Artwork by Jill Greenberg
NOTES & EDITS: This article is a re-work of another article that critiqued the shaming of white fragility in social justice communities. This post is directed mostly towards my white allies.
‘White tears’ is an ever popular word being used in social justice media these days. As a therapist I have long thought about this and have to say I feel very strongly against using the term.
Off the bat 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 shame the big emotions like sadness and grief about racism that white allies have because they are too much and take space away from POCs.
In this little post I want to:
- First, tell you that your emotions are valid and that you do not need to be ashamed of them.
- Second, discuss some strategies of how you can process these emotions responsibly.
- Third, talk about how I can relate to white emotions, as a POC, for my own well being.
White people don’t need to be ashamed of their feelings
White people need to cry. Crying is one of the primary ways the body flushes out old behaviour patterns by discharging locked up emotional energy. When we use language such as ‘white tears’ we shut down the healing process white people need to have for their own sake.
One of the problems is that 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.
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 these body-negative and misogynistic attitudes towards emotion.
This is why it is important to recognize that 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 that would lead to healthy relationships between white people and POCs.
The truth is, anybody being asked 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. From what I have seen in my practice, 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.
What can white people do with their big feelings, if they shouldn’t be ashamed of them?
I understand how challenging it can be to respect the emotions of others while still attending to your own feelings. For starters, I think true allyship starts with allying to yourself first.
This means allowing yourself to feel your feelings and remember that you have the right to your emotions, even if someone has told you they don’t belong. No, you aren’t entitled to POC time and energy to process your feelings. But you don’t need to take in behaviour or language that is shaming to you either.
Here are some things you can do for yourself:
- Meditate and journal on the subject. I know there is a lot to read on the subject of racism but I believe we can learn a lot simply from self-reflection. Trust yourself.
- See a POC therapist or counsellor. With a therapist or counsellor you can have a mutually supportive exchange where you can recognize the value of POC emotional labour through financial compensation. It will also help you feel safer around POCs in your every day life.
- Try to connect with POCs you feel like you can create a good relationship with. This might take a bit of discernment but it is worth it. A lot of the advice I have read says white people should talk about their feelings about racism amongst other white people, but I disagree. The last thing we want is white people only talking to other white people about racism. This keeps centring whiteness and will likely miss important issues that only POCs can see.
- Most importantly, trust that you have a right to your feelings, no matter what you have been told.
When you learn to take care of your own emotions, you will find that POCs will feel safer to connect with you. This is because you are showing that you no longer need to make us responsible for your emotions.
Many POCs have grown up in families where we had to suppress our own emotional needs to keep everyone together. When others, including white people, seem like they can’t manage their own emotions, it triggers in us, not just the pain of living in a white-dominated society, but also our old wounds from childhood.
If you have a person in your life that is a POC and important to you, I encourage you to meet them from a place of vulnerability and tell them that you feel very deeply about racism and ask for consent whether you can talk about it with them.
I understand this is a brave step, because you could be rejected, but we need white people to keep trying to genuinely connect with us.
And remember, even if a POC doesn’t want to engage with you, your feelings are still important.
What can I do as a POC in meeting your feelings?
Like I said before, white people not needing to be ashamed of their emotions doesn’t mean POCs are responsible for helping them process their emotions about racism. Our first duty is to be be compassionate to ourselves and let you know clearly when we can’t be emotionally available.
That said, I do believe it is a lost opportunity to always forego these moments in which we can show white people that they can feel safe around us. 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.
Why? Because the repressed emotions of white bodies are some of the most dangerous things in the world to non-white bodies.
In my life and work, as much as I can, I strive to create mutually nourishing space to meet the emotions of white people with my own vulnerability. My commitment to self-care supports this initiative.
I believe 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.
Understanding racism cessation work in this way does take an unusual amount of understanding and non-judgement from POCs. That said, I believe love is a weapon that we can muster the courage to use. Because compassion is self-defense.
And if we cannot hold nurturing space, especially as many of us are understandably already exhausted by the emotional labour we do, we can simply start with not using language that shames vulnerability.
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.