Handshakes and Hugs: When Our White Efforts to be “Inclusive” Cause More Harm

Erin Monahan
Mar 6 · 10 min read

Anti-racist educator, L. Glenise Pike of Where Change Started, recently published a post on Instagram in which she wrote:

“White privilege has allowed you to interact with racism in comfort and in your own terms. You subconsciously expect BIPOC (those who haven’t volunteered to do this work with you) to meet you where you’re most comfortable. You expect them to meet you where you require the least amount of change to participate in this work. That is not ok. That is not antiracism…You may not be responsible for your family’s racism (in neither their overt or subtle forms), but you are responsible for who you invite into the room with you when they are there.”

I started reflecting on how too often as white people our idea of being “inclusive” means that we are inviting our friends into unsafe/harmful situations. This is a frequent occurrence in the outdoor industry where we see organizers inviting BIPOC to be on panels in white spaces where whiteness goes completely unchecked. It doesn’t matter how “nice” people seem. Whiteness shows up like a snake in ways we don’t expect since as white people we have been steeped in it and conditioned to think of our behaviors and what we find to be “normal” as the norm for everyone.

But we need to think about how our homes, work places, organized events, and even casual conversations between friends could be danger zones for those who are not white, and also those who are not cisgender and heternormative. What are the ways our white supremacist cisheteropatriarchal society has brainwashed us into accepting behaviors, conversations, and gestures right down to a handshake, as a norm? And also how do these norms of whiteness harm us as well? Dismantling white supremacy is absolutely about justice for BIPOC lives, and it is also about white people realizing that we have skin in the game too. Our freedoms are intertwined.

At a recent training to learn about trauma-informed practices — (everyone needs to learn these skills — they apply to every situation no matter who you are or what you do for a living, no matter what age you are) — someone brought up how a handshake can feel intrusive. It made me realize that handshakes are a function of white supremacist patriarchy. It is an obligation of touch that is more about asserting power and dominance than anything else.

I used to think having a strong handshake was really important. Because I am a woman I thought that to be taken seriously I needed to prove myself by practicing a strong, firm handshake. At family gatherings I would intentionally make sure I shook my uncles’ hands deliberately. This is how I knew I would be taken more seriously. As if people who don’t have a firm shake should not be taken seriously.

Now I know how this seemingly benign gesture caters to the oppressive idea that in order to exist in this world we need to be more like cis white men. I was trying to be more like a cis white man (which is the history of white feminism in a nutshell). I have been conditioned to believe that in order to exist in this world I have to cater to supremacist patriarchal norms — norms that we need to push back against. Norms that dehumanize all of us.

A handshake means nothing about a person’s character, strength, depth, complexity. A handshake is a way for the other to size you up. But the business elite have convinced us that this is the way to show confidence, leadership, authority. A handshake is nothing but intrusive. It’s not an invite. It’s a demand. In our society if you don’t shake the person’s hand who offers it you are considered rude.

I have tried to ween myself off of offering my hand when I meet people. It’s a hard habit to break. Also, instead of hugging people hello or goodbye and assuming they are okay with it, I ask if they like hugs. I try to remember to ask because not everyone wants to be hugged.

One night I was meeting a friend for dinner. I always stood up to give her hugs. This time it felt weird and forced. I got that uncomfortable feeling, a gut feeling, like when you know that something was off. She was definitely giving me a sign that she didn’t like what was happening. But because I am so accustomed to hugging people when I see them, especially friends, I didn’t stop myself, and I pushed the discomfort of the interaction down. Hugging is just what I thought you did. Hugging is just something that I thought you do if you are truly close friends. This was my brainwashed, nonconsensual, non-trauma-informed-care thinking.

My friend said, “I don’t like being hugged. I’m not a hugger.” And I responded with surprise that turned into shame and then defensiveness. I pretended to be shocked because I wanted to believe I had no idea. But I really knew because she was giving me signals through her body language, and was clearly uncomfortable and stiff. I just repressed the discomfort that I sensed. Repressing our intuitive senses is a function of white supremacy — it is truly a well-oiled construction.

So, I ignored her cues that signaled that this was not a wanted interaction. White supremacy strips us from that connection to ourselves that allows us to hone in, tap into that gut feeling, our intuition — those important signals that we need in order to clearly see and read situations. We are so conditioned to push those intuitive impulses down. Our societal narratives take over and overwrite everything. “Hugs are normal” “Hugs are what friends do” “Hugs mean you are friendly and you want to seem friendly, Erin” — my conditioned narrative told me that I was just being friendly and nice, so why wouldn’t my friend receive my action in this way? I wasn’t accounting for the fact that people are coming from different places with different experiences, different likes and dislikes, different boundaries and triggers, and different ways of communicating and interacting. I didn’t get curious, I assumed that since I was a hugger, everyone is a hugger.

The funny thing is I haven’t always been a hugger. I remember a few years ago when I first moved to Portland, Oregon my old housemates would hug me whenever I saw them. And I definitely didn’t like it. I didn’t want to make them feel bad though, so I just let them hug me, and I would swallow my discomfort and unease. And here I was playing out the same scene, subjecting my friend to a nonconsensual hug. It is a white supremacist phenomenon to avoid conflict at all costs. At the time I prioritized keeping the “peace” instead of expressing my boundaries.

In the moment that my friend expressed her boundaries, I responded with shame because I didn’t want to be someone who caused discomfort (notice how I was still centering myself). And how many times have I hugged her and ignored her discomfort? I immediately got defensive and said, “Really, why haven’t you told me? You should’ve told me!” And then I realized what I was saying. I was being a bully. I felt like my manipulative exes. I was making excuses for my nonconsensual behavior. It wasn’t her fault that I was forcing her into a situation that made her uncomfortable. It was me that was the problem. She felt pressure to hug me back though she definitely didn’t want to. I failed to ask if I could enter her space every time, and I consistently crossed her boundaries, the whole time ignoring the clear signs of discomfort and unease.

I apologized to my friend and said, “Actually that’s messed up. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t assume that you want to be hugged. I should have asked if I could give you a hug. I won’t force hugs on you anymore. This is an issue of consent.”

Consent is a practice of basic decency that I often encourage the world to adopt and here I am violating my values. Here I am perpetuating rape culture by forcing my friend into hugs upon greeting, then getting shameful when she does finally tell me she doesn’t like it, and then getting defensive, positioning her as the one at fault for this nonconsensual situation that I single-handedly created. I was victim-blaming.

I know what victim-blaming feels like. Countless times I have been coerced into sexual situations with manipulative, nonconsensual men, and then gaslighted myself into believing it was my fault, convincing myself that I asked for it, that I shouldn’t have been dressed that way, that I could have just said no — but no. That’s not how it works. It was never my fault. It was never because of the way I dressed, or how I acted, or if I was drunk.

There was a time, midway through a hook-up, that I really didn’t want to be there and I wanted the guy to stop, but I didn’t think I could say no. I thought I had to stay. So, I did. And I felt disgusted throughout the whole thing. I didn’t enjoy one second of it. But I was never taught that I had the power to say no even if I had previously said yes. Even if it was in the middle of a sexual act. Even if I invited the act and suddenly changed my mind. I thought it was my duty to stay put. I thought it was “unfair” to stop. I didn’t want to hurt the guy’s feelings if I said stop because patriarchy conditions us to repress ourselves and our needs. We are taught to center cis men at all times, even at our own expense. I didn’t want to seem prude, or innocent, or inexperienced — even though these qualities don’t mean that I am any less worthy, less of an authority of my body and experience, less deserving of the word “no,” less deserving to speak — shout — my truth.

Saying no is not easy, and not always an option. There are consequences for saying no, sometimes violent consequences (mentally, emotionally, psychologically, or physically).

That night at dinner with my friend I saw how rape culture bled into my behavior, actions, and thinking. I saw how harmful and deep it goes.

I am trying to practice asking before offering. Sometimes our offer can be more coercive than we think. When we offer our hand for a shake it seems considerate, polite, inviting, but to some it is an unwelcome pressure to touch.

Recently, I read about a teacher who has pictures outside her classroom door that show a variety of greetings as options for her first grade students. In the morning, students line up and one by one before entering the classroom, and point to picture of a hug, a high-five, hand shake, or a waving hand (I think there should be an option to have no greeting too). This is a wonderful model of consent. The teacher is teaching their children that as human beings sharing space we all have choice in how we interact with each other. We have choice because we are autonomous, and this teaches that we hold authority over the domain of our body. This is one necessary way we can honor each other’s humanity.

This is revolutionary in a rape culture where it is “normal,” at school (anywhere, really), for kids who are gendered as boys to pull at the bra straps of kids who are gendered as girls. It’s a “boys will be boys” script. To “pants” each other. To slap girls’ butts. All genders are victims to this behavior. And when those who are gendered as boys are the victims of sexual assault or abuse it is rarely reported, as under-reported as kids who are gendered as girls, but for different reasons. The main reason why young boys and men don’t report is because they are supposed to be manly and be able to defend themselves from unwanted touch. Young girls and women don’t report because they fear being called a “slut” and disbelieved. They fear that they deserved it or asked for it. This gets even harder for BIPOC, for immigrant folx, as well as Indigenous folx who have the added disadvantage of the police not being on their side.

An uninvited, nonconsensual hug or handshake, the things we may think are innocent, are violations of consent, but often we hide behind our “good” intentions. Though just because we didn’t intend harm, doesn’t mean we avoided causing harm. It’s our impact that matters. We may not mean harm, but we may still commit harm, despite having a over-flowing bucket of good intentions. When I think about how I suppressed that initial gut-feeling that told me something was off about my interaction with my friend, I think about how from a young age we are conditioned to suppress feelings of discomfort. We are not taught how to address those feelings, to inquire into them.

I have learned through trainings with the Q Center, AORTA, Oregon Humanities, and Resolutions Northwest in Portland, Oregon, as well as through the tutelage of equity consultants like Kenya Budd, Kalissa Scopes, and Sally Eck, that I can practice checking in with folks if they seem uncomfortable.

I can say: “Hey, I noticed that the energy shifted between us.”

Or: “I noticed that you became stiff, is everything okay?”

Some variation of these sentences could be helpful for navigating future situations where you sense that icky, uncomfortable, “off” feeling. I have to remind myself to not ignore that feeling. When I am in conversation with friends and that “off” feeling comes up unexpectedly, I may not catch it in the moment, but I come back later and acknowledge it with them, so I can make sure to be accountable for any harm I may have unknowingly caused.

As white people we have been conditioned to think of certain behaviors, ways of speaking, ways of communicating and interacting, as the norm, as safe, for everyone. As L. Glenise Pike wrote on @WhereChangeStarted on March 6th, 2019:

“Stop inviting your BIPOC friends into environments that you know won’t honor them. Be mindful of where you’re asking your BIPOC loved ones to meet you. Honor their safety by honoring their boundaries and meeting them where they are instead.”

Dismantling white supremacy in ourselves means questioning and second-guessing our assumptions about what we have been taught is “safe” and “normal.” When we do this, we can start addressing what is harmful about the spaces we have created, and then collaboratively create new spaces where we proactively prevent harm.

Erin Monahan

Written by

Writer/Facilitator Focused on Dismantling White Supremacy/Founder of Terra Incognita Media