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The Relational Neuroscience of "Well Meaning White People"

What "Well Meaning White People" Need to Know to Move Beyond Their Own Racism

Two summers ago my family gathered in midcoast Maine for an impromptu family reunion. If you are imagining a large group of Mainers enjoying a clambake on the rocky shore, think again. This was a small gathering of the few remaining relatives with a box of dozen Dunkin Donuts on our back porch. An intimate gathering you might say. My uncle and his wife are the last surviving relatives of my parent’s generation and it feels increasingly urgent to collect stories and images from my mother’s childhood. On this sunny afternoon, with the smell of briny salt water in the air and the sound of a church bell ringing every hour my uncle shared a funny story about a run in he had with a German shepherd he was training during the Korean War. We were all laughing and enjoying his Bert and I accent until he dropped the “N” word. The ease with which the word rolled off his tongue was as stunning as the silence that followed. I flinched, but said nothing. The memory of that moment always returns with all the reasons I did not speak up – I did not want to offend my uncle or hurt his feelings; I rarely see my aunt and uncle and did not want to make a fuss; he is from a different generation and he doesn’t really mean it in a derogatory way. The lame list goes on.

Today, after a long weekend of discussion about radical empathy and the power of disruptive empathy at The Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley College, I have another answer. I am a “well-meaning white person” who is contributing to the culture of racism by conveniently taking a stand against it when and where it is comfortable and safe for me to do so. As the weekend unfolded and the conversations deepened in fits and starts what emerged was a profound realization that the reason I stay a “well-meaning white person” is because of the fear of letting in the pain of the racist violence that is epidemic to our country. At one point, a black participant spoke, “if you are really going to listen you must be prepared to hear about 400 years of pain”. A little voice in my head sent out an alert – you are already near emotional capacity from the massacre in Charleston, SC! The idea of the pain of 400 years of murderous oppression crept into a small space at the base of my heart and it sits there still, making me want to scream with rage.

Both my nature and my academic training as a psychiatrist make me want to figure out how a person can remain a “well-meaning white person” in the face of such violence. How can I understand my ability to shut down the pain of people I hold deeply and tenderly in my heart? How can I easily and carelessly send my son to school while my black friend is terrified to have her grown sons navigate their lives away from home? I opened and closed my heart a dozen times over the course of the weekend unable or unwilling to hold onto the pain being voiced by the women of color in the room. Isn’t that the essence of white privilege? The ability to choose when and where to let that pain impact me.

Ultimately, holding the pain of racism is about maintaining a balance between your brain’s cognitive, frontal cortex and the affect driven amygdala. Each of us has a magic tipping point where feelings will overwhelm our cognition and we become simply overwhelmed. At that point our sympathetic nervous system takes over and tells us that we are in danger and must do something ASAP. White privilege is also about being able to move out of this danger, into the comfort of the dominant group, and the belief that this oppression does not harm you. How do “well-meaning white people” escape the pain of oppression and violence? There are so many ways – we can distract ourselves with a trip to the mall or a few hours of on-line shopping. Ding – the dopamine reward system is activated and we feel lighter, better and even safer. Maybe we have a drink or two or three and in doing so we stimulate our dopamine reward system and feel calmer, lighter, safer. We meet up with friends for dinner and talk about the very real problems in our lives, job stress, and kid stress, marriage stress. We feel connected and safe in our friendships emotionally far away from the hub of murders and arrests of young black men.

. Another explanation may be that “well meaning white people” do not want to risk being socially excluded from there own tribe. Social pain overlap theory (SPOT) by Eisenberger and Lieberman at UCLA tells us that the distress of being socially excluded activates the same area of the brain (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) as the distress of physical pain. Being socially accepted within your tribe is essential to your survival and when you speak up within your tribe about a racist comment or action you risk being tossed out. For human beings, there is nothing more distressing than being tossed out of a group, particularly your group.

So what is a “well-meaning white person” to do? How can you tame and train your nervous system to be an active participant in healing this deep racial pain? How can you prevent the biological highjacking of your nervous system that puts you in a place of self preservation and undermines your ability to see racism in all of its forms and to be and active part of the solution to 400 years of systematic oppression? Here are a couple of strategies that you can use in your everyday life:

1. Actively strengthen your inhibitory frontal cortex to amygdala brain pathways. The stronger this connection, the easier it will be to address racism in real time when you see it.

-Remind yourself regularly what your values are and how white supremacy goes against those values.

- Be clear in your thinking that saying nothing supports the system of oppression.

-Meditate. You might try inviting an ally into a relational mindfulness practice (outlined in Four Ways to Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger More Rewarding Relationships)

2. Lessen your vulnerability to activation of your dorsal anterior cingulate pain pathway.

-Ally with a friend or colleague in a mutual support system for naming racist behaviors when you see them.

-Actively imagine being part of a bigger, racially inclusive world. Our brain changes and grows even when we imagine.

-Regularly notice stratification in the relationships around you and practice noticing differences in others without judging and stratifying.

And please remember that strengthening your neural pathways to battle the powers of oppression requires a daily practice because the racist messages from the culture are operating 24/7.

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