None of us like being uncomfortable. Our recent frigid weather reminded many of just how much we do not like being cold. Being physically uncomfortable, even on the walk from the house to the car, is not fun. When we move from being uncomfortable to being in pain, it’s even worse. Just as we don’t like physical discomfort, none of us like emotional discomfort. It’s part of being human to protect ourselves from emotional pain just as we protect ourselves from physical pain. Each of us has developed coping mechanisms, sometimes very unhealthy ones, to keep us from feeling emotional pain. We are addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, food, you name it. We withdraw and don’t communicate or we react in anger. We employ all manner of defenses and strategies to block out our pain. We begin to heal and grow when we face the pain and create new, healthier ways to cope with it. It takes a lot of courage to willingly become uncomfortable for a time in order to lessen the discomfort in the long term.
I have a friend who argues that white America’s clinging to the privilege a racist history and system provides is its own addiction, not unlike alcoholism. He argues the only way America is going to move forward on race is for white people to become intentionally uncomfortable through a process of recovery. As in any recovery process, the most difficult part of it is hitting rock bottom and admitting the problem.
The term for this unwillingness of the white culture to admit the problem because it causes emotional discomfort is called white fragility. White fragility is when white people feel hurt or insulted when it’s suggested that they behave in racist ways or perpetuate the patterns of white privilege and injustice toward people of color. Reactions such as “But I’M not a racist!” or “I don’t hold slaves!” or “WE abolished slavery, can’t YOU get over it?” are some of the language we hear when white feelings are hurt. It’s as if we can’t begin a conversation about the white culture’s problems with racism until we get agreement from people of color that we are not racist. That’s like an addict who’s not willing to talk about why their life is a mess if the discussion has to include their use of drugs.
There is no shame in being white. But just as a family with addicts in it can’t be healthy until the addiction is named and no longer enabled, so too our nation can never be healthy until we stop enabling the addiction to privilege and power based on our whiteness.
Only by getting past our discomfort, our guilt, our need to make the pain of institutionalized racism in our culture about our white feelings, can we begin to do the work of creating a better future. Doing this work takes courage. It requires bravery. It means allowing ourselves to be uncomfortable now in order to be healthy in the long term.
THis is my column this week in my church’s weekly newsletter. Our congregation’s monthly theme for January is Courage. Sign up for Hopedale Unitarian PArish’s e-newsletter here. subscribe to this blog above in the sidebar.