The Hourglass Of White Paralysis

Solidarity involves power-sharing, which also means accepting exposure.
02/08/2017 05:10 pm ET Updated May 30, 2017
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In the election post-mortem, many activists of color have concluded that whitelash played a significant role in the outcome. I am one of them. Donald Trump ran a fear-mongering campaign fueled by scapegoating Mexicans, Muslims, and Blacks for non-owning class whites’ problems. The election results were a reality check to many progressive whites’ idealistic presumptions that America had grown more enlightened from civil rights battles of decades past.

For some white activists, dissonance between where they believed our country to be, and where our country is, on the matter of racial justice, has been almost too much to bear. Every white person in the US was implicated on November 7. Some directly invited the results at the ballot box, while many others learned for the first time that the machinery of white supremacy is powered by real people ― people with whom they have direct influence. For many activists of color, the election results were a reminder that we are at a pivotal point in a national power struggle of which race is a primary force.

Amidst the election fallout, I have had more urgent conversations with white people in my life. A college friend confided in me that sometimes she became paralyzed with fear as she felt the enormity of white supremacy looming over her. I have heard similar refrains from other white friends about reaching a point of paralysis in their lives. They reach a threshold of fear where they cannot trust their instincts and become stuck about how to move forward. I value their honesty and honor their experiences.

Yet these conversations are emblematic of a dynamic that has tightened our country’s racial tensions: the substance of my fear, and relationship with it, as a Black person, is not the same as theirs. Paralysis was never an option because I cannot afford it. If it were, I would never feel isolated with fear because my cultural sense of powerlessness is temporary ― community and other greater forces can always absorb what I am not able to. Instead, I must survive and rely on my support to do so.

As people committed to dismantling racial caste in the US, whites and people of color engaged in racial justice work contend with vulnerability ―but in very different ways. The costs of disrupting white privilege are not the same for white people and people of color. White activists may risk painful revelations about their self-identity or relationships with other white people who are comfortable with the way things are. But when people of color intentionally challenge white supremacy, we risk our physical safety, our livelihoods, and sometimes our lives. And we risk it all by walking, breathing or simply existing. Although some white activists will put their bodies on the line for justice work, it is often voluntary. Born with a Black body in the US, I was automatically drafted in the war for my own life.

As a Black person, my relationship to fear is also much more direct. I have been deeply afraid many times in my life. I have never been able to indulge in assuming that my life could not be instantly annihilated by a slight misjudgment. My well-being is fleeting, and my very survival depends on a persistent awareness of that fact.

The operation of white supremacy is relentless and brutal. White people attached to their legacy of entitlement―and whose sensitivities trigger at the most incremental civil rights progress―are dangerous. As a former organizer and lawyer, I have seen the look of furious desperation in a white person’s eyes at the mere suggestion of losing power. I have seen a hint of change engulf goodwill and burn away empathy. It is a brand of mourning that is steaming and hot with anger that can easily erupt into the infliction of harm. Ultimately, from my own experience, litany of news stories, and history, I do not underestimate the utility of violence for maintaining that deeply felt sense of security for many white people.

Because I never really knew the illusion of safety, I can live in fear. And I must, because there is no other way than to be both Black and self-preserving in this country.

So, I pose this question to white activists: what will call you to courage? What will allow you to commit to racial justice as a way of being? This is a genuine question, not a shaming tactic. As a healer, I am deeply invested in how we cultivate fearlessness among people socialized to be feared. I assume it is about dwelling in the discomfort of uncertainty more often. Or taking real risks and living through them. Or getting close enough to your fears to become familiar and then, letting them pass.

At this political moment, the White antiracism movement needs to more deeply invest into resilience and courage-building. I describe this as healing work. It’s no longer enough to attend trainings or read books, if it ever was. The hourglass of white paralysis has trickled to a halt.

White American culture―including activist communities―must learn to break down supremacy on personal, family, and relational levels. Instead of externalizing white privilege as a reality of political systems, white people must be more concerned about their own entitlements and close spheres of influence. Reluctance to this deeper work is rooted in fear. Fear that relationships will be tested. Fear that feelings will be hurt. Fear that resources will be spent. For white people, fighting racism means taking personal ownership of loss.

The fact is that solidarity involves power-sharing, which also means accepting exposure. It will hurt in a profound way; at the same time, it will invite healing. White people committed to ending racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia must ask yourselves: what is the bravest choice I can make right now? Ending white supremacy is as much about humanizing people of color as it is about reclaiming whites’ own humanity.

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