Staying in your own emotional lane while waking up to racial injustice

A list of self-reflection prompts for white people who are coming to the work now and want to do it better.

I dreamed that I said something racist last night. I described something as “ghetto” — while I was talking to a Black woman, no less. Even in the dream, I was immediately horrified and ashamed. I would never use that word in that way in real life. But my unconscious mind was raised in a racist society, and it doesn’t always get the memo.

I mention this not to say I’m terrible, or to say I’m great. But to say that racism is intertwined with our interior lives on a deep level. By this I mean not that white supremacy is a feeling, or something that can be reduced to “prejudice” or “hating black people.” It is a far-reaching structure that white people exist inside whatever we are feeling or thinking at any given moment.

My point is that our emotional lives are not forged outside of that structure. And that means we bring to this work all the emotions we’ve internalized unconsciously from our society about black people, about police, about American history. But we also bring all the emotions we usually have about ourselves and our lives, which most of us — myself included — struggle to manage in the best of times. Stuff like how we feel when we have to face that we’ve been wrong, our own narratives of victimization, our resentment, our self-criticism, our egos and our shame. You name it, some of us are bringing it to the mix.

For example: in my dream, I used the word “ghetto” because I wanted to sound “cool,” which is horrifying and deeply stupid but also a motivation wrapped up with my own personal history. My abiding fear is returning to those picked-last gym class experiences of my youth. The racist vocabulary I used rode into my dream conversation on the back of my desire to not be a dork.

That emotional piggy-backing is small-scale version of the way our feelings about ourselves can get activated in, complicate and block off anti-racist work we are otherwise committed to doing. At the moment, a lot of us are showing up to these conversations with all the emotions that usually operate in our personal lives, from envy to shame to the desire to please others, stirred together with the emotional reactions we’ve absorbed from our society about race, privilege, and everything else. Not to mention a fuckton of unhelpful guilt.

And because we’re not fully aware of all these emotional vectors, they’re spilling out in ways that we don’t notice or don’t know how to manage. A lot of them are spilling out into Black people’s DMs, and frankly that’s the last place they should be going.

But we can do better. We have a chance in this moment when many people are waking up to wake up more, to tune in to our emotional lives and get clarity about them in a way that will help us show up better. Doing this internal feeling work will help us keep from asking Black people to take care of our emotional heavy living. It will also help us make the kind of lasting internal changes that will deepen our commitment and enable us to keep showing up for the long haul.

So I’m offering the following prompts — questions and tasks — as a way into thinking about how to manage our own emotions better in this moment and in an ongoing way. This list is in no way exhaustive, but may help you get going in the direction you want to head.

Note also that this isn’t an alternative to self-education about doing anti-racist work. If you want a guide to that work, there are countless reading lists being exchanged on social media, as well as Black coaches, mentors and other types of anti-racist experts who have been trying for years to get white people to learn from them. The point of this list isn’t to substitute for that guidance, but to facilitate getting in a place where it’s possible to show up for that guidance while staying in our own emotional lanes.

Key guideline: you will know which questions you really need to ponder because they will be the ones that make you want to click the fuck out of this article and never come back.

Stay with it. Because the more you get in touch with and clear about your own emotions, the more you will be able to bring your strongest, most generous and most fully signed-up self to the table.

  1. If you are new to this work, spend serious time considering: why is this the moment when it became urgent, visible, possible, etc. to you? What makes this time in your life different from when you heard about Mike Brown or Sandra Bland or Trayvon Martin? Is it COVID, your own emotional bandwidth, who you follow on social media, someone who you really trust taking the step first? Is there something about the stories you are reading now that seems different than the stories you read in those earlier moments? It’s crucial to ask these questions, because whatever kept you from paying attention is likely not over forever. Media cycles change and stories morph. How will you keep your commitment if things “go back” for you, to whatever or wherever they were before?

Finally — last but definitely not least — recognize that this effort is not trivial or unimportant, despite its small size compared with both the suffering created by white supremacy and the size of the task in dismantling that structure. Doing the work to stay in your own emotional lane can be painful, and it’s needed. It is personal, and it is also political.

Because when you sit with and deal with your own emotions of guilt, shame, desire to please, fear of “getting it wrong” or whatever else, you are contributing your emotional honesty and commitment to being uncomfortable to this cause. You’re putting your willingness to feel like shit sometimes in the service of the future you want to help create. And by doing that work, you will change the way you show up for the better, in everything that comes after.

If you are doing this work and want to offer items for this checklist, DM me at janeelliottphd@gmail.com.

Coach | Academic | Writer

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