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Brené Brown, personal growth, and working on structural racism

Brené Brown, personal growth, and working on structural racism
By Liz Moore, PJALS Director

What are the ways that structural racism inhibits the personal growth and healthy personhood of white people? And how can we intertwine our inner and outer work to dismantle structural racism?

For me — a white woman from a rural, working class background — attempting to be part of accountable organizing to dismantle institutional and structural racism has also brought abundant opportunities to become more conscious, to challenge myself as I work to challenge systems, and to try to grow so I can be more effective. 

Lately I have been reading, watching, and listening to the work of storyteller and researcher Brené Brown. I would like to share with you some ways that her findings can be applied to organizing for racial equity and justice.

Structural racism is the history and current reality of racism across all institutions, combining to create a system that negatively impacts communities of color.

We achieve racial equity when race no longer determines one’s socioeconomic outcomes; when everyone has what they need to thrive, no matter where they live. When we achieve racial equity:

1. People, including people of color, are owners, planners, and decision-makers in the systems that govern their lives.
2. We acknowledge and account for past and current inequities, and provide all people, particularly those most impacted by racial inequities, the infrastructure needed to thrive.
3. Everyone benefits from a more just, equitable system.
(Thanks to the Center for Social Inclusion for these definitions.)

Tolerating oppression is not healthy. Humans are hard-wired for empathy (see research on mirror neurons!). Tolerating oppression requires maintaining ignorance, ignoring our feelings, a distinct lack of ethics, or a dangerous lack of empathy.

Gendered socialization has a great deal to do with how we manage our feelings. One simple way of thinking about it is that masculine-socialized people in our dominant culture are discouraged from or even punished for exhibiting feelings of sadness, empathy, introspection or tenderness. Meanwhile, feelings of frustration, aggression, pride and anger are often celebrated. In contrast, feminine-socialized people are allowed to express many emotions, but not anger! This is especially true for black women and other women of color.

I participated in an online training called White Women’s Racism where we discussed that in our capitalist, patriarchal, white supremacist culture and economy, the role of white women is to sit right behind the white men in power. The benefits to us include the illusion of access to power, the maintenance of the illusion of innocence since we do not have responsibility if we are not in power, and the illusion of safety and security, both physical and economic. In exchange we are supposed to provide care and comfort, an outlet for emotions, and reproduction.

But maintaining innocence in the context of structural racism means maintaining ignorance or not feeling our feelings. In other words, we are supposed to be the codependents and enablers within the empire. One example of this is how our emotions are protected, and we must not be made to feel bad for our role or the benefits we receive for our whiteness. If we cry, all discussion of oppression from which we benefit must stop until we feel better. I’ve seen this happen from across the room and from inside the tears.

What would it mean to apply some of the tools and ideas from Brené Brown in the context of a white person trying to be a co-conspirator against structural racism?

In Rising Strong, Brené Brown lays out steps we can take to develop the resilience to recover after a face-plant of whatever kind. I’d say tolerating oppression and benefiting from white privilege is a pretty significant face-plant.

First, Brown says, we must “reckon”: feel our feelings, get curious about what we are feeling, and recognize how our feelings are connected to our thoughts and behaviors.

Then, we can “rumble”: get honest about the stories we’ve made up about what we’re facing, and revisit, challenge, and reality-check these narratives so that we can gain a deeper understanding.

So, if I’m feeling scared or defensive, I can choose to feel the emotion but not get swept away in it, instead getting curious about what my self-talk is telling me about why I shouldn’t be held responsible for a mistake (maintaining innocence?) or that speaking up is too much risk (the illusion of safety?) or that my relationship with someone in power is more important than being accountable to leaders of color (maintaining the illusion of access to power?).

When I can move from my first reaction to a deeper understanding of my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, it’s possible for me to unearth key learnings. I can change my behaviors and even my self-talk thoughts, and that can shift my feelings. That, in turn, can lead to transformation — “revolution” in Brown’s words.

BRAVING is Brené Brown’s acronym for the elements of trust, which is useful because trust is a delicate and completely essential dynamic for working effectively for racial justice. How can we apply BRAVING to racial justice work?

  • Boundaries: Working out agreements about the appropriate roles for PJALS to play.
  • Reliability: Creating a consistent track record, showing we can be counted on.
  • Accountability: Developing relationships and structures that deliver accountability in decision-making or guidance by people of color, and creating opportunities to learn from feedback.
  • Vault: Relationships based on trust have to include confidentiality.
  • Integrity: Doing what we say we’ll do relating to roles, strategy, and track record. Brené Brown defines integrity as choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast and easy; and practicing your morals, not just preaching them.
  • Non-judgement: To me, this means a practice of not reacting too quickly or defensively when other people may be reacting, and cultivating relationships where the norm is that each of us is able to ask for what we need and talk about how we feel.
  • Generosity: Extending the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words and actions of others. This is particularly important in building trust with accountability partners. And in another aspect, it means that if we believe everyone is doing the best they can manage to do, we should have good boundaries that don’t enable behavior that’s unacceptable or dangerous.

Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection emphasizes that perfection paralyzes and threatens us with shame. Instead, we can cultivate authenticity in our imperfection and growth.

This is important in racial justice work because, as she says in her talk “Listening to Shame,” “We can’t talk about race without talking about shame. Because you can’t talk about race without talking about privilege and when people start talking about privilege, they get paralyzed by shame.”

Getting paralyzed by shame lets structural racism roll on. Cultivating authenticity and seeking growth creates space for the courage of vulnerability, risk-taking, and learning — and that’s a key definition of effective activism and organizing.

For me as a white woman, personal growth has been absolutely essential in working on structural racism. All of the best anti-racist trainings and tools in the world can’t help us create racial equity and justice if we don’t work on the inside, and the reverse is also true. Inner growth and outer change form a constant cycle of cause and effect, and we can’t be effective in one area without doing the work in the other.. The personal and political are inextricably intertwined.

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