Written by Sarah Corn
Interrupting Privilege Seminar, Winter 2018
I can generally gauge how effective I am and how much I’m learning in conversations about race by how uncomfortable and challenging it is to keep going. I use my shame and fragility as a guide to point me towards the areas that need the most attention. In that way, these emotions have been invaluable partners in my efforts to interrupt privilege.
In order to begin to repair the damage done to people of color by white culture, white people must take on the responsibility of learning how to process their own emotional reaction to the impacts of racism.
When it comes to leveraging the power of compassion to reduce the suffering of people of color in the United States, mindfulness expert Dr. Angela Rose Black has a clear message for white people: Stay in your lane.
In her lecture at UW’s Kane Auditorium this past week, the CEO of the newly-launched Mindfulness for the People explained the key to engaging in racial justice work from a position of privilege, without inflicting further harm on people of color, lies in acknowledging and addressing one’s own suffering.
Using clear racial language like white fragility and racial stamina, Dr. Black challenged her predominantly white audience to stop and notice what they feel during conversations about race, emotionally and physically, and then to practice not immediately acting on them.
Her encouragement for white people to practice sitting with discomfort is something that resonated particularly strongly with me, as it echoed the issues around shame I brought up in class during our conversation about group norms.
In my own experience, the more I, as a white-identifying person, can commit to witnessing, connecting with, and understanding my discomfort, the easier it becomes to bear witness to the pain of others and summon compassion.
Once, at what was otherwise a pleasant and innocuous brunch, I unintentionally made a very racist remark to a good friend of mine. When he immediately called me on it, I was too ashamed to do much other than acknowledge he was right and shrink away to my car. I was so caught up in my own emotional reaction that I even forgot to apologize.
But that first beat that I managed to take, where I acknowledged the shame of the interaction for just a moment, was enough to set the lesson in my mind. It was also enough to save the friendship.
And the shame that I felt that morning has become a touchstone to draw on as I build my racial stamina. It reminds me to be extra patient and present whenever I feel that same pit in the bottom of my stomach.
Without this inward-focused attention, white people invested in dismantling the country’s systemic whiteness are likely to get overwhelmed by feelings of guilt, anger, and shame that they are not used to processing. This white fragility is the result of a culture that prioritizes the protection of white feelings and when unchecked, can cause the subject to re-traumatize those they’re trying to help.
Within the context of our class, where active listening and engagement with past, current, and future suffering is a fundamental part of the practice, white students like myself are intentionally engaging our shame and white fragility in order to build better racial resiliency.