Updated: Jul 25, 2020
Why your anti-racist journey may feel like an emotional rollercoaster.
Sepia tone picture of a woman staring ahead with a slight look of sadness.
We are currently in a time of racial awakening. Millions of people all over the world are coming to terms with their complicit support of systemic racism. From my conversations with many, I now realize wypipo are moving through the five stages of grief; for their ignorance of their white privilege.
Stage One: DENIAL
Denial is a normal reaction to rationalize overwhelming emotions. It is a defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock of loss*. In this stage, you may be experiencing avoidance, confusion, shock, and fear. Part of you may recognize how bad, how insidious, how systemic racism is but you mostly can't accept your part in it. You may avoid taking an active role in your unlearning. You may feel confused how you, a good person, could be racist. You may experience shock when "seeing with new eyes" the racial injustice and police brutality BIPOC people face in the United States... AND in Canada. You may feel afraid of what it will mean to embark on an anti-racist journey; maybe you will say or do the wrong thing, maybe you fear losing your privilege and being treated the same way, maybe you fear loss of family and friend relationships and just don't want to think about it.
Stage Two: ANGER
As the numbing effects of the denial stage begins to wear off, the pain of loss starts to firmly take hold as we search for blame, feel intense guilt, and lash out*. In this stage, you may be experiencing frustration, irritation, and anger. You see how, by the nature of being born white you benefit from a systemic power advantage. You may blame your parents and your family for not teaching you better. You may blame schools, media, and government for perpetuating the oppression. You may blame yourself for not seeing this sooner. You may get frustrated and irritated with friends and family who "don't get it". Then you may flip to intense guilt about how could you have not seen this sooner. You might feel overwhelmed with guilt as you watch movies and read books that depict the brutal treatment of BIPOC people - emotionally transporting yourself to each incident and beating yourself up as a complicit bystander. If you don't get stuck here, which many do because by beating yourself up it still feels like you are DOING SOMETHING, next comes the outrage. You may get in heated debates with people on Facebook calling them racist. You may attend rallies and yell your outrage for all to see. You may use your anger to try to distance the image of woke you from ignorant you.
Stage Three: BARGAINING
Bargaining is the "What if..." stage of grief and it serves an important purpose. It provides temporary escape from pain, provides hope, and gives a person time to adjust to the reality of the situation* In this stage, you may struggle to find meaning. You may start reaching out to others - checking in on your BIPOC friends. You may feel the need to tell YOUR story, to explain why you did or said what you did and how you didn't mean it as racist. You may even believe "All Lives Matter" or "Not All Cops" with the desperation of hope that life as you know it is not going to come undone. You might think "we just need to change policy and that will fix everything". You may shrug your shoulders and say "I'm just from a different generation I guess" as if that makes it okay to change. In this stage, you may try to do the mental and emotional gymnastics of trying to have your cake and eat it too.
Stage Four: DEPRESSION
This type of depression is not a sign of mental illness, it is the appropriate response to a great loss. You might experience intense sadness, decreased sleep, reduced appetite and loss of motivation*. In this stage, you may experience feeling overwhelmed by the gravity of the situation. You may feel helpless to make any real change. In your helplessness you may feel like you want to fight and have feelings of hostility (fight) or you feel like you want to run away or hide from it all (flight). In this stage you may feel tired of all your wokeness and the effort required to fight racism. You may say you need to "take a break" or "step away" from your anti-racist unlearning for your mental health. You may become paralyzed from taking any further steps and compartmentalize your humanity and integrity into the causes you do have energy for and those you don't. And right now, racism seems too big of a cause to take on because you: have kids, work long hours, already volunteer somewhere else, having aging family members, etc.
Stage Five: ACCEPTANCE
Acceptance refers to accepting the reality of a loss and the fact that nothing can change that reality. This does not mean that the person is "okay" with that loss*. In this stage, you may accept that all our systems have been created with an oppressive agenda but still struggle with committing to your anti-racism journey 100%. You may recognize that you don't want to be actively racist or passively racist but that you want to be actively anti-racist however you will still revert to passively racist at times. You may begin to explore new options, create and implement a new plan, and start to move on in your anti-racist journey but all learning and actions are consciously done through an anti-racist lens. In this stage, your efforts to live anti-racist values are intentional, mindful, but not yet your default way of being.
*The Five Stages of Grief as presented by www.loveliveson.com and noted in this post with an asterisk.
The Five Stages of Grief is not a linear progression. As we move through our grief, we cycle through all fives stages. Think of Acceptance as a 10-level scale. When grieving a loss, we don't necessarily grieve the loss as a whole but as individual aspects - piece by piece - of that loss. When grieving the loss of a parent, for example, we may start with grieving the loss of hearing their voice and work our way through grieving the loss of them not seeing our kids grow up. In that process we may work through denial, anger, bargaining, and depression and then complete "level 1" of acceptance before we go back and cycle through the stages again slowing growing in the depth of our acceptance. Our society, unfortunately, rushes the grieving process as we are generally uncomfortable the emotions of this process. Because of this, many often stuff down their grief well before they have reached Level 10 Acceptance.
David Kessler, co-author of the 5 Stages of Grief, has recently released a sixth stage and I think it is wonderful.
Stage Six: Finding Meaning
For some, the previously final stage of Acceptance is not enough. Instead, the acknowledgement and acceptance of the loss as reality becomes a starting point of a new life with a new understanding. You are ready to make meaning from this loss. This could be as "small" as someone recommitting to themselves to honour their boundaries after the loss of a relationship with a narcissist. Or it could look as "big" as a global movement that seeks to make changes around drunk driving behaviour. Whatever it is, in this stage there is a commitment to oneself that the loss, and the impact of that loss on you as a person, will not have occurred in vain. In this stage, you are ready to use your white privilege to make change. There is no fear about how you will be perceived as you know what is important to you and who you want to be, what values you must uphold to be in integrity with yourself. You have had your chrysalis moment, you have been reborn with a new worldview, and you now interact with the world in a whole new way. In this stage there is a feeling on "I can't go back to the way I was before". You have been transformed.
“The first thing is you actually have to make a decision,” Kessler says. “You have to decide that there was more to the person than just their death, there was also their life."
Wherever you are in your grief, know there is a place for you in the fight against racism. Revolution is not a one-lane highway and just because you might not be at the "Finding Meaning" stage where Anti-racism work is second nature to you, there are still things you can do. Joining Moms Against Racism is one of those things.