Healing From Toxic Whiteness: An Uncomfortable & Beautiful Journey

Brittany Valentine
Oct 7, 2018 · 7 min read
“Questioning Whiteness” Mural by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, in front of The University of The Arts in Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Steve Weinik

On Thursday September 27th, I attended a live online conference called Spiritual Activism 101 held by Rachel Ricketts, a racial justice advocate, public speaker and writer. I stumbled upon on Rachel’s work via Instagram and decided to “spend my privilege” by financially supporting her work and showing up to talk about race.

I have been on a journey of working towards racial justice for two years now, and I have a really strong foundation of knowledge and experience, but I know that this process of learning and unlearning has only just begun. While I knew that much of what would be discussed in the workshop would not be knew to me, I tried to enter with a beginner’s mindset and know that it would not be a space where I’ll be praised for the work I’ve done.

I am grateful I went in with that attitude because what I encountered in those seventy five minutes were feelings I have never truly felt before, and concepts I thought I understood, but clearly did not. It was humbling and extremely valuable. Rachel’s approach to racial justice and education is innovative, dynamic and refreshing.

When addressing the white audience that attended, she approached these sensitive topics fearlessly, but with compassion. In no way was she going out of her way to make us feel comfortable, in fact she gave us fair warning that we would most likely feel much unrest, yet she made us feel safe in confronting those feelings. Rachel is no stranger to holding space for vulnerability of all sorts, but took great care in letting her white audience know what she does not tolerate under any circumstances.

These forms of emotional violence were not permitted:

White Fragility: a term coined by Robin DiAngelo, which means “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”

White Exceptionalism: operating under supremacist ideals, believing that you are immune to being an oppressor, and that you as an individual, are truly so exceptional, that you stand apart from other white people, because you are “one of the good ones.” This is the type of person who expects to be rewarded for doing anti-racist work. *eye roll.*

White Entitlement: operating under a belief that your feelings, your comfort, and your opinions are of the utmost value in conversations of race (or in any situation,ever.) “BBQ Becky” and “Permit Patty” are the embodiment of white entitlement.

Source: Safehouse Progressive Alliance & Ellen Tuzzulo

White Solidarity: This term means coming to the defense of other white people in conversations of race, when a different approach is clearly necessary. Being a white person working towards racial justice means that we will inevitably lose things, and sometimes it means losing friendships.

Associating ourselves with people that are perpetuating racism (consciously or unconsciously) is something we need to let go of. When we immediately defend other white people, especially strangers, in conversations of race, it’s time to check ourselves and where our loyalties lie. I know that this gets tricky when it comes to family members, but the concept of white solidarity and how far we choose to take it is something very important to be aware of.

After the conference, Rachel led us through some breath work, to bring some ease back to our bodies after all the emotions that came to the surface. (Believe me, there were a lot of emotions.) Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to fully participate in this, as I was in a public building on my college campus and did not have the option to lay comfortably on my back.

So I used the time to do my own introspection and self care, even as students and faculty buzzed around me. the sounds of my environment were hardly distracting, because what I just experienced was so intimate and I was totally present in my body. And I was grateful, so incredibly grateful.

As I glance through the notes I took, I wrote down “discomfort is a luxury.” Many times I have caught myself wallowing in the discomfort in knowing that my ancestors inflicted so much pain, and that I have unknowingly perpetuated it.

This is certainly a natural response, especially for people as empathetic as I am. Yet, the mistake I have made is in comparing that discomfort with the trans-generational, tangible pain of living on the other side of white supremacy. I can turn this discomfort on and off. I do not have to feel it all the time. There is no “off switch” for being black, or being a person of color. There is no comparison.

Nobody is truly free or whole under white supremacy, but our experiences are radically different. One group, white people, will benefit from white supremacy until it is dismantled, and the privileges we hold will always be tied to the suffering of people of color. This is hard to sit with. It is a feeling so strange and conflicting that I have never been able to capture it in my poetry. All I have is my breath, and the power of doing this work, and keeping myself honest about it.

What I love about Rachel is that she has a “no bullshit” attitude, but she effortlessly incorporates emotional health and spirituality into the conversation. In the follow up email, we all received a worksheet to further assist us in our healing and our activism. Below I am going to share my answers.

  1. How does your heart feel? If you feel discomfort, where does it live in your body? What is it trying to tell you?

My heart feels tired, and somber because I wasn’t expecting this workshop to affect me in the way that it did. I am truly recovering from wanting to be perceived by people of all races as the “good white person.” It hurts to come to terms with the fact that much of my activism has been merely performative, coming from a need to be seen as good and right, instead of striving for real justice and harmony. My chest feels tight, and I feel small, guilty and nervous. I think these feelings are trying to tell me that it is okay to not be okay, and that I am fully capable of doing better, and accepting criticism with grace and love.

2. What was your biggest takeaway from the workshop and why?

My biggest takeaway was the much needed realization that I don’t know everything, that I am not fully healed, that I still have so much work to do, and that I still have room to be doing MORE.

3. Has your perception of yourself and/or others shifted?

Yes, absolutely. I have once again reminded myself that I will never understand what it is to experience racial oppression. I have more compassion for my friends of color. I am starting to become more compassionate with the white people in my life that I get frustrated with. I know it is my responsibility to educate them, but now I see that they need to heal as much as I do. I am more motivated to find a way to reach them; there are always creative solutions if you search for them.

4. How have you been perpetuating white supremacy in your daily life? How does it feel to acknowledge this truth?

Prior to beginning my social justice journey, I was perpetuating white supremacy through thinking and talking about people of color through stereotypes. I felt fear around black men in the city, and though I knew there was no logic behind the fear, I did not find the need to question it. I said things like “all Asian people are good at math,” and “all Indians own Dunkin Donuts and 7–11's.”

During my social justice journey, I perpetuated white supremacy by refusing to listen to black women when they criticized my online activism. I was so confident that I was infallible that I simply would not hear them. I felt that my opinion on what is helpful was the most important and the most valid. (aka white fragility & white exceptionalism.) After giving it much thought, I’ve decided to feel positive about owning my truth. It will only serve to make me a better activist, and do this work more honestly and powerfully.

5. How can you best nourish yourself with compassion for any harms you have inflicted on others as a result of white supremacy?

I think the best thing I can do now is to set aside time during my daily meditations to focus on self forgiveness, and continue affirming my true intentions by becoming even more active than I already am.

introvert, poet, self love enthusiast, mental health advocate, human rights activist, bibliophile, Netflix addict

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