White feelings can be dangerous for people of color. When a white police officer feels scared and overwhelmed by a black person, he becomes lethally unsafe. When a white woman gets weepy after a confrontation with a person of color, the patriarchal chivalric response is to defend the white woman’s honor, which in the past, has had lethal repercussions for people of color. These very real historical implications of white feelings haunt interracial interactions even when they’re online and seem trivial.
White people can definitely have fragile feelings, some personality types more so than others (I’m an Enneagram 4 whose feelings are particularly volcanic). It seems like it’s uniquely devastating to us when we get caught being wrong about something. I think that stems from a unique cultural reality of deep, sublimated shame that has a variety of historical causes. White fragility and white tears are a couple of phrases used to refer to the defensiveness that we fall into. When white people cry or get defensive in an argument that’s interracial, the expectation is that they will be validated and comforted by the person of color who hurt their feelings. People of color have shared that they’re done with the burden of managing white peoples’ feelings, which is absolutely valid and important boundary setting. So how does that mean that white people should respond to other white peoples’ feelings?
I got into a twitter spat the other night because a white woman I’m friends with got called out by a black woman for having an emotional response to the immigrant children crisis that overly centered her feelings. I felt the same way I felt when people were dragging Ivanka Trump for posting a picture of her love for her son. I don’t respond well when I think an authentic expression of love is being criticized, however misguided the expression and however valid the critique. Right or wrong, a gut feeling inside me wants to protest. And it seems like an abdication of my truth to just go along with the crowd.
So I got a bit angsty and histrionic in my emotions about that and responded out of those feelings to the black woman, who rolled with it much better than I would have. A white radical crowd gathered and I felt ganged up on, even though they were speaking pretty straightforwardly and respectfully. Then we did the thing white radicals do to communicate with each other. We subtweeted each other. Then a black woman who’s close to me reached out privately and helped me see what was going on. And I defused some.
And my mind kept on processing. It’s hard to disentangle the feeling of Being Judged By Mean, Self-Righteous People from what was actually communicated in the confusing cloud of Twitter. The nature of the Twitter timeline makes our contentious interactions seem like a school of piranhas gleefully ripping flesh apart. I had a tough time yesterday letting go of the need to justify myself in a variety of ways, critiquing white woketivist culture as a whole, self-deprecating, self-analyzing, apologizing. It made me wonder if Enneagram 4’s have a particular need to process our feelings through words that are validated by other people so we can move forward. Sometimes just a couple nights of sleep can do the trick as well.
So I’m wondering something about us white woketivists, independent of the question of whether the white people in my situation acted appropriately (I actually think they mostly did). Here’s a corny, rhimey way to ask the question: when white tears get white sneers, are we pushing them back onto people of color to fix? Empathy for white folks should not be centered at the expense of other people, but everybody is going to seek empathy from somewhere until they get it, so shouldn’t the white community take care of our own so other communities aren’t burdened with it? Isn’t doing otherwise basically a different way of saying #NotAllWhitePeople? That one is not one of ours; they’re on their own! In competitive, performative white wokeness, it seems like people are as dispensable as on a show like Survivor. Throwing people away is white as fuck.
As a white woketivist in my online form, the two things I do the most are perform and critique. Critique is always part of my self-justifying performance, because having a good critique is the highest form of political capital in postmodern discourse. I don’t just want to be woke; I want to have the wokest critique of wokeness. What’s toxic is if my performance of hard-core wokeness results in a lack of empathy for some other white person who’s genuinely trying to figure it out, which then makes that person pout and take up somebody else’s energy and time because I was too busy trying to get a gold star.
I think white people should take collective responsibility for the healing and restoration of our own people, especially when they’re wrong. Maybe white people need to do the calling in whenever people of color have to do the calling out. Contexts are always unique. It’s valid solidarity to stand up for a marginalized person in a conflict. It’s valid to tell the truth about what’s going on. It’s valid to get angry at stubborn defensiveness. But when 10 people are jumping in at the same time, somebody needs to have the presence of mind to emotionally connect to a person who’s being defensive and help them defuse.
Maybe that’s just my particular calling. I’m a pastor. Anytime I see somebody struggling, I want to give them a hug, no matter who they are or how wrong they are. If that’s a sin according to the culture of wokeness, then I’m going to keep on sinning. I also don’t like seeing people get screen-capped or quote-tweeted, though I understand there are legitimate reasons for doing so since we live in a confusing world of manipulation and gas-lighting. My instinctual response to seeing someone’s ignorance on global public display isn’t to think what a terrible person they are but what a mortifying situation they’ve gotten themselves into. I’m not sure that means I’m irredeemably problematic; it might mean that I’m shaped for a particular role.
The Bible talks about the need for a combination of grace and truth in Christian community. There are very few churches that actually embody both of these qualities at the same time. Many churches create a veneer of grace, but have an underbelly of abuse and hideous behavior because their culture for a variety of reasons won’t allow for real accountability and truth-telling. Some Christian leaders even weaponize “grace” as a tool for evading truth.
In contrast, many radical activist spaces are great at truth-telling and at theorizing about grace, vulnerability, inclusivity, etc, but they scoff at the actual practice of grace. There’s a kind of cavalier hard-core-ness among white radicals that is very reminiscent of the cavalier hard-core-ness in white evangelicalism. Exhibitionist self-denial is never healthy, especially when it involves a contempt for feelings. These are things we call out about white evangelical culture that come back out in full force in white radical culture.
Grace and truth are both needed and they need to be extended in every direction. Grace is not just you need to show me grace. Part of having grace is loving people when it doesn’t feel like they’re being gracious. Part of it is learning how to refrain from a compulsive reaction when you’re feeling attacked and your white tears are sputtering all over your keyboard. I suck at grace, but I’m trying to practice it better. Love yourselves, white radicals. Scoff less, hug more. Don’t hate feelings; they’re part of the process.
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