Olive Von Topp
Want to do anti-racist work? Try this exercise to get started.
Updated: Apr 20, 2021
Let’s get uncomfortable.
Discomfort is something I talk about a lot. I think now is a fitting time to revisit it. This exercise in discomfort can apply to any aspect of your life, but is now very relevant for people who hold privilege in the world (looking at your white folks) and are struggling with their thoughts around it. So, let me start by saying, discomfort is a part of life. A necessary part of life. Of growth. If you are feeling uncomfortable, it means you have a great opportunity to grow. We have been programmed to believe that life should feel good all the time. We should be happy and positive all the time. Never have negative feelings. In fact, we are taught to fear 'negative' emotions. This does us a great disservice. And prevents us from not only growing, but from feeling the depth of positive emotions too. When you block out the negative, you also block yourself out to feel the full extent of the positive. Feeling negative emotions is part of the human experience. It is necessary in order to feel the positive. It is part of being alive. Of feeling alive. However, we have been trained to fear discomfort. To resist it. Push it away. To numb it out. We feel entitled to comfort. We chase it at all costs. Sometimes, we may even get defensive when someone or something threatens to take it away. Many of us stay in our comfort zones. We live here. We've bought the furniture, unpacked our bags and have no intention of leaving. Fear of discomfort and fear of failure are so great, that we don't step outside. And therefore our lives stay the same. But what if we started viewing discomfort as not a bad thing, But as a necessity for growth? What if we stopped resisting it, And just leaned into it? What if we got curious?
It is our fear of discomfort that keeps us from making necessary changes in our lives, including doing anti-racist work and showing up in a way that is meaningful and can actually affect change.
I thought it might be helpful to use the coaching framework I use with clients (and talk about all the time) to help you work through some of the resistance you may be having to doing anti-racism work.
1. What are you thinking?
In order to start doing anti-racist work (or any change work), you need to get familiar with your thoughts about it. And then some of the racists thoughts you have in general. You probably won’t like it, but write this shit down. All the stuff that is coming up for you when you think about doing anti-racism work. It is likely not going to look very nice on paper (notice what judgments are coming up for you) but that’s okay, no one else needs to read it but you.
What are the thoughts you are having that are causing you to feel uncomfortable?
For some of us, it may be that our words, actions, or behaviours are racist. And that feels terrible.(more on that in a second)
Let me offer you a option here: You are racist.
I am racist.
We all are racist.
Not because any of us are inherently terrible people, but because we are the products of a racist society. A system that benefits and privileges white people because it was designed on the belief that white people are superior to non-white people.
A system that has been feeding us racist ideologies in order to continue keeping power in the hands of the privileged.
A system that I, and other white people, benefit from.
This may feel uncomfortable. And that’s okay. Let’s keep going.
2. What feelings are coming up for you?
A lot of us feel guilt for our privilege or shame about the racist thoughts we may have.
Take a minute and sit with those emotions. They won’t hurt you.
Take a second and notice what discomfort feels like in your body. Don’t push it away. Just sit in it. And remind yourself, it won’t hurt you. In fact, it will help you.
Do you feel it in your stomach? Is there a tightness in your throat? Is it heat in your face?
Notice and write it down.
**note** It is important to not ask BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) to help you do your emotional processing. This is your work to do. If you want help processing, send me a message. I have 30 min free consults and am happy to use them to help you work through some of these thoughts.
3. Ask yourself what do I do when I feel _____ emotion?
For each emotion, ask yourself: what do I do when I feel this emotion?
Do I numb out? Distract myself? Ignore it? Get angry? Get defensive? Do I feel the need to compensate?
Give it some thought. Then write down the feelings that correspond to each thought.
4. And then ask yourself: what is the behaviour or action that results from the thought?
How are the emotions contributing to my actions?
What are the outcomes of this thought?
What are my relationships like because of this?
How is it playing out in other areas of my life?
Am I living a life that is in line with my values?
Repeat process with another thought. And another. Do it for all the thoughts.
As an example, lets walk through a few common thoughts that might arise, and work through them.
