Becoming an Ally Step One: Managing Our White Fragility Dysregulation

by Karen Rachels, LMFT

I am writing this article as an invitation to other white therapists to join in a fuller, more engaged discussion about how to become an ally for BIPOC therapists and clients, and to help us reclaim our humanity in the face of racism. I say this introductory statement bearing in mind that reading about or listening to the process of white people around race is not the responsibility of people of color and can be a burden or harmful as implicit and unconscious bias can readily surface.

It is my hope that by reading the above paragraph, BIPOC folks can make a decision to go further or to stop and just simply know there are parts of the white therapist community that are trying to create an anti-racist culture.

There are so many things we as white therapists have to say to each other and need to say to each other. For me, the first thing is to acknowledge we are not alone in our desire and in our responsibility to de-center whiteness and to lessen the tremendous everyday impact of racism on our colleagues, our clients and in general. We are in the helping profession. Most of us enter this profession because we truly care about others and we want people to not suffer. Likely most of us are progressive in our politics, and we would absolutely choose a world without racism. And, I think most of us know it is that reality, that we are helpers, that we are progressives, that can make our racist ways of being insidious. It is ego-dystonic to see ourselves as racist. Most of us are not engaged with overt racist behavior yet we continue to hurt BIPOC people and create environments that are not truly safe.

When I say we are not alone, I mean that regardless of where we are as white people in our journey to become less racist, there is no difference amongst any of us. I believe we need to speak up to other white people when more subtle forms of racism appear but the person speaking up has no more moral authority and is not a better human being. This will always be our work. The layers of the impact of racism are so numerous and run so deep, the work will never be done during our lifetimes. We speak up so we can diminish harm and educate each other. And it takes courage and it must be done with love and compassion and recognition that we did not create systemic racism, that being racist or having racist thoughts or saying racist things is a result of conditioning. We did not actively choose this. We have also been hurt by racism and we also suffer from the lessening of our humanity if we don’t work to change. And, people of color who have suffered beyond our true understanding need us to become allies to them and we need to be allies to each other in the process.

In that regard, we do not have to respond defensively when someone says something we do or say or think is racist or that we are acting out of privilege.  We can hear the feedback without shame, fear, anxiety, or anger. We can accept that we are of course the products of the profound cultural racist conditioning we grew up swimming in and still swim in and not personalize the reality that we will be racist. But we can personalize how we engage, separately and alone, in the journey to become more conscious and to grow. I say this bearing in mind that it is all easier said than done. And that is because the conditioning is not in our heads: It is engrained on a physiological level, instinctive and automatic.

We do tend to be fragile. I believe that white fragility is, in fact, a nervous system dysregulation. Becoming less fragile means working with our physiological reactions so we change the neural pathways that are associated with fear.

What do we need to understand about ourselves psychologically and physiologically that will help us with this dysregulation? How do we heal from white fragility?

A few months ago, a good example turned up on a therapist listserv of a white therapist, Elliot, responding in public without white fragility to a challenge by a person of color. Elliot had asked a question that suggested unconscious awareness of privilege. Anna, a therapist of color, wrote a response naming the privilege underlying the question. Subsequently, Elliot wrote a simple acknowledgment that he had acted out of unconscious privilege. Elliot responded with gratitude for his response.  That was the end of the online exchange.

That was it. It was over in the public domain. We do not know what Anna went through as she read the initial question, what emotions were stirred in her. Neither do we know how Elliot managed his own possible fragility to respond in a respectful, responsible way so the entire community would not be further harmed.

At the time I was struck by the simplicity of that exchange and thought it was a good model for how we can receive feedback and respond proactively so people of color can be heard.

After starting to write this article, I talked about it with a close friend who is strongly anti-racist. She said she thought Anna was activated, that she (my friend) as a white person had had a defensive response, but then went to understanding the rage people of color must have, ending with, “What are they supposed to do with their rage?” We talked about how white people need to respond to challenges that are expressed in angry ways even though it doesn’t feel good. Can we pay attention to the point being made and respond to that as well as the hurt?

This was a confusing and thought-provoking conversation:  Had Anna really responded angrily? I wanted to read the exchange again and, luckily, was able to pull it up.  In fact, Anna’s response did not seem activated.  It was a statement of fact, said simply, strongly and clearly with an invitation to Elliot to self-explore. I was floored by my own misremembering of the tone of her email. At my original reading, I was working within myself to contain a white fragile response, was able to do so, and was appreciative of the remainder of the exchange. But, I had remembered it as harsh. My friend had remembered it as an activated rage that she felt was understandable.

Subsequently, I then contacted Anna to get her permission to include this example in the article. Many things emerged from our discussion with each other. As Anna and my dialogue is in process, I will just state a few of the new layers of awareness that emerged from our discussion:

1. Both my friend and I had responses that suggested some white fragility. As a result, we misinterpreted the tone and intent of Anna’s response.

2. I was struck by my and my friend’s reactions – different but not accurate. What does that say about how hard it is for people of color to speak up and be received well and understood without being labeled in some way?

3. In our reactivity, we had missed some of the key informative elements of Anna’s response.

4. I noticed that I was struck by Elliot’s non-defensiveness, which I still feel is vital and admirable, but did not comment on Anna’s courage.

5. And, in the process of this discussion and dialogue, my friend and I realized no one else had written back and commented at all; no other white therapist had joined the discussion to thank Anna for the information and to acknowledge Elliot’s process.

When we look at this, bringing compassion to ourselves, we can see how deeply entrenched our fragility is – and in many cases, not simply white fragility but also fragility that could come from personal trauma. In this case, my friend and I had different, albeit, fragile responses.

What’s more elucidating for me, in this case, is that Anna likely has to endure these kinds of misperceptions all the time. How is a person of color to challenge without being perceived as activated, rageful, not doing it right?

Ultimately, at the time and now, I was grateful to Elliot for how he responded, and for the exchange between the two of them which has now become even richer in understanding white fragility and the nonstop work people of color are forced to do.

Elliot might be reading this and having a variety of responses, what happened for him inside. For my part, at the time and now, I am admiring and curious:  What process did he go through to respond without fragility? Even acknowledging I am admiring is a little awkward for me. We do not need to be congratulated when we do the right thing (especially by people of color) yet I do believe that joining with each other as white people on a journey, acknowledging the struggle is there and supporting each other is important. For that reason, although I learned a tremendous amount from Robin D’Angelo’s book “White Fragility”, fundamentally the concept of white fragility and its manifestations, I felt she missed some important understanding of the psychological and physiological underpinnings of a fragile reaction. We don’t have to be confronted in the right way with the right language and the right tone from people of color. That is not their burden although as therapists in the helping profession it is likely part of their challenge and struggle. But, I do believe we must be kind, compassionate and steadfast with each other in a loving way. So, I say I admired Elliot and hope people understand why I am saying that.

Many years ago, a professional therapist organization I was a part of had a major crisis because a significant microaggression became part of the community discussion. There were many people involved in the microaggression that occurred in talks about renaming the organization: It wasn’t one person’s doing. Unfortunately, the speaking up by therapists of color and a few white therapists resulted in intense defensiveness on the part of those people who were involved. White therapists were publicly proclaiming they were not racist and were outraged someone would suggest that something they were involved in was racist.

(I understand why those white therapists were doing that in a much more compassionate way now than I did then. Had it been me, I imagine I would have responded well but would have been torn up inside feeling bad and defending myself to myself. I understand now that they were caught up in a massive dysregulation.)

I was not a part of the original microaggression. When I read it, I had a dual reaction of, “oh, okay” and “oh, no, that really isn’t good,” both quick and subtle, and then I moved on. I was part of the group of white therapists who read it, but did not understand enough or have enough courage to speak up.

What ensued was more hurt for therapists of color, more having to take care of or educate the white therapists. One therapist of color said, “When this came out, what I wanted was for people to see it for what it was, acknowledge it, change it, and let it go.” That statement had so much truth and beauty in it.  We white therapists were not able to do that. Again, why?: Because white fragility is a nervous system dysregulation; our bodies feel under threat and react as if we are in danger.

We need to recognize our activation and help ourselves diminish the impact of this dysregulation. What is actually happening for us? How can we soothe ourselves and each other? And, I say that, because, in line with creating an active anti-racist culture, we absolutely 100% need each other as white people to heal. We need Stephen Porges’ path to safety. We need to be in ventral vagal state, even if we are in discomfort. What we need to change is our awareness of our bodies and to find ways to calm so we can think clearly and feel at the same time.

