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Spiritual Practices For White Discomfort

Posted by Annie Gonzalez Milliken // August 17th 2015 // Guides and Tools, Issues and Trends, Social Justice // 26 comments

So, lots of folks in the progressive world I inhabit on social media had a lot of opinions about the event that happened on August 8th in Seattle when the white leftie politician Bernie Sanders went to speak to a crowd about social security and medicare and was interrupted by two black women raising awareness about the Black Lives Matter movement the day before the first anniversary of Mike Brown’s death.

Bernie and BLM

Black Lives Matter activists disrupt Sanders event. Image from cnn.com’s video footage

And sure, as a white progressive who is pretty into Bernie Sanders’ political stances and who staunchly supports the Black Lives Matter movement, I have opinions too.

The opinion I wish to share here and now, however, is not about political analysis, history or strategy and it’s certainly not about the particular incident in Seattle. It is about spiritual practices. It’s about how as a person of faith, a Unitarian Universalist minister, and a middle class educated white woman who cares deeply about racial justice, I use spiritual practices to sit with my white discomfort.

What do I mean by white discomfort? I mean a social trend that I see repeatedly and an emotional reaction I’ve observed in myself. It goes something like this: The media breaks a story about something that Black Lives Matter activists did. Maybe somebody burned a building or blocked a freeway or shouted during a leisure event or interrupted a politician. White people react to such stories in a variety of ways. There’s everything from vocal and undaunted support to blatantly racist rants.

west and sekou

Dr. Cornel West and Rev. Osagyefo Sekou both spoke at UU General Assembly in June. Here they participate in direct action in Ferguson, MO. Photo by Heather Wilson.

I want to focus on those of us who fall somewhere in the middle of that reaction spectrum. I want to focus on those of us who feel confusion about why these tactics were chosen, who feel concerned that the tactics might be alienating or “going too far,” who feel afraid for how others further down the spectrum will react, who feel angry about being made to feel uncomfortable.

The spiritual practices I suggest here are designed for us: the white liberals in the middle of the reaction spectrum. And while I’m a devout Unitarian Universalist, these practices can be done by someone of any or no faith. These are practices that decenter our egos and help us to learn and grow while being compassionate with ourselves and faithful to our values.

I share these practices because I hope they can help us next time there’s a Black Lives Matter action that unsettles white folks. And it will happen again. This powerful movement for racial justice is not slowing down and it is not playing respectability politics (amen and hallelujah!)

So here’s what we can do next time:

Sit with discomfort

This is such a valuable exercise for both personal spiritual development and for combating our own white fragility. For those who practice mindfulness or draw on Buddhist traditions, sitting with discomfort may be familiar. For others of us it may not.  Either way, learning to name and own our own discomfort it is crucial to our spiritual development and our ability to be allies.

When judgment comes up, try turning to curiosity

This spiritual practice is good for all kinds of conflict and negative reactions. When I’m feeling judgment toward myself or others, I try to re-frame with curiosity. From “that was so stupid and ineffective” to “I wonder why those activists chose that strategy?” From “I’m a bad white ally for having these thoughts” to “I wonder where my discomfort is coming from and what I can learn about myself ?”

Read up
There are so many resources online! This is the time to seek out perspectives that support whatever action is making us uncomfortable. Look for the article that will explain the social context behind burning that building, the legacy of direct action that prompted blocking that freeway, the social commentary achieved by disrupting white leisure spaces, or why even progressive candidates need to be pushed. Reading these perspectives can be really helpful and can sometimes be hard. This is a good time to remember that the Unitarian Universalist fourth principle calls us toward such exploration.  Accepting the discomfort and turning to curiosity remain important.

Process feelings with other committed allies privately
Ours is a relational and covenantal faith and we need one another to be our best selves. I usually talk to my partner or my best friend, both of whom are white people who care a lot about racial justice and are people I trust. If you don’t have such folks in your life already, reach out to someone you know to be a committed white ally! They will likely be glad to have a processing partner or help you find one.

BLM march NYC

Thousands march for Black Lives Matter, NYC, December 2014. 

Stay focused on the big picture
The movement for racial justice is so much bigger than one action. Usually once I’ve sat with my discomfort, gotten curious, read up and processed I’m in a place where I understand whatever action made me uncomfortable and am ready to help others process it. But even if I’m still feeling squicky about it, I can support the Black Lives Matter movement and I can work for racial justice. I can give money or show up to local rallies, or find helpful lists of ways to be involved and do some of them. Holding ambiguity and acting on our values even while uncomfortable are also spiritual practices. This is how we strengthen our religious muscles and build our own faithful capacity.

And when we find ourselves wanting to…

…go public with our discomfort
Then it’s time to practice deep listening and keep quiet. This practice is also a good one for everything from small group ministry to conversations with a loved one, no matter what the topic is. While processing our feelings privately with other allies is important to helping us stay engaged, using spaces like Facebook, twitter, email list-serves or a congregational meeting for our own processing isn’t helpful. The movement needs to stay focused on black lives. It saps the energy of those working hard to organize and advocate for racial justice to read or hear and then respond to public expressions of white discomfort, and is especially draining for people of color.

