My fellow white siblings, those who are seeking to root out racism, this is for you.
Maybe you’ve been engaged in anti-racist work for a long time. Maybe you have recently begun. No matter where you are in this life-long process, there is significant emotional work for white people to do as anti-racists, particularly at this time in our nation’s life. But as Jennifer Loubriel explains in this article, there are helpful and harmful ways to process our emotions; when we ask Black Americans to reveal our harmful habits or perform our emotional labor or carry our burdens, we perpetuate racial injustice. We need to know when to be silent.
At the same time, the legacy of white supremacy leaves us with little experience of healthy emotional expression. White supremacy, as a constructed system of thinking and behaving, has long privileged the mind over body and feeling and has denigrated outward expressions of emotional overwhelm. Don’t be sissy; hold up; keep a stiff upper lip; stop being hysterical; be rational; calm down–these are the messages we have internalized. I still learn everyday how to acknowledge and lean into my emotions. I haven’t had a lot of examples on how to do so, but I have seen the stunting, life-draining effects of shutting off and shutting down my emotional experience. We are bound to have a lot of feelings about racial injustice, white supremacy, and our own complicity. We need to know when to express our feelings.
And we also need to know how. The article linked above has some good tips on the when. So, my siblings, let’s talk about the supremely important “how.” I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but here are some ideas to get us started.
Regular Emotional Practice
At the beginning of the year, I shared how I had developed a regular practice of expressing anger by setting an intention before I punched my bed pillows back into shape each morning. I’ve been grateful for this habit in our current stretched out season of plenty to be angry about; making a practice of anger means that I am learning how let my emotions move through me, how to let the anger rise and fall, how to trust that it will not consume me. Our culture labels emotions as “positive” and “negative,” but emotions don’t carry moral weight. They are neutral. And after years of suppressing them, it can be helpful to practice feeling them in ways that feel safe. Anger is one of my most difficult emotions, but perhaps yours is something else. What feelings have you been resisting or confused by as you’ve watched the news or learned about racism? Maybe you need to paint your sadness or wail your grief or break things in disappointment. Notice what emotion needs practice, and then discover a healthy, held way to embody it.
One thing Loubriel suggests is having a cohort of fellow anti-racist white folks to process with on a regular basis. We absolutely must connect across race and ethnicity, but we also need places where we can ask questions or process ideas that could be harmful to folks of color. Groups like this can take a variety of shapes. I know that my housemates, who are white, are loving, supportive, justice-seeking folks learning to interrogate their own privilege, and we can hold each other accountable. There are white folks in my worshiping community and my workplace who also challenge me and strengthen me and seek to live out anti-racist principles. I need the encouragement of all these folks to continue this counter-cultural work and face again and again the racism within myself.
Who are your partners? If you don’t have them, how can you find them? If you haven’t been able to find people nearby (or are simply dealing with the limits of pandemic social distancing), one online place you can check out is the community of folks at Energetic Justice.
During a workshop with Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects, I encountered a ritual called the truth mandala. Go ahead and click that link–this is a moving practice of communal expression and particularly well-suited to the kinds of groups mentioned above. Engaging this practice with a group of people is not always an option, however, especially in our current pandemic experience. So here is how one might bring the wisdom of the truth mandala to a personal practice.
- Gather objects that have emotional resonance for you. In the truth mandala as described above, there is a stick for anger, a stone for fear, dry leaves for sorrow, and an unfilled bowl for emptiness. Whatever objects you choose, you should be able to hold and handle them, connecting your body to the experience of your emotion.
- Create a time and place where you will be uninterrupted. Set out your objects, and set aside all distractions: phone, computer, chores, books, to-do lists.
- Take several deep breaths. Notice where your body has tension. Notice the quality of your natural breathing. If you’re already feeling somewhat connected to your emotions, simply notice what emotions arise.
- If you’re feeling stuck in your head or unsure of how to connect to what you’ve been feeling, let your mind wander through the last several days and weeks and all we have witnessed. When have you wanted to look away? What images stick out to you? Where have you felt resistance or defensiveness? Sit with these memories and breathe through them, and welcome in whatever feelings come.
- Consider which of your chosen objects best represents the emotions you are experiencing. As you engage with the object, try speaking your feelings aloud. Don’t be afraid to voice feelings you feel ashamed of or to express confusion and contradiction. Release the need to judge or edit your emotional expression and simply sit with yourself.
- Give yourself a little more time than feels comfortable–stretch your limits a bit. When you feel like your expression has come to a close for now, do something that feels cleansing or hospitable to your body: take a bath, take a walk, drink a cup of tea, massage your hands, shake your limbs, dance to music.
I’m a little biased in favor of journaling as a practice of emotional release, as its something I’ve been doing for about two decades. Because I’m someone who is both an external processor and an introvert, journaling has been an invaluable practice contributing to my overall wellbeing. If you’re looking for specific prompts related to racial justice, this document contains some helpful questions towards the end (as well as a host of other resources).
Some writing practices I’m hoping to engage in the next couple weeks are writing letters: one to my ancestors and one to my descendants (or simply those who come after). In the letter to ancestors, you might consider these questions:
- What do you wish you could ask your ancestors?
- What legacies leave you feeling guilt and shame?
- What do you wish you could tell them about the present?
In a letter to future generations, you might consider:
- What do you want to confess about your current experience?
- What legacies do you hope to leave?
- What kind of world are you working for?
- Find a song that resonates with you–or better yet, a whole album. Dance to the song(s), letting your body’s movements enact what you’re feeling in this current moment.
- Sing–learn the words of songs that inspire you. For me, that’s songs like MaMuse’s We Shall Be Known, Ella’s Song sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock, and The Kingdom of God from the Community of Taizé. Learn the lyrics of your own meaningful songs and sing them when you don’t have words of your own.
- Admit when you’ve made a mistake–confession is healing for the soul and releases us from guilt. Not a single one of us will ever be a perfect anti-racist ally and accomplice. Confess your missteps (aloud is best!), open yourself to grace, and try again.
Anti-racism is a life-long commitment, and reconnecting with our emotions is ever-deepening work. Engaging in both opens us up to justice and joy in ways we could never imagine, and we are liberated to be fueled rather than hindered by all we feel.