The work of Resmaa Menakem, particularly My Grandmother’s Hands,….”, helps us understand that white fragility reflects a physiologically unsettled body. Although racialized trauma is not our personal experience, most of us who are white descended from generations and centuries of trauma. Menakem’s book explains this in detail. He describes the traumatic antecedents for racialized trauma for black bodies and bodies of culture (non-Black people of color), for white bodies, and for blue bodies (law enforcement). 

Seeing white fragility through the lens of trauma and seeing blue body behavior through the lens of trauma and nervous system regulation can help us vastly. It can offer us our humanity back. How can we acknowledge we are racist if we believe racism is fundamentally our fault? We grew up knowing being racist is bad. How can we say we are bad and not be defensive? We aren’t bad, right? How: Because being racist was something we inherited. It invaded and invades our bodies, too. And those of our parents and our ancestors. If we see that, if we accept that, we can begin to settle our bodies so we can change.

Menakem’s concept of a settled body in terms of racialized trauma is a profound one. He is a somatic therapist, having trained initially in Somatic Experiencing. He has taken trauma which has been understood in therapy circles as much more of an individual, personal or familial experience, and expanded its range to where it rightfully belongs – to society, to the social and political environment we live in without even necessarily knowing it. Most people of color have always known it. Most whites have not.

Moving the concept of trauma out of the exclusively personal realm to a societal one can help us enormously.  Many of us understand nervous system regulation. A settled body is one that is not responding in the moment in a traumatized way. A settled body is a regulated body – in the Window of Tolerance, (Dan Siegel),Ventral Vagal State (Stephen Porges),  in Self (Internal Family Systems) or Wise Mind (Buddhism). (These are my extrapolations, not Menakem’s.)

If our bodies are settled, we are not hyperaroused. We are not anxious with racing thoughts, angry with fight energy, our heart beating faster and our breathing rapid; we are not afraid, planning our escape, our flight. We are also not hypoaroused –we are not dissociated, distracted, unable to pay attention, withdrawn, ashamed, collapsed.

That is what is happening in white fragility. We move into hyperarousal – rapid thoughts explaining to ourselves and others why what we said or did was not racist,

or we are overcome with shame, and move into withdrawal and shutdown.

My reaction and my friend’s to the listserv exchange reflects some hyperarousal – defensive thinking. The responses of the white therapists in the organizational renaming discussion reflect significant hyperarousal – fight: rage, pointed defensiveness, some counterattack. In both cases, the hyperarousal made the white people involved less able to perceive accurately what was said and therefore to take in the racist messaging that needed to be addressed and changed.

An example of a shame takeover happened with a colleague of mine in a group I facilitate. Following the murder of George Floyd, several of us were checking in. Some white therapists mentioned the work they were doing to become anti-racist. A therapist of color, while checking in, mildly reflected some discomfort/fatigue in having to listen to us talk about the anti-racist work we are doing. Subsequent to that, I had a conversation with one of the white therapists who told me she was feeling very ashamed. This led to a larger discussion amongst the white therapists (the BIPOC therapist knew this was happening) about how we want to be together. The person who felt shame was able to identify that as part of her historic trauma reaction, which helped her get into a pro-active discussion with all of us, rather than stay withdrawn into shame.

How do we work with ourselves to manage white fragility? If we recognize it is essentially physiological, we can begin to find dual awareness and get ourselves to a regulated place.  As a somatic attachment therapist, I think there is another crucial component: being in process with other white therapists.

1. We cannot do this alone. If we are to build an anti-racist culture, we must be with each other, accepting with compassion our racist conditioning and supporting each other in becoming more conscious and changing. I am now in a triad with two other people who are reading and working with My Grandmother’s Hands. Having two other people who can hear, hold, and help me process my racist thoughts or actions has been enormously healing. We talk but we also work with our bodies. Recently, I shared with them some consternation I was having about a gentle challenge from a BIPOC therapist I’d received to something I’d suggested. My intellectual response was, of course, you are right, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. During our triad meeting, I was talking about it, and I noticed my hands were digging into the sides of my head and they noticed it, too. As we noticed, I suddenly let my hands go and they fell to my lap. I could breathe. I was calm. The issue was resolved. In that context, with love and support, I could unearth and move through my fragility. Even as I write this, I feel some chagrin that something without any charge would have created a charge/activation in me. But, that is the case with white fragility, with white dysregulation around racism. It is very entrenched in our bodies. We need other white people to help us calm and see clearly.

