The last few weeks, as our country has undergone a collective awakening to the realization that we have been terrorizing People of Color (POC) at least since 1619, and racism is alive and well in every single aspect of our life, I have felt several emotions. Excited - “FINALLY! White people are waking up!” Skeptical - “How long will they be interested in this cause?” Dismayed - “Why are you trying to shame someone out of their racism?” It is this last part that I want to talk about here for a few minutes.
I have never been a fan of shows like The Biggest Loser. You know, where very large people are mocked and bullied because of their size, and then “motivated” to commit to change through some extremely restrictive dieting and torturous workouts. I find it dehumanizing how the participants are yelled at and celebrated if they lose weight, shamed if they don’t. Ugh. I have written before about how harmful I believe so much of what goes on in the “wellness” space, which I see as a way to manipulate people by shaming them. Even the Before & After pictures are a shame trigger, because if you look like the Before, then clearly you are unworthy. Your lack of commitment and discipline is shameful. And yet, what we know about health and wellness (if we are actually knowledgeable about such things), is that trauma is at the root of any behavior that we engage in in spite of knowing that there will be negative consequences (this is basically the definition of addiction). We know that childhood trauma increases a person’s likelihood to be an adult with cancer, obesity, diabetes, addiction, depression, autoimmune diseases, back pain, migraines, asthma, allergies, etc. If you want to learn more about this I highly recommend watching Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’s TED Talk and reading her book The Deepest Well. I think it may help you understand why shows like The Biggest Loser, and coaches and medical professionals and parents who engage in shaming behavior, are dehumanizing and do not lead to long-lasting, positive change.
So what does this have to do with racism? Well, I have seen a lot on social media the last few weeks where basically white people are engaging in a well-intentioned exercise of calling out other white people on their racism. I totally get the urge to do so. Once we realize that we really didn’t know what we didn’t know, and now we know it, and we want other people to know what they don’t know, we are totally pumped up and eager to teach others. It’s that energy that drives people who get sober to want everyone to know how awesome it feels and how stupid they feel knowing that they were brainwashed for all those years to think that pumping their brains and bodies with poison was cool, especially because it was legal. And then you suddenly realize that not only are most people still drinking in spite of your enthusiastic, well-informed, rational explanations and posts, but people now hide their drinking from you. In 12 step communities they advocate “attraction not promotion” and I think it’s probably because nobody likes to be hit with dogma over the head - especially when a part of them reacts in defiance and defensiveness to anything that feels like arrogant authority.
I heard a podcast a couple of days ago: The Trauma Therapist - where the host interviewed April Harter, LCSW. Listening to her, I had a huge “A-HA!” moment. She talked about how much in the anti-racist space is counter-productive because it is trauma-triggering instead of trauma-healing. She described how in her anti-racism work she kept hitting a barrier with people, and finally she realized that it was because the white people she was working with had trauma, even if they didn’t think so, and this was stopping their progress and ability to be aware of their implicit biases and racist attitudes and behavior. She says that until white people are healed of their trauma, they cannot become anti-racist. In an Instagram post she writes:
“One of the ways that white people are abused is if you ask your followers to target one of your other followers for acting in racist ways. The result, is that this white person, who is trying to learn, is getting cyber-bullied. Call-ins and call-outs, can be on average, a catalyst for cyberbullying. The result of this is a shame-based PTSD. This shame-based PTSD can lead to suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts. This happens more frequently than many of you realize... Most white people, in my experience, perpetrate unintentional racism. There is an assumption that all white people are complicit, but they are not. I don’t know where this idea came from, but when I work with white people on their racist behaviors, they often truly act in covertly racist ways. They mean well, but they have no idea how to stop their racism. They read books to learn about microaggressions, but then they continue to perpetrate them. I help them heal so that their cycle of perpetrating microaggressions stop, for good. When this occurs, you can teach more without having to be the target of their racism. Their unintentional racism, through microaggressions and racist defense mechanisms, are the barriers to learning, truly. They cannot learn when they are operating on a feedback loop of racist defense mechanisms. You won’t be able to get through, and in the end, it will only wear you out.”
Listen, I get it. When we find Jesus, sobriety, Beyond Meat burgers, whatever it is that makes us realize we have been an asshole for years and now we know better - it is really tempting to want to hammer our new gospel down everyone’s throat, no matter what it takes, especially if we know it is the righteous way to be. And in the anti-racism work, we are learning that if we are not calling out people, we aren’t really anti-racist because silence = compliance/complicity. So, out of our desire to avoid shame at all costs, we need to transfer our shame to someone else, and fire off a judgmental email, post, comment. Gosh, that felt good, right? But maybe there’s a little bit of ugh in that action, because we are being motivated to act by an urge to rid ourselves of our own lingering shame.
This morning a very dear friend of mine, who is African American and is exhausted, as are many of her black brothers and sisters, shared this post with me:
How about if we start with ourselves? Rather than spending all kinds of time and energy on creating and feeding shame storms, here are some suggestions, that can actually lead to positive change:
Finally, I want to share some great advice from my grad school professor (who teaches Multicultural Counseling at the College of William & Mary):
"I want to share with you something that I have seen in the field all too often, which I feel is damaging. Others speaking for others without first taking the needed steps of advocacy. We are seeing more and more of this right now in our nation...However, no matter how 'good' we think our intentions may be... we cannot speak for others but instead listen to their wants/needs - and then use that to help guide our associated actions." - Eleni Honderich.
Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.