Why white allies take up emotional space: its codependence

Racial justice is a labour of love. The problem is that we have not been taught to love ourselves or each other in a healthy way.

In this post I will be exploring how care-taking behaviour learnt from childhood shows up as codependency in allyship and why this relationship dynamic needs to undone to work towards racism cessation.

Many of us learn as children to suppress our true feelings of anger and sadness in order to appease our powerful caregivers. We fear that expressing these emotions would cause abandonment or hurt. This is especially true if we grew up in environments where there was abuse or excess emotional instability.

Intimacy becomes entangled with fear when we have this traumatized template of love operating in our unconscious. Caring for others becomes an expression of an alarmed and fearful state where the body’s fight/flight/freeze reactions are suppressed.

I refer to this survival response of care-taking as ‘fuse’. In fuse, our boundaries become weak and almost non-existent. It is a state of defeat where our identities become literally fused with the needs of the people we are in relation to. We can no longer tune into what we want for ourselves and become completely invested in helping someone else. Relationships are terrifying when we are in fuse: love reminds us of how we surrendered our true feelings from a place of powerlessness.

It is crucial for allies to know what fuse feels like. Validly, emotions such as anger, fear, sadness and shame, are everywhere in social justice communities. This makes it incredibly easy for allies to project their childhood dynamics on to POCs.

If the allyship you are offering is constantly exhausting you, or preventing you from expressing yourself, there is likely a fair amount of fusing going on.

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While it is normal to have some fusing in relationships, especially intimate ones, it is a healthy practice to own our motivations for caring. Care from a place of fuse often feels bad on the receiving end since it is essentially a method of controlling one’s environment. This is what is usually happening when white allies are called out for taking up space: their emotional needs to feel accepted by POCs has taken over.

This kind of allyship is co-dependent: care-taking behaviour that makes POCs responsible for the emotions and self-worth of white people. It is exhausting to receive and unsustainable to give.

While breaking patterns of co-dependence can be hard work, it is well worth it, even necessary. POC bodies being made emotionally responsible for white people’s lack of self-regulation is a core mechanism of racism. When a white police officer (or even a POC officer trained in a white system) murders a innocent black man, it is because their nervous system has been triggered in to such fear that they can no longer discern if the person in front of them is truly harmful.

We cannot build healthy allyship on top of relational dynamics that are foundational to racial violence.

(If you are reading this and starting to feel intense shame, or even a deep fear of abandonment, I want to remind you, it isn’t your fault that you haven’t been modelled healthy relationship as a child. What your hurt inner child needs from you right now is that missing non-judgemental nurturance from you. I am not here to call you out or punish you. Many of us suffer from a lack of nurturance. It is simply that your racial privilege magnifies unhealthy relationship behaviours. )

As an ally, committing to emotional self-responsibility and honouring your tendencies to fuse will let you step back and tune into what’s happening when someone rejects you, even when you are trying to be a good ally. This will give you a greater capacity to show up to allyship in an authentic way.

The journey is long but you can simply start by remembering that you are allowed to take care of yourself and set limitations on how much energy you use in your allyship. You need to be your own ally first. Without that, there is no foundation for healthy relationship.

This might feel strange or even bad at first because it is the opposite of what we have been taught about love. If this is the case I encourage you to explore why this might be and how you have learnt this pattern.

Once you unlearn racial co-dependency and are able to establish a sense of well-being in relation to POCs, you will notice that your allyship will start filling you, rather than depleting you.

I understand if you feel like this is not a dire enough response to the realities of racism. We have been taught by capitalism that we must stay activated to do anything produtive. Yet, what POCs truly need from white people is an ability to manage their emotions when the world is so dangerous to us.

Here is a simple visualization exercise I have designed to help white allies embody a sense of self that is compassionate to self and POCs:

  1. Find a comfortable seated position.
  2. You can keep a soft gaze or close your eyes.
  3. Feel the support of the ground underneath you. Let yourself connect to the history of the land and how you have arrived in this place.
  4. Commit to being gentle to yourself.
  5. Imagine the energy of POC frustration being directed at you from the front. Simply notice the emotions as they rise up in your body. Are they familiar? Does it produce an image? Are there words that come up?
  6. Rustle your hands together until you can feel a warm tingly feeling in them.
  7. Imagine that beautiful light is emanating from your hands.
  8. Face your hands in the direction from which the energy of frustration is coming towards you.
  9. Notice how the frustrated energy changes. Check in with how your body feels. Maybe there will be images or words that come up.
  10. Let yourself simply absorb how it feels to direct your loving kindness to meet the frustrated energy.
  11. Close by thanking the frustrated energy and letting it go.

A note on boundaries:

Boundaries are an ever-hot topic today.

I think of my work as a very close cousin to modern boundary work originating from Asian relational practices, such as Tai Chi or Aikido. While I understand it is important for us to know what we want and don’t want, I don’t emphasize developing ways for us to say “no” to someone or something.

My practice supports gently accepting something that is approaching us and directing it where we want it to go, with discernment and minimal effort. I found that thinking of relationships in terms of setting boundaries can fall into the habit of reinforcing patterns that are reactive.

For example, if I said, “My boundaries include not explaining racism to white feminists,” this may encourage me to react angrily when that boundary alarm is set off. These kinds of boundaries can be unhealthy in their own right and cause unnecessary suffering as they are like electric fences – someone has to pay the price of keeping them charged up. They may work for a time but they are not sustainable. If anything, the work I promote is about maintaining friendly boundaries that feel good to you and good to the other person, as much as possible.

You might also think of unfriendly boundaries like an egg – hard on the outside and soft on the inside. This can be really scary. Once the boundary is penetrated we are incredibly weak and vulnerable.

Instead, we want to be soft and supple on the outside, and grounded and firm on the inside.

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 “Why white allies take up emotional space: its codependence

  1. This is so helpful especially for my white friends, that codependent relationship is not helpful for anyone.
    Detachment is a virtue and healthier.
    $he (onewhoknowstoowellaboutcodependency)

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this. I am on a difficult journey of learning what it means to be the best ally I can be, while still struggling with my own emotional issues and caring far too much about what people think of me. It has been difficult for me to find any resources that don’t just end with “racism is bad”, “don’t take up too much space”, etc. While I appreciate and honor the voices that I have heard, your writing has been particularly helpful to me in taking “emotional responsibility” for myself. Looking forward to reading your book when it comes out 🙂

  3. […] to avoid abuse and abandonment. In fact, the energy state of ‘Fuse’ I describe in this article about allyship and co-dependence, where we become completely fused with another and disconnect from our own needs, is energetically […]

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