2.  Recognize the somatic signs of our white fragility dysregulation. In the example above, I came to recognize that when I am overthinking something with a tinge of anxiety (hands pressed into sides of my head), that is a sign of white fragility for me. It may not be for everyone. Sometimes I have mild turmoil in my gut, another sign. Each person has their own somatic manifestations. Get to know yours, especially with the help of other white people.

3.  Trauma-affect containment. This is hugely important for people who have endured significant trauma, particularly developmental and attachment trauma. Doubts about self-worth, or having the right to exist, and extreme terror can live just below the surface for many of us. For some of us it could be personal through our family of origin. For others it could be a cultural transmission handed down through generations. How we protect ourselves against trauma imprinting reflects nervous system regulation. Questions about our okayness as humans may emerge in general and are likely to emerge as well in the face of challenges about racism. Working to recognize our automatic trauma affect responses and knowing when and how to contain them is critical. I am describing degree of response here, as trauma can create persistent neurological pathways deeper and more entrenched than the examples I offered above. The actual physiological response is the same but the ability to resource and return to a settled body is more difficult. Whatever traumas we have, if we can differentiate the reality that we are not in this moment under real threat, we can begin to come back. Working with others is important, getting reaffirmed we are a good human being, and continuing to do our own healing work are ways to combat white fragility.

4.  Ego strength and egolessness.  Fundamentally, we must have enough ego strength to accept the reality that we are racist and still know we are okay. This is a fundamental contradiction. We have to have enough of a positive sense of ourselves to accept our limitations as white people in order to move into a more egoless state when necessary. The egoless state helps us de-center our own process for a time in order to center and be with the process and needs of another. As therapists we do this all the time in the room with our clients. How do we expand this consciousness to include situations in the therapy room and outside where challenge comes up around racism?

5.  Redefining Safety, accessing Discomfort. As a somatic attachment consultant and trainer, I always say safety is a priority, and it is. However, conversations with BIPOC therapists recently have opened my eyes to the reality that safety is not something they feel whenever they enter a mixed or primarily white environment. Some environments could be less unsafe, but not outright safe. I have noticed that, regardless of my intention to create a safe environment, that hasn’t always worked for some therapists, including white therapists. Striving for safety is good but guaranteeing it is impossible. What might be possible is developing a nervous state that borders on the edge between safe and unsafe:  Discomfort.(**)

In the Polyvagal Theory, Stephen Porges talks about our capacity to be in the window of tolerance, a ventral vagal state, as long as we are not experiencing fear. In this regard, we might move toward hypoarousal or hyperarousal but can still stay regulated if we can mitigate fear. Discomfort is that state. Being uncomfortable is a normal response to being challenged by someone but it does not mean we are really under threat. By developing the ability to recognize the edging in of fear and guide ourselves back to discomfort, we can begin to regulate. We would use our intact neocortex to acknowledge fear creeps in when we go into feeling we are not okay, and our perception of ourselves is being challenged. Moving back to discomfort can happen with a gentle reminder that, no matter what, we are okay, our essential Self is good, and this is just a moment in time to move back from our ego, settle our bodies enough to listen.

In my own experience, moving back and forth between discomfort and edging toward or feeling fear can happen if I concentrate and am mindful. Using our neocortex can be an effective way to do this but it takes practice and the development of a new neurological muscle. The times where it works the best for me is when I have been able to work with something somatically. One time, also in my triad, I was talking about a racist thought I had. With the support of the other two people, I was able to track what was happening inside and found, to my surprise and yet not surprisingly, there was an image and a felt sense of being 5 -6 years old and feeling bad about myself. Giving loving support to my younger self, it was then easy to see that some of my racist thoughts moved in my internal process as ways to make myself feel better. The essence of white supremacy: Making myself better is premised on making others less than. Knowing that in my head and accessing in my body were two profoundly different processes. I could forgive myself and see the racist thought evaporating.

If you are now at the end of this article and want to join me in a continued email or Zoom dialogue about these issues within the therapy field, please contact me at karenrachels@gmail.com and I will develop an email list.

Regardless, my hope is that what I have written will serve you in your own process of healing in this incredibly painful area for all of us in our human tribe.

** I first heard the concept of discomfort or feeling uncomfortable from an activist therapist colleague in a training. Subsequently, I read some material written by Yavilah McCoy, a Jewish African-American Diversity, Equity and Inclusion organizer and trainer and in Menakem’s work as well. In this article, I have attempted to ground this discomfort in the language of the body and nervous system regulation.

June, 2021

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