“It isn’t enough for your heart to break because everybody’s heart is broken now.”
I’m dedicating myself to a new tradition of reflecting and writing in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day each year. I’m also committed to attending community events and have built this day in as a paid holiday at my company, which I recommend as an act of diversity, equity and inclusion. Last year I wrote about Grieving My Loss of Worldview, which I recommend reading before this one.
While I still maintain that we can neither force nor rush the emotional journey needed to dismantle white conditioning and look beyond the fishbowl of whiteness, I recognize that we, as white people, also cannot reside in the indulgence of grief in perpetuity. We must settle for something less than absolute comfort or necessity and take this step forward from our own will. We must do it because we know that without this step, humanity will never realize its potential for love and equity.
King said, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
Some days it feels easier just to flip back to “the other side”—to continue avoiding the pain of my complicity in whiteness by distancing myself completely from the guilt and shame. I would do this by projecting that shame and guilt onto other white people in a vain attempt to separate myself from my own whiteness, now that I’ve “seen the light” or some other self-elevating ego strategy.
But that wouldn’t be very useful. I can’t unsee what I’ve seen and I prefer courage to conditioning. Decades ago, King noted that “all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”
Whose Clock is Ticking?
My experience with whiteness is that this caution is the default condition. We don’t even know what we’re protecting and who we’re hurting by advocating for gentle change. Time is running out for us all. There is a direct link between the energy of otherness that manifests as racism and global issues like climate change that increasingly directly impact us all.
Time has already run out for countless victims of racial violence. Who am I to ask a grieving mother to wait patiently for the arc of the universe to catch up to deliver the compassion she needs from our world right now? Time can’t give her child back to her.
Thus the paradox is one of finding the delicate balance between having enough time and space for an emotional journey to open up compassion and empathy while accelerating speed and scale in a way we’ve never known. Radical sudden change is a shock to any human system. It is an act of compassion to meet people where they are and ease them into a new worldview or way of being.
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” King said. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Now that I have pulled back the curtain of whiteness, the expansive horror and paradox of our civilization is more evident to me. While I’m even more perplexed how we can just continue on with “business as usual” while people are dying due to our collective failure to own our truth and evolve, I also realize that it simply isn’t enough to present privileged people with photos of more dead people. This can even have a numbing effect that isn’t even limited to white people. Any human being can only take so much horror and pain. And the marginalized among us are forced to absorb far more of it than the privileged.
Lasting progress won’t be made by head-on shaming tactics, as tempting as it is to sink into this indulgence. Instead I’ve decided to leverage my privilege to meet whiteness where it is, wherever it is, including my own—to hold space for its evolution and healing out of the sickness that blinds it to its own reality.
Power and Privilege
When I first started to understand my privilege, my instinct was to relinquish it. This was, at least in part, an effort to deny my association with it and the centuries of misdeeds that guarantee its existence.
I’ve since realized a few key things. First, nobody actually asked me to deny or relinquish my privilege. Nobody actually said I was evil for having it. Second, what is actually being asked directly of me by women and people of color who do the majority of social justice work is to USE my privilege to help change the systems of oppression. Therefore, relinquishing my privilege (if such a thing were possible) would also remove my power to contribute to a more equitable system in the future.
The clear answer is to face it for what it is by embracing it without flaunting it; to raise this mantle for the awesome responsibility it is rather than casually squandering it.
One of the greatest abilities of privilege is to retreat from discomfort and messiness back into privilege. I’ve learned that there is no way to avoid the messiness of such a complex and entrenched social system. Nor is it possible to avoid the inevitability of my conditioned racism popping up beyond my conscious control. It is my responsibility to do what I can do de-condition these tendencies and offer repair when the offense is made.
Centering White Emotions
I dream of a world where every person has access to emotional support by developing the capacity in each of us to hold space for each other. Emotions are the greatest gift of being human. We measure emotional value above all other forms and we make decisions emotionally, whether we know it or not.
Yet we live in a civilization with a scarcity mindset. Even worse than scarcity of money, land or love is that of emotional support. We devalue space holders such as teachers, social workers, parents and clinicians while elevating those who stoke emotional avoidance through celebrity and surges of dopamine.
In a land of demonstrable white supremacy, the emotions of white people are tended above all others, who are resigned to take whatever leftover emotional energy there is. Holding space for white emotions should therefore not fall to people of color as it often does. I take it upon myself to hold that white emotional space as others have held it for me.
A lesson I learned early on and have regularly repeated is not to center white emotions in a mixed environment. For all the reasons I stated above, this makes sense. We need to give marginalized stories and trauma space to breathe and be heard. We can all learn from them.
The Danger of Equivocation
It’s easy to want to compare situations in these discussions as a way of avoiding the hard and deadly truth. The most obvious example of this is the response to “Black Lives Matter” of “All Lives Matter,” which is a blatant dismissal of the former expression. While BLM is obviously meant to be interpreted as, “Black Lives Matter, too,” it’s seen as “Only Black Lives Matter.”
This movement emerged as a risky and desperate way for people whose families are being killed every day to let the dominant narrative know what is really happening. It certainly got my attention, for which I’m grateful. It started me along this path. And yet it also further entrenched some in their oppressive ways—those who chose to double down on their confirmation bias.
This egoic binary thinking is at the root of all of humanity’s troubles in our current stage of evolutionary consciousness.
Only our deep love within each of us will give us the courage to face the misery that whiteness has created in the world. And only when it is faced straight on can we address it, change the systems and heal what needs to be healed. We’ll never get back what was lost. All we can do is stop the bleeding, which must happen before we come together in full humanistic love.
When I talk about love being the only force that can bring us together, I need to stress something critically important. Yes, all people are in some form of pain. Many are miserable and disillusioned, even those who are privileged and appear happy from the outside. But we must never use the idea of heart connection and universal love as a way to bypass the systems of inequity that hold so many down in our current reality. Universal human love will never be fully expressed or realized so long as these systems are maintained.
Go Slow to Go Fast
If we don’t hold space for this emotional journey for people in power and privilege to go through, we’re going to perpetuate this cycle and keep crawling along the arc of justice. So how do we accelerate it?
I’m exploring the intersection of intimate dialogue circles and video technology as a way to expand access to the safe and brave spaces that are necessary to move through the emotional journey and become a productive part of this conversation to dismantle oppressive systems. More than a decade of dreaming and building relationships is culminating in FeelReal.
It’s clearer than ever that my work is to hold space for white emotions to process. When I cross reference the realities from both sides, I realize this is the only path that moves the conversation forward rather than spinning it in circles. This is not always a popular stance, as there are people who would prefer me to toe the line of resistance or revolution. At the right time and place, I’ve joined those lines, too. And I’ll do it again. But history informs us that pushing against the barriers can make them stronger. It’s not enough to stand against something. We have to stand for what we want to build next.
This is a call to all well-meaning white people to dig deep inside yourself—to do your own work. Only then may you share what you learn to bring others into the fold. These will not be easy conversations. We must meet people where they are and find ways to relate them to a reality grounded in documented evidence all around us and bolstered by love.