Putting energy into racial healing as a white woman has been an incredible journey in wellness for me. For decades I focused on attending anti-racism trainings and workshops and reading book after book with the expectation that intellectual learning was the path to change – the old “if we know better, we do better.” In some ways, this was true. I was influenced by the information I learned and made intentional efforts to change my behavior. What was missing were the reasons I sought to change. They were still grounded in white supremacy culture. So, despite my intentions, I continued to cause harm and to feel deep shame when I became aware of the impact of my mistakes.
I remember a comment from an anti-racism workshop I participated in during the late 1980’s, “consider becoming aware of your own racism as similar to discovering you have a booger on your face.” This was meant to reassure white people that having racism within does not make you a bad person. It is to be expected, particularly for those of us raised in the United States, one of the most racist countries in the world. While the comment was intellectually reassuring, it did not directly address the shame within me.
The shame in me prevents me from taking risks, moving out of my comfort zone, being willing to make mistakes, and relaxing into the personal growth needed to move beyond the confines of white supremacy culture. While the part of me directly connected to the Divine was led to continue to show up for anti-racist efforts, the even stronger voices in me, cultivated by the many people in my life who loved me and sought to protect me, held me back and kept me centered in fear, rather than love. I wasn’t loving myself, so how could I show up and share love with anyone else?
I am grateful for the work of Tema Okun for articulating the characteristics of White Supremacy Culture and for BIPOC leaders in my community for sharing them with me sometime in the late 2000’s. This was the beginning of an opening in me that has allowed me to do true racial healing from the inside out. As if it were yesterday, I remember the feeling of reading through the list of characteristics. I stayed with the first one, perfectionism, for a long time. Waves of memories of receiving harsh corrections that dripped with shame washed over me. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Markowitz, who shamed me and other children in front of the entire class for making mistakes while reading aloud. My grandmother, who made me sit alone while she and my sister enjoyed a treat because I couldn’t pronounce a word correctly after she forced me to try to say it over again and again. Even my own mother, who would send me to my room and then tell me very sternly how disappointed she was in me when I acted out of jealousy or feeling hurt. She would then close the door and leave me alone to “sit with” what I had done. What I ended up sitting with was fear. The feeling in each of these interactions was the same – deep shame. The message was also the same, “In order to belong, you must always behave, never make mistakes, and never be a disappointment.” I wept inside for a lifetime of feeling ashamed of being me and for how many times connection and love were intentionally withheld from me in order for me to “learn better”. What I actually learned instead, over and over again, was how to survive in a dominator culture.
As I sat with the grief rising up in me, I read through the antidote behaviors to perfectionism. Each of them was like a lifeline. “This is what life could look like!” I envisioned each offering as a flower that together made up a beautiful bouquet. I took time to savor each of them and to breathe in their fresh aroma.
Just because I or anyone else makes a mistake, doesn’t mean that I am or they are a mistake. I sat with this message for a long time. It felt like a balm to my soul.
There are unknown consequences to all of our actions, even if they were done the “right way”. Again, I slowed down and let this message work its way inside of me.
What is most important is that we lean in together to learn from the consequences and “mistakes”. I began to get a glimpse of what it might mean to not have to be alone with my shame.
Sometimes what may seem like a “mistake” opens up possibilities that were not before imagined. What, you mean that mistakes can even be a good thing? Drop the mike!
And obsessing out of a place of self-criticism and shame keeps the focus on you, rather than on the situation and the potential that is available through learning from others. Oh, this is what I have been doing this whole time that has not been working. A huge wave of relief came over me. I get it now.
What rose up in me as I took in the beauty of the bouquet was laughter and relief. For the first time I was able to step out, even if for a brief moment, from the grips of shame that were and are part of the genetic and cellular make up of my body. “Oh, this is why I struggle to show up differently! I’m not a bad person, I’m just a white person.” And for the first time I longed for healing the grips that White Supremacy Culture had on me.
This turning point in my journey marked the beginning of understanding that my wellness is inextricably linked to dismantling racism in me. And it wasn’t just an intellectual understanding, it was a full body knowing. It was just one step, though a crucial step. Obviously, It is not like suddenly I was free of harmful behavior and a system of internal shame meant to keep me silent and to look the other way as immoral and inhumane violence happens all around me. It did result in my mind and heart being open to what was all around me. It rendered me capable of healing – a humbling experience.
I don’t consider myself an expert in racial healing. My journey since this point of authentic opening has been fraught with mistakes and learning. I have not completely freed myself from the grips of fear and shame that are hardwired into my being. I have been able to loosen them and develop the capacity to anchor myself in love and compassion as I sit with my mistakes. I have also learned to lean into prayer and seeking guidance from the Divine wisdom that is all around and particularly available to me through connection with others and nature. I have come to see racism as a sickness in me that I must heal. The inner drive in each cell of my body calls out for healing. I want to live as fully as I can and contribute to others doing the same. As my father used to say when I would ask him in his final years if he still felt like he wanted to be alive, “Well, it sure beats the alternative!” While I have no idea what the outcome of this process of healing will be, I can trust that all shall be well. That is my hope.
It is in this spirit that I bring to this blog. While frightening, the thought of putting my foibles and messiness out into the world for all to see and even comment on, I realize that it is important that I do it. It is part of my healing journey. We, in this country, do not talk openly about racism and race. Doing so is part of the healing journey. Developing the capacity to step into love and a spirit of learning as each of us living in a white body seeks to heal the racism within us is the path I am on and invite others to join. I plan to share my learning in blog posts, in hopes that it supports others on their paths.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that the most profound learning and racial healing that I have experienced is because of guidance and feedback I have gotten from BIPOC people in my life – friends, co-workers, teachers, and community members. As I mentioned above, several different BIPOC people shared with me the work of Tema Okun, along with other written resources. And there has been so much more, like direct feedback about the impact of my behavior and specific requests for me to learn and grow; participating in anti-racism workshops led by gifted BIPOC teachers who were not afraid to make themselves vulnerable and demonstrate how to show up and be; and friends sharing with me their inner feelings following a painful encounter at work or in the world. In each of these, I learned because a BIPOC person stepped out of their comfort zone and took risks, even the risk of harming their own wellbeing. And while, in some cases the motivation was grounded in friendship and love for me, none of their actions were done for me. I am and no one else living in a white body is at the center of what BIPOC people do everyday to make this world a more just and loving place. That is what White Supremacy Culture would like to achieve and it is toxic. If history has taught us anything, we people in white bodies would be much better off if we followed the lead of BIPOC people more often. More on this on another day.
Thanks to my friend Meta Commerse and Story Medicine Worldwide for giving me a space to take this leap with all who are interested in being a part of a journey in racial healing.
About the author:
Evan lives in Asheville. She was born and raised in West Virginia and comes from deep Appalachian roots. She is a proud mother of two adult children who have taught her so much about what it means to lean into love. She has also learned a lot about love from over thirty years of marriage. She is a grateful graduate of three Story Medicine programs.