Spiritual Practices for Privileged Fragility

By Annie Gonzalez Milliken


a banner reading "RESIST" hangs above the White House thanks to Greenpeace activists; photo by TheAnonnMessage/Twitter
The great safety pin debate. The epic pussy hat debacle. These are just two examples of an ongoing trend in liberal circles: people (often with relative privilege) respond poorly when their well meaning actions are critiqued by others on the left (often by folks with relatively less privilege). While some lament that divisive critique is destroying the left I know that we who believe in liberation have the spiritual resources to respond well to critical feedback and move forward together. How do I know this? Because I’m an able bodied cis white woman from a middle class liberal background who has learned to respond less defensively to critique from the left over time, using spiritual practices. And I have learned a lot and become more spiritually healthy and more ready for resistance in the process. Let’s clarify some assumptions: I’m assuming that folks reading this blog post are firmly opposed to oppression, have basic familiarity with the ways white supremacy, cis-hetero-patriarchy, classism and ableism play out, and are interested in being even more effective in the resistance to our new administration and its terrifying agenda. I’m generally going to be directing these practices toward folks with relative privilege (that is, folks who are less impacted by the intersecting types of oppression described above). As stated, I’m a relatively privileged white woman, and I mostly am thinking of my fellow middle class able bodied white cis women as I write this. However, this writing may be useful to anyone who receives a critique of a tactic who has privilege relative to the person offering the critique or to the folks who might be excluded or harmed by the action (such as men receiving a feminist critique or able bodied folks receiving a critique related to disability justice). Let’s dive in: So let’s say one of us did or said or supported a thing. Like we put on a safety pin after the election or got ourselves a pussy hat for the Women’s March. And then let’s say we came across an article or a Facebook status, a tweet, an email, a personal comment in a conversation, or some other form of communication that said that action was problematic. These critiques come in all tones and intentions and from folks of many different backgrounds. But no matter what the tone or vehicle of the critique, I believe there are some key spiritual practices we can use to respond to the critique in the most spiritually mature and helpful way possible.
  1. Open up: Feel our feelings and vent privately
The first spiritual practice is to open ourselves up to unpleasant feelings and find a healthy way to express and process them. This practice is hard for me. I like to pretend I’m not having any negative feelings and tell my friends “I’m fine!” Other folks have the opposite problem: they feel their emotions intensely and it overwhelms their inner landscape and they feel a burning need to tell everyone. So maybe you need to open yourself to actually having feelings or maybe you need to open yourself to knowing your feelings are not all of reality. It’s really normal to feel embarrassed, guilty or ashamed when we feel good about acting for our values and someone else says our action is harmful, or misguided. It’s really normal to then get defensive, to get angry about the feedback, to move toward self-righteousness or get shut down and just want to walk away forever. It’s normal to want to say “No YOU’RE the problem because you’re being too nit-picky!” or “Fine, you don’t like what I’m doing, then I’m leaving!” These reactions are understandable and also incredibly unhelpful. That’s why it’s so important to find a way to process these reactions privately. You might want to journal, yell in a secluded place, listen to energizing music, make some art, or talk to a loved one. I really like going for a run while listening to pop music as a way to get my feelings in my body and let them go. We may need to keep looping back to this step along the way, because hard feelings like shame, anger and fear can keep popping up. But once we’ve opened ourselves to feeling our feelings and letting them go, we can move on to wondering.
  1. Wonder: Find something we can learn from the feedback
The second spiritual practice is to wonder. Curiosity is amazingly powerful and a great way to decrease defensiveness. I learned this practice from a minister mentor and use it often. Once we’ve processed our feelings about a critique, we can ask “what can I learn from this critique?” One thing I learned during the safety pin debates was that it’s really important to have an intervention plan and deescalation skills in the era of Trump. One thing I learned from reading critiques of the Women’s March was how sex-workers were being unfairly portrayed by the organizers. No matter how wise, experienced or woke we are, we can always learn more. When we practice wonder we are also practicing humility and openness to spirit moving. If a certain piece of feedback raises our defensiveness but doesn’t offer us any information we didn’t already know, we could do our own research on the topic being raised, or just move on to centering.
  1. Center: Re-connect to our core values
The third spiritual practice is centering. There are a wide variety of ways to engage these practices. In this context I mean getting re-connected to our core values and to the reason we are doing the work to begin with. For example, maybe we are really passionate about reproductive justice and jazzed about pussy hats. And then we read a critique that the focus on the word pussy excludes trans women. Maybe we’ve processed our shame and defensiveness and learned more about the history of transphobia in certain types of feminism. Now we need to re-connect with our deep commitment to reproductive justice, integrating what we’ve learned. Maybe that means sitting in meditation or prayer. Maybe it means movement like dance or yoga. Maybe it means reading a sacred or beautiful or inspiring text, or reading stories of folks who are most impacted by lack of reproductive healthcare and options. Whatever it is, spend some time reminding yourself why you care about this work in the first place. As we do this, we may notice some other motivations that are present in our life. We may notice that we want to be right, or we want to be seen as a good ally, or we want folks to think we are really radical. We may notice that some of our motivations are not connected to our deepest values, but are more about our ego. I notice this constantly in myself. I don’t think I’ll ever fully get over my motivation to be seen by others as a dedicated and radical woke person, but I do spend time constantly turning from that desire back to my deep spiritual commitment to collective liberation. Prayer helps me do that; your practice may be different. Once we feel centered on our core commitments we can move on to discernment.
  1. Discern: Figure out what you personally are going to do now
The fourth spiritual practice is discernment. Discernment is another practice that is done in different ways in different religious traditions. In this context I mean reflective decision making on how to move forward. When we come across a critique that an action we’re doing is problematic, we have to decide what we’re going to do now. For example, if I put on a safety pin and then I see various articles shared on Facebook that are critical of safety pins, I need to make some choices: am I going to keep wearing my pin? If not, what will I do instead to try and achieve the same goals? If yes, what will I do to make sure I am wearing it responsibly? Maybe I can find a concrete form of related solidarity, like the Safety Pin Box! As we’re discerning there are so many factors to consider: our personal identities, the social milieus we inhabit, our various roles, our relationship to others. When I’m discerning what action I will take after receiving a critique I think about how my choices might play out and who might be harmed or helped by the action. When we are discerning our course of action there is no one right answer. This is because there is no one perfect way to be an activist, to be an ally, to dismantle white supremacy or patriarchy, etc. Once we’ve learned about the limitations of the tactic we were excited about we can make a more informed and intentional choice about how we use it or don’t use it. Then it is time to finally respond.
  1. Respond: Action, gratitude, and helping others
Responding is the last step, and it actually encompasses a few different types of responding. Response is best done after all the other steps so that we’re responding in the most grounded, helpful, mature way possible. The first response is to do the action we discerned in the fourth step. For example, after I read responses to the safety pin trend encouraging white folks to get trained in deescalation, I watching this deescalation video from Standing on the Side of Love and then later attended an in-person training geared toward folks doing a public action. So far I haven’t had to intervene in a hate incident in public in Boston, but I feel better equipped to do so than I did before. The second type of response is to respond verbally to the person offering critique if the person is someone you know and it makes sense to do so. This response can be tricky because even if we’ve done step one, we may still be holding onto some defensiveness, shame or anger. Remember, asking folks who face an oppression you don't face to stop expressing their opinions or to express them differently is harmful. I encourage folks to lean into the spiritual practice of gratitude when responding in writing or conversation to someone who offered a critique. It can be as simple as “Thank you, that gave me a lot to think about.” Gratitude is not only a great spiritual practice for daily life, but will help us avoid hurtful actions such as tone policing. The third type of response is to help others move through these spiritual practices. Lots of folks understandably get stuck up in step one: staying firmly in their defensiveness, anger and shame. I’ve seen many folks who share my identities, including people I deeply respect, sharing public sentiments along the lines of, “don’t be divisive, stop critiquing everything, be more positive, promote unity instead.” I try, as part of my spiritual practice, to reach out with compassion and humility and encourage those folks to try out these spiritual practices instead of staying in that defensive place. If you’re up for it, you might want to respond this way too, and hopefully even more of us will be moving through these valuable practices. Things have been dire and are getting much worse here in the United States and we need everyone who cares to be part of the resistance. We need to be all in: with our money, our voices, our votes, our actions and even with our spirits. For those of us with relative privilege, we can use these practices when we’re feeling fragile to stay in the work, to grow spiritually and to move forward. This movement needs us, and we absolutely cannot give up because it is hard or because everything is complex. We absolutely cannot attack those who face oppression because their feelings and experiences of the world make us feel bad. We must, instead, use these terrible times as an opportunity to become better versions of ourselves, the most spiritually mature and grounded people we can possibly be. This world needs us desperately; there is no other option. Looking for other spiritual practices for these times? If you’re white and ever find yourself struggling to follow leadership of color, take a look at Spiritual Practices for White Discomfort. What spiritual practices do others use to get through these times? Please feel free to share in the comments on the blog or contact me at agonzalez@uua.org! The featured image was taken by Kevin Banatte, afroCHuBBZ/twitter, and features Angela Peoples. You can read more about her feminism here. - ed.