I’m glad you’re nice to me. But don’t attribute that niceness as embodied anti-racist practice.”Resmaa Menakem
Developmental work is pointless if it doesn’t translate into meaningful change in how we see things and our actions.
I spend my life inside of developmental education and practice. And yet like many of us, there are still gaps in my realm of understanding and experience. Anti-racism has been one of those gaps.
In the interest of correcting that, my attention is now opened into integrating and embodying anti-racism. This post represents some of my early thoughts on how to go about doing that.
The fact that I feel I have permission to enter into this conversation is positive. I am not sure I’d have had the audacity to discuss racism with you before now.
But then I am not really talking about racism. I am talking about making the unconscious conscious, which is broadly in keeping with what I am always talking about.
The present invitation
A task on this scale – righting the wrongs of systemic, institutional racial injustice – begins with empathy in individuals. Right now white people are being invited to consider empathetic blind spots both within themselves and across the communities and structures that make up life.
Empathy isn’t the end game, but it is the only place to start.
For something so at times tricky to embody, empathy can be defined quite simply. It is the ability to really understand another person’s experience through the inside of their experience. It is taking someone fully in, and resonating in the same emotional space as them.Empathy is emergent of free will and practice. Not a quality exclusive to the 'woke' Click To Tweet
Empathy is a transformative quality of attention. You see this a lot in therapy and coaching. It creates a lot of healing if a therapist can really enter their client’s world, understand how they feel, and receive them with a lot of communication affirming that.
Developing empathy in the context of anti-racism
It’s possible to practice empathy every time we listen to someone, by learning to listen not only to the story of what’s happening, but also to the underlying universal needs.
In terms of developing empathy in the context of anti-racism, there are also a lot of ways. Some are learning about the US legal system, white fragility and own psychology. From what I can see from my Insta, Twitter, and Facebook feeds, such activities have gone up in people’s priorities.
It is hopeful. We are being called forth by a consciousness that is overall more nuanced than the current “all lives mattering” (the correct priority being that black lives need to matter first). We are moving from colour blindness to deliberate acknowledgement of implicit bias and inequality.
Avoiding the shame bottleneck
Making progress with racial justice requires dismantling current systems and creating new systems based on equity. Creating something new requires new ways of thinking and relating, a deeper quality of connection with self and others.Lashelle Lowe-Charde
It is important to sidestep shame in a learning process. As I’ve dipped into the conversation on white privilege, I have felt concerned about the potential for shame-based thinking to dominate.
Shame blocks presence. When we feel ashamed, our attention can get snagged inwards, when right now we need our attention to be both inwards and up and out of ourselves.Our first reactions are conditioned. It's our second reactions that define us Click To Tweet
I’m imagining also that shame-based conversations also place people of colour in the position where they might feel that need to give reassurance. Along with the healing that black people already need do on account of obvious trauma and daily indignities, it is a lot to ask.
There is no shame in having reactions or conditioned tendencies that are racist (or not anti-racist). The expectation here is not to be perfect, but to do better now we know better.
As Lashelle says, what we actually need to cultivate is creativity in our conversations.
Becoming aware of empathy snags and snares
The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.”@ljeomaOluo
On the question of why we might not have empathy when we “should”, that is not simple. When there are external stressors of various kinds, we get a little more locked into our personality patterns. This makes it harder to step outside of ourselves enough to hear another person’s experience and perspective. In a way, you can say empathy itself only becomes a concern when you’re in a place of security and safety (privilege again).
There are more ingrained and permanent shortfalls of empathy, however. We may not have developed empathy around a particular issue through a lack of attention (ignorance). There are also things like being in a white bubble socially/relationally, implicit bias and inherited unempathetic stances.
Empathy and the Shadow
Among all these reasons, I want to pay special attention to empathy blind spots that result from staying unconscious in aspects of life and experience. Unless you are actively engaged in inner work, and especially work that addresses the unconscious, you’re vulnerable to that.Inner work is an empathetic practice Click To Tweet
The more fragmented and walled off we are internally, the less we are able to be empathetic. If I have denied or don’t understand my pain, then I am not going to be able to fully empathize with yours – I might even be scared of it.
Likewise, if I introjected the idea that I am a criminal because of my skin colour (internalized racism), I may lack a basic confidence in my goodness, and I will not be able to tolerate yours. (The latter is an example of why anti-racism entails Shadow work for black people as well as white people.)
Community and institutional blind spots
So what of culture derived empathy blind spots?
Our early environments are formative. I grew up in a working-class background in London, UK, to immigrant parents. My school was very ethnically diverse (although that was more true of the pupils than the teachers). All in all, my formative years were not especially generative of negative empathy stances.
That said, most of the friends I have right now are white. Travel, yoga, and developmental work – which is where I have formed my friendships – are not ‘white’ pastimes. However, they do exclude a very low-income bracket. As I’ve only recently acknowledged, our opportunities to generate income and wealth are just not equal.
Integrating anti-racism means ensuring that I expose myself to perspectives that I might not get through my friends and family. That’ll create the needed tension that will help me to empathize further.
We know that racism lives in organizations, institutions and other external structures of our lives. Integrated anti-racism means behaving in line with the recognition that we play a role in either upholding or dismantling those.
That’s why the reps around race are so important. Because as you get more reps in about it, all of a sudden, other things start to become important that weren’t important…which forces you to transform.Resmaa Menakem
As with anything we want to get done, we need to institutionalize practice in daily life.
Personally, I find it easy to empathize with anyone who is the victim of any injustice when it is in front of my face. But when it isn’t, it’s as if it isn’t there. Until now, my anti-racism has happened in moments rather than having depth and width and length in my environment. I also contend with a personality structure that compels me to move away from pain.As the author Amanda Blake says, awareness opens choice but it is practice that creates capacity. Click To Tweet
That is the whole point of practice. To establish a way of being that moves away from the automatic.
Practices in anti-racism across the four realms of experience
In this post I have already identified a few specific practices that are tailored to me. For further ideas on how to do this work, this graphic I found on Twitter is useful. From it, it is possible to identify practices across the four dimensions of experience:
(1) the inner realm of the individual (‘I am vulnerable about my own biases’), (2) the outer realm of the individual (‘I sit with my discomfort ‘)(3) culture and community (‘I listen to others who think and look differently to me’), and (4) external structures (‘I yield positions of power to the otherwise marginalized’).
I’m going to be paying special attention to the work of tracking and sitting with discomfort in my body. For me, the body as a vehicle for developmental work is a huge focus right now.If ever we all need a capacity right now, it is the capacity to sit with sensation Click To Tweet
We will all need to attend to any tension, anxiety, or distress we feel in our bodies as we have the necessary conversations.
We will also need the capacity to soothe our nervous systems and create a safe environment within ourselves as we go outside of our social groups.
Here is a beautiful body practice to explore alongside me, if you’re inclined.
What laundry have you identified as being first to do? Feel free to comment. Also comment if you’re moved to educate me on something I’ve said, which is always welcome.
*This is a reference to Jack Kornfield’s book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, about how to integrate a spiritual experience.