… determine what tactics are appropriate
Then it’s time to practice radical faith. Maybe you’ve processed the Bernie Sanders Seattle debacle but you still wonder “what if Black Lives Matter activists do something else that I disagree with more? Where do I draw the line?” First of all, we are not running this movement. The only line we need to draw is for our own personal involvement. Fortunately even if you are not personally comfortable with confrontation or disruptive action, you can still be an ally and do whatever you are comfortable with. You can also practice faith. By faith I mean sacred trust. It is hard for white liberals to put our sacred trust in radical black activists because we are socially conditioned not to do that. But it is perhaps the most important spiritual practice on this list; it is liberating soul saving work to practice this type of faith.



Unitarian Universalists proclaim that Black Lives Matter in Boulder, CO. Photo from Kierstin Homblette.

Let us practice radical faith and deep discernment. Let us sit with our discomfort, turn to curiosity, educate ourselves, be vulnerable in our relationships and act on our religious values. These spiritual practices will serve us well in every aspect of our lives. They will serve us well in every movement where we are working to be allies. And they will allow us to stay engaged with the Black Lives Matter movement, this powerful and multifaceted cry that our nation cease the deeply immoral practices of white supremacy and turn to a new way. We Unitarian Universalists know that we must turn to a new way. We know we must be part of the turning. And we have the spiritual resources to do our part. So let’s keep working.

About the Author

Annie is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and currently serves our faith as the Young Adult and Campus Ministry Associate for the Unitarian Universalist Association.
26 Responses to “Spiritual Practices For White Discomfort”
  1. Carlena Wike says:

    Thanks, Annie! Your input is appreciated. Still sitting with it . . .

  2. John Steitz says:

    Thank you for sharing this.

  3. John Fred Eden says:

    Wonderful !@@@@@!!!!!! Thanks for this! You rock, Annie!

  4. Gary Whittenberger says:

    I doubt that very many UUers will express a negative view of this article, even if they have one. But I’ll not be afraid to do so.

    I think that when protesters (regardless of their race) burn buildings or engage in other forms of violence, progressives and UUers (regardless of their race) need to speak out against this. The sixth UU principle is “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;” Peace and violence are incompatible. It is not helpful and it is harmful when protesters engage in violence. We should condemn this sort of action and encourage a different mode of expression.

    I also do not agree with anyone who interrupts Bernie Sanders or any other person who “has the floor” when they are speaking. The people at the rally came to hear Sanders. Those who interrupted him (regardless of their race, which is really irrelevant) are disrespecting Sanders and everyone else who came to hear him speak. Sanders has not be reticent to provide a Q&A period, and thus the interrupters could have and should have waited till that time to ask their questions or make their points. They were totally out of line.

    I think this article makes some good points, especially about trying to understand the point of view and motives of the protesters, but in effect it excuses immoral (and in some cases criminal) behavior, in my opinion.

    Does anyone agree or disagree with me? If so, why?

    • Annie Gonzalez Milliken says:

      Hi Gary,
      I appreciate your careful read and consideration of the post.
      Well many UUs have expressed views quite similar to yours on social media, which is precisely what motivated me to write the post! It seems like you’re in that place of feeling the need to determine which tactics are appropriate and process your discomfort (or rather disapproval) publicly. I really do understand those desires, which is why I named those tendencies at the end of the post with suggestions for other practices.
      It’s clear that you and I disagree on what constitutes immoral behavior in the face of white supremacy. But I hope we do agree on the moral call to end white supremacy. If so, then there are many ways to support the Black Lives Matter movement without doing anything that goes against your conscience. I hope you will either continue to or start to work for racial justice in your own community in ways that work for you!
      For a handy list of tips for UUs, check out: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/5-ways-support-black-lives-matter
      In faith.

    • wolfie says:

      Gary, I believe it was John F Kennedy who said “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”. Howard Zinn said “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy, it is absolutely essential to it.” Finally, the entirety of Dr. King’s 1963 letter from a Birmingham jail is an important piece of writing that applies perfectly to this matter. I reread it often and have learned so much from his words. The most pertinent segment, as I see it is as follows: “…over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

      I thought that the original post clearly and eloquently stated and reaffirmed justice promoting ideas quite similar to those in the quotes I have just shared. I find that when I am grappling with a differing perspective than my current manner of thinking, it is helpful for me to read and be exposed to various individuals’ related perspectives. I hope you find that much of what you are reading inspires your own expansion of ideas.

  5. CJay says:

    Gary Whittenberger, I agree with you 100 percent . It seems social behavior has become worse with every new generation. Their behavior was rude.

