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Part 2: You cannot think your way out of internalized racism

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

We're seeing a lot of useful information about racism, anti-blackness, and good white allyship circulating on the internet. This is heartening-- there's a great deal of potential in this as people work to correct the gaps and erasures that have characterized their knowledge about the issues.

Importantly however, learning to be different around these issues is not only a matter of gaining knowledge. The work is not just cognitive, and we cannot think our way out of internalized racism. The work is also deeply emotional.

Many DEI (diversity, equity, & inclusion), anti-racism, and anti-oppression programs focus on delivering information and, usually, on offering suggestions for different behaviors. This is of course vital. So much of the information we receive about racial identity, sexuality, gender, and so on is fundamentally flawed and deeply intertwined with problematic (and often violent) power structures. Learning more accurate and nuanced information, as well as alternative ways of behaving, are key to engendering different ways of being around these issues.

However, there is also another dimension to the work: learning affective skills.

The pitfalls to not attending to these aspects of doing to work include hijacking the conversation and recentering yourself, becoming defensive and turning away, and even simply avoiding uncomfortable conversations altogether. Without attending to the affective, we risk upholding and reinforcing the status quo.

Affective work happens on several levels. Some of the forms that emotional anti-racism and anti-oppression work take include:

Sitting with and working through the emotions that this period is bringing up. Coming to new realizations about how little we know about injustice, violence, history, etc. can be overwhelming; it can (as we covered in the last post) bring up feelings of shame, guilt, anger, fear, and sadness.

Learning to be with the discomfort of whiteness being decentered, and instead centering the needs and voices of people who have historically been marginalized. Learning to engage about issues that bring up these feelings requires the ability to sit with discomfort. For white people who are used to having their needs, voices, and feelings be centered, feeling decentered can be destablizing. Being able to recognize this discomfort and see it what it is-- the result of a lifetime of programming and being accustomed to a certain status quo-- is an important first step to working through it.

Reflecting, cognitively and emotionally, on how and when we have internalized ideas of superiority. Cultural scripts of whiteness as default, of white people being inherently better or more trustworthy, of white norms and ways of being inherently superior abound. Even for people who are not consciously prejudiced, this kind of programming is impossible to escape. The work of undoing this is also deeply emotional.

The burden of processing work should, of course, not fall on those most impacted by racism. We encourage white folks to find white people further along on the journey to process what they are thinking and feeling, and strongly prioritize the affective dimension in our work with individuals, organizations, and groups. This includes talking through emotions, as well as skill-building and developing emotional literacy.

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