internalized

Dear White People

A poster from the 2014 Justin Simien movie, "Dear White People."

A poster from the 2014 Justin Simien movie, "Dear White People."

Dear White People,

This is not addressed to any one individual in particular but after an incident I experienced last Friday night, it needs to be said. And so I’m going to try to express it to my white friends and family with all the understanding that I can.

My experience with whiteness tells me that overwhelmingly white people are not used to thinking of themselves as part of a collective group. You have the luxury of seeing yourselves as individuals so it’s a natural thing for you to feel angry, defensive or scared when things are directed at "white people" as a whole. It is true that as individuals many of you are good people. That you may have individual relationships with people of color, that you try to treat everyone equally and that you want to get what is happening with race and racism in this country.

Respectfully, this is not about YOU.

While all of the above is true, it is also true that for all your goodness as an individual, racism at individual, interpersonal, systemic and structural levels is very real. It is a terrible reality that people of color deal with everyday. As nice as we may be to each other as individuals (and let's face it, even though this is the default stance we tell ourselves, not all of us are great people), that will not stop what is happening in this country around state violence directed at people of color, nor will it stop the incredible disparities between people of color and whites when it comes to education, housing, job opportunities, general health and well-being etc. Being nice to each other is NOT the problem. This is a complex, systemic issue that requires complex, critical thinking and analysis. It makes sense that you don’t know where to start. To be honest, neither do I. But staying at the place of “I’m a good person, I’m colorblind and I love everybody” isn’t it.

Over the past few months, a number of you have reached out to say that reading my posts or essays or talking to me has been helpful in increasing your awareness and thoughtfulness around race. And I’m glad for it—truly. If there is one theme that threads together my life’s work, it is community. Whether it’s been giving back to my own community or creating a welcoming community for others, I have undertaken the idea of moving forward together as human beings with the utmost seriousness and sincerity.

And yet…

While I remain firm in my commitment to create community with others, I am unabashedly, unapologetically firm in my commitment to being in community with other people of color. We need that. I need that- now more than ever. Last Friday night, in a slight incident with some white people in my neighborhood, some tensions arose. I do not wish to explain the details (and trust me, the story is not worth going into) but what I’m left with is how when I said I wanted to just drink my beer and sit with my husband and dog that a white man told me that I was "part of the problem." That my need to be in my own space was problematic, that he wanted to friends with us and that my request was divisive.

If you know me well, you already know that I was not having it! I lit into him in a bilingual tirade with the fury of Angela, Malcolm, W.E.B. Dubois, Audre and all the ancestors on whose shoulders I stand. And then I calmed down and with all the strength I could muster, I calmly explained to his friend, why demanding for us to be in community with him (a total stranger by the way!) in this moment was a very violent, supremacist and thoughtless thing to suggest.

So I’m just taking this time to share with you all that while we cannot do the work of undoing racism in siloed communities, you all must also give us the space and time to grieve as people of color, if that’s what we need to do. We cannot center you right now. We should not center you right now. It isn’t always about educating you, or being in community with you, or helping you understand race and racism. This is said with love. Trust me, I see your good intent. I understand why you are asking. I love that you are reaching out and challenging yourself to learn and grow and be an advocate. I am receiving messages from far and wide from people I know very well and some I don’t and from people I have known for a long time. I see it, I feel it and I am encouraged by it.

And, it’s not about YOU.

In this moment, while we are all reeling from the events of the last few days (the killings of Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile, the five police officers in Dallas and the four Latino/a people who were killed by the police since July 4th), people of color specifically are carrying around the gravity of what its like to be non-white in this country. Having been around white people for most of my life, I have always known what it meant to be something "other" than white. But over the last year, in the rise of what has become an America that feels almost unrecognizable, I have physically, mentally and emotionally carried around the sobering reality that I am not safe anywhere I go. From work to school to home to socializing, I am a black body that is always at risk for passive and active racism and violence. On a cellular level, I feel scared for my well-being and that of my loved ones. Because of this, there are many days that I don’t want to get out of bed.  I want to hide under the covers where the world is infinitely less scary. But then I am reminded of the work I do and why it’s important. I am reminded that this hateful, awful system isn’t entitled to steal my joy and I persist. But it doesn’t mean that I’m any less scared or angry or hurt or anxious.

Forming community with other people of color is one of the rare things I can do for myself in this moment to find comfort and joy. To find resilience, to heal, to breathe, to feel safe. And I need for you and other white people to respect that sacred space. It doesn’t mean don’t reach out. But the emotional burden of carrying you all in this moment is overwhelming. When I or we tell you that this is our time, our space, our healing circle-- no matter your feelings, please remember it is not about YOU.

If you are looking for something to do, as I always say, talk to other white people about race and racism. If you need help with that, ask. There are many white accomplices out there doing the work of dismantling racism. I have been trying to redirect white people I know who are curious and learning to other white people I know who are actively doing their own anti-racist work. It is critical that you all support each other in your own learning, growth and journey.

As for me, I will be doing the important work of self-care, feeding my soul and supporting other people of color. Right now, that’s the most important thing I can do.

It doesn’t mean we cannot remain in community. In fact, we cannot succeed if we don’t work together. But our work across race will only be made stronger if we allow ourselves to also do the work intra-racially as well. People of color need that. And I’m pretty sure you all need it too.

Remember, its not all about YOU.

With gratitude,

KLM

Managing Anger

It’s actually good to be angry.

