What Do We Do with Our Strong Feelings when Talking about Race?

by Noelle Apostol Colin, a Bright Morning Senior Associate and guest blogger

“My skin is nasty,” she said, as she rubbed the back of her hand to show the interviewer. As I heard the adorable five-year-old African American girl in the video explain this as a matter-of-fact observation, I felt overcome by sadness, anger, guilt and shame, all in rapid succession. Then I pictured my own daughter and imagined her internalizing this message, or one like it, about her own inferiority at the same age. That brought up more sadness — then rage. I felt defeated and overwhelmed. I thought over and over, “How can we still be here as a country, where children this young internalize the message that who they are is inferior?” and “We’ll never get past our racism; it’s too deep, too structural.”

I had this experience at “Coaching for Equity,” a Bright Morning workshop with Elena Aguilar. I usually facilitate or co-facilitate Bright Morning workshops, but I attended this one as a learner. I’ve been in a lot of conversations about race and systemic oppression and I experienced something at this workshop that was unexpectedly powerful and unique in an equity focused workshop.

At the beginning of Day One, she asked us to set an intention for ourselves as a way of priming our minds to behave or show up in a way that would help us get the most out of the experience. This is a routine we always incorporate into our workshops, but the examples she shared of possible intentions were different this time. Several of Elena’s examples specifically suggested ways of relating to our emotions. The one that resonated most with me was, “Honor my emotions.” I wasn’t sure where this would take me but it felt right and I eagerly wrote it down on my agenda.

Our day progressed through a series of opening routines to help create a trusting learning space; then in small groups we constructed shared definitions of key terms such as micro-aggressions and stereotype threat. We moved into building shared knowledge about the ways in which systems of oppression play out to produce housing and school segregation and wealth gaps, and how children as young as four-years-old already have a bias towards whiteness and light skin. Then came that moment in a video when a five year old African American girl said with plain-spoken honesty that her skin was nasty and all those emotions emerged.  

I know the many ways in which race is the great predictor of where you’re likely to live,  your access to quality education, your exposure to pollution, your likelihood of being incarcerated or harassed by police, your access to quality healthcare, and even life expectancy. While these realities are on my mind daily and inform my workshops and coaching, it was the five-year-old reporting on the reality of her lived experience — that she had already internalized her status in the hierarchy of race relations in our country — that her skin was “nasty,” that brought on an eruption of strong emotions.

What did I do with those emotions and why does it matter?

I continued sitting. I remembered my intention to “honor my emotions.” So I paid attention to my feelings, noticing how uncomfortable, sad and helpless I felt. I wondered, “What does it mean to honor my emotions right now? Am I doing it?” I kept sitting there, breathing and feeling, not trying to make the feelings go away, not judging, not jumping up to do something — to escape.

The intensity of the feelings gradually faded as I re-engaged in discussion and role-playing. What I felt instead was more powerful. I noticed that I was very calm and focused on the learning, on practicing the coaching moves for equity. I felt a sharpened, heightened awareness of the link between my work, the learning, practice, coaching and workshops I lead and the potential to impact children’s experience in public school.

The next morning, as we set intentions again, I chose an extension of my intention from Day One: “Honor my emotions as a source of wisdom and strength.” This phrase sprang into my head on its own. It was in that moment that I had a new realization about letting ourselves fully experience our emotions.

Our emotions are a source of wisdom and strength. When we allow ourselves to truly feel them, we don’t have to do anything except feel them and pay attention to gain the wisdom they offer.

In this case, the wisdom I gained was my deepening understanding about the devastating impacts on us all in this racist society. It was a confirmation of all the work that needs to be done in our schools. It strengthened my commitment to supporting adults in schools to reexamine and recreate their schools in ways that dismantle inequitable systems, to affirm, honor and love every child.

We have developed so many strategies to avoid painful emotions and keep ourselves as comfortable as possible. We’re explicitly told all the time to “check our emotions at the door” at work. What was reaffirmed for me last week was how energizing and grounding it is to trust our feelings, to let our emotions be our guide sometimes. What might be possible in a world where we reclaim our emotions, invite them to be a part of our work, and show up as our full human selves?

The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion or position of Bright Morning.