So, it finally happened. Two personal friends in the last month have indicated that they think I’ve been writing an awful lot about white supremacy lately. When this happens—as I’m sure it has for you at times in your life when you started speaking more openly about the problems you see in the world—a predictable series of events unfolds inside of me.
First, I contract inside, physically and emotionally. Physically, my body tenses up in a recognition of danger, because evidently my nervous system is primed to experience any kind of conflict as a potential threat to my life. Emotionally, my heart closes to the person providing the feedback, and this triggers my mind to start producing thoughts about how to tell this person that their way of thinking is wrong. This happens because I have been socialized by my parents and society to believe that if I can beat someone in a rational debate, then I will have momentarily evaded death or abandonment.
Historically in my life, this inner contraction is most often followed by an attempt to act on those judgmental thoughts of the other person. But in zero of these cases did my attempt lead to greater understanding or connection or agreement. I’m assuming your experience has been similar to mine. (But if I’m wrong, and you happen to be that one special person that we all initially believe ourselves to be, who can change anyone’s mind on any topic, please get in touch with me. I need to pick your brain.)
What to do, then? I firmly believe in love and justice, and I firmly believe that neither is possible without a clear understanding of white supremacy culture and how it affects us. But every time I try to talk about white supremacy culture, I get pushback. My spiritual practice has taught me that the answer lies in two key capacities that are within my power to develop:
- My ability to accept people and circumstances as they are, which is the key to peace.
- My recognition of my responsibility, my ability to respond, which is the key to power.
First, I must accept the physical tension in my body as the natural and inevitable consequence of everything that has ever happened in the universe. There is no other way for my body to have responded to the pushback from my friends given everything I have experienced on a conscious and unconscious level. Expecting my body to respond in a different way than it does is a subtle form of violence against myself. It comes from the perfectionistic belief that there is one right way for bodies to respond to stress, a belief that is rooted in fear of being broken or wrong in some way. Just as healing the world starts with healing the self, violence towards the world starts as violence towards the self.
This isn’t to say, however, that I can’t aspire to one day have a body that responds differently to stress. The great humanistic psychotherapist Carl Rogers famously said, “The curious paradox is that, when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.”
Staying with my own internal reaction to the stressor, I must also accept my emotional contraction and its attendant flurry of strategic thinking as the natural and inevitable consequence of everything that has ever happened in the universe. There is no other way for my heart and mind to have responded to the physical contraction in my body given everything that I have ever experienced on a conscious and unconscious level. The mind loves to point out the wrong in others when it is insecure about our own rightness.
Second, I must accept my friends and their beliefs as the natural and inevitable consequence of everything that has ever happened in the universe. Just as my beliefs are a consequence of my experiences, my friends’ beliefs are the consequence of their experiences. Telling my friends that they are wrong in reaction to an unconscious insecurity about my own rightness or wrongness is the mechanism by which inner violence becomes outer violence.
And finally, once I’ve accepted each of us as we are, I can choose how to respond in a way that is aligned with my values. If what I want is understanding, I can get curious about why my friends are giving me this feedback about my writings on white supremacy culture.
When I have done this, I have learned that my friends are uncomfortable with the topic because of the associations it carries for them: angry debates and name-calling, disconnection, shame. At the bottom of it all: fear, the foundational characteristic and strongest defender of white supremacy culture, and the same emotion that has prompted me on so many occasions to react unconsciously from anger and judgment when such a reaction was fundamentally incapable of creating the outcome that I wanted.
I can’t point an accusatory finger at their fear without three more of my fingers pointing right back at mine. This is what it means to me to be the change we want to see in the world. It may seem like a luxury of the privileged, and it is, in the sense that it requires a degree of emotional self-regulation that is not easy to come by in a world rife with dysregulating forms of oppression. But privilege is not a four-letter word. It is a fact of all of our lives to one degree or another. And coming back to the spiritual concept of responsibility, with greater levels of privilege come greater opportunities to respond.
Next week, I will build on this exploration by outlining how this foundation of mindfulness has informed what I choose to say in conversations about white supremacy.
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