Challenging our fragile white self: a practice

In our ongoing work to understand how we perpetuate white-body supremacy (Resmaa Menakem’s term), we are practicing with others how to track what happens inside and between us, moment-to-moment. Noticing our own fragility when it shows up and building resilience demands lots of repetition.  

In reality, this sequence can unfurl in a matter of seconds (the nervous system is FAST). When the process is slowed down enough to be viewed frame-by-frame, it can go something like this:

1. We are triggered by something race-related, or by something we did not initially recognize to be race-related (and the not recognizing itself can be the trigger). For example, a BIPOC names a micro-aggression perpetrated by another white person, or one of our choices that we deemed individual is revealed to have collective impact.

2. We feel a spike of anxiety or physiological activation. This could be a pulse of adrenaline, the tensing or constriction of certain muscles, the sensation of speeding up. It might mean going numb or blank. All this may not even enter our awareness.

3. We start thinking a lot. We move to concepts, making sense, theories we’ve read, logical arguments, pros and cons (left-brain activity). We may have a conscious or unconscious impulse to defend ourselves or someone else. There is a vague or intense feeling of threat, competition, scarcity. There is a sense that there will be a winner and a loser. We may employ a lot of words.

At this point, two paths diverge. The first one is a product of dominant white supremacist individualism and being alone with our perceived faults; the second one is a product of liberatory anti-racist practices in which our labour is meaningful and serves others.

a) The individualistic experience: we resist what is happening inside and between us. We move into humiliation or shame and up into our heads. We feel naked, exposed, possibly taunted, inadequate, dumb. The world feels hostile. We feel small. We don’t know something we are supposed to know. We double-down on our #3 experience and our stance. We try to figure out what to “do.” We might act out. This can and does become a tight loop with violent real-world consequences. We are now actively perpetuating white supremacy.

b) The anti-racist practice: we turn towards what is happening inside our bodies and between us, and we hang in with the humility and with others. Our not-knowing makes sense; we have been living separate from many truths for generations. We feel challenged, possibly frightened. The constructs we have taken for granted – even the fields of knowledge in which we are “experts” – are inadequate. There are whole worlds outside our knowing. We are not who we thought we were. We are part of the violence. There may be a (not so) tiny annihilation experience.

If we can go with b) and keep going with b) over and over and over again, then something truly new can happen:

We are still small and there is a lot we do not know. But we are not alone: there are others who have been working to change this for a long time. There is the possibility of community. The experience of our smallness begins to occur within a different context; it is held in a different basket. We are small not in a competitive, vicious world of individuals, but within a vast interwoven series of mysteries. There is abundance, there is the possibility of expansion. Our tiny self is actually a fiction to grow out of, if we can be brave enough to let it die a little bit, through this practice, every single day.