The Whiteness of "Urgency"
Updated: 3 days ago
We white-bodied people, generally speaking, have come to believe that the things that make up our personality and “who we are” are unique to us, passed down from our families in our genes and upbringing, and created in relationship to our individual experiences. This is only the limited, superficial truth. The whole, deep truth includes (among other things) the profound and insidious influence of whiteness. Not many in our culture, regardless of the color of their skin, escape it.
As white-bodied people we have been conditioned to not see that we have been cultured, as it would negate our ego values of “individuality” and “freedom of self-determination.” In fact, being “cultured” has been made an elitist, capitalist endeavor and is defined as having a “refined taste, manners, and education.” Specifically, white bodies are seen as “cultured” when they have consumed other cultures by learning bits of their languages, appropriating their practices, touring their lands, and acquiring their art.
In WA, because we have been so thoroughly conditioned by denial, we draw on the work of Layla Saad, Kenneth Jones, Tema Okun and others, focusing on those most targeted by whiteness, to help us see clearly the true nature of what we are dealing with. Just like those of us who grew up in an addicted family system, we have been trained to not directly see or feel the invasive, pernicious tendrils of this disease that literally squeezes the life out of everything. One of these tendrils is our chronic sense of urgency.
For too many of us, urgency is a central feature in our lives. We have been conditioned to believe that it is a sign of having a superior style of “doing” which reflects importance, capacity, and strength. We don’t realize that this urgency, and the general speed and tension with which we habitually operate, is a reflection of a consistent state of a dysregulated nervous system and a society that rewards and values the attitudes and behaviors stemming from it.
People who do not fit into this norm are seen, at best, as depressed (aka “mentally ill”) or, at worst, shiftless and lazy. There are big consequences in this culture for being labeled as either of those things, particularly for Bodies of Color. In fact, the dominant culture has fused this descriptor with the racial categories of Black and Indigenous, in order to justify its extreme hatred and oppression. Therefore, becoming anti-racist requires that we break our habits of urgency.
While this is essential, it is also no easy task for us. Our minds will do what minds are designed to do in default mode–to look for the evidence that affirms that which we already believe. It’s called confirmation bias and it is, literally, addictive. We get a little hit of dopamine every time it happens, which is an essential process to how we humans learn. We don’t pathologize our need for dopamine, however, we work with it. In order to recover, we need to replace the default, superficial pleasures of whiteness with the deeper, genuinely nourishing humanizing practices of anti-racism.
Challenging our orientation towards urgency can feel dangerous. Haven't most of us learned to survive by falling in line? If we let go of the way we have always done things, won’t everything fall apart? Not only do we lack the skills needed to discern what is a real emergency, but we know consciously or unconsciously that there will be consequences. It means we may break white solidarity, our main method of belonging; it means we may lose relationships, a job, or our status; it means that we may stand out as a “them” instead of an “us.”
Addressing our chronic state of emergency gets particularly confusing in regard to the problem of racism, which is a legitimately urgent matter. However, there is an important nuance here that we need to pay attention to. As Bayo Akomolafe said, “The times are urgent, let us slow down.” Many of us, when we first start to wake up to the discomfort of racism and our part in upholding this brutal system, we feel compelled to act quickly in an effort to get rid of the discomfort. We believe that if we are not taking action immediately and regularly, then we are doing nothing and therefore continuing to uphold racism and allowing innocent people to die and suffer. While there is some truth to this, again, it is a nuanced truth.
The problem with that impulse is that most of us have yet to discover our own selves in the mess that we see urgently needs to be cleaned up. We set out to fix something that is outside of ourselves and we have little or no cultural humility; most of us are severely mis-educated in regard to our true history, other cultures, and the cultural norms that we embody that serve to uphold the myth of white supremacy. Because of this, we have very little understanding of the wide variety of ways that we can plug in and take our share of the responsibility.
We may go into social justice and “DEI” spaces, perhaps well-meaning, but armed and charged with the weapons of whiteness more than we have ever been. Not knowing the territory, our expectations for ourselves and others are wildly out of bounds. We likely approach the work either as a savior or as an ally, and are unable to be co-conspirators and comrades in the fight. And because we have no idea how to resource ourselves, we are destined to burn out. Perhaps, we are even more dangerous in this context because we risk losing and destroying the vulnerability and benefit of the doubt that those spaces offer us and others.
In some 12-Step recovery programs, there is the slogan “The 3 A’s: Awareness, Acceptance, Action.” We find this to be an essential slogan for the Whiteness Anonymous program as well because it can be used to guide our responses in a mindful, heart-full, non-reactionary way and is an antidote to our blanket sense of urgency. The “3 A’s” also express the fundamental principles embedded within the 12 Steps. When practiced searchingly, persistently, and completely we are taking action at every step, culminating in sustainable, holistic, and grounded anti-racist practices that can be felt and seen.
The first “A” directs us to build a multidimensional awareness and expand our view about the thing we have been acting out unconsciously and in denial about. We take a Sacred Pause and do what feels counter-intuitive–we take a step back. In Al-Anon, they say, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Unless imminent harm is unfolding right in front of us, this can be our beginning motto.
Even though we may be taking no outward action yet, we are working inwardly to shift our habitual patterns, cultivating keen observation while withholding judgment. What are we observing? Absolutely everything about what is actually happening, particularly our own reactions to it, while also cultivating compassionate honesty, to the best of our ability, the entire way. This is the foundation for recovery from anything: compassionate and firm self-inquiry.
Because we have developed in relationship with a pathologically disembodied society that over-identifies with what is intellectual, we want to pay special attention to what we experience through our heart, spirit, and particularly our body; because we have been conditioned to value only what can be seen and measured, we want to dig under the surface to find the unseen and amorphous; and because we have been brainwashed with the myth of individuality, we need to practice our inquiry within a recovery community and in relationship to a power greater than ourselves, whatever that means for us.
The second “A” calls us to accept what is. In this culture, “acceptance” presents a complexity and trigger that may only be rivaled by the word “forgiveness.” We most often use the word acceptance to describe an endorsement or approval of something. Angela Davis said, “I'm no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I'm changing the things I cannot accept." Davis calls us to not collapse into the toxic things that we can’t control, but to use whatever resources we have to rail against it. As white-bodied people, we have endorsed racism and the myth of white supremacy in all manner of ways. There is plenty that we must stop actively and passively endorsing.
The origin of the word “accept”, however, literally means to receive or take in willingly. What are we willingly taking in? The truth of our reality, regardless of how awful that truth may be. At the same time, we make space for that truth by no longer willingly taking in lies–about ourselves or anyone else. Acceptance then can be seen as medicine and a gift we give to ourselves and others. When we allow the truth to live and breathe, either ours or someone else’s, integration of that truth and evolution become possible. When we dis-allow and defend ourselves from what is true and real, we inhibit our capacity, development, and ability to change. The evidence of our stunted growth is everywhere in our personal and collective behavior.
The third “A” is for action where there is yet another nuance to be highlighted. After practicing discernment–taking in truth and rejecting lies–we may decide that no outward action is needed, useful, or helpful. Because we have done the internal work, we may even realize that our initial impulse would have likely caused harm or a detrimental distraction and we are grateful to be spared the consequences of that.
Getting to this third “A” may seem overwhelming, but if we have been in a process of honest and compassionate self-inquiry and sharing what we find with others and a power greater than ourselves, then we can trust that we will be given the tools we need to take the necessary action when the time is right. An often heard statement in recovery circles is, “if you don’t know what to do (other than your addiction), try doing the opposite of what you have always done.” For many of us, this may be a good place to start, knowing we can adjust our approach as we go along. Mistakes are not only inevitable, they are required for our wholeness. At this point, we have gained an ability to respond more appropriately to the situation and can continue to use the tools of the 12 Steps and the principles of awareness, then acceptance, to guide our next actions.
While acting out of urgency has given us a false sense of importance and control, we find that the Three A’s give us a much more grounded and real approach to our problems. We may have gotten used to being “a bull in a china shop” particularly in regard to the problem of racism–taking up too much space, making a big noise, and causing a great deal of damage in the process in order to feel alive and secure–but as we unlearn this way of being, we learn to value and trust ourselves from a much deeper place, and consequently learn to value and trust others from a much deeper place. This is the goal of our work. As James Baldwin wrote, “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this…the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed” (1962, Letter from a Region in My Mind). We've got a lot to do friends, let’s get to work.