This is something I wrote after the Election, when my classmates spoke about the fears they had for themselves and their families. I didn't know what to say then, for a number of reasons (even as I shared their fears). These are some of them.
Why Processing Was (Is) Difficult For Me
Let’s talk about processing in public spaces, and White Guilt.
I am still getting used to processing in public spaces. I’ve never had these big formal meetings that set up a space to just talk, but both the Fellowship and PRI expect me to be a part of them, and furthermore, to be an active part of them (that isn’t to say this is my first time seeing processing spaces like these – I just chose to go to those, whereas these processing sessions sometimes just come to fruition). I don’t like processing in public spaces for a lot of reasons. First, I’m still working out how I’m feeling. It’s almost like an eyewitness memory – I don’t want to cloud up my own emotions with someone else’s, because it makes it hard for me to distinguish. Is that something that I thought, or something I heard someone else say? I want to make myself clear – it’s not that I see other people’s emotions as anything negative (I want to hear what people have to say so badly; I just need other people’s thoughts to come after I’ve prepared my own), but other people’s emotions are secondary sources, and it’s important to me to have that moment with just myself where I can sort through how I’m feeling. I didn’t really get that on Super Tuesday into Wednesday – I went to bed around 4 in the morning, and had class at 8. I was still feeling cluttered, which meant I didn’t take as active as a role in the processing as I would have liked.
But why couldn’t you work through your own stuff with other people around? I don’t like working through my emotions with other people, because they end up knowing more than I am ready to share because I haven’t had the chance to process on my own and decide what I’ll say to the group. I never really have liked working through things with other people – it’s why I was so reluctant to see someone for therapy (recall that my main hang-up about therapy was that someone else would be walking around with my secrets, and I couldn’t have that; all these people walking around with all these opinions about the deepest darkest parts of me). I am trying to get better at this. I want people to feel comfortable telling me things, which means I need to spend more time telling other people things, even if that comes at a vulnerable time. Originally I had written “I hate feeling vulnerable," but that isn’t true. I hate feeling vulnerable in a brightly-lit room in a classroom or workplace environment early in the morning before I’ve had a chance to feel vulnerable on my own in the dark where I can work stuff out in my own head. I hate feeling vulnerable when I am in a space where other people are more justifiably feeling vulnerable. Which brings me to White Guilt.
I could probably get past the murkiness of vulnerability if I felt like my processing was justified. There are eighteen people in my Fellowship (both graduate and undergraduate), and I am the only person who looks like me. One of the only times I get a real, tangible feeling of “I don’t belong here” is when I am in a processing space. My tears won’t help anyone. I don’t have things at stake like my fellow students have things at stake, like CI’s students do, like other people would. I will instead throw myself into activism, because that is something I can do, but if I were to try to commiserate with my fellow students right then right there, I would be struck with this paralyzing thought that I am violating a space I was barely welcomed into in the first place. This isn’t for you, my mind insists to itself: “this” being the Fellowship; “this” being the conversation. Be quiet. These are real people with real problems. You aren’t welcome. So I don’t cry. I can’t cry. I haven’t worked my feelings out with myself yet, and now I’m going to expect other people to listen to me? Why would they? What do I know of their oppression or their fear? What could my problems possibly add to the conversation? It feels self-congratulatory, indulgent, and wrong to talk about myself and my feelings in those moments. I wouldn’t like it if someone guy came in and said, “Wow, it’s been really tough for women, huh? What a bummer,” so how is it any different if I offer any words of empathy? “I hear that you’re going through a lot, but let me talk about how this is going to affect me.”
It’s not that I’m not hurting; of course I’m hurting. The urge to connect crawls through my skin, but I’d rather let it fester than make someone feel uncomfortable. If someone were to question why I was upset, “it’s not like something is gonna happen to her”, I’d be devastated that I let my feelings get in the way of someone else’s feelings. Resentment bubbles up. People resent me for being in their space to process. I couldn’t let that happen. (There is the possibility that all this worry is unwarranted and not nearly as big of an issue as I’m making it out to be. “Of course it’s happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean it’s not real?”)
