It is never easy to be criticized or accused. If our inner world is filled with self-dislike, any outer challenge is a double whammy to our fragile sense of self. So we shut our ears and hearts. We defend. We protect ourselves. Or we get mired in our own defeat.
Years ago, when I was just starting out as a teacher of Processwork, I was challenged by a student who had attended one of my courses. It happened during a meeting with more than fifty people in attendance, majority white. It was the early 90s. In the wake of the Rodney King beating, Processwork facilitators were holding open forums and town hall meetings on racism. We were also working on the isms within our own community. I thought of myself as reasonably aware of the dynamics of rank and privilege.
The student who challenged me was African-American. He accused me of overlooking him because of his race. He said that he had made repeated attempts to contribute during class discussions but I hadn’t noticed. He let his outrage and insult be known to the group. I was horrified. Defensive inside. Of course I had noticed him in class—he was one of the few people of color and I definitely would have made space if I saw that he wanted to talk.
On the other hand I knew there had to be some truth in what he was saying, even if my bias was unconscious. If anything, perhaps I had paid too much attention to him. Perhaps his presence was too important to me. Maybe my focus was always drawn to him and I tried to compensate by acting casual or aloof. Obviously I had done something “wrong” to make him feel this way. I couldn’t think straight. I hated myself so much.
I couldn’t believe this was happening. I was a mess.
So what did I do: I apologized and admitted my guilt. I cried. A lot. I berated myself so severely for having been unconsciously “racist,” that I needed rescue.
I inadvertently shut down the conversation.
White fragility. Coined by multiculuralism educator Dr. Robin DiAngelo. A state in which even a minimal amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves….. These behaviors in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.
When white people (or anyone with privilege in a given context) are mired in their own experience of internalized oppression and self hatred, we lack the deep authentic personal power it takes to own up to, confront, and ultimately do the work it takes to dismantle racism or any systemic injustice. Working through past and present low rank experiences, frees us to recognize the privileges we do have and to show up in the world as allies to those who have less advantage than we do. Thanks to Arny Mindell for the concept of wood-burning, a set of methods for doing just this.
In other words, if we feel basically good about ourselves we are generally more open, receptive, willing to listen and primed to learn.
Every identity, role or position is weak when it is held in place by social privilege rather than by the architecture of a strong internal support. The concept of white fragility is interesting in that it points out the weakness (and not the privilege) hidden within in the white identity and psyche. That was me twenty plus years ago.
My tears were more about self-pity and humiliation than racial injustice. I wasn’t crying about the fact that my accuser’s mind had to go there. That he had to live in a world where the possibility that my slight was racially based was even a thing. I took the accusation as an affront—I was bad. From this regressed state I wasn’t able to “show up” in my full humanity, tolerate the discomfort I felt and engage in a real conversation about my behavior and its impact on my challenger.
There is nothing inherently wrong with my tears or my fragility. I love my sensitive self and when it is expressed in the right circumstance it is one of my greatest gifts. But in this case I allowed my pain to take precedence over my challenger’s experience. My pain became a central focus, rather than his feelings or our relationship. And because it was public, my actions were socially loaded, even political. I was concerned about my humiliation in a country with a “long historical backdrop of Black men being tortured and murdered because of white women’s distress.” Robin DiAngelo talks about this.
In the meantime, I have been publically challenged numerous times about ways in which I misuse my power and privilege. I have sat in the fire and learned things the hard way—by staying present and in relationship with critics and teachers, in whatever form they come. I’ve burned up a bunch of old wood. I have raged and grieved about my own experiences of oppression: as a Jewish person, as an out-there female, as a needy, “overly” emotional artistic type, as an ambitious professional who never felt quite as brilliant or successful as the people around me (and as a part of me demanded) and therefore could never quite justify being alive and taking up space.
I had more unprocessed pain than I had realized. It weakened me—until it made me strong.
The following are suggestions for how to deal with any situation where you have privilege and are being challenged or criticized about how you use it by someone with less power.
The caveat: You can only do this if you have worked through some of your internalized oppression.
- Be open. Listen. Get as much information as the other person is able to give.
- Reflect on what they have said. Consider it deeply.
- Take seriously and pay attention to the impact of your behavior on the other person. Refrain from over-emphasizing your (good) intentions.
- It’s ok to explain your behavior—but don’t justify it. Your explanation might help the other better understand you. But it doesn’t make what you did acceptable or right. (Thanks to Kenneth Hardy for this distinction)
- Be real. If you feel defensive and you think the accusation is inaccurate, say so. Do this to open up conversation, not shut it down. Be willing to dialogue and debate if the other person is up for it. You always have the right to defend yourself, but hopefully you won’t stay stuck there.
- Find whatever piece of truth you can in the accusation. Be willing to own your part. Do this even if you think the person is using the conflict with you as an opportunity to express historical rage or hurt.
- Don’t insist that the other person communicate in a way that makes the dialogue easier for you. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
- Commit to changing your behavior and to working for systemic change.
Fortunately life continues to provide me with opportunities to practice the above. And I rarely get it right. We never do. But I know I can show up and try.
Be brave, build your stamina. It’s worth it.