Reflective Stance
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Reflective Stance

Embracing Discomfort in Equity Work

Lessons from Brené Brown on Shame Triggers from an Anti-Oppression Lens

I had a powerful conversation with a colleague this week about the concept of discomfort while engaging in equity work. He suggested that we all have different understandings of what this means. The notions of discomfort and safety are often conflated. Discomfort occurs when we learn. Steven Katz defines learning as “​the process through which experience causes permanent change in knowledge or behaviour​”. This is hard work and is meant to be uncomfortable. I recall, many years ago, when I was doing my graduate work, the professor calling attention to this stance. She explained that safety and discomfort were different and that in this work, if we don’t experience discomfort, we just aren’t doing the work.

The discomfort comes when we are made to see and feel our privilege. We have been socialized to not see it. That’s how it works. The whole idea that one can work hard and succeed is a fallacy created by those who hold power. We must feel the dissonance of learning in order to grow. Without that commitment, the equity work will not move. We need to move from “But I’m not racist! I am a good person!” into a deeper understanding and willingness to see the systemic structures of oppression that exist around us. In education I am referring to the classrooms, the curriculum, the way we communicate, the policies, the hiring practices, how we give precedence over some holidays and not others, the books we share, how we assess and how we teach — literally everything. Schools are one of the many structures that were created to uphold white supremacy. If we are not actively disrupting it, we are upholding it. Until we are willing to see, we remain ignorant and complacent. We must start with ourselves. If we think we know it all and we are done, that is the surest indication that we are not.

The experience of safety is quite different from discomfort and is relative to each person’s social location in the room based on how they self-define their social identities including race, gender, faith, nationality, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, language, class, ability, level of education, body type, employment.

In each of these areas, and others, we either hold more power or less power. Those who hold more power have less risk. It is that simple. The inverse is true as well. Those who hold less power have more risk. In addition, these social identities do not function independently from one another — they are intersectional and that in all cases, race is a salient factor. This is explained clearly by George Dei in a dialogue, The Foundations of Transformative Anti-Racism: A conversation with George J. Sefa Dei and Andrea Vásquez Jiménez:

The term integrative anti-racism comes from the argument and fact that no one is one thing. Our identities are not just all about race, just as we are not all about class, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, etc. In order to understand the full effects of race, we have to see how race intersects with other forms of differences. Talking about intersections is necessary. This is the integrative lens and that’s where the integrative anti-racism is coming from. In the discourse of anti-racism it is important to talk about the integrativeness, but also to recognize the saliency of Blackness. It speaks to the fact that there’s a hypervisibility of Blackness, and that Blackness is consequential. That Blackness, when it is seen as transgressive, is punished, and that Blackness is coded for punishment, just as whiteness is for privilege and power. While we talk about the intersections, let us know that there are aspects of race and racism that also speak about the saliency.

Our claims of feeling unsafe stem from the experiences of shame felt when we feel called out about our privilege. Many who participate in equity training will say that facilitators “blamed and shamed” them causing them to shut down. What I have found, in my years of doing this work, is that these messages are heard differently from white bodies than racialized bodies, as is everything for that matter. Facilitating learning in equity has always been a partnership with friends and colleagues who are racialized and in the planning the dialogue has at times been… “Deb, you’re going to have to say this part…” We know that the response will be different if it comes from me. White people hear it differently when white people speak about privilege.

We need to get to the place that when racialized people tell us their truth, we listen and recognize that this sharing is done so at great personal risk. In Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, challenges white people to listen:

In my workshops, I often ask people of colour, “How often have you given white people feedback on our unaware yet inevitable racism? How often has that gone well for you?” Eye-rolling, head-shaking, and outright laughter follow, along with the consensus of rarely, if ever. I then ask, “What would it be like if you could simply give us feedback, have us graciously receive it, reflect, and work to change the behaviour?” Recently a man of colour signed and said, “It would be revolutionary.”

Robin DiAngelo explains:

White fragility functions as a form of bullying; I am going to make it so miserable for you to confront me — no matter how diplomatically you try to do so — that you will simply back off, give up, and never raise the issue again. White fragility keeps people of color in line and “in their place.” In this way, it is a powerful form of white racial control. Social power is not fixed; it is constantly challenged and needs to be maintained. p 110

In her article, White Women’s Tears and the Men Who Love Them, Robin DiAngelo writes:

“…as white people who want to interrupt this system, we have to get racially uncomfortable and be willing to examine the effects of our racial engagement. This includes not indulging in whatever reactions we have in a given cross-racial encounter — such as anger, defensiveness, or self-pity — without first reflecting on what is driving them and how they will impact others.”

She goes on to say that white fragility is the term she uses:

to describe the inability of white people to respond constructively when our racial positions are challenged. Because we so seldom encounter this challenge, we are thrown off balance and withdraw, defend, cry, argue, minimize, ignore, and in other ways push back in order to regain our racial equilibrium…

When I am facilitating equity training, I wait for the typical responses. Each of these responses holds the status quo and perpetuates white fragility.

  • The white man with his arms crossed refusing to engage and displaying his anger and disgust.
  • The white woman who is crying and defending herself saying that she is hurt by the allegations.
  • White people who have experienced trauma, discrimination and oppression personally or in their family history who believe they have no privilege.

Then there are these participants:

  • The racialized people who are afraid to speak because they are held accountable by white people for creating this situation in the first place.
  • The racialized people who do speak and take the risk and then fear for their careers because they have spoken their truth.
  • The racialized people who nod quietly, hoping this time someone can hear the truth and that it ends quickly before they are asked to speak for all people from their race, faith, gender, ability, sexual orientation group.
  • The racialized people who do speak, who call it what it is, and then are spoken about and said to be troublemakers, not fit for leadership, unable to control their anger.

I believe that we can learn how to move forward by better understanding our own shame triggers and who better to learn from than Brené Brown?

I started reading Brené Brown about eight years ago when someone told me about her book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. (I still can’t remember who gave me that first book but if it was you, thank you! Her work has changed me profoundly and has made every relationship in my life better.) I have read every one of her books since. Her research is centred around shame and vulnerability — both which are present in this work. It offers insights into how and why we act in the ways we do while also offering concrete steps to move forward.

In her new book, Dare to Lead, Brené Brown writes about the actions we take to “armour up” when we feel shame. She calls them shame shields:

  • Moving away: Withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets.
  • Moving toward: Seeking to appease and please.
  • Moving against: Trying to gain power over others by being aggressive, and by using shame to fight shame.

We must recognize our shame triggers. Brené has a worksheet to support the process of coming to know our shame triggers and then moving forward from them based on her first book: I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power.

Brené explains that there are ways we can become shame resilient in Dare to Lead:

  1. Recognizing Shame and Understanding Its Triggers: When we understand what are our shame triggers, we are less likely to armour up.
  2. Practicing Critical Awareness: We have to “zoom out” and understand our shame triggers in a larger social context (this is where white lady tears really come into play).
  3. Reaching Out: Reaching out to others when we experience shame is exactly what will begin to end it. Brené explains that “the experiences that make us feel the most alone are actually universal”.
  4. Speaking Shame: Shame loves silence; this is where it thrives. She explains that “Language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”

The other piece to this is trust. We talk about the need for these spaces to be spaces where we must trust each other before we can do the work. We also can’t do the work until we have trust. So this is a catch 22. How do we build the trust if we don’t do this work? How do we do the work if we don’t have trust?

In the Anatomy of Trust, Brené clarifies that “trust is built in very small moments.” We can build trust through the small moments we share, from our heart, casting aside our shame and fear of judgement. I am certain that we can embrace our imperfections by sharing what we don’t understand. I believe one of the reasons I am able to lead this work is my ability to be vulnerable, share what I am grappling with, and take time to reflect on the feedback I am given, even when it is hard to hear. In this case, #3 on Brené’s “Engaged Feedback Checklist” is most relevant: “I’m ready to listen, ask questions, and accept that I may not fully understand the issue.” Accept, as a white person, that we will NEVER fully understand the experience of racialized people in our society. NEVER.

Ultimately, she explains, how we treat ourselves is indicative of how we treat others. She quotes Maya Angelou, “I don’t trust people who don’t love themselves and tell me, ‘I love you.’. There is an African saying which is, Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.”

Brené explains, “The thing to examine first is…how you treat yourself. Because we can’t ask people to give to us something that we do not believe we are worthy of receiving. And you will know you are worthy of receiving it when you trust yourself above everyone else.”

So we must “Dare Greatly” and “Be Brave” and have courage to stand in our integrity. If we believe that all children can achieve then we must make the commitment to understand ourselves in the context of equity work. If we believe that we are doing what is best and serving our students, staff and community, then we must hold ourselves accountable and “practice our values”.

So I ask, what is your commitment? All you have to do is listen and believe that it is truth — take the risk. Years ago I heard Sandra Herbst say, “As leaders, we have to be willing to risk our own significance.” It is time to embrace discomfort, get uncomfortable and do something positive with the positional power we hold.

Do you want to read more of my blogs? Check out my publication, Reflective Stance on my website,



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Dr Debbie Donsky

Dr Debbie Donsky

REFLECTIVE STANCE writer, thinker, drawer, painter, designer, mommy, teacher, leader, learner of all things