How do we unlearn this stuff?

on the left a person in cold weather activewear runs up a set of bleachers. In the middle a middle aged couple embrace. On the right two people are looking over a map and using a computer.

By Annie Gonzalez Milliken

Have you already read the introduction to this post? Oh you have? Great, let’s go!

Note: As I write about challenge, comfort, and processing needs, I use examples from my growth as a white person trying to unlearn white supremacy and my growth as a young woman trying to unlearn patriarchy. Clearly everyone has different identities that inform how they unlearn harmful systems. Some of us, like me, have a relatively large amount of privilege, while others experience many forms of intersecting oppression. I offer this framework hoping it is of use to people of many identities, and knowing it is heavily informed by my many privileges and specific identities.

We can’t grow if we’re never challenged, right? Unlearning oppressive patterns and systems necessarily involves being uncomfortable, hearing new ideas we may not like, getting feedback that can us feel crappy, making mistakes we might regret. It’s not always fun and it’s totally crucial work.

To get challenged we can seek out material we think will push us in the direction we want to grow. We can follow radical folks on social media, read blog posts and articles or seek books we have heard good things about. We also must listen to others with different life experiences. As a white person I must listen to friends, colleagues and organizers of color. As a woman I must listen to women and femmes who experience patriarchy along with other oppressions, such as trans folx, women of color, women with disabilities, and others.

For those of us unlearning systems where we are privileged, it is normal for defensiveness, shame or frustration to surface when we’re challenged. That’s totally fine, that’s why we also need comfort and processing. For more on that check out spiritual practices for privileged fragility or read on to comfort and processing. For those of us unlearning systems that oppress us, we may experience some defensiveness and shame around our own complicity, as well as fear, grief and rage at the ways this system has harmed and is harming us. All of that is normal and again, can be taken to comfort and processing space.
One last caveat: when I’m talking about challenge here, I’m talking about challenge that pushes us in the direction we want to grow. So I’m not talking about me dialoguing with my racist uncle as a white person, although that is challenging. And I’m not talking about me enduring a sexist microaggression in my professional life as a woman, although that’s also challenging. I’m talking about the challenges that push us further on our own journey of dismantling oppressive systems within and beyond us.

Dismantling systems of oppression is hard messy work, and we do need support when the going gets tough so we can express our shame or anger or confusion and just vent it all out, and hear that we are loved and not alone. If we have oppressed identities, we also likely have trauma (whether personal or intergenerational) and exhaustion from microagressions that needs healing. Comfort needs are usually met best with folks who share our identities and with people we trust. Professionals such as ministers, religious educators, healers and therapists can also be good sources of comfort. It’s important that we do not seek comfort from those who experience the oppression we’re unlearning if we’re privileged, or who experience a harsher version of the oppression if we’re targeted. It’s like the rings of grief: comfort in, dump out. So I wouldn’t cry to my friend of color about how bad I feel that I accidentally did a racist thing at work; I would take that to my white friend who also does anti racism work. And I wouldn’t vent to an underemployed visibly queer woman about how hard it is to be a professional straight-passing woman in the workplace; I’d save that for my cis male partner. With some care and intention we can easily get our comfort needs met without upsetting or triggering others.

One last caveat: I don’t want to seek comfort from folks who would try to soothe me into complacency. So I try and seek comfort from people who share my commitment to dismantling systems of oppression and care about my personal growth. For folks with multiple oppressed identities, it IS important to pause for healing, which is different from complacency, so again, seek folks you trust to help you in your discernment. Once we’re done moving through hard feelings, it’s time to process so we can learn from them. That means finding space to process.

Processing involves writing or talking through new concepts or pieces of information and integrating them into our understandings of the world and ourselves. It also can include asking questions and articulating areas of internal resistance or confusion. Identity caucuses or virtual spaces designated by identity are great places for processing to happen. For example, I’m in a Facebook group called “Learning Ground for White Female UU Ministers,” and while that is very specific it is a great space for processing as we try and unlearn white supremacy without having to deal with microaggressions from men. Another processing option includes compensating folks, particularly those who have direct/more intense experience with the oppression we’re unlearning, to teach or facilitate a learning space. For example, paying anti-racism consultants of color to lead a workshop, or paying Black and trans women to speak in a panel about feminism and answer questions would fit into that category. Mentors and professionals can also be great for supporting processing.

One last caveat: We need to make sure we don’t get stuck in the land of eternal processing or confuse processing with action. Processing is a vital part of learning but it’s not worth much if we don’t put it into practice. So check out the next section for practice tips or jump to the self and community evaluation questions.