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Accepting Difficult Emotions Surrounding Race

How we avoid talking about race and racism.

by Jonathan W. Kanter, Ph.D. and Daniel C. Rosen Ph.D., guest contributors

Dr. Jonathan Kanter and Dr. Daniel C. Rosen
Source: Author

We recently published a post titled, What Well-Intentioned White People Can Do About Racism, and proposed five scientifically informed suggestions to empower well-meaning white people to overcome confusion, defensiveness and despair around what to do about racism today in our society and begin a journey of learning (the new language of racism), acceptance (of difficult feelings around race and racism), exploration (of your own biases), commitment (to actively be a part of the solution) and connection (to form real relationships with others who are different from you).

This post is the second of five posts that briefly unpack each of those five suggestions. Today we are discussing one of the primary obstacles that blocks effective engagement and action by well-intentioned white people – our feelings.

We All Avoid Difficult Feelings

We all need to get better at accepting, rather than avoiding, difficult feelings. There is a natural human tendency to avoid things that make us feel bad. And anything remotely associated with racism, with human pain and suffering more broadly, makes us feel bad…sad, anxious, angry, guilty, defensive, overwhelmed, and hopeless. So we change the topic. Change the channel. Deny. Minimize. Claim there’s nothing we can do. Make the problem someone else’s.

But with awareness, with acceptance of discomfort, we can open up other possibilities and other courses of action.

We All Know How to Accept Discomfort

We all know how to accept discomfort. Many of us do it at the start of each day as we move out of the warm comfort of bed into the challenging realities of another day of work. We do it when we drag ourselves to the gym, which most of us rarely want to do. We do it at work as we meet new clients, start a public talk, or speak our minds with co-workers. Parents do it as we prioritize our children’s well-being over what might be easier for ourselves. We all know how to do this – how to act according to our values or a plan, not according to what a bad or uncomfortable feeling tells us to do.

Skiing down a hill requires first pushing yourself off the edge.

Anti-Racism Action Requires Acceptance of Discomfort

Engaging in anti-racism work is like that. Our next three posts are going to encourage you to specifically do things that will make you uncomfortable…that may even make you feel emotions like sadness or anger. It is important to approach those actions with real clarity that you will feel uncomfortable, you will feel a desire to avoid, to escape, and that you open up to those feelings and stay engaged. This idea of acceptance needs to be conscious – it needs to be intentional – because otherwise our bodies are too hard wired to avoid and disengage.

Interacting with people who look different from us, who come from different backgrounds and cultures, is uncomfortable for most of us. Talking directly about race and racism is stressful for most of us. If we let the discomfort push us around, we will never grow.

Get Curious

Our task is to get curious in noticing the discomfort that these topics and actions cause. Notice the tendency to avoid, and lean in instead. Practice noticing. Do this when someone discusses racism or white privilege, especially when you hear a point of view different from your own. Notice your discomfort. Notice all of the smart defensive responses that occur to you, and don’t say them. Lean in to your feelings instead. The more you can understand and make room for these challenging emotions, the more room you’ll have to direct your actions freely.

It has been proclaimed that Black lives matter more than white feelings, and this suggestion is about dealing with those feelings.

What’s next?

Our first suggestion was to learn the new language of racism. Our second suggestion, in this post, is to open up to and accept the discomfort that comes with putting some of these ideas into practice. If you are following our five suggestions and taking these ideas to heart, you are ready for the next suggestion, which discusses a crucial step to take in the journey toward effective engagement and being a part of the solution to racism today: Exploring with curiosity and openness, not defensiveness, your own biases and stereotypes.

Jonathan W. Kanter is a Research Associate Professor and Director of the Center for the Science of Social Connection at the University of Washington. Daniel C. Rosen is Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Social Justice and Diversity at Bastyr University. The ideas expressed in this blog have been influenced by many sources, prominently two psychological treatments called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Functional Analytic Psychotherapy.

NEXT: Exploring Our Own Stereotypes and Biases