Spiritual Practices for White Anxiety

Posted by Annie Gonzalez Milliken // August 18th 2017

Tomorrow some right wing extremists are planning to hold a rally in the city I live in and I’m planning to march against white supremacy. Like many folks, I have a lot of questions rattling around in my brain. I have petty selfish questions, logistical questions, and deep questions. I’m wondering “How much violence will there be?” and “Should I wear a love shirt over my clergy shirt?” and “What if the cell phone towers jam and what if it rains?” and “What if things start to escalate, should I leave? Should I try and protect my friends of color? Will I have the courage to do that?” and “What if white people in our march are being obnoxious, should i intervene or should i just take care of my own self?” and “How will I get my 10 am coffee fix and how much water should I bring?” and “Is it good that i’m meeting up with clergy or should I have been a marshal or be marching with my church?”

I have so many questions. So many. I’m a white woman, and I’m anxious.

I know i’m not alone here. I know that because i went to a meeting last night to prepare people of faith for this march and there were a lot of anxious white women there asking questions about everything from whether stores would be open for business (answer: we don’t really know) to how many white supremacists would be showing up for their “Free Speech Rally” (answer: we don’t really know) to what the exact march route would be for our march (answer: we don’t really know).

It’s reasonable to be anxious right now. If you’ve seen the documentary Vice made about the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville, you know that, as our trainer said last night, “these people aren’t playing.” It is reasonable to be anxious about our country, about white supremacy and its violence, about responding the right way, about how to be a good person given evil systems, about staying safe.

And, we white folks (especially us white cis women) have to know how to manage this anxiety if we are going to be effective at dismantling white supremacy. Because getting paralyzed into inaction is just not an option. And trying to find the right answer to all those questions in our brains is not only impossible, it likely won’t be that helpful, and it will almost certainly annoy some organizers along the way, particularly the folks who have to face the violence of white supremacy every day of their lives by simply existing.

Last night my friend and colleague Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen reminded our group at the training that we have spiritual practices to deal with uncertainty from our faith traditions. She mentioned breathing and singing and chanting as practices she uses, and reminded us that we can use these practices for the uncertainty of illness, the uncertainty of having a child, the uncertainty of attending a protest.

So building on her much needed reminder and in the tradition of spiritual practices for white discomfort and privileged fragility, i offer spiritual practices for white anxiety, to keep us rooted in our values and growing in the work.

Use silence and stillness
When you feel that energy rising and you go to raise your hand in the meeting or text your friend or type on Facebook or whatever, try taking a moment of silence and stillness. Try being with your anxiety for a few moments. Maybe you’ll even find that underneath or behind it is fear or anger or shame or grief. Notice that. Explore what you’re feeling. Pray in the silence, if that’s something you do, or meditate in the stillness if that’s something you do.

Use your body and breath
Our bodies are such excellent teachers. Where in your body is your anxiety living right now? Your stomach, your chest? Sometimes mine lives in my forearms, weirdly enough. Note that. Maybe you can stretch or walk or dance or do yoga in a way that helps release some of your bodily anxiety. And don’t forget to breathe. Notice your breath. Try breathing in deeply through your nose and out through your mouth. Try making your stomach move out with each breath. Try counting your breaths. Try focusing in on only your breath. Practice attending to your body and breath regularly so that when you’re in an anxiety producing situation it will come more naturally.

Use music or poetry
On the night when Donald Trump was elected president, I didn’t know what to do with myself. The beer, the ice cream, the cigarettes, the bouncing from news source to news source, none of it was helping me feel human. Until i went out on the porch with a few friends and sang songs. The song that i found most useful in that moment was “Why Why Worry.” The familiarity of singing and the message that we can pray, sing, march and act faithfully instead of staying in our worried minds pulled me back into a semi-functional state. I put that song on again after watching Charlottesville footage early this week. But you can use whatever song or poem speaks to your heart. Maybe it’s a traditional hymn, maybe it’s a pop song, maybe it’s a protest chant, a Mary Oliver poem, a psalm. Memorize it, download it, write it on a paper and fold it up and put it in your pocket, sing it quietly to yourself while you walk down the street, blast it full volume in your room. Use it when you need to be more functional, more human.

Use discernment
While anxious questions can be unhelpful, that doesn’t mean questions aren’t valid. We are in quite a time and there is no perfect way to defeat white supremacy. It is good and right to spend time in discernment. It is good and right to ask yourself “what actions are most effective, what actions match my values and gifts and respect my limitations, what actions will stretch me in ways I want to grow, what actions are more about my ego or getting swept up in the current than about commitment to liberation?” You can journal on these questions or talk with a trusted friend who has agreed to listen or you can be with them in prayer or meditation. There’s still no right answer, but there are wiser and more intentional choices.

Use relationships
Relationships are key to all movement work, to all efforts to dismantle white supremacy. White supremacy isolates us, and so building our interdependence and vulnerability is a powerful way to combat it in our souls. Make sure you have folks in your life who will comfort you in your anxiety and make sure you’re not asking that labor of people of color or others more threatened by white supremacy than you. Use a friend as a discernment buddy as suggested above or do some other practice on this list with others. Singing, praying, chanting, meditation, and movement can all be even more powerful in groups!

Use faith and love
Faith is a form of sacred trust. It’s moving into the uncertainty though the answer is: we don’t really know. Faith doesn’t feel like “it’s all going to be ok,” faith feels like “I trust that i am enough for this work, I trust the people of color i am following, I trust that love is actually stronger than violence.” Faith is when you don’t have much hope, but you show up anyway. And why show up anyway, without hope? Because of love. When I watch the footage from Charlottesville and I think about how much i love my friends of color, my Jewish friends, my trans friends, my disabled friends, and my visibly queer friends i feel more commitment to this work and I also feel more fear and grief. Love isn’t always pleasant, but love makes this personal. Love makes us powerful.

These practices are good practices. They are good for this precise moment and for the white folks in Boston who are showing up tomorrow, but they are also good for so many other situations. They are good when our overtly racist friends and family members are making us anxious and we don’t know how or whether to respond, they are good when we’re struggling to make that phone call to that representative because we hate the phone, they are good for when we want to give super generously to fund Black organizers but aren’t used to it and feel hesitant, they are good when we binge on the news and can’t sleep, they are good when we say an awkward racist thing and think we’ll never recover from our embarrassment, they’re good whenever we’re not sure what to do or what will happen. These practices are good for dismantling white supremacy. I forget to return to them all the time, but whenever i remember, i find I’m a little bit stronger, a little bit wiser, a little bit more ready to work on getting us all free.

What spiritual practices do you use for anxiety in these times? Please do let us know in the comments.