I wouldn’t have brought any of this up, but I’m officially weirding out my classmates. And herein lies the deep sigh that orchestrates its way out of me anytime I re-consider the chain of events that followed that Wednesday morning. I was with two of the people I’m closest with in the Fellowship. “Why didn’t you speak?” one of them asked, teasing me. (Later, he told me, there’s “nothing” I can do about my whiteness, the same way there’s nothing he can do about the color of his. I invited him to see 13th, which brought up the motif of "the Black man" assaulting "the White woman" and left me anxiously shifting in my seat.) I tried to explain it all in a rush of that it didn’t feel like my place to say much of anything right then, but not as well as I would have liked. That’s when I realized I needed help, working through this, but I don’t really have a space to process it. I can’t bring it up in my Fellowship, because then it literally becomes a room full of minorities comforting a White person. I can’t torture myself by circling back to what I could have done differently, over and over. I gotta talk about this with someone. I feel uncomfortable in processing spaces, because I am still unsure of my role in processing spaces. Now what do I do?
Learning to Process in Safe Spaces
Off the bat I had to get more comfortable with ambiguity. There would be times when I'd feel strange and I wouldn't know why right away. Or where I couldn't find in myself where a feeling had erupted - I had to get comfortable with taking on others' emotions before I could figure out my own. I had felt like the spaces weren't for me. I stay quiet to an extent (I'd never dominate the conversation in a space where students of color were discussing their obstacles, and it's a good rule of thumb not to), but I gave myself a bit of a break, too. The safe space is a safe space for a reason. I'm allowed to share things, too. I didn't have to hold myself so rigidly.
Furthermore, these kids are my friends. I can let my guard down around them and admit to fear, or defeat, or vulnerability without stepping all over them and without appearing weak (which is one of my greatest fears). There is a particularly difficult scene in 13th that deeply affected me. I remember thinking I'm going to cry and suddenly I was shaking in my seat, my face wet. One of the other students in the Fellowship reached over and took my hand. She comforted me. It was okay to be with her, and it was okay for me to feel things. She made me feel better. I didn't have to hold myself to such a horrendously high standard of you don't get to feel.
My professor helped me work through a lot of these fears, too. She taught me to lean into the ambiguity instead of letting it wash over me and overwhelm me (the same way you are supposed to drive towards ice, rather than steer away from it). "I think you'll be careful in your work not to overstep the boundaries and keep the conversation on you," she'd told me. "And you'll get better at it with time, too."
Time is the one thing I don't have. Progress and growth that come with time are the things I can't attain right here right now right this minute. The wait makes me impatient and anxious. Even so, I'm learning to cope with the anxiousness and impatience by talking about it. I talk with my professors and supervisors and directors. I ask my friends how they feel in certain situations and match my feelings to theirs. I don't worry as much about source confusion.
Processing is hard. Getting in tune with yourself is hard. You see things about yourself that you don't like. You revisit things that will make you unhappy all over again. I see things about myself that I don't like. I revisit things that make me unhappy. I correct my behavior. I see what I can do differently next time.
And then you get back out there and do the work. You put yourself in more situations that will result in the same churning, miserable feelings.
It won't always be perfect. There are things that I would hate to revisit, but I know if I don't they'll eat me alive.
After the Secure Center tour, I sat in class with the other Fellows, my professor, my director and my program coordinator. We were doing a check-in and I had to talk about what I had seen.
"What do I do with this?" I'd asked.
"I'm not sure what you mean," my director had answered.
"Where does it go?" I'd pressed. "Where do I hold this in my body?"
I once wrote that I held my feelings just underneath my ribcage in bottles, but sometimes I could feel them shake and hear them clink against my bones. I am trying not to let my emotions take so much of a toll on me. I am trying not to be so afraid of my emotions.
So I let them pass through me now, as if I was made of water. And if I don't want them to pass through my skin, I watch them as if they were a train going by.
It's not the most radical technique. Other people do the same thing. It's helped me greatly. Hopefully, it will help you, too.