Last week, I saw a thread on twitter that got me thinking about Black people, white people (especially women), and the concept of courage. In the stream of tweets, Dr. Jenn M. Jackson wrote, “Courage and vulnerability require so much of us. And, I keep thinking about my Black foremothers and ancestors whose courage was about evading the noose or marooning from slave plantations.” She continued, “I’m not sure courage and vulnerability are big enough containers for Black willpower in the face of white violence.”
Reading those words again, I have to pause and sit with them. [I stopped typing and breathed with my physiological response for several minutes.] I have to pause because whiteness wants me to stay in my head, stay intellectualizing, stay thinking—all to avoid the depth of the feelings that come into my body when I consider the truth in those statements.
Yet another example of how essential “both/and” ways of being are required.
Breaking free from whiteness for me requires a significant level of courage. It requires courage because I have so very, very little experience living in a world that isn’t designed to protect me.
AND the courage required for me to be on a path of liberation is a whisper. It’s a microscopic droplet when compared with the kind of courage—and I want to repeat Dr. Jackson’s noting that “courage” as a word doesn’t feel big enough—that Black people must have to live in this world. As she writes, “For many Black folx, courage is the very thing the State uses to incarcerate them or put them in an early grave.”
[Again. Pausing. Breathing with and in this truth.]
One of the reasons I keep needing to pause and breathe as I write about Dr. Jackson’s message is because I have an emerging awareness of how much I don’t know and of how little courage I have had. That is to say: As a white woman, our dominant culture is built to protect me (the threat of sexual assault and other violence is a real too, though, another example of “both/and”). As readers of this blog surely already know, protecting white women like me has been used as an excuse and as a weapon to abuse, oppress, and murder Black people. Black people being some kinds of courageous can get them killed for doing nothing wrong.
Writing about the emotional courage that is required of me on this path toward collective liberation and dismantling white supremacy can land—can have the impact regardless of my intention—as a minimization of the courage required of Black people in their everyday lives. I want to be very clear here that the small story I am about to share reveals how far away from courage I am when it comes to breaking free from white supremacy.
Last spring, I participated in an “Embodied Social Justice” program. In most of the sessions we were led in various somatic embodiment practices to “arrive” in the class, frequently leading to what I would describe as a meditative state. In one session, after we had all reached a very centered space, the guide/teacher/instructor asked the Black and brown-bodied people one set of questions and then asked those of us who are white bodied a different set of questions. One of the questions touched a place of such deep terror that I was not able to stay with even the imagined experience of the answer for more than a few seconds. The instructor asked us to imagine: What it would be like to do something that would put us at risk of State violence?
[Pausing. Breathing. Not typing.]
Since that time, I have been taking steps to build resiliency and develop emotional skills that will allow me to reach and process that fear. It is this fear, along with others just as deep, that prevent me from being fully human and trustworthy as a potential “ally” or “conspirator” or whatever other word you want to use in transformational change work.
The fear that white supremacy has installed inside of me will insist that the racial justice work I do must be “safe” and, therefore, ensure that it will have limited impact. I believe it’s because we white people haven’t excavated our fears and because we don’t have a lot of skill when it comes to facing and holding horrific truths while also (both/and) continuing to live our lives that we historically have these cycles of awareness and action among well-meaning white people that always fizzles back down into apathy.
We must face what courage has been required of Black people (see Dr. Jackson’s tweets). We must face what our ancestors and now our peers and we ourselves continue doing to uphold the systems of oppression. We must have the courage to see that we have been willfully ignorant. We must work with each other to develop the capacity to stay in the truth. When George Floyd and Brianna Taylor were killed, so many white people were “activated.” For our own sake, so we can be fully human, and for the future of all the Earth, we must not let each other slide back into lies and avoidance.
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2 thoughts on “Finding courage”
Normally I do not respond to white fragility but to reflect on the question. “What it would be like to do something that would put us at risk of State violence?” The answer is to be born black. An uncontrollable consequence of DNA mapping. Which makes the entirety of both the development of a white supremacy culture and its continuation, absurd. And to lay the burden of change on those with this DNA mapping is equally absurd. If those with white mapping, would just take their head out of the sand, and act. The consequence would be a “win, win” for all. Jeez-it!
I think we have exchanged messages before, Viola? I’m Heather, the author. When I heard the question, posed to me, someone in a white body who has never really felt unsafe in terms of State violence, it reached a part of me that was more scared than I ever knew could be. I realized how much I have been hiding and it has begun making more sense to me why I so frantically let myself slip back into “not knowing how bad it is” again and again. I’m very curious to know what it feels like for you to imagine doing something that put you at risk of State violence. Where does that question show up in your body? I know you don’t know me, and this is a very personal question, but since you responded to my post I thought it might be okay to ask.
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