[Immense thanks to Nuola Akinde for contributing wisdom and perspective to this article!]
Let’s say you’re a white person in a discussion that touches on race. You’ve heard of “white fragility” and “white women’s tears.” You know that your reaction in the moment is more important for the relationship than all the books you’ve read, rallies you’ve attended, or friends of color you claim.
But you’re also having a big emotional reaction. Maybe you’re on the verge of tears yourself. What do you do?
Take a lesson from Ring Theory: provide care in and seek care out.
Here’s a synopsis:
Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan’s patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.
Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.
Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.
Ring Theory reminds us that traumas like racism and cancer cause suffering for many people. Many people have emotional needs related to the situation. But someone is in the center ring. They are experiencing the greatest hardship.
Our job is to offer care to those experiencing greater suffering from the situation than us. And, since we too may experience hardship from the situation, we too have needs for care. We should seek this care from those who are in outer circles.
I’ll break this down in a bit, but first a few words on the consequences and importance of feeling our feelings — and expressing them.
Why “white women’s tears” can be dangerous to people of color
The discussion of “White women’s tears” highlights why it’s important to be mindful about how you express your emotions in race discussions when you are in the outer rings.
The phase originally critiqued when white people, especially white women, “take offense at minor threats to their privilege” and use “strategic tears to avoid accountability.” Its critique has expanded to include any white tears in race discussions.
- When a person of color raises a concern about racism and a white woman cries, who gets the care? The tissues? The hugs? Often comfort goes to the white person crying, rather than providing support to the people most harmed by racism.
- What happens to the person of color who raised the concern? Often they are portrayed as troublesome and cruel for “making her cry.” That can cost a person of color their job.
- How do white men respond to the white woman’s tears? As a white man, I’ve been socialized to “be the protector.” And when a white man charges in as the “white knight” to “protect” a white woman it can cost a person of color their freedom — or their life.
- Even when a job or a life isn’t on the line, people of color often feel an expectation to now provide emotional care for the person crying. They now have to shoulder not just the burden of the first racial harm, but also the burden of emotional labor to care for the person crying.
People of color are generally very aware of these risks of speaking up. Not only does this silence further perpetuate racial harm, it creates a new harm. Think of a time when you’ve been wronged and couldn’t name it. Think of how painful that was. The silencing that white women’s tears enforces makes that kind of pain an ongoing experience.
[Not as often mentioned is the corollary of “white men’s anger.” As a man, I’ve been socialized not to express my uncomfortable feelings through crying, but through anger. When I follow that programming, especially when I shout, the same dynamics kick in. People turn their attention to de-escalate me. The person who raised the concern is at risk. Bad stuff man, bad stuff.]
Why the answer is not suppressing your feelings
A common response when people hear about the impact of white women’s tears or white men’s anger is to say, “OK, I’ll just bottle up my emotions. How I feel isn’t important.”
Here are four reasons why that’s not a good approach.
First, the world we’re trying to create is one where everyone has access to their full range of emotions. Our goal is that everyone can feel and express their feelings, not a world in 50 years where white people never cry.
Second, shutting down our emotional response to the harms of racism is counter-productive. We should feel sad and angry about the impacts of racism on the world, on people we love, and on ourselves. For those of us who are white, most of us should be opening ourselves to feeling this more, not dissociating more. Motivation is 90% emotional, 10% rational. If we cut ourselves off from our emotional reaction, we cut ourselves off from our motivation.
Third, bottled up emotions always leak out, and usually in unhealthy ways. As a white man, I wasn’t explicitly taught to yell. I was mostly taught not to express uncomfortable emotions. But they are there, and when I keep them in eventually the pressure gets to be too much. Then they come out as yelling or hurtful comments, usually directed at the people I love the most.
Fourth, your big emotions are signals to what is a big deal for you, signals that you need to sort through in order to grow. White fragility often emerges when people who care about fairness see that their actions may not have fair outcomes. If they didn’t care, it wouldn’t hurt, and they wouldn’t feel the need to get defensive. That emotional reaction is a signal to look deeper and ask, “since I care about fairness, how can I help make things more fair?” In an essay like this, that sounds easy and rational. It’s not. It’s more emotional than rational, and you can’t do it if you turn your emotional responses off.
If you don’t suppress your emotions, what do you do with them?
You might be feeling stuck here. First we tell you that your tears and anger can do harm. Then we tell you that suppressing your emotional response can do harm. How do you sort that out?
What Ring Theory offers is a way through this paradox.
Ring Theory reminds us that when we’re dealing with a hardship, there is someone affected most. They can seek care from anyone. They are under no obligation to provide care to anyone on that issue. Other people more removed from the harm should not ask the people closer to the harm to care for them. They should provide care in toward the people more harmed than them and seek care out from those less harmed.
People on your same level of the ring are fair game both for providing care and seeking care. (This is part of the power of affinity group spaces, Sometimes the best support you can give and get is from someone on the same ring as you.)
If you’ve heard the phrase, “centering people of color,” and wondered what it means, this is part of it. It means putting their needs, traditions, and lives at the center of our work and analysis.
So yes, if you are not at the center of the circle, you can still have and express your emotions. You can still have your needs met. The trick is you have to check how your emotional expression affects those closer to the center.
If your reaction detracts from attending to the people closer to the center ring, you may have to redirect the group. Here are some phrases to try:
- “Thank you. You don’t need to care for me right now. The most important thing right now is to hear from _______. Please don’t let my reaction distract from that.”
- “Attending to ______ is important to me, I don’t want my reaction to interfere with that.”
- “I’m sorry, I can see that how I’m handling this is being a distraction. I’m going to step away for a bit so that the group can keep its attention on ____ rather than being distracted by me.”
A few notes:
- What comfort and support are will depend on the person and situation. Ask! Sometimes a person might need you to be quiet and listen, sometimes they may want you to share similar experiences. Sometimes they may want a hug, sometimes they may not want to be touched. Pay attention to their nonverbal communication, and when in doubt, ask.
- Offering understanding can be a great way to offer comfort. That doesn’t mean you should interrogate or ask to be educated. Often the best support you can offer to someone is active listening to help them feel heard. But when your curiosity shifts away from tending to their needs and toward satisfying your own desire to know, it stops being a way to provide care.
- There is no one way to do this right. Tears can be weaponized. Stone-faced silence can be weaponized. Walking out can be weaponized. Or set “weaponized,” with its implied intent, aside. Tears, silence, and walking out can all cause harm even despite your best intentions. This is another way racism hurts us all. The key is not to be perfect. The key is to keep your attention on those most harmed and to face the impacts of your actions with courage.
- This is easier when you have a group norm that supports it. White people’s emotional expressions can be triggering for people of color. That’s real, it’s valid, and sometimes it’s messy. It can help if you’ve established an understanding ahead of time. For example, “all people’s emotional reactions are welcome here, and we’re going to direct our care and attention to those most harmed. Please watch how your reactions affect providing care to those most harmed and seek what you need to care for yourself in appropriate ways.”
This framework isn’t perfect. It doesn’t help you answer when you are on an outer ring and have a block that you need addressed for the group to be able to move forward. It doesn’t answer how to deal with intersecting identities. It doesn’t answer how to do the fact-finding necessary for HR grievances. That’s all important, and there are other tools to help with it. And, those tools all work better when you ask yourself, “who is most harmed? How do I direct care to them? How do I seek my care from those less harmed than me?”
[PS We’re not the only ones to make the connection between Ring Theory and race discussions. Check out Namira Islam Anani’s great article “Modifying Silk Ring Theory for Allyship.]