  6. RCW says:

    Thank you for lending a faith perspective to this and for calling on all of us to “own” this experience. I am not a person of faith but if I were I would be UU and I see great value in going inward when I experience discomfort. My tendency is to go outward which, for me, feels like the ego doin a random road trip. Not very useful for my own process but kind of a thrilling ride for my opinion. I am a white person of privilege as well as a mother and wife to white privileged men. What made me the most uncomfortable was the reaction to the protesters. It made me deeply sad. I’m working with that. I did post about this earlier in the week, my outward processing. The post inspired some great conversation that I found helpful. So I guess I’m just trying to strike a balance between useful participation and the need to be quiet and listen to the message so that I can be better informed as to how best to support BLM. Again, thank you for this post.

  7. Rev. Jeanne Allen says:

    Your article has been shared in a anti-racist white caucus group to which I belong. I think these practices are powerful and can be helpful when shared, particularly with other white friends. I am not sure about the advice to “not go public with our discomfort.” I agree that we need not share how bad we may feel with blacks particularly. That doesn’t help them; however, sharing how our discomfort leads us to solidarity or starting a private group of whites against racism on Facebook which might serve as an alternative to face to face meetings with time and schedule issues could be a positive.

    I am a UCC minister retired and I heard you say that your practices were good for people of different faiths and even, no religious faith. I agree. For me they would be spiritual practices, and I was drawn to your blog particularly because of the word “Spiritual.” Calling them spiritual, however, will keep some people from reading this blog. . Can these be published twice, maybe with a different title.

    • Annie Gonzalez Milliken says:

      Oh I’m glad it was shared there and I really appreciate your reflections.
      Yes, I agree, there’s a spectrum from “public” to “private” and there are definitely advantages to sharing in groups. In my experience, spaces that are specifically designed for white allies can be wonderful places to be more “public” as you pointed out. That’s a good point and another great practice: creating our own support networks.

      Interesting point on the spiritual bit! I hear you on the words keeping people away. Something UUs often wrestle with.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  8. Mary Frances Kordick says:

    Rev. Annie, thank you so much for offering the who, what, when, where, and why to my internal conflict on what I can do to attain peace. UUism has brought me much peace over the few years I’ve belonged to my congregation often leaving space for deeper thoughts with which I continue to struggle. Daily I pray for peace throughout the world and try to act to bring this about in my own little corner. Now, after reading some of Pema Chodron and this expose, I now feel more armed to address the deeper issues that gnaw at my being.

    • Annie Gonzalez Milliken says:

      I’m so glad to hear this post was helpful and that your experience in UU community has brought you peace! I’ve found Pema Chodron helpful in my spiritual journey as well.

  9. Ken Howard says:

    Annie, I would welcome the chance to have a dialogue with you about this, but not via public comments on your blog. I’ve been burned once too often trying to have discussions about sensitive issues in public spaces (like Facebook and blog comments). People, even of your persuasion, make too many assumptions about the motives behind honest questions.And I’m feeling kinda done with that….

    • Annie Gonzalez Milliken says:

      Hi Ken,
      I can be reached at agonzalez@uua.org if you’d like to pursue a one-on-one conversation. However, as a fair warning I should be going out on maternity leave any day now; I was due on Aug 17th. But if I’m around I’m open to scheduling a brief call or exchanging a few emails! I agree that Facebook threads and comments sections often prove to be unhelpful venues for earnest discussion.

  10. Marilyn Sewell says:

    Much of what you say is useful, in that interpretations of behavior and speech can differ widely according to race and class. However, under no circumstances could I condone violence, of which arson is one example. Martin Luther King, Jr., used direct action in his approach to racism, but civil disobedience does not include violent acts. Sometimes we are uncomfortable with an action simply because it is wrong.

  11. Riley37 says:

    Marilyn and Gary take a stand against violence.

    On one hand, if you personally choose not to practice violence, even against property, then I respect your choice just as much as I respect vegetarianism and MLK’s nonviolence.

    On another hand:

    You can try to forbid your fellow UUs from use violence. Tell it to Theodore Parker, who kept a loaded pistol handy when he harbored escaped slaves.

    You can try to forbid all anti-racists from using violence. Tell it to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who deployed the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to enforce a Federal court order. The 101st were (and are) among world’s most skilled experts at the use of violent force. No shots were fired, because the opposition retreated from superior firepower… but there’s not much moral distinction between making a threat and carrying it out.

    You can try to forbid anyone anywhere from using violence. Tell it to the KKK; tell it to Dylann Roof. They will laugh at you – and so will I.

  12. lorie says:

    What about native americans

    • Annie Gonzalez Milliken says:

      Hi lorie,
      Well, this post was written for a pretty specific audience of white liberals who generally are against racism but struggle with our own discomfort around some aspects of Black liberation movements. I’m a white person and I saw a need for this message among fellow white folks, which is why I wrote it. Are you looking for resources on how Native folks are responding to the movement for Black lives or is there something else driving your comment?

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