In the past, when I noticed a relative or friend make a comment they didn’t mean to be racist, but still was, I would let it slide. I wouldn’t say anything, partially because I understood that they weren’t trying to be racist, and partially because I am incredibly anxious and dedicate most of my energy in life toward being lovable to others, which means I’m not really allowed to question or criticize them.
But this is an enormous privilege and enormous cruelty. Because I am white, I’m able to sit back and let these things happen without saying anything because they do not affect me directly. The ability to say nothing is privilege, and the choice to say nothing is cruelty. Since when has it fit into my moral code that something is okay as long as it doesn’t affect me?
It’s taken me far too long to realize this, but I was being racist by saying nothing. I prioritized my own comfort over the humanity of an entire group of people, and I’m finally waking up to that reality and deciding to change it.
But just because I am now dedicated to being a better ally, that doesn’t automatically get rid of all my internalized racism or cure me of my anxiety.
So how do we have these hard conversations about race?
Here are 7 tips, with lots of sources because I did not magically learn these things on my own, I’ve been talking about all of this in therapy and also just listening to Black voices on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter telling me how to be a better ally.
7 Tips for Calling Out Racism When You Have Anxiety
- First, recognize that you have anxiety and that makes certain things, like having hard conversations, even harder. There’s no sense in pretending you don’t have anxiety, or telling yourself you “shouldn’t” have anxiety about this just because it’s really important. That nonsense won’t actually help you have these hard conversations, it’ll just make you feel shame, and maybe even cause you to avoid the conversations entirely because now you’re trapped in a shame spiral. Instead, practice acknowledging your fear and making the conscious decision to move forward with the fear. I often do this by saying to myself out loud “I’m afraid. My body is full of fear. But this is the right thing to do. I can do things even when I’m afraid.” Sometimes this won’t be possible. Sometimes you will go into fight/flight/freeze/fawn, and you won’t be able to escape, and that’s okay. Just don’t give up. If you’re finding it impossible to have these conversations because of your anxiety, talk to your therapist about what you can do. Because, as someone with anxiety, it isn’t an excuse to curl up and avoid this movement. Keep coping and keep trying.
- If you’re anxious about saying the wrong thing, do the work. Read Black authors, follow Black social media accounts, listen to Black podcasts, read books about being actively anti-racist, stay up-to-date on the news. If someone says something you know is racist, but you don’t feel equipped to say why, you don’t have to say anything. Instead, go look up why that comment felt racist. Learn and unlearn so that next time, you will know what to say.
- Recognize which conversations are going to be conversations, and which ones are going to be the verbal equivalent of slamming your head against a brick wall. This Twitter thread by author Ijeoma Oluo makes a very good point about weighing the costs and benefits of arguing about white supremacy with racists, specifically Trump supporters. Sometimes it’s better to make your opposition heard, and then walk away. This still takes a lot of bravery, but sometimes just knowing that you don’t have to do the long, drawn-out argument/gaslighting session is enough to give you the boost to say your piece and bounce.
- Practice sitting in discomfort. This is honestly a skill every human being living in a world shaped by white supremacy needs to work on, but it’s especially true for people with anxiety. For people with anxiety, discomfort is often blown out of proportion by our panicked minds. We see discomfort as a signal that everything is about to fall apart. So instead of dealing with that discomfort, we panic and avoid it and try to squash it however we can. But that rarely helps us in the long term, and it definitely won’t help us come to terms with our own racism or encourage us to point out the racism of others.
(This advice comes directly from my therapist, a truly incredible woman of color who is kind and strong in her support as I work through some of my own racism and fears about addressing racism).
- Continuously remind yourself what the conversation is about: how to protect the unconditional worth and value of Black lives. If at any point you notice that the conversation has turned into a kind of argument where you are trying to convince someone that Black lives are important, you have entered into a dangerous zone. Because who are you (and the people you’re talking with) to get to argue and decide the worth of an entire group of people? Centering yourself on the point of the discussion can help calm anxiety, since white fragility and defensiveness can sometimes cause conversations to spiral until you aren’t sure how you got where you are. This Instagram post by Liana Teresa gives great examples on how to re-focus the conversation, gently but firmly.
This point was also inspired by this IGTV post from Sonya Renee Taylor, a Black poet and activist, reacting to a viral video of a young girl named Haley confronting her parents’ racism where their conversation largely centered on whether or not Black lives mattered, rather than how to protect Black lives because they matter. I cannot encourage you to watch this video enough.
- On a related note, prepare yourself to stop talking to certain people, maybe for a while until they see the error of their ways, or maybe forever. This is hard. It’s really, really hard, especially if you are just now seeing all of the ways your whiteness has protected you from dealing with issues of race in the past. But just because someone is kind to you and to people like them, that does not make them the kind of person you want to engage with and call a friend. Not if they wouldn’t extend that same kindness and generosity to someone exactly like you, except they’re Black. I’m currently dealing with this, and my therapist encouraged me to feel the loss and grief of losing that friendship (stopping up your feelings helps no one, okay??). But she also encouraged me to remind myself why that friendship had been severed. Sit in the discomfort. Allow clashing realities to co-exist. Breathe deeply.
- Engage in active self-care. Take an hour where you do not check your phone or the news. At the end of the day, take a long, hot shower to relax. Replace your morning caffeine (which might increase your anxiety) with cold water. Do whatever you can to replenish your soul’s resources so that you can keep fighting the good fight. This advice does not give you permission to ignore what’s going on, but it does emphasize the importance of taking care of your brain, which includes turning off the constant flow of trauma coming from the news for a little while every day.
This advice actually does come from me, because after years in therapy, I am FINALLY learning what active self-care is (hint: it’s not doom-scrolling through your phone for hours) and why it’s important.
Finally, I want to encourage you to consider the hell Black people with anxiety are going through right now (and all the time- systemic racism doesn’t end when the hashtags are no longer trending), and donate to these organizations working on providing affordable, accessible, culturally-informed mental healthcare to Black communities: