Learning Not to Look Away

When those of us who are white are asked to engage with anti-racism, we are being asked to do something emotionally difficult: understand how we have benefited from a system that disadvantages and hurts others, so we can help dismantle it.

If you oppose and abhor racism, as I hope most of us do, it is painful to carefully examine how you have perpetrated it and benefited from it yourself.

It’s not more painful than actually experiencing racism. And our emotional comfort isn’t more important than racial justice. But unfortunately, many of us disengage when confronting the realities of racism becomes too painful.

The fight against racism will get a lot further with white people participating. But white people still have the luxury of apathy and ignorance if they choose it, and there’s a risk that too many will take this option when the going gets tough.

For this reason, taking a little time to process your emotions — in an appropriate way — can be an important part of the work.

In anti-racist discourse, often I hear that the feelings of white people take up too much space. The classic scenario is when a white person says something hurtful to a person of color, gets called on it, and then instead of focusing on the bigger harm (racism), they focus solely on their own bruised ego.

I usually hear two complaints: first, redirecting attention to the white person’s feelings does nothing to end racism; second, it is painful and unfair to ask the victims of racism to control their emotions to keep the space comfortable for white people.

That’s true. But let’s acknowledge that it is painful to realize that you participate, however unwittingly, in a racial hierarchy that hurts innocent human beings who do not deserve it. Feeling pained when you discover you’ve hurt others is a sign you have empathy. It isn’t pleasant, but that discomfort can lead to growth.

No, white people should not put their own feelings above the cause of fighting racism, nor should they ask the victims of racism to comfort them. But white people do need to tend to their own feelings. If we don’t, how can we be effective allies?

Here’s what works for me to keep my own emotions in check.

First of all, understand that racism is structural. Racism is a system that we were all born into, not something we chose. Nobody is to blame for the society they were born into or forces beyond their control.

We are, however, responsible for the choices we make now. Are you doing the best you can with the tools you have? That’s all anyone can ask of you. If you’re doing that, you can feel proud without blaming yourself for what wasn’t your fault.

The danger in saying this is that it could be used to justify complacency. Educating yourself about racism, unlearning your own biases, and working through your emotions is a lifelong, active process. It is ongoing work.

For me, so far it’s involved books, movies, podcasts, articles, countless conversations, lots of introspection, therapy, and plenty of apologizing when I’ve wronged someone. You’ll need to find what works for you, and pace yourself out because it’s emotionally challenging for everyone and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

Take time to process your emotions — and to remember the bigger picture. Do not let your feelings become more important than the fight against racism itself.

Then go do something about it. Attend a protest, make a donation, or get involved in an organization working for racial justice.

Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.