This is one of the most powerful life lessons I’ve learned, it’s also the one that is the most hard to accept and scariest to admit. For me, this has been a revelation years in the making.

As a naturally optimistic and deeply empathetic person, I still cringe when I think about how other people experience me when I’m angry. An only child, raised by a single mother until I was 13, I was often lonely and felt emotionally abandoned by both my parents. I viewed anger as giving people a reason to push me away. And growing up a Black girl in a world in which white people often surrounded me, I was taught by relatives that being nice, agreeable and “acceptable” was a way to set myself apart; with the hopes that defying stereotypes about sassy, attitudinal Black women would shield me from the racism and sexism that exists in the world.

At a critical point in my adult life, I realized that the expectation to not be angry had become stifling and I felt overwhelmed. Throughout painful and abusive personal relationships, work situations in which I was frustrated by lack of opportunities and not making enough money, and various kinds of loss and struggle, I felt extreme pressure to put on a façade for everyone. This resulted in deeply hidden emotions. The façade wore me out. It made me incredibly unhappy. But still, I refused to speak truth and give voice to my anger. Even when it was righteous and warranted.

The anger only increased as I started to develop a critical consciousness about the world around me. Racism, sexism, homophobia, social injustice… there was so much to be angry about! And when I finally did start to make sense of it, I became incredibly uncomfortable. Most people are generally uncomfortable with anger as an emotion. Anger is messy and pushes our boundaries. It can range from irritation to full blown rage. It does not fit into a pretty little package and can throw individuals, relationships and even society into upheaval.  In a world that emphasizes orderly, pleasant appearances and self-control, and because so many of us place our need for stability, security and order above all else, anger can feel chaotic, dangerous and unmanageable.

As humans, our instinct is to shy away (or even run) from our feelings of anger. Like I did, many of us deal with our anger by suppressing it, lying to ourselves or others about it, or trying to put a happy face on the outside despite feeling very differently on the inside.  Once I was finally able to name my anger, there were many times I shared my feelings with others only to have them respond with comments like “Look on the bright side,” “Don’t be a Debbie Downer,” or “Look at the glass as half full instead of half empty.” It was exhausting.  

The message internalized from this type of response is that there is something inherently wrong with me for being angry. But I found that it wasn’t just me. Society is full of subtle (and not so subtle) messages that reinforce the idea that anger is a negative emotion--something unpleasant, unnecessary, outrageous, better yet, immoral that we should not feel or express.  Feminists boldly proclaiming that women deserve equal pay for equal work—scary and angry. Young Black protestors asserting that Black lives matter—hateful and angry. Activists championing the rights of undocumented immigrants—entitled, unlawful and angry.  

And for women, being vocal about our anger comes at great risk to us both personally and professionally. Shame and shaming often accompany female expressions of anger. As a woman, I’ve been labeled “emotional” “unreasonable” “unprofessional” and “high-strung” when I have expressed my anger at being personally wronged or at injustice, whether it is in the workplace or in the world. And as a woman of color, when I’ve expressed my anger, the stakes have been even higher.  I’ve been called “aggressive” “negative” or “angry” as in the “angry Black woman” more times than I can count.  

The end result was that for years, as both a child and an adult, I tried desperately not to appear angry. Not because I wasn’t, but instead because I feared being judged and labeled. If I was angry, what did that say about me? Is something wrong with me when I feel anger? Am I a bad person because I am angry?   Is it better to pretend to feel pleasant, calm and content rather than to express displeasure, outrage or annoyance? What good could possibly come from being angry?

 With time and reflection, I have learned the answers to these questions and they are relatively simple. What does anger say about me as a person? Only that I’m human. Is something wrong with me when I feel angry? Not at all, anger is a natural emotion. Am I a bad person because I’m angry? No, everyone is entitled to feel their emotions- fully and without shame.  Is it better to pretend to feel pleasant, calm and content rather than to express displeasure, outrage or annoyance? With rare exception, little is achieved by lying to others or myself by pretending to feel something I don’t.

What good could possibly come from being angry?

Actually, a lot. Being in touch with anger is a fundamental part of self-awareness. Acknowledging the feeling of anger and understanding it, allows me to intentionally make choices to change my situation. I find that when I simply sit with the feeling of anger, it provides a bit of clarity and allows for good decision-making. For example, when I get that snarky email from a colleague or boss that evokes anger in me, when I sit for a few minutes and digest those feelings, I no longer have the need to respond in all capitals back. I am able to make the decision to wait and respond after I’ve had time to cool down. Anger can also be a powerful motivator and catalyst that leads to societal change.  Anger about injustice in society led to the Civil Rights Movement, to marriage equality and to equal pay laws. Anger is one of the foundational emotions that has caused humans to mobilize and organize for justice in ways that better humanity. Finally, anger can lead to personal growth and change. Recently on my favorite podcast, I heard someone say, “I demand to be my full self in any space that I am in.” I wholeheartedly agree with that mantra. After years of hiding and suppressing my feelings, I want to live an authentic life--embracing all of my emotions and bringing my full self everywhere. That includes my joy, my curiosity, my anxiety, my intelligence, my passion and, yes, my anger. Anger is a natural part of what I feel along with all the other emotions that humans are gifted with.

So, I embrace anger. I am alive. I am a full human being. I have complex emotions that I or others don’t need to judge- they are what they are. And sometimes it’s good to be angry.