In this post I want to talk about the strong emotions that fuel the protests currently going on in the States and in parts of Canada. I’ve been struggling and I’ve desperately needed an outlet for thoughts I’ve had on this topic and how it relates to personal experiences.
Recently I’ve had a couple of pretty big failures, like many of us do. There’s a reason why I appreciate what Brené Brown says, especially about vulnerability. She says that when we put ourselves out there, we are guaranteed to have our