by Tiffany S. Chan, Ph.D.
Tiffany is the Founder of Highly Sensitive Parent. She is an educator, researcher, and writer who currently lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband, two sons, and gigantic cat.
Learn more about Tiffany on our About page!
I am also a Highly Sensitive Person. Being white, I am privileged to get lost in perfectionism, narcissism, and an extremely myopic focus on the mundane troubles in my life. I have many now-mortifying memories of times when I just fell apart over insignificant things. Like when I borrowed my college roommate's sweatshirt, lost it, avoiding telling her for a week, lied about it, then sobbed for an hour about what a horrible person I was when she learned the truth (she was bewildered by my drama and when I bought her a new sweatshirt all was forgiven). Privilege lets me fret about my first world problems and white people problems.
Just recently I made the connection between sensitivity and privilege as I read about what Robin DiAngelo describes as white fragility, or the defensiveness that emerges among white folks in any confrontation or conversation suggesting their privilege, which is further explored here and here. In all areas of my life I've been learning to not take criticism personally and to work through conflict in relationships without falling apart. In order to be a true white ally, I need to shed this white fragility.
I often wonder, would I have tougher skin by now had I been born under less privileged circumstances? Yes, most likely. But in order to survive I may have had to shut down the most powerful part of myself. What happens when the survival mode of living in an unjust world forces us to shut off our empathy and close ourselves to the needs of others? We lose our capacity for compassion and the drive to care for others, even those not in our inner circle. I'm proud of my empathy and I'm ready to use it.
Glennon Doyle Melton writes powerfully about being a canary - the first one to smell the toxins in this mine shaft of a world - and her desire to help support the canary protectors - those who look out for the sensitive ones. Sometimes I feel like a canary, but I also feel called to be a canary protector. The best I can do is use all this privilege to keep myself well and open to serving the needs of all of those canaries whose voices are growing hoarse with their cries about the abhorrent and inexcusable racial inequality in this country, cries whose echoes are permeating the mainstream media but not yet loudly enough.
To end racial inequality, to even tackle the task of generating strategies for ending it, we need to be able to to talk in a real and honest way about the nature of racism. Here is where I put on my Learning Scientist hat. The trouble is that everybody's a little bit racist. We learn by experience, storing specific episodic memories and generalizing schemas and scripts that help us navigate new situations and make fairly accurate predictions about what might happen and how we should behave. We learn from what we are told and what we observe. Our knowledge is informed by the people we meet, our exposure to media, and the skills we develop (or don't) for reflecting on and making sense of new information. These cognitive shortcuts are necessary for navigating a complex world. They also lead to prejudice, stereotypes, and unfair bias. Add in a structural system that was founded in racial inequality, and we are navigating a seriously skewed racial playing field.
I might ask, "Am I a racist?" and my gut response is no. But this is the wrong question. Instead I should be asking, "Do I ever make unfair or inaccurate assumptions based on race?" or "Do I ever distrust or even fear a person because of race?" or "Do I ever just accept what I see on the news rather than questioning the profit-based motives driving the portrayal of blacks as criminals?" Racism is the failure to acknowledge the connection between our emotions and the stereotypes and biases in the ways we judge people. Racism is the lack of deep understanding of our nation's history and its roots in preserving fundamental racial inequality. Racism is blind trust in the implicit and explicit messages sent by the media. We are all racists to some extent because we are embedded in a powerfully yet subtly racist system. To dismantle the system would require actually acknowledging an emotional, painful history and pushing against all the economic interests in big banks, media, politics, and the for-profit prison system.
Nobody wants to feel like a bad person. Nobody wants to suddenly realize that they have been an active part in a system of oppression. Acknowledgement of and reconciliation with an unsavory history is not a process modeled well in our society, despite our faith in the redemption story and our general willingness to believe in the reformed sinner. A Jewish friend and colleague in grad school once told me he didn't understand the Christian tradition of asking forgiveness of G-d rather than connecting with the people you have wronged and repairing those relationships. As a practicing Catholic I see his point. Guilt, repentance, and paying penance for crimes holds individuals responsible for feeling bad, but not necessarily for making good. To deal with racism, white folks like me need to get past the guilt and move on to making things right. We need to start getting real.
My husband works at an integrated high school where for several years he has served on a committee tackling the issue of racial disparities in student achievement and disciplining. He has learned specific techniques for having courageous conversations, a practice which we have started implementing together in our inter-racial home. The protocol, developed by Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton as part of the Pacific Educational Group (PEG), establishes agreements such as "speak your truth" and "experience discomfort," and guidelines such as "focus on personal, local, and immediate" and "isolate race." The framework creates a safe space for sharing openly and getting to the heart of how race permeates our lived experiences.
I may get overwhelmed by the crowds at a protest, but I love me a good courageous conversation. I could courageously converse all day - with the people I trust to love me at my most vulnerable (a small but growing circle). With these conversations I am working to overcome my tendency to focus my high sensitivity on finding fault with myself, and instead focus it out towards understanding the system of racism and my role in it. I'm working to shed my safe cloak of white privilege as I try to imagine the perspective of living in this racist society as a person of color. I'm working to learn how to use my voice as a privileged member of this society so that I can be both a canary and a canary protector. I know I need to work harder, because this sh*t is real and it's not going away unless I stand up and acknowledge the part I play in it.
Let's talk about racism. I will do my best to speak my truths so we can move forward, even if I'm secretly mortified that I might offend you with my naivety or ignorance or unacknowledged privilege. I invite you to speak your truths to me without worrying about making me feel uncomfortable. But please be patient - I'm a work in progress.