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Wrestling with my white fragility

This moment in American history calls me to enter spaces where my people’s shame can arrive with me, charging in on white horses.

Credit: Pixabay/Geralt. CC0 Public Domain.

Right now I find it’s hard to find words for anything—which is a problem for a Director of Communications. Many progressives like me in my home country of the United States are experiencing a great loss—not just the loss of an election, but perhaps it’s also the loss of our sense of self. Like the loss of a family member or a friendship that once meant everything, there are no words sufficient to describe it. It’s hard to put pen to paper when all I can feel is a hole in the deep cavity of my chest, this sore grinding jaw, shoulders that seem to reside in my ears, or perpetual hunger. Since November 9th 2016 my body has been ruled by tension and my mind continually races.

I am grieving, deeply. I am fearful for those who will be hurt, and likely killed in the time to come. Our nation will never be the same again. The stakes are that high and I don’t know what lies on the other side of all this.

I’m overwhelmed. I’m afraid I’m not ready. To be an adult in this moment seems a heavy burden, but here I am in the generation that is demographically supposed to be leading this country.

I’ve been full not just of worry but of self-doubt. Why me? Why should this Nebraska farm girl be fighting anti-Black racism? Am I ready for what it will feel like to lose more of my privilege, my mooring, the self I used to be? Do I have what it takes to make the sacrifice? Am I ready to lose the comfort of individualism, and rest and rely on the community, the collective?

What if I’m not actually very good at the interdependence I’ve been espousing? What if don’t know enough yet to “ditch” white feminism, only that I must? What if it was me all along who was not OK with ambiguity? What if I can’t quiet this lizard brain of mine?

So, to find any clarity at all, I must turn to the yet-to-be-revealed, undercurrent theme of this article. Here goes:

What I’ve really been writing about on my blog How-Matters all along is…pain.

The reason that I have ever wanted to make the world better is because of that little girl’s pain, my own broken heart. My desire to first join the do-gooder sector as a bright-eyed but naïve university graduate, and my desire to step up my commitment now, is because I don’t want anyone else to have to feel the pain I have in my life—as ambitious or foolish or self-important as that may sound.

And right now, I have this nagging feeling that the only thing that will enable us to change the world is our pain—not a person’s intellectual prowess or an organization’s innovative approaches; those things can’t replace what deep listening can unleash. This moment in my country’s history calls me to enter spaces where my people’s shame can arrive with me, charging in on white horses. And it reminds me that the suffering and trauma we have caused and benefitted from might turn us inside out.

So first, can I sit with my own pain? Can I refuse not to be distracted from my purpose? Can I overcome my pain consistently enough to choose kindness, especially for myself? Can I really believe and act in ways that prove love will overcome darkness?

Then and only then will I be able to sit with anyone else’s pain. Only then will we be able to connect and come together in the ways that change and evolve us as human beings.

Movements can save us. They have advanced societies throughout history and throughout the world, and they will again. Our pain is what binds different souls in the movement, creating bridges of understanding and pathways back to love we cannot see.

Our duty in the social good sector, at this moment globally, is to unleash people power. That must be our sole focus, our relentless pursuit, our greatest joy. And with our bodies and our planet under threat, we have no choice but to take such tender loving care of ourselves that taking care of others becomes an easy expression of self, of community, and of resistance.

My pain is my strength, and that is why I don’t just want to be an ally to those working for racial justice and global equity, I want to be a comrade (as described in this useful, yet daunting guide). I don’t know how to do this exactly, or if I have what it takes. I’m scared of that too. Turns out though that my whole broken self is all that I have to offer to the resistance.

“There is no shame if you do not know how to do these things or cannot do them, but if that is the case then you still are on the hook: we need you to help bring forth leadership and support leadership who can do these things and will do these things starting right now.” Caitlin Breedlove

There are many who have gone before us, who have shown us how to protect humanity and to venerate love and courage. They are not development economists or organizational heads. They are people around the world, who have faced regimes down, all the way down, before. They are Indigenous peoples. They are spiritual leaders. They are our ancestors. They are with us now.

They are us—our brokenhearted selves.

 This article was first published on How-Matters.

About the author

Jennifer Lentfer is a Nebraska farm girl turned international aid worker. Find her at how-matters.org and @intldogooder on twitter. She is the Director of Communications at IDEX - International Development Exchange and is currently co-editing a book that features the growing community of small grantmakers that find and fund visionary grassroots leaders around the world.


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