How Emotions Can Guide Antiracist Work

Society is not as far removed from the painful legacy of racism as some believe. After the police killing of George Floyd this summer, the imperative of racial justice has entered mainstream consciousness and made evident the need to actively dismantle systems of white supremacy.

The work of antiracism is necessary, but those who assume it often find themselves feeling overwhelmed by the struggle against deeply entrenched institutions. It’s no secret that the United States is a country with origins grounded in violence and exploitation — demanding deep emotional labor from those who seek to uproot the old system and plant new seeds.

Sheila Diggs

Karla McLaren and Sheila Diggs are colleagues in the study of emotion. Karla is an award-winning author, researcher and innovator in the field of effective communication and empathy. Sheila is an organizational development professional who engages organizations in self-awareness and builds awareness around systems of racial inequality in teams.

In this interview, Karla and Sheila discuss their work, what it means to honor our emotions, and leverage self-awareness for change.

Karla and Sheila are leading an interactive session at the Bioneers 2020 Conference! Register now to attend their Dec. 6 session, “The Emotional Work of Antiracism: How Our Feelings Can Help Us Create A More Just World.”

At the Bioneers Conference, you’ll be speaking on the emotional work of antiracism. How can we transform the feelings that can sometimes intimidate us from this kind of work into the very motivators that drive us to create change?

Karla McLaren

In our work, which is called Dynamic Emotional Integration®, we see emotions as the central motivators for everything we do – all thought, action, choice, and behavior. We trust that the emotions, which are older than human language, carry an ancient form of wisdom that can help us live more grounded and purposeful lives. Each emotion brings us a specific kind of intelligence and awareness, and when we understand our emotions, we can learn to work directly with them.

The emotional work of antiracism requires that we gain more awareness of the white supremacy programming in our culture. This culture has us caught in an insidious dynamic of racist beliefs about superiority and inferiority that many can’t even see. Our emotions are attempting to help us see and address these everyday injustices, but because our emotional training tends to be very poor, these emotions can lead to overwhelm. 

Historically, we’ve been discouraged from having conversations about or addressing racism. This avoidance reaches back to the hardened social structures of slavery and Jim Crow. In order to dismantle this programming, we have to come together to talk about and explore our beliefs, assumptions, and biases. These interactions and conversations about racism often evoke powerful emotions that can lead to real change, but instead they mostly stop people from staying in conversations with one another.  

These emotions are not to blame, and they’re not the problem; they arise to help us face the problem, and they bring us the precise energy and intelligence we need to deal with the problem. Therefore, we focus on helping people understand emotions, learn their unique language, and develop the skills they need to work with their emotions with competence and brilliance. Our emotions are what will help us become more skilled in our conversations with one another as we work toward antiracism, equality, inclusion, and justice.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. As the author of “Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of this Vital Emotion,” what advice can you give to people for handling this emotion? How can they use their anxiety as a source of intuition and energy, while still making space for grief?

This pandemic has brought a great number of emotions forward to help us, but because most people haven’t learned to see their emotions as important forms of intelligence, many people are feeling this emotional richness as confusion or even overwhelm. It may help to understand the purpose and intelligence in anxiety.

Anxiety arises to help us organize ourselves, gather our supplies, and prepare to complete our tasks and meet our deadlines. In this pandemic, we need the support of our anxiety pretty much every day. However, another important emotion, panic, is also necessary. Panic arises when our lives are endangered, and it helps us make the most intelligent actions to protect our lives. Both emotions are necessary in a pandemic, but most people don’t understand the difference between them or what they do alone or together, so the activation these emotions contribute can destabilize people. In Embracing Anxiety, I help people work with these emotions alone and together so that they can be prepared and protect their lives in ways that work for them and for their emotions.

Grief, as you know, is the emotion that helps us deal with death and loss, and grief is necessary in a pandemic, of course. In emergency situations, which this pandemic has been allowed to become here in the United States, grief may need to take a back seat for a while. The needs of survival should take precedence over grieving our losses, yet it’s also important to make time for grief until this emergency is over. We’ve been offering regular online grief rituals to help people come together to mourn our losses as we continue to protect our lives and the lives of others.

Grief often requires ritual, and a community ritual at that, so we’re doing what we can. 

Our country is deeply divided, with political partisanship becoming a statement on identity and morals. What role does empathy play in helping us unify and navigate through these difficult times?

Empathy has been treated as a cure-all, but we don’t see that most approaches to empathy are very robust. For instance, people think that a lack of empathy is what’s wrong with the United States (and other countries), when in fact, we’ve got a ton of empathy happening – it’s just not directed with much skill or maturity. Too much empathy of the wrong kind can be just as much of a problem as too little empathy is.

We have a tremendous amount of in-group empathy that has been weaponized against the other, and here in the U.S., entire political parties have become the other. In-group empathy inside the parties is very strong, but if you try to display empathy for the out-group, you may be attacked by your group. This type of empathy is an immature form, but it is empathy.

Isabel Wilkerson, the African American author of the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, speaks to the necessity of “radical empathy” in dismantling the programming of our white supremacy caste system. Radical empathy requires us to empathize with those who are different from us so that we can re-humanize one another. Wilkerson defines radical empathy as “putting in the work to educate oneself and listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel.” 

Navigating through this time means learning how empathy works, and most importantly, that empathy is first and foremost an emotional skill. If people don’t have skills or practices for all of their emotions – especially the powerful ones – their empathy will not be robust, and they’ll lose their capacity to empathize across lines of difference.  We seek a more muscular empathy than that – one that can peer into the heart of the other and see the world from within their lives. Only then can we truly address the chasms that have been dug between us, and only then can we address the pain, inequality, and injustice our supposed enemy has brought into the world.  

Technology has allowed us to become hyper-connected, on a global scale. But with all this outside stimulus — from social media to the 24-hour news cycle — some people have become disconnected from themselves. How does emotional work help us rekindle our capacity for intuition and a stronger mind-body relationship?

Learning how to work with emotions is everything; it can help people in every conceivable area of their lives, but because our emotional education has tended to be so poor, many people experience their emotions as problems that need to be solved or escaped from. Social media can help us escape, but if we’re connected to our emotions, it doesn’t have to. We can be whole and functional people and use social media intelligently; it doesn’t have to be an escape from our lives.

In your book The Art of Empathy, you refer to emotions as “action-requiring neurological programs.” How can people identify their deepest, most primal emotions, and leverage them with critical thinking and decision-making for a more fulfilled life?

Current neuroscience is showing us that emotions and rationality aren’t separated in the brain or in behavior, which is a wonderfully freeing idea. It means that we don’t have to segregate the contents of our souls or treat parts of ourselves as better or worse. That “action-requiring” concept has been upended a bit since I wrote that book, but we can say that emotions help us create meaning, make decisions, act, and behave. Learning their language means learning how to access our most powerful motivators and the most powerful aspects of human behavior. 

Every emotion we have contains a unique form of genius that doesn’t exist anyplace else. Knowing that, we can welcome all of our emotions, as the poet Rumi wrote more than 800 years ago, “as guides from beyond.”

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