Freezing, Silence, and Shame

Hi Friends,

Happy Fall! I hope your school years have started well (for those of you caring for school-aged children) and that things are settling into a new routine.

I have been reading a lot and remembering some experiences and wrestling with the fact that there have been several times when a White person has acted in a racist way towards a Black person and I have been silent/frozen in the moment. I have not been walking the walk of my anti-racist talk. In response, I have been educating myself about bystander interventions and other strategies I can use to show up differently in public.

I’m finding that silence is really common, especially among White women. From my own experience, I have been socialized to avoid making anyone else uncomfortable (read, other White people) and I often feel socially disempowered in public spaces even though I’m not. My socialization can cause me to question what I’m observing and to make excuses or explain away someone else’s harmful behavior (read, if they are White). My/our tendencies to not get involved, to freeze or stay silent, need to be unlearned.

One of the books I read recently that really focuses on “nice White silence” is White Women: Everything You Already Know About Your Own Racism and How To Do Better by Regina Jackson and Saira Rao. I recommend this book with a caveat: If you are a White woman, this book will challenge and disrupt you. You need to have people or resources in place so that you do not get stuck in a disrupted state of shame or guilt. Before you read it, make plans to move through those feelings (advice heavily informed by Shelly Tochluk).

In my own processing of White Women, I turned to Brené Brown and her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough.” Brown focuses on the role of shame in our lives, particularly for women, although also for men, and I have found her insights to be absolutely essential for understanding my own journey of self-work in anti-racism and in understanding other White people’s barriers when doing this work (or to starting it in the first place).

For example, when White people start to learn more about their complicity in upholding White supremacy structures, they often respond with denial, bargaining, guilt, and shame. Brown says, “When we are experiencing shame, we are steeped in the fear of being ridiculed, diminished or seen as flawed. We are afraid that we’ve exposed or revealed a part of us that jeopardizes our connection and our worthiness of acceptance.” (p. 20) Fear of being branded as racist is very strong.

One of the things I have encouraged my readers to do is to always continue with our self-work, our own growth and healing. Brown says, “Empathy and connection require us to know and accept ourselves before we can know and accept others.” (p. 49) If we truly want to be in relationship with people in our communities, we need to be kind to ourselves and work on our own barriers to empathy and connection. And, it turns out that being afraid of saying the wrong thing to someone is a barrier to empathy and connection (p. 56).

Brown has struggled with the same things we do: “I’ve learned that it is better for me to accept the fact that I struggle with many of the same learned biases that other people do. This has allowed me to spend my energy unlearning and changing my prejudices rather than proving that I don’t have any.” (p. 59)

Beyond looking at how we treat ourselves when we are experiencing shame, we must also look at how we are treating others. Do we use shame to try to change someone else’s behavior? It won’t work. Brown says, “Are we using shame as a punishment because we think it will foster real change in people? Or are we shaming others because it feels good to make people suffer when we are in fear, anger or judgment?” (p. 66)

This past weekend, I participated in a “Depolarizing Within” workshop through Braver Angels. I’m still learning about this organization, and I found a lot of meaningful tips for rethinking a lot of my own polarization and how I can address that. One of the things I learned is how, even though I have diversified my media intake and authors I read from a racial/cultural perspective, I still mostly read people who I agree with. This reinforces my ability to “other” entire groups of people and is something I can and must address.

This is not a “both sides” argument. It simply means that if my goal is to encourage White people to engage in anti-racist/anti-oppression work in themselves and in their communities that I need to ensure that I approach those connections with respect and accuracy. If you want to learn more about the workshop, you can access the handout here (this is shared with their permission).

I would love to hear your thoughts about any of this. If you want to learn more about shame and the Black experience, I’m currently reading You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown and it is such an important collection of work. And if you’re ready to move “away from individual learning and practice and into collective action that builds power,” check out this article from SURJ and/or find ways to support the UAW strike.

Listen. Amplify. Follow. In Solidarity.

I Still Have Hope

Hi Friends,

I hope you’re all having a good summer so far. I’m sorry I’ve been quieter than usual since I wrote last. Some really impactful things have been happening for me lately.

I have been engaging with some really wonderful growth and healing work since December and that has included some restorative justice training in the last month or so (shout out to the DC Peace Team, and thanks to Leah for sharing their info with the group!).

I have continued exploring my ancestral roots and the strong connection of that work to anti-oppression work, wrestling with harm caused and harm experienced, and gaining a greater understanding of my own identity and opportunities to shift the trajectory of my lineage.

I was a witness to a family experiencing a life-changing, life-ending time in their lives, watching people who could help refuse to do so. I am still processing my role in seeking justice for this family, finding my way along the path of next right things.

I have accumulated so many amazing resources to share with all of you that I’m feeling a bit buried and I don’t want to dig out by blasting all of you with an overwhelming amount of information (we get enough of that from the daily news cycle). I’m also feeling sensitive to the constant bombardment of the challenges our world faces — climate change, oppressive and dehumanizing systems, significant power in the hands of the few, threats to democracy, intense polarization and so much anger.

While the truths about what we are facing feel insurmountable sometimes, I still feel hope. I want my updates to you to reinforce the sense of community that you are part of as a changemaker in this world. I want you to feel connected and resourced and encouraged. I want you to know that you are enough, that you do not have to do this work to make you a “good” person, or to deserve humanity.

We do anti-oppression work because we know that our own well-being is tied up in the well-being of everyone, not because we feel guilty or ashamed. We have chosen to incorporate justice and solidarity work into our lifestyles because that is who we are. We understand that this is lifelong work and that our own individual growth and healing contributes to our abilities to effect change in our communities.

We believe that how we take care of each other in this world is one of the most important things.

Nicole Cardoza of Anti-Racism Daily said recently, “I can’t wait for motivation to make a difference. And quite frankly, our world can’t wait for that either. I’ve made this work part of my daily practice, just like brushing my teeth and walking my dog. I’ve set routines and habits that ensure it’ll get done, regardless of how motivated I feel. … Part of that practice is the reminder that nothing will change unless we try. Mariame Kaba famously said that “hope is a discipline,” and that resonates with me. If we only believe in change when we see progress, we’ll lose our way.”

Michele Chang and Lisa Cohen from Kitchen Table Conversations about Race & Belonging shared this in one of their recent newsletters: “Something that I found particularly helpful is the idea that the “window of opportunity” for advances in equity and inclusion is not closed; it is merely not as wide open as it was in the summer of 2020. This perspective allows us to realize that our efforts are still needed, that we can still get through the window to minimize the harm of the “fire” inside the house (representing racism and other oppressions). Michele pointed out that as we consider how to show up now, we may want to lean into the ways in which we can be more agile and creative. We may need to “limbo” our way through the window or look for alternative ways into the house around the side or back. Also, we don’t only need firefighters for this effort; we also need architects, engineers, water carriers, and those who can help us to rest and recharge, among others.” (They gave me permission to share this and their contact info, asking me to invite you to join the Table!)

Raising our children (or interacting with children in general since I know not everyone here is currently in this stage of life) can be an essential form of changemaking. Here’s encouragement from Anti-Racism Daily about talking to kids about race.

Community Safety Agenda was created recently by a whole bunch of human rights/justice organizations that provides a clear model of what our communities need and how to get there. Let this guide you in your work.

Did you know that July is Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month? Learn more here.

At the risk of seeming too optimistic, the National Governors Association announced a new project called Disagree Better: Healthy Conflict for Better Policy. Tell your governor that this is the kind of politics and discourse that you want to see.

Listen. Amplify. Follow. In Solidarity.

Objectification and Dehumanization

Hi Friends,

I hope this finds you well and enjoying spring! I have been growing and learning in some new directions over the last few months and I am excited to share with you as we all move forward in this essential work together.

Today, I’d like to discuss one of the stuck places for white people in anti-racism work, which is (subconsciously) seeing BIPOC as objects to collect or to serve us in some way. It is very easy, when we make choices about the communities we live in or the schools we send our children to, to see these decisions as ways of showing our antiracist credentials, reducing the people in those scenarios to objects in our space that contribute caché and don’t warrant further connection or acknowledgement of humanity.

Unfortunately, the way we describe these choices often takes the perspective of what we get from proximity to BIPOC (besides feeling good about ourselves), which can demote the people who are our neighbors or community members to being objectified rather than individuals with inherent value of their own. It’s a bit like patting oneself on the back when one says “I have a Black friend” or when companies tokenize their BIPOC employees or DEI hires.

A friend of mine wrote a great scenario to consider:

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Take for example the sentence, “I love my daughter’s day care. They have diverse caregivers there. There’s a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf.”

Now, what comes next?

“I’ve always considered converting to Islam, and so I was glad to have a chance to talk to her about her faith in an environment where she could answer my questions better than a stranger could, because of how well she knew our family, having been a caregiver to my daughter for the past year.”

Yeah, that’s probably not what comes next.

But if it did, that kind of statement would reflect a recognition that the Muslim caregiver has a point of view (she has opinions about my family), has autonomy (she has made choices about her faith that I might value and want to emulate), and she isn’t fungible (one Muslim isn’t replaceable with another Muslim in this context, because she has relevant information about my family that others don’t).

What usually comes next after a sentence like that? Maybe nothing really at all, which reveals that there’s nothing to the comment other than the sheer novelty of the situation. If you could substitute, “There’s a dog who stands on its hind legs” for whatever reference to BIPOC or diversity you are making, and the result communicates the same thing (well, I’ll be damned!), then that’s objectification.

Maybe what comes next is a generic sentence like, “and it’s so great that my daughter can learn about other cultures.” Well, your daughter can learn about other cultures regardless of whether this person is there or not. If you could substitute “Look, sweetie, there’s a giraffe, remember, we talked about those” for a BIPOC, then that’s probably a sign of objectification.

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This awareness isn’t just about individual perspectives that might cause individual harm. Even subconsciously viewing people as objects is dehumanizing — it upholds systemic hierarchies of value that devalue some people and uplift others.

If we are only thinking about ourselves (understandable in our culture of hyperindividualism, the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth, and the consumerism we are constantly breathing), then we are prevented from truly being in community with others and our efforts to connect will be shallow and temporary. Engage with the people in your life not because of the group they might belong to, but because they have inherent individual value.

Let us commit to building relationships, growing solidarity with people of many experiences and perspectives, and taking action in ways that serve the greater good and not just ourselves.

Listen. Amplify. Follow. In Solidarity.

- ACLU’s tracker of legislation attacking LGBTQ+ rights
- Supporting the teaching of accurate history
- In.Visible Paradigms created a Social Justice Terms document
- Use the HEAL Together toolkit for community organizing