Setting boundaries as a white ally: Why its important, why its challenging and how to do it ethically

NOTE: This post specifically addresses white allies but the principles are transferrable to any allyship relationship.

Why we need boundaries: Emotional differentiation

My understanding of allyship is that it is a relationship, rather than a one-way transaction. This means that principles of healthy relating apply, including enthusiastic consent and self-responsibility. I believe that these elements are crucial to making social justice work emotionally sustainable.

An issue that this brings up is how to set boundaries as a white ally, such as creating limits to direct action work or exercising discernment in responding to critiques of behaviour. Of course, a bigger question might be if it is even OK to have boundaries at all. In fact, most mainstream social justice media reinforces the idea that white allies owe all of their energy to POCs to end racism. While many white people seem to have bought into this idea, I believe it is critical for allies to have boundaries.

Boundaries are really a distinction between self and other. It’s not just about white allies having space for self-care. It also means protecting POCs from being made responsible for the emotions of white people – a mechanism that is central to white supremacy. The word ‘boundaries’ tends to focus on the idea of keeping someone out of our space, but emotional differentiation works both ways – it keeps our feelings from spilling out and invading on another.

I have seen personally and professionally that processing thoughts about race often triggers white people into childhood fears of punishment and abandonment. These emotions, combined with the power dynamic set up between white people and POCs, often lead allies to engage in co-dependent saviour complex in the forms of space-taking, care-taking and micro-aggressing. (I wrote about this phenomenon more extensively here.)

Lack of emotional differentiation is at the heart of our racial dysfunction as a society. Allyship that is emotionally entangled is unsustainable at best and violent at worst.

The problem with boundaries: emotional contagion

We POCs need white allies to be able to separate their emotions from ours. The big problem we are collectively left with is: how white allies can set boundaries that are ethical in a relationship dynamic where they hold vast amounts of positional power. This is important to consider because boundaries are usually set from a place of anger, even if it is loving.

One thing we can do is move away from the concept of ‘setting boundaries’ itself. The metaphor of boundaries can often aggravate because it defines the relationship as two parties pushing on one another.

When two conflicting energies meet, loops of powerful emotions are created because of a phenomenon called emotional contagion – the natural mechanism of our nervous systems to resonate with each other. For example, if you grab someone in an aggressive way, their body is likely to immediately activate and tense up. In fact, even energetically holding the intention to grab the other person is likely to send a cue to the other person’s nervous system to be alert.

Emotional contagion is always subtly happening, whether we are aware of it or not. This means that even small conflicts can incite a lot of undetected emotions, including anger.

(Below: Both conscious and unconscious emotions can be contagious)

In social justice communities, conflict situations are often dissolved by the ally conceding and acknowledging their privilege. But the anger that has been roused in them usually remains undetected. This can go on until their feelings explode, outwardly or inwardly, causing complete burn-out and collapse.

This is why integrating an understanding of our neurophysiology is critical to community building work. The problem with Call-out culture is that it ‘fries’ the nervous systems of both white allies and POCs. This is not ‘tone-policing’ or ‘being an apologist’. The reality is that 99% of communication in relationship is about HOW we communicate. A holistic approach to social justice can’t ignore this.

Changing the goal from setting boundaries to creating harmony

Thankfully, we can use our nervous system’s tendency for resonance in a beneficial way – we can set our relational goal to harmony, rather than defense. Someone relating to us within a conflict paradigm does not mean we have to respond them in a conflict paradigm as well. Instead, we can meet them in a way that brings the clashing emotional energies into collaboration. Because of emotional contagion, self-regulating our own nervous system allows us to guide the other’s nervous system to a more de-activated state. This can create the opportunity for a more mutually nourishing solution.

(Below: When we are self-responsible for our emotions and can regulate ourselves, it serves to de-activate the other person’s nervous system too)

This self-regulation based approach is central to Asian/Japanese energy-based relational practices. You can see it at work in the videos below by Aikido teacher, Corky Quakenbush. If you feel suspicious, I recommend you try out some of his exercises with a partner. They are incredibly eye-opening.

You can apply Aiki (the harmony of energies) in relationship situations even where there isn’t contact. In fact, this is what we do as therapists – meet the activated emotions of our clients with loving kindness and guide the relationship to mutual nourishment. As Hakomi Method founder Ron Kurtz once said, this is the foundation of all therapies, regardless of modality.

(You can read more about Kurtz’s understanding of the therapist-client relationship in this article PDF.)

How to cultivate Aiki

NOTE: Please remember that relationship is a process. I honour you for where you are. The violence we inflict on ourselves is the same violence we inflict on others, including perfectionism. A lot of this work is uncharted territory.

The first step to cultivating Aiki is doing the self-work to disarm our own reactions.

As a white ally, a simple practice you can start with is non-judgementally noticing your own bodily reactions to situations where racism is an issue. How does it feel to read a blog post that calls white people out? How does it feel when someone you know acts in a way that you feel is racially biased? How does it feel when you are criticized for your actions directly? Have you felt similar feelings earlier in your life?

You might be surprised to find emotions, such as indignation or frustration, that you are not supposed to have as an ally. That is totally OK. These feelings are often remnants from the past that have nothing to do with the current situation.

Being aware of your deeper feelings can help you meet POCs in a way that is authentic and discerning, rather than collapsed in shame or triggered by fear. It will give you an ability to change your behaviour without needing to be responsible for all of the emotions POCs feel around racism. This is important because there can be no one white person that is accountable for the entire history of white supremacy.

The second step is interacting with others from a loving state.

The more we learn to disarm ourselves, the less activated we become in conflict. This can not only lighten your portion of the total emotional load but start to lessen the burden for the other through emotional contagion.

Once you feel like you are grounded enough, you can try attuning to the other, whether it is in a real conversation or in a more abstract exchange such as reading a blog post. The key to this is completely dropping the idea of winning or losing a conflict.

Instead, let yourself be inspired by the other, even if they feel aggressive and triggering at first. When you give yourself the space to see the other in the light of loving kindness, what comes from this new place? Are there words or images or feelings in your body? Do they remind you about something in your life?

Try acting on your inspiration. I believe allyship is a creative and vulnerable act. Maybe sometimes you will cry. Maybe sometimes you will apologize. Maybe sometimes you will have your own story to tell. Trust your authenticity.

And remember, just because it doesn’t work, doesn’t mean you’re a bad ally.

Practical applications

This example was drawn from a question I was asked in one of my groups by Emily (not real name). Emily, a white woman, was involved in a multi-racial group that regularly met to discuss the internalization of different oppressions. At a meeting, she was called out aggressively by a POC group member. She felt sure that the call-out was undeservingly attacking but also felt confused at what to do because she deeply understood the dynamics of privilege at play. While she tried her best to handle the situation amicably, she ended up leaving the group, hurt and not knowing what more she could have done.

My recommendation in these types of situations is to prioritize creating space so that you can tend to your own emotions. You can let the other know that they are heard, but you need room to feel your own feelings, even ones that may have nothing to do with them, to be able to respond to them from a good place. Sometimes, 30 seconds or even 5minutes will do. Other situations may need longer, even years. The important thing is that you are able to get to the root of your unmet emotional needs and separate them from the other.

In Emily’s case, I think she ultimately did exactly what she needed to. She stepped out of the situation to work on her part.

Asking for space might feel clumsy at the begining, especially because you will likely feel flustered. But it’s important to remember that the first step is always self-regulation. If you feel like you can’t stop engaging with the other, you have likely entered a loop of emotional contagion. You will get better at creating space for yourself, the more you become used to regulating yourself in activating situations.

A note on privilege shame

Committing to this kind of approach might bring up privilege shame. You might feel like you are not feeling enough and therefore not doing enough. Capitalism has trained us to equate our productivity with emotional activation.

Yes, this might mean you might not go to every rally. It might mean you won’t spend every hour of your free time educating yourself or doing organizing work. It might even mean not responding to every call-out immediately. But the truth is, the wellbeing of allies is a huge contribution to communal resilience: it reduces the escalating effects of emotional contagion.

For POCs, situations that remind us of racism are extremely triggering. Understandably, it is very challenging for us to deliver our messages around race in ways that are perfectly digestible to white people. I would say that such an expectation would not just be unreasonable, but violent given the history of colonialism.

Yet this is how many of us feel – that we are expected perfection in a situation that it is almost impossible for us to be perfect in. We live in fear that if we expressed our feelings of being hurt, it would almost always turn out horrible for us because we have less positional power. Maybe we will be met with complete denial. Maybe we will be met with a total emotional breakdown that leaves us feeling guilty. These fear loop back into anxiety, making it even harder for us to be present when we need to let white people know how we feel.

It is extremely valuable for us to know that our white allies can understand this and have the capacity to ground themselves, not get emotionally entangled and work towards collaboration.

(Below: White allies being self-responsible creates trust through emotional contagion)

Are you a therapist, facilitator, organizer or healer called to a deeper exploration of subjects discussed in this post?

I provide coaching and consulting services for individual practitioners, enterprises, and organizations that are committed to intersectional cultural healing. You can find more information here.

4 thoughts on “Setting boundaries as a white ally: Why its important, why its challenging and how to do it ethically

  1. Thank you, these are some enlightening ideas (and fascinating link to Aikido which I knew next to nothing about). I also appreciate the fairly concrete descriptions of how to apply. Will try out these tools to find balance.

  2. The converse is true too. This article focuses mostly on the concept of white allies maintaining their boundaries to hold and process their own experience. The other side of the coin – which is common once a white ally reaches that point – is that white allies need to hold boundaries in how they are treated because with transference, a “safe” white ally often becomes a projection screen for POC to project and process much of what they have to hold back from other white people. Many white allies who have done a lot of work on themselves and who move through the world with integrity are often good at putting themselves last for the sake of others. This can lead to them unconsciously accepting mistreatment way beyond what is respectful. Holding boundaries in this way not only creates a healthier relationship but it also requires growth on both sides.

    1. I certainly agree, in terms of POCs being capable of emotional projection onto white allies. This is definitely implicit in how I approach this subject and I have been thinking about how to address it responsibly, given the dynamics of positional power. Perhaps your comment has brought me to the point of openly discussing this.

      I am creating material right now that is about how to navigate this issue. It will likely be part of a program where I have time and space to actually dissect the issue.

  3. As someone who isn’t familiar with the acronym POC, it would be helpful to indicate that at the first reference:
    In fact, most mainstream social justice media reinforces the idea that white allies owe all of their energy to people of colo(u)r (POC) to end racism.

    This is an issue I’ve been wondering about – how to be a good ally to POC, Indigenous peoples, and others. I’m going to give this piece a thorough read! Thank you.

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