White People — Can We Stop Shaming Other White People’s Emotions?

Emma Lindsay
Sep 10, 2016 · 6 min read

When I saw the title of this piece (It’s Time to Get Over Your White Feelings and Start Taking Action for Black Lives) I immediately knew it was written by a white person. Note that “white feelings” are synonymous with “bad feelings” or “wrong feelings.” Perhaps even “shameful” or “racist” feelings. And, I think that it’s the type of piece written by white people who, maybe, deep down think that their feelings are wrong. Or racist. Or shameful. It’s written by people who argue that the correct way to show up for racial justice is to stuff these emotions down the memory hole and act like you never had them. “Suck up your emotions and do what I’m telling you is the ‘right thing’ or else you’re a racist,” is typically the gist of these pieces.

However, if white people are going to show up for racial justice in meaningful numbers (and they need to) it’s going to be entirely motivated by white feelings. It will be motivated by white feelings of compassion and empathy. It will me motivated by white feelings of sadness and mourning at the things we see happening around us. The main problem we have right now, is that these feelings of genuine empathy and mourning are blocked by feelings of “white guilt.” White guilt has been explored a lot (including by me) but the way I’d summarize white guilt is: white people are so ashamed of “being racist” that they will often neurotically dominate the energy around racial activism seeking assurance that they are not “bad people.”

So, this can be really blocking. When we need to take action against the American prison system, and all the white people in the room keep de-railing the conversation by focusing on their neurotic fears, this impedes progress. However, shutting people down actually makes the whole thing worse. When white people aren’t allowed an outlet for their white guilt, their internalized shame intensifies, and they will redouble their “cookie seeking” efforts in increasingly subtle but toxic ways. Yet, to process white guilt in groups with people of color is also toxic because it takes energy away from other parts of the conversation.

The answer, I think, is white people need to help other white people process their white guilt. We need to do this by reassuring each other that we’re not bad people, but we have been raised in a bad system. We need to understand that our feelings are not wrong, but sometimes the behavior we act out in response to our feelings is “wrong” (or, “counterproductive” shall I say.) We must not take individual responsibility for a collective injustice, but rather witness how the collective system has imprinted itself in our psyches, and how we perpetuate that system with our individual actions.

When you can witness your own racist behavior without being stunted by the immediate need for reassurance that you’re “not racist,” you can begin to change your habits. I, as an English woman, was raised to think that colonialism was kind of a good thing. As an adult, however, I started to see how much damage colonialism had wrought on the world and my viewpoint changed. I didn’t think colonialism was “good” because I was “bad” or unsympathetic to people — I thought colonialism was “good” because I was educated by people who didn’t tell me the whole story. I thought colonialism was “good” because I was told of the benefit it brought to England without being told of the destruction it caused to other countries. How could I, as a 5 year old, have had the mental sophistication to pick apart the holes in this story?

Most racist behavior has a similar root in omission; white people learn a certain habit in ignorance of the emotional repercussions it has on someone else. And, the entire system of race privilege functions to keep white people in ignorance. Consider, for instance, the habit some white people have of touching black people’s hair without asking. For some black people, this can be very upsetting because they have their hair touched all the time in a way that feels very dehumanizing. Why do white people touch black people’s hair? I think it’s because they are seeking a connection, while being unaware that their specific behavior is actually alienating the other person.

Several things function to keep white people in ignorance around this. First, is just different life experience. White people don’t get their hair touched in this way, so it often doesn’t occur that it might be painful. When I buzzed my hair, for instance, people started touching my fuzzy scalp without asking. It didn’t bug me because it was an aberration and temporary. Had it been something I had suck up my whole life, it would have landed very differently. Additionally, black people often may not communicate their dissatisfaction because they may not have power in the situation.

Consider two examples: imagine 5 girls at a table. In one instance, 4 girls are black and the other is white, and in the other instance 4 girls are white and the other is black. At which of those two tables do you think one of the white girls is likely to touch one of the black girls’ hair? To me, it seems much more likely to happen when there are 4 white girls and 1 black girl at the table. That is also the situation where the black girl would have the least power to fight back. I’d venture to guess that white people touching black hair happens primarily in white majority situations. In those situations, black people who fight back too strongly risk ostracization from the entire group. Conversely, a white girl in a primarily back group is unlikely to call attention to racial differences because she risks ostracizing herself.

So, if you are white and you live in primarily white areas, your interactions with people of color are always tinted by your membership in the “majority” group. People will moderate their responses to your problematic behavior to preserve themselves in a hostile environment. However, this also prevents you from getting feedback when you need it, and by the time you do realize you have some “problematic” tendencies, you may have had them for some time. And, this makes them much more painful to admit and correct.

Sometimes people get angry at me for taking a highly empathetic view towards racist behavior, which I think is nearly always born of deep pain. Sometimes, people of color having experienced the pain of racism, want to retaliate and cause white people pain. Sometimes other white people having experienced the pain of white guilt subconsciously pass on their guilt on by becoming the “blamers” instead of the “blamed.” I, however, think that the cultivation of empathy for others ultimately starts with empathy for the self.

And, white people are desperately lacking in empathy for other races. University of Toronto did a study demonstrating that white people’s mirror neurons fire less when watching people of color perform a task (essentially indicating they are less able to “put themselves” in the shoes of a person of color.) Ever since reading about this, I’ve been asking myself the question “what can white people do to cultivate more empathy for other races?” and what I keep seeing, is that white guilt keeps blocking it. When a white person hears a racially motivated story of pain from a person of color, their primary focus is on their shame at being “one of the bad guys,” not on the feelings of the other person. This blocks them from putting themselves in the other person’s shoes, this blocks empathy.

But, shutting down guilt through shame doesn’t work either. As Brene Brown said in her powerful Ted Talk on Vulnerability, that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You cannot cultivate empathy for other people while numbing your own pain. White people need to help each other process their own difficult feelings around race, and to do that we need to hold space to allow people to emote honestly. And, if we don’t do that, people of color will be the ones who have to process white emotion because their survival depends on it. However, the cost of this — I think — will likely be an intensification of their own racial trauma as they are forced, yet again, to put the needs of white people above the needs of themselves. So, like, maybe let’s not do that?

Emma Lindsay

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