NOTES & EDITS: This article is a 2nd re-work of another article that critiqued the shaming of white fragility in social justice communities. It’s been challenging to capture the nuances of my projects but here is another try.
When I look at the landscape of social justice communities, I feel overwhelmed by feelings from sadness to frustration.
If you don’t know my work already, I am currently designing on an online nurturance program where white people to have space held by a POC (me) to process their emotions around racism. This work came out of critiques I had of how social justice communities tend to handle the emotions of white people, especially through the use of terms such as ‘white tears’ (and sometimes, ‘white fragility’, when being used sarcastically).
I am also writing a book on navigating relationships in social justice communities in order to address the problems of ‘call-out culture’.
And understandably, many POCs, and some white people, including good friends, have been critical of my work. Am I letting white people off easy? Am I tone-policing? Why aren’t I working for POCs?
These are questions I asked myself many times before launching the project publicly. I have definitely doubted myself more than once. I always wondered: “Why am I committed to working in this way?”
I wanted to write this post because something came into my life that reminded me why.
This morning, I was busy answering a fury of (valid) criticisms against my work on social media. Then an article popped up on my ‘feed’ about what it feels like to not be understood by white people, by Ijeoma Oluo.
While my experience of racism is completely different from hers, I know this feeling she expresses with beautiful and frustrated vulnerability:
And that is what we do. With every confrontation, every call-out. We are saying, “I know that this is likely to hurt me, I know that I will likely be the one hanging. But I have to look down to see if the bridge is still below me, even though I know that if I don’t see it, I will fall. Because I love you and I need you and I need to know if we are standing on anything real at all.”
I can tell you honestly, that I have often been too scared to check if there is any bridge below, and have also felt the sadness of being let down when I mustered the courage to step out.
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So when people ask me why I am doing work for white people, I have to correct them. I do this work for myself, to heal my own feelings of abandonment, and for the people who have felt the same.
I started this project to nurture the ability for white people to listen. As a therapist, I have clearly seen that for people to listen they need to feel heard. Many fellow POCs have wondered why I am ‘coddling’ white people. But given the path I have chosen, unconditional positive regard is my weapon of choice – it is what I know, so I wield it, hopefully responsibly.
So here is the thing I have had such difficulty articulating before. I hope this time it makes a bit more sense than the last. I earnestly hope that this doesn’t come off as dismissive to POC realities. I am certainly not the least privileged of POCs but I also haven’t lived up till now feeling I am enough to be loved in a white-dominated society.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I don’t believe white people, especially the ones who identify as my allies, don’t want to listen because they are white. I believe when they really understand what POCs experience, they get it. And it often comes with a flood of emotions that they don’t feel there is space for in my presence.
As a body-centred therapist, I believe the central unaddressed problem with ‘call-out culture’, ‘white tears’, ‘tone-policing’ and so on, isn’t that anger is an unhealthy emotion to express. It is that we live in an environment that is repressive towards embodied expressions of emotion, especially sadness and grief.
The truth is, there is very little safer space for anyone to break down and cry in our world.
When I really look at the phenomenon of ‘white tears’, the problem isn’t just the tears themselves. The problem is also our social disdain for feeling. This happens because we have not been shown how to create mutually nourishing containers for vulnerability. We have been taught that, often through painful childhood experiences, if someone has a need to feel their emotions in their body we need to A) be completely responsible for them and abandon our own needs, or B) shut down their feelings because they are dangerous, as they invite us into feeling our feelings as well.
And because of this, we have learnt to live in a world that nurturance is treated, not as something you create and share, but as a scarce commodity that is extracted from powerless feminized emotional labour. The shaming of white fragility, or any kind of fragility, happens in the context of this body-negative and misogynistic attitude towards emotion.
This is why, as a POC therapist, I see nurturing the repressed childhood pain of white people as a crucial part of this current phase of social trauma (oppression) work. When a white person shuts down a call-out in angry denial, or physically assault an innocent POC, they do so with their whole history of hurts behind them. That is, they use their position of privilege, something they didn’t have in childhood, to inflict their emotions on non-white bodies.
We desperately 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. And it is important for white people to have experiences of feeling safe around POCs, to feel their feelings in their body, especially around racism, in a self-responsible way: to not deny our claims, or make excuses, or try to save us, or try to avoid the pain, but simply sit in it and be held.
No, I don’t think that we POCs are responsible for the emotions of white people. It isn’t our ‘job’ – I don’t think every POC has to hold space for white people.
But as a POC and therapist, who believes in holding space as a strategy for social change and has had the privilege of accessing time and space to heal, I enthusiastically consent to nurturing the ability of white people to listen to people like me.
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).
As Nora says: “Compassion for self and compassion for others grow together and are connected; this means that men finding and recuperating the lost parts of themselves will heal everyone.” I first read her viral post in the fall-winter of 2016, during a time I was actively doing healing work around my gender and sexuality through therapy (https://compassionatepath.ca/), sexological bodywork (http://thetouchingcure.com/) and intimacy coaching (http://www.tanillegeib.ca/), as well as writing the first draft of The Selfish Activist Guide to Allyship. I remember that I felt a great relief that there were others invested in an approach that advocated for compassion to self and others.
My confidence in a nurturance-based approach to activism that integrates neurophysiology and attachment theory has grown out of this time of healing.