Thought #1: "I don’t want to say the wrong thing."
I’m going to push you to dig deeper here. What other thoughts are coming up for you? Is it again related to your view of yourself as a good person? What are you making it mean to you if you get it wrong? Are you aiming for perfection?
I want to offer an alternative way of thinking - you will fuck up. You will never “get it right” 100% of the time. This is another example of perfectionism and fear of failure. Being anti-racist is like anything in our life. We have to be willing to make mistakes. And learn from them. And apologize for them. In a way that is meaningful, followed by action.
Let’s walk through the thought process here:
Thought: "I don’t want to say the wrong thing."
Underlying thought: "If I say the wrong thing, I am a shitty person". Or: "I want people to like me." Or: "I don’t want to feel uncomfortable." Or: "My worth is tied up in being perfect and never making any mistakes."
Emotion: Guilt. Fear. Discomfort. Anxiety
Action: Do nothing. Say nothing.
Outcome: Affect no real change. Contribute to racism and violence (white silence=violence). Missing out on meaningful relationships and learning opportunities.
Thought #2: I’m a bad person if I am racist or if I say the wrong thing.
What feelings does this cause?
For many of us, the feeling it brings up is guilt. And for many of us, the action that we end up doing is anti-racist work that is “performative” or motivated by alleviating our guilt, rather than from a place of wanting to see real change. We end up seeking approval or a “pat on the back” for being a “good” white person, in order to alleviate our guilt that we must be a bad person if we have racist thoughts/actions.
Some of us even shame other white people about their racist beliefs or actions, because it makes us feel better about ourselves and our own guilt.
The outcome is often strained relationships and missed learning opportunities for real change.
I get it. I’ve been there. I still have to work through these thoughts. Am I worried I have missed something or written something that might be offensive or am centering white experiences? Fucking right! Am I doing it anyway because I know I am doing it thoughtfully and want to contribute something helpful? Am I willing to accept that I can’t please everyone and may make a mistake for which I will need to apologize? Fuck yeah.
Am I willing to get uncomfortable?
I’m working on it.
5. Replace unhelpful thoughts
So, what are some NEW thoughts that are available to you that will serve you better to begin doing anti-racist work? Thoughts that will change your actions for real, lasting change?
Here are a few to get you started. I suggest you add your own that motivate you to take action.
"I can have racist thoughts or even do harmful things unintentionally AND be a good person. I will continually strive to do better. "
"Good people are capable of being racist. We are all products of our society. I will actively work to unlearn these racist thoughts."
"Anti-racism work is work. It is ongoing and it takes time. "
"I may not know it all/get it all right, but I want to try to do something because I believe until we are all free, none of us are free."
"I have work to do and that is okay. Let’s take the first step."
"I am learning. I am growing. I will keep taking action from a place of love and belief in the freedom of all people. "
"When I fuck up, which I will, I will do my best to rectify it (and not make it about my feelings or intentions but about how I hurt someone else and what I can do to fix it)"
"I fucked up. It happens. How do I make this not about me (I can process my feelings elsewhere) and fix it?"
"I am willing to be uncomfortable."
6. Continue to sit with discomfort
So, what if we accepted that discomfort was just a necessary part of life? A sign that we are being challenged. An opportunity to grow. What if we stopped our constant pursuit of comfort? And allowed space to just get uncomfortable? Relaxed into it, breathed into it. Just allowed it to exist. What if we were willing to sit in our discomfort- Knowing it won’t hurt us? What if we used our discomfort as fuel, Not for anger. But for action. To do the work. And affect real change. In our own lives and the lives of others? What would happen? How might our lives change? How might the world change? If we sat in our discomfort?
This exercise is intended to help you get clear on what some of your blocks are in doing anti-racist work. So that you can get to work. If you are looking for resources to help in your learning, there are a million by BIPOC people to help you. You might want to check the google, but in the meantime, here are a few:
Rachel Cargle’s: The Great Unlearn
An extensive (but not exhaustive) Google Doc of anti-racism resources