am sorry if the term buzzwords felt dismissive to a real phenomenon that impacts your life and mine as well. I did change that detail.

      In terms of what I think about those terms or the concepts they represent as a whole, I thought through this very deeply and sincerely believe that it isn’t the approach I advocate for. This comes not from pity but from a true place of feeling it is harmful for us POCs to approach white people’s emotions this way.

      It is true that we do need to acknowledge white people’s reactivity towards subjects of racism. But words have power. And I don’t believe those terms or the idea that white people need to contain their emotions to be sustainable for our happiness.

      From my experience, the approach we have taken on these matters has been more than a little shaming. It makes social justice communities terrifying to many white-bodied people. And we can say that it is the white person’s duty to show up and be accountable, even in the face of harsh (and probably accurate) criticism.

      But the reality I have seen is that it can really shut down the process.

      My first hand experience is how much the white person’s fear or me has torn at my relationships with them. So not using these terms and making extra sure that their emotions feel welcome is something I do for my own self-care.

      And finally, I don’t think nurturing vulnerability means not naming our discomfort or pain either. I believe the naming itself can be done in the nurturing container, not as a separate piece.

    2. Also, I do agree with you with a white person referring to words like ‘white-supremacy’ and ‘racism’ as shame-y would make no sense. Those words to me, point at a reality in the system in a very essential way.

      But tears and fragility are completely different to me. They are speaking to a person’s character as well as a natural emotional process. If anything, I would much prefer to simply to identify what we call white tears or fragility as maybe something simple like white (privilege) shame.

      I believe this names the issue but in a much more compassionate container. It has no agenda. Plus, I think it is more accurate in plain language to what is actually happening when some body is in a state of white tears.

      How does that feel to you?

      I just want to be clear I have no intention ever of giving white people an ‘excuse’. I don’t believe compassion to be ‘easy’ on anyone. I understand loving kindness as very powerful self-defence, if anything.

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