Behind the Scenes: Why White People are Exhausted from Anti-Racism Work
*I am a white woman and my reflections are from a white perspective directed to fellow white folks.
8 minutes and 46 seconds. An eternity. A lifetime. The end of a Life, a beautiful, precious Life.
For many, those 8 minutes and 46 seconds were also the beginning of a new awareness of the ways systemic racism causes so many racial disparities across the country. New for some, yet a repeat of generations and generations of violence and death to Black bodies rooted in racism.
For those of you who woke up to a strong desire to fight for Black Lives, did you notice the world as you knew it started to shift?
You marched. You donated. You signed petitions. You called your legislators. You put up a Black Lives Matter sign in your front yard. You thought about talking to your racist family members. Some of you did. Some of you still contemplate how to do it.
It’s months later and we are seeing efforts fizzling out in white spaces. Feelings of exhaustion and burnout are running high. As we all struggle with a pandemic amid the civil unrest, overwhelm is all around us. I hear the whispers from my white friends through a thick veil of shame. Do you feel it?
Are you reading blogs that claim your efforts are not authentic? That you’re not doing enough. That everything you’ve done so far is just performative, motivated by self-preservation. Do you find yourself wondering if you are even doing the right things?
I get it. I’ve been through this. Sometimes I feel the exhaustion in my racial justice work, and I’m embarrassed to admit it because I’m white. I’m embarrassed because my exhaustion is nothing next to the exhaustion of my Black and Brown friends who experience racism every day, in so many unacknowledged and brutally loud ways. My exhaustion makes me feel guilty and ashamed and I’m well aware that guilt and shame are not serving me or the greatest good.
Here is what I know. These feelings of shame, confusion, and frustration rise when we rush into racial justice advocacy without spending time healing from the scars of white supremacy culture.
White supremacy culture is ingrained so deeply in us that it informs and drives the way we show up to the racial justice movement, and it’s the reason our efforts often do more harm than less harm. The goal is less harm. Please remember that. Less harm. When we strive for no harm we are falling into the unrealistic and harmful goal of perfectionism.
Learning about systemic racism shakes our spiritual foundation
The process of acknowledging systemic racism and our own participation in the system brings up powerful emotions.
It triggers grief.
We feel that we’ve been lied to all our lives. We may be angry at our parents’ generation for embracing the idea of colorblindness as the cure for racism.
We may feel shame for the ways we’ve benefited from an unjust system.
Like discovering that our romantic partner of many years has been cheating on us, we suddenly feel unable to trust ourselves. How could we not have seen this before?
Our perception of who we are as decent human beings has been lost, and we need to restore it.
So we take action. We respond out of a sense of urgency that allows no time to work through these powerful emotions.
It’s like we’ve stepped off of solid ground onto a stand up paddleboard for the first time, and we’re trying to paddle forward before we have found our balance.
At one point in my journey, I remember spending a lot of time on social media calling out and shaming other white people for perpetuating systemic racism. My righteousness felt good.
I was in a rush to fix racism and prove I wasn’t racist, and I took no time to heal from the open wounds white supremacy culture had left on me. And so my racial justice activism (if you can call it that) continued to perpetuate the very systems of oppression I want to eliminate.
The values of white supremacy show up in our response to racial justice
Studying the characteristics of white supremacy culture is like unlocking the secret code that explains why white people — even would-be/could-be allies — respond to the movement in predictable and harmful ways.
A full study of the value system that defines white supremacy culture could and should take months or years. It is this piece that I continue to study and practice in hopes of shifting generations of toxic whiteness: The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture by Tema Okun.
A few of the characteristics that directly contribute to the burnout many white people are feeling after the events of this past summer include:
Perfectionism: Doing wrong equals being wrong.
- This drives both our sense of shame about our past actions and our anger and condemnation of others who have not reached the same point of understanding as we have.
Only One Right Way: The belief there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it.
- We have this sense that we’ve had our eyes opened to the only right way to think about race in America, and if we can simply make others aware of it, they will agree, and that is how change will happen. It becomes our job to change people instead of focusing on our own growth.
Either/Or Thinking: Things can never be both/and.
- You’re either racist or anti-racist. You’re either woke or you’re not.
Sense of Urgency: Emphasizing quick or highly visible results at the expense of thoughtful decision-making that considers long-term consequences.
- Get into action fast. This might mean skipping critical time invested in analysis, education, historical context, inner awareness.
Right to comfort: the belief that those with power have a right to emotional and psychological comfort (another aspect of valuing ‘logic’ over emotion).
- We seek ways to make hard conversations easier. We strategize ways to make change more bearable. The focus becomes on how comfortable others (white people) are vs the issues at hand.
Until we engage in self-healing, our advocacy will be unsustainable
When we don’t understand the ways that white supremacy culture represents a value system that is so out of whack that it harms everyone it touches, then we show up to the racial justice movement out of a sense of obligation. We want to be good people. We don’t want racism to exist. But we see systemic racism as a problem outside of ourselves.
And when change is slow to happen, we lose conviction and slide into apathy. We return to our normal mode of caring most about things that affect us directly, thinking that we are immune from the harm of white supremacy culture.
But if we take the time to truly process the harm that this unbalanced values system causes to individuals, to communities, to relationships, to the planet, we’ll stop seeing it as someone else’s problem. We’ll see how damaging white supremacy culture is to everyone, and that systemic racism is only one of the symptoms.
I offer you this practice for radical reflection and deeper connection when you start to feel the overwhelm, the grief, and the despair of the injustices happening all around us all the time, as a touchstone for your own healing.
If you commit to a self-healing process, then when you take your stand against racism and against white supremacy culture, you’ll be fighting for your own liberation, which is a fight you’re not going to give up because you’re tired. You’ll rest, and then you’ll keep fighting. You’ll show up to the movement not as a savior, but as someone who wants to get free too.
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