Read Time ~ 10 minutes
Recently, Riverside Church hosted a conversation between bestselling author and social scientist Brené Brown and leading Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson to expand on a viral Twitter exchange they shared in 2016. Jessica Yu was there on behalf of Trellis and shares her thoughts about what she heard and learned
“The Courage to Show Up” invited both speakers to reflect on how we—anyone committed to making the world a better, more humane, and more equal place—can have the hard conversations necessary to confront racism, especially when those conversations unearth messy things like guilt, shame, and pain.
Opening on the topic of Twitter activism, DeRay mourned the widespread pessimism he often observes among people online, noting that sustainable activism needs to avoid “pre-contaminating the solution” with hopelessness. The crowd clapped and whooped as he ended:
“Our tomorrows can be better than our yesterdays.”
Brené agreed, noting as she had in their first Twitter conversation that,
The evening might have gone on similarly with phrases that veered toward platitude, except that DeRay and Brené soon dove into the real, gritty experiences and observations of racism in their work as a public activist and speaker, respectively. “The Courage to Show Up” was a thoughtful and exciting conversation where both speakers pushed each other toward clarification and real-world application.
Here are some of my highlights from the exchange that followed:
When DeRay asked Brené Brown what courage means in the context of race, Brené explained: as a white person it is impossible to talk about white supremacy perfectly without offending or holding prejudice, but that not choosing to talk about it in fear of criticism is the definition of privilege. Choosing courage, for Brené, necessarily involves speaking up. She pointed to her observations on her speaking tours where attendees, more often in progressive cities than conservative ones, would leave when she began talking about race. One the one hand, Brené noted a lack of courage from the attendees to re-investigate their own beliefs and, on the other, a clear need for her to continue speaking about race even if it would be less demoralizing to stay silent. She ended, “Choosing silence is a privilege.”
Brené Brown pointed to her research on guilt (“I did bad”) and shame (“I am bad”), sharing that perhaps the confrontations around racism stir up feelings of shame that cause people to become defensive, angry, or shut down—the corollaries here being “I did a racist thing,” versus “I am a racist.” Brené offered some practical advice: “When you confront a person on privilege, it’s critical you start where they are. It’s not working for us to not care. Ask a lot of questions and listen more than you talk.”
ARE YOU AN ALLY OR ACCOMPLICE?
Explaining that he believes white people need to do more of the emotional and mental labor of examining racism (rather than asking black and brown people to explain it to them), DeRay—one of the leaders of the 2014 protests in Ferguson—further reflected on the problems that arise when privileged activists engage in racial justice. He said it came down to proximity: “Allies support from a distance,” while “Accomplices are there with you in the moment.” He noted: “Proximity is hard. Their heart is in the right place, but they don’t want to put anything on the line.” DeRay further noted now that white people are protesting in the streets, the conversation around resistance has changed. A lot of people love the idea of resistance, but not necessarily the work of resistance. He framed it as: “I love you from a distance versus I love you up-close.” Later, in a conversation about trauma and some of the harrowing experiences DeRay had in Ferguson, Brené returned to this point noting that allies choose not to be in the field of trauma while accomplices are alongside you. DeRay footnoted this by warning against using proximity to trauma as a badge of honor, calling instead for a “proximity to the authenticity of the work [of racial justice], rather than proximity to trauma.”
WHAT TO DO WITH WHITE PAIN
As Brené called for more empathy in our public and personal conversations on race, she emphasized that, “We need to be careful of denying people of privilege from understanding their pain because it limits access for them to understand another’s pain.” DeRay agreed on the importance of empathy, but pushed back: “White people talking about race and pain can take up so much space that hearing and accepting it [as a person of color] can be difficult…. White people are so used to being heard and understood [whereas] people of color are used not to being heard and are very aware of how much space they take up.” He used the example of many organizing meetings where a white attendee would stand up to share their story and thirty minutes later was still talking.
Brené responded that this seems in part a visibility issue: of making what is invisible (racism, privilege, power) visible. She posed back, “How do you get people to see what’s invisible for them and easier for them not to see? When seeing it is for sure going to be an invitation to pain?”
WHY ARE WHITE WOMEN SUPPORTING TRUMP?
DeRay asked Brené—who is a white, Christian woman from Texas—to apply their conversation to the exceeding support of Trump from white women despite his racism, sexual assault allegations, etc. that seem against their own interests. Her response was a compassionate, but direct address for the desire for social power: “Evangelical women, especially, are used to the only access to power they have being the ‘drippings’ they can get.” She continued, “They support the patriarchy, hardcore. They’re not defining their interests like you’re defining their interests.”
CHRISTIANS AND RACISM
When asked by an audience member how white people who claim to be Christian can reconcile fear of “the other” with love Jesus preached, Brené and DeRay, both Christians, agreed that whiteness—which Brené noted could be operationalized as power and money—have won over God in many American churches. Brené ended: “Historical Jesus cannot be reconciled with what is happening now in white churches.”
JOY IS CRUCIAL
This exchange was so good, I’ll leave it here as a slightly edited transcript.
BRENÉ BROWN: Men and women we’ve studied who have the capacity to lean into joy are people who practice gratitude. Is there room for activism built around joy and gratitude? A lot of activism is fueled by anger and rage, and some people don’t want to engage [those emotions] so they don’t get active. You [also] see a lot of people become theoretical activists because they burn out.
DERAY MCKESSON: You can’t pour out of an empty cup. Some people’s identities are rooted in the perpetual battle. When joy comes up they are unmoored. In Ferguson, we were in the streets for 400 days, and when that passed you had people who were amazing in that moment but didn’t know how to act when there wasn’t tear gas and pepper spray. How do you get the movement to grow while people grow into different phases of their life? Rage is not sustainable.
BB: Anger is a great catalyst, but a sucky companion. I wonder at what point it’s not also a tool of oppression when you look at the health cost. I don’t know [the answer to that], but I know our joy is too big a price to have none of it in our lives.
DM: Some people are choosing to put joy on the backburner to fight. But joy and the presence of good things are a part of justice. [It’s] what justice looks like, smells like, feels like. [But] a world of equity and justice is a world we don’t know. People are nervous about building a system that is actually equitable.
BB: Uncertainty doesn’t make people nervous, it makes them feel backed into a corner and come out swinging, scared.
Obviously, DeRay McKesson and Brené Brown are no strangers to courageous and vulnerable conversations. Over the course of the two-hour event, they were unflagging in hearing each other out, pushing back with their own ideas, and never losing sight of the need for more joy. It was a great model for what they were urging attendees to do.
To close, a question that has stuck with me since the event and what I'm reflecting on
During the conversation, Brené Brown noted that shame is a tool of oppression. That’s to say, I am a bad person can be used against ourselves and others in a way that reinforces inequality and prejudice. I wondered about the counterpoint to shameful I am statements: I am good…I am capable… I am known… I am loved.
When is the last time you felt this way about yourself? Or helped someone else see this about themselves?