I don't want to be racist, do you? Probably not. So what stands in the way of taking criticism, offered constructively or not, when it comes to our blind spots? I think it's shame, and when it comes to shame, self-compassion is key.
I have a pet rooster, Mr. Brown, who simultaneously loves me and tries to kill me. He enjoys being snuggled and told how handsome he is, demurely pecking treats out of my hand and melting into a feather puddle when I massage his wattles. But as soon as I put on my green rubber muck boots, I become enemy number one. He will chase me over the entire ranch for the opportunity to let those boots know who's boss. It used to infuriate me. It was frightening and sometimes painful and I would become immediately reactive, cortisol rising. It also hurt my feelings - I hand raised that little jerk when he was the runt of the flock. Who does he think he is?
Sometimes I think I have answers to that, and we'll get back to it in a minute. But it's more honest to say I don't know. We can never truly know what is in the minds and hearts of The Other, humans and roosters alike. At the same time, the more I nurture self-compassion for my own human faultiness - times of aggression, pettiness, jealousy or selfishness, the less triggered I become when called out on it, and the more empathy I have towards the faultiness of others. When I can be forgiving towards myself for being (incredibly) imperfect, there is less to defend and less shame to move through, in responding to another. I am then able to be forgiving, relaxed and receptive to the other person.
So what, you just let people walk all over you then? What about people who are clearly in the wrong - abusers, racists, neo-nazi assholes who drive vehicles into crowds? Before we go any further, let's make the distinction between compassion and idiot compassion. Idiot compassion is where you are the proverbial milquetoast. This is not true compassion because your meekness is unkind not only to yourself, but also to the other. Someone who harms another also harms their own heart. True compassion is not martyrdom - it's having boundaries to prevent even greater harm. Like carrying around a spray bottle so that when your rooster tries to spur your bare legs, and you feel like murdering him, he gets a squirt in the face instead and nobody has blood on their hands (or spurs).
When it comes to being called out on your privilege, covert racism or just basic ignorance of the reality of being a Person of Color in 'Merica*, your feelings might get hurt or it may bring up shame. Even if the person calling you out does so ungracefully, this is not a case of someone being clearly in the wrong. The most important thing to remember is that shame does not mean you are bad, nor does it make the other person bad. Consider shame as a reminder that pops up on your phone, the string you tie around your finger, the post-it-note you put on your mirror - the one that says "Self-compassion is key".
The more you can offer yourself kindness and stay with your feelings of shame (and the story they bring up - I'm unworthy, I'm unlovable, I'm bad), the more you will discover that you can breathe through these moments. They come in like a wave and then, ebb out again.
Recently I was reflecting on a moment when someone (with inspiring gentleness) called me out on some language that could be construed as thinking like a colonizer. I had a flush of shame, a spike of defensiveness - For f*ck's sake, can't a person even talk anymore without mincing their words? - and then I took a deep breath. I summoned up self-compassion, and I also offered the other person generosity, assuming their best intentions. We ended up having a connective conversation, and both walked away feeling the better for it. As I mused on this experience, I had the thought, "Thank you for helping me decolonize my mind.".
I don't want to be racist, do you? Probably not. So what stands in the way of taking criticism, offered constructively or not, when it comes to our blind spots - those racist ways of thinking and perceiving that are part and parcel of unspoken American culture? I think it's shame, and the more we can loosen its grip on us, the more we can respond relationally.
I came across this quote by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe last night. It clearly sums up what I see as the only way forward in healing the divide between people:
I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.
This speaks to so much for me...parenting, teaching, handling roosters...and responding to other imperfect humans, whether they are calling me out on my white privilege or they are offending me with their political view points. Especially if that imperfect human is ME - do I humanize or dehumanize myself with my inner narrative?
In my struggle to find a solution with my rooster that didn't involve the soup pot, or my bruised feet, I made myself a student of Chicken Business. I observed my birds closely, noting triggers, times of day, relationships, and methods and styles of attacking. I ceased to assume and instead sought to understand. I read research on Roo behavior, and learned that roosters are hard wired to serve and protect their flock. The fact that Mr. Brown seemed confused by his own aggression towards me was probably the case - he does know that I raised him, indeed I am part of the flock. I am also obviously bigger and stronger and therefore a potential threat. He truly is not sure if I am a person, a hen, a rooster or a fox. He's also pretty sure that my green boots are monsters.
My rooster situation didn't really bring up shame, but it has taught me so much about my potential for keeping my head in the face of reactivity. I began to soften when Mr. Brown would begin his approach. I already knew that I should stand my ground, but instead of doing so angrily, I leaned forward with affection, sometimes even crouching down. As he came in, I cooed at him, telling him how handsome he is, what a good job he does protecting the girls. When he did peck me, or try to flog, I found patience. It hurt, but I could stand it. Remarkably, I didn't get angry anymore. He does still come after me from time to time, but it's far less frequent now. Because I am not reactive, I am able to have clear perspective and have learned how to thwart an attack with my hands. I can defend myself, but I am not defensive. Furthermore, I feel love for my King of the Field and Farm.
Even when running away from his spurs, first thing in the morning, bathrobe flying.
*It's my assumption that I'm preaching to the choir, but in case some phrases are new to you, here are a few links to get you started.