Nicole Havelka Consulting
in Antiracism - Change Leadership - Mindfulness - Social Justice

Pause and Breathe: Combatting Racist Defensiveness

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Like this post if you (white people) have thought in the past several months, “I’m not THAT kind of white person.” (i.e. a bigot, white supremacist, racist)

Yup. So have I.

Underneath this instinct to push away the racism that may apply to us is a desire not to identify with a system that oppresses people because of their skin color. That basic instinct is not a bad one. I’m glad we don’t want to be hateful, bigoted, racist people. The problem is that denying that white people do things that align with racist behaviors is like denying that we breathe air to live. We can’t live in this culture without having internalized habits of white supremacy. White supremacy is the air we breathe every day.

This fact really sucks. But, it’s true.

Since doing a deeper dive into white supremacy culture these past few months, I’ve been cataloguing uncomfortable memories into a white supremacy culture hit list.

I’m probably the worst offender of, “I’m the only one,” thinking. (See Tema Okun’s article.) I love to believe that I am the smartest, most skilled, most knowledgeable person for many jobs. I struggle to delegate. I can miss the skills and gifts of the people on my team because I don’t bother to pay attention to or inquire about what they are passionate about or good at. I am impatient with people learning new skills, even though I know that’s just part of the learning process. I want things to be perfect. Right. Now. (See? This one is overlapping with perfectionism. Read a past blog about that.)

When I was the co-editor of my college newspaper, (Shout out to The Knox Student!) I was responsible for overseeing the layout and design of the paper before it went to print. The bad habit I developed with our new layout/design manager was that I would come into the office the morning of our deadline and finish up work that she had started the previous night. She was more deliberate (hence, a little slower) than I, but ultimately the better designer. As I think back on this, my micromanaging had to have been infuriating. I would have been infuriated to have been on the receiving end of  my own micromanaging.

One day, more than halfway through the year, she asked me to have a one-on-one meeting. (Something I should have been doing with my team anyway. Forgive me, I was only 21.) She told me, very calmly, that my habit of coming into the office and doing her work was messing with her plans and often created more work for her in the long run. I’m grateful to the Holy Spirit that must have been guiding my very young and inexperienced self in that moment – I was not defensive, and I asked how I could fix it. We came up with a way for her to leave me a list of simple tasks I could do, so that I could leave her the work she really needed to do (and didn’t need me messing up).

She gave me one of my best learning experiences of my early career – about backing off and letting others do the work that they are supposed to do. Even if that means it gets done a little slower or not in the exact way I would do it.

Recounting this story, I am even more uncomfortable today than I was then. Why? Because she is African-American, and I am white. Did I correct her more because of her race? Was my tendency to “fix” the work lie in the white supremacist belief that white people always know best?

I hate to admit it. But, yes. That is true because, as I wrote earlier, white supremacy is the air we breathe. And it is toxic.

Fellow white people, I know being called out for or even reflecting on past experiences through the lens of racism is uncomfortable and painful. Let me teach you a trick I’ve learned from my yoga and meditation practice to help you get through (because we must get through): When you feel uncomfortable – particularly around issues of race – Pause and breathe.

In this week’s #MindfulMonday video, I talk more about how breathing into the heart center can open us to being grateful for the feedback we receive and the growth that it creates in us.

The best I can do (and that any of us can do) is promise to grow and learn from being called out for and reflecting upon our racist and/or white privileged mistakes. I can’t do that if I’m denying that I make mistakes in the first place. So breathe and open your heart. You might be surprised by how a little discomfort can fuel your growth.

Pause and Breathe with some mindfulness practices that can help you embrace discomfort:

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