To my Fellow White Anti-Racists: My White Anger is a Privilege
To my Fellow White Anti-Racists: My White Anger is a Privilege
(And it is not my space to take up.)
“When I spoke about oppression from a place of anger, shame and blame (even shaming and blaming myself), I alienated my fellow white people from creating social change, from learning about racism, and from becoming leaders in white anti-racism. Needless to say, that’s the opposite of what POC were asking me to do. I needed some new strategies.”
CW especially for POC: Explicit examples of racism in the first couple of paragraphs, lots of talk about whiteness from a white person’s perspective, and gender and racial generalizations. (Gender and racial generalizations are inherently violent, but we have to talk about societal and cultural norms to change them, so I’m holding that complexity.)
I learned about racism from Black women whose sons were killed by white people. From Black women who were imprisoned for escaping domestic violence and had their lives permanently altered by having to interact with systemic violence of being a convicted felon for the rest of their lives. From Indigenous women who had their wombs involuntarily sterilized by white doctors at medical clinics before they could have children. From trans homeless Latinx youth facing deportation to a (more) transphobic country.
I learned from their anger. I learned from their truth. I’ve been yelled at by POC when I’ve messed up. I learned from their anger, and I am grateful.
A Black women’s anger is sacred. A Person of Color’s anger is sacred. Any time a Person of Color (POC) trusts me enough to express their anger at me when I’ve caused harm, or speaks at me firmly of the oppression they’ve experienced, it is sacred. It is sacred because with my skin color in this culture, I’ve been socialized to disbelieve them, ignore them, or interrupt them at best, but beat them up or kill them at worst. And POC have been socialized to be silent about their pain and anger to keep their bodies physically and emotionally safe from white people, to keep their jobs so they can keep caring for themselves or their family, among many other reasons. So when that level of trust exists, to me, that anger is sacred. And I am grateful.
You know what’s not new? What’s not sacred? My white anger. My white anger is old news. And it’s filled with privilege. While there are consequences to me being angry, especially losing relationships with people or at least having to repair relationships, I don’t often have to fear physical violence or job loss when I get upset. It doesn’t result in people using it as justification to further oppress my entire race, or to take my children away, or to call the police on me. And me and my fellow white people get to frequently use anger as a tool to get what we want. As a weapon. Being able to express our anger is a privilege, and I believe that we are misusing it in the anti-racist movement to take up space and alienate other white people from doing anti-racism work. How do I know? Because I’ve tried it.
The angry Black woman stereotype is false. Here’s one of the reasons why (it’s justified, is another reason. Anger is OK. Oppression is not.):
When we were late for an appointment as a kid, my dad often exploded in anger at us. When we were late for dinner at a friend’s house, he exploded in anger. A few years ago I asked my brother to stop giving me advice when I had problems, and he called me five times, left angry voice messages, and when I didn’t answer the phone, he called my dad and yelled at him about me. My dad said he’d never heard my brother so angry. (I had.) When I nannied, my white boss had to leave the room any time I told him I couldn’t stay late. I was glad he knew how to control his anger better than my family did, but I also could see how easily not getting what he wanted really set him off.
You know what else we white people get loud and angry about? Racism.
We hear Black and Brown anger and we are affected by it, deeply. Those of us with empathy and values aligned with humanity really want oppression towards POC to end, and that is a beautiful thing.
I also see a lot of us white people, including myself, witness these deeply violent stories about POC oppression, and then go and get angry at other white people about it. I was traumatized by these stories honestly, and I didn’t have the emotional regulation or knowledge of how I passed on my trauma at the time, so I passed it on through anger.
I now see that at the time I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t understand why there weren’t riots in the street every day. And being a trans and queer person, I was also facing my own experiences of oppression, and white apathy hit me deeply where my own dehumanization had occurred and no one cared about it. I told stories, and when my fellow white people didn’t care as much as me, I got angry. I hoped that other white people were as deeply affected by racism as I was, and when they weren’t, I got angrier. I felt hopeless and powerless, and being a white person, I’m not used to feeling these emotions that much, especially around oppression. So I didn’t regulate my emotions well.
And those white people turned away from me, and went and spent time with other people, who weren’t angry at them, or shaming and blaming them. No surprise. It turns out that white anger about racism didn’t work.
Why? One, I was steeped in my own whiteness and was coming at other white people through shame, blame, guilt, punishment, and paternalism (“I know better than you! Listen to me!” But I never listened to them.), and two, other white people are also steeped in white culture and not wanting to hear it like that. The result should have been predictable, because I was being mean, and most people don’t like mean people. I wasn’t humble — in hindsight, I now see that I was acting as if my anger about oppression was as sacred as a Black woman’s, as an Indigenous person’s. It wasn’t. It’s not.
I alienated my fellow white people from creating social change, from learning about racism, and from becoming leaders in white anti-racism. I now see that white people can use our privilege to strategically talk to other white people, and build trust and relationship with each other and with POC in this work. Shame and blame don’t do that. Shame, blame, and anger push white people out of this movement before they can even join. Needless to say, that’s the opposite of what POC were asking me to do. I needed some new strategies.
Why do I share my experience? Because I want systemic racism to end, I want my POC friends and family, and all humans that I don’t yet know, to be free of oppression, and we white people have work to do. But a lot of us are trying this same tactic I tried, and we are losing community, failing at inspiring other white people to end racism, burning out, feeling isolated, and leaving the movement. And while this affects all of us, it disproportionately affects POC, because we need large numbers of people in order to make systemic anti-racist change, and in case anyone hasn’t noticed, there are a lot of white people here.
I found that some different strategies work better for the long haul, and I’ve noticed too that they undo white supremacy culture while doing them, help restore my own feeling of my humanity, and create connection and resilience in this work. I also deeply owe my knowledge of reaching for white people around oppression to my teachers, listed on my website here. They are not responsible for or endorsing my words in any way, but I do want to thank my teachers (because white supremacy culture teaches us to discount them).
Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Stay humble. I remember my racist roots. I remember what helped me first learn about racism, what worked, and what didn’t work. I remember how it felt. I empathize. This both keeps other white folks’ humanity in my heart when I talk with them, and it also helps create a compendium of stories to tell when talking to other white people about undoing our racism. I tell my own stories of my racist mistakes.
- Stay humble. I remember that I will always make mistakes both to other white people and to POC, and I apologize when I cause harm. Even if I don’t understand how I’ve caused harm, I believe them and apologize — taking care of the relationship is more important than “my” truth being heard, though I’ll often ask questions and for support from someone who knows me well.
- Stay humble. Even when I’ve learned a deep analysis and history of racism and whiteness in the U.S., POC will still have both cognitive experience and a deep embodied experience of racism, and as a white person, my cognitive experience is never worth more than that in this work. I try to think well of POC when I’m doing this work near them, which means that I try to never do this work near them unless it is with their consent.
- Stay humble. I always keep learning. I keep taking trainings from POC, reading their books, asking for accountability (and paying for it in time, energy, gifts, money…whatever feels good to them). I take many trainings multiple times. There is always room for my analysis to deepen, for the stories for me to witness and share out to grow in number. Whose stories of the people most impacted by racism have you not yet witnessed? What else do you need to learn about? For me right now — I need to work on learning more about indigenous communities’ needs right now, and am learning more about people who are impacted by mass incarceration.
- Stay humble. Notice the requests of the POC you’re accountable to or in relationship with, or who you take trainings from. Is it to share out their stories, their teachings? Is it to bring white people to them? Listen, and follow their lead. Hold the complexity of different POC asking for different things, even if they’re contradictory. White people ask for different things all the time, and it’s no big deal. Liberation looks different for different people.
- Stay humble. No one knows the answer to end oppression yet. I certainly don’t. I know a lot of people who are in my eyes leading the way, like Charlene Carruthers, Adrienne Maree Brown, and the teachers I name on my webstie. But to claim that we know more than another human being, any human being about this, is just reliving the paternalism of white supremacy culture and patriarchy we are trying to banish from this Earth. So even when I deeply disagree with a white person, or “can’t believe they still believe those racist things,” I remember that I myself don’t know the answer yet, and talk to that person from that place of humility.
- Notice and work on the fear in your body of speaking up to end racism. Where is it from? From a fear of losing community? Of losing belonging? Of losing a job to support yourself and/or family? Fear of physical safety? If the fear is so large you may not speak up about racism, ask yourself: what do I need to do to speak up about racism despite this fear? Have back-up plans in case any of this happens. Build community with people who have anti-racist values who will have your back. Get emotional support and strategy support from other white anti-racists so that POC don’t have to do that labor. And remember and honor that the fear and consequences we white people have to face when fighting to end racism is incomparable to the fear and consequences of having to live in a racist culture every day.
- Learn about the white people you’re talking to. Relate to them. Ask them questions. Listen to them. Learn where they’re coming from. Build resilience to talking to people who disagree with you. Every white person in the U.S. has heard about race and racism at this point — I don’t just need to tell them what they think, I need to hear what they think, to honor what I agree with as well as bring up what I disagree with. Even if it goes poorly, you are still contributing normalizing white people being in conflict about racism (something we need desperately right now). You are still getting practice getting used to regulating your emotions while in conflict about racism. On that note…
- Learn emotional regulation to a new level. Most of us white people haven’t had to learn how to emotionally regulate when we are talking about race. Those of us who survive other forms of oppression, especially those of us who are trans, queer, disabled, have mental illness, or are abuse survivors, or femme or women, or any combination of the above, have learned to regulate our emotions a little bit more than other white folks with more privilege, but I have hit the quintuple jackpot on the identities above, and for a long time, I still had so much trouble with emotional regulation around talking about race. But I’ve learned it is key to skillfully talking about it with other white people who disagree with me, so I’ve had to up my game. Some strategies that have worked well for me: yawn, stretch, lean back in your chair, ask questions, speak calmly. Act chill. (Laughter, however, can feel condescending at times.) It will help your nervous system, and it will help regulate the other person’s too — meaning you’ll both probably be able to stay in the conversation longer, and have to recover from it less later. Often our emotions have been socialized into us by gender, so often learning emotional regulation looks different by gender. For men, this often means learning to regulate anger and physical violence. For women, it means learning to regulate loud distress, centering their own victimhood, and tears. For trans and nonbinary folks — well, there’s still so little research and story about us, but I found that for me it was a combination of both. Again, if this generalization doesn’t resonate for you, throw it out. How to regulate? Start by remembering to breathe and learning about embodiment. Meditation and dance helped me immensely in this practice.
- DO release that anger in other way Even though I’m not releasing it on other people (or at least trying my hardest not to), releasing my frustration and rage is important and necessary to anti-racism work. I find myself angry with oppression, angry at myself, angry at other white people…and if I don’t release that anger, it will build up and “come out sideways” onto someone else. So do what you need to do to actually release that anger — I punch punching bags when my body is able, I scream into pillows, I yell in my car, I push on friends when it’s consensual (think arm wrestling), and I transform it into grief and cry into friends’ arms. The more witnessed I am in this release, the deeper the release — so I make it part of a mutual support practice with friends as much as possible.
- Continuously push yourself... I know I am socialized to be comfortable in this culture, and that is partly why fighting to end racism feels so hard. I push myself along my growing edge daily to build resilience for what will be necessary to end oppression. When I notice I’m overwhelmed, I reframe it to the idea that I am building resilience I do not yet have to a difficult experience, mostly likely because of the privilege I have in this world. I haven’t had to face this particular issue around race because I haven’t had to before. It will be easier next time. (Also, it’s ok to rest — we must all rest in order to be in this fight for the long haul. For folks with more privilege, it’s a balance of increasing our resilience through pushing ourselves and resting so that we are staying healthy and recuperating for the fight to end oppression.)
- …But know and respect your own boundaries. I push myself hard in this work, but if I’m traumatizing myself or not respecting my own boundaries around how I’m treated in this work, I won’t be able to show up well. Part of doing this work well as a white person is continuously pushing myself to grow while also pacing myself to prevent burnout. If I’m not treating myself compassionately as a human, how can I expect to treat other people including POC well, especially when I’ve been socialized to dehumanize them?
- Have each other’s back. In other words, be kind. Be deeply kind. Be the kindness you want to see in this world. When I notice my fellow white people burning out or suffering in this work, I do not shame them, guilt them, punish them (anymore — like I said, I’ve made mistakes). I cook for them. I hold space for them. I see what they need to feel better. I share strategies and stories. I play with them and create joy with them. I listen. If I don’t have the space or bandwidth for that right now, I try to find someone who does. We are building a network of people strong enough to resist oppression — we need to take care of each other. (Note: I also prioritize taking care of POC in ways that feel good for them, and my hope is that all white people prioritize this. This is also a deeply important and present part of my work, but this article specifically is about connecting and supporting fellow white people so that we can stay in this work.)
- I focus on building the world I want to live in. I do not shame myself, either (anymore — or at least I try not to). I know now that that will just burn me out further. Instead I ask for support from fellow white folks (and POC I’m deep in relationship with, when it’s consensual), and I have many tools for resilience. I notice when I’m at my limits for growing and pushing myself and stop. I draw boundaries when people are speaking to me from an abusive or traumatized space, while also holding compassion for why they’re doing that — because of the traumatic and oppressive culture we live in. I treat my disabled body as well as possible. I eat good food when possible, I exercise when possible. I sleep when possible. I want to live long so that I can fight longer, so I treat my body sacredly. I envision the world I want to live in, and how that must feel in my body. I imagine my descendants living in a more healed culture on a well-cared for Earth. I own fully my responsibility as an ancestor to future generations on this land. I dig my toes into the soil and dive my naked body into lakes. I make time for sexual pleasure. I garden and grow my own food. And I notice how collective care is self care — usually what is making me suffer, whether it is other people’s behavior, financial stress, medical issues, a partner’s stress about their job — it usually is rooted in oppression (capitalism, racism, sexism, transphobia, etc.). So if I fight to end oppression, that is a part of my own self care and also collective care, though I center people more impacted by oppression than me. In this way, I find resilience and care in the fight as well. And I make time for joy, laughter, and play, because those are part of the liberated world I want to live in. I nurture my deep, connected intimate relationships with trusted humans — we snuggle, we hold hands, we ask each other deep questions, we check in on each others’ minds, bodies, and spirits. We practice living in a world we want to live in.
May we honor POC teachers, stories, strategies for liberation, and anger. May we create relationships with white people to understand racism so that we can create space for POC stories, strategies, and anger to be witnessed and heard by more white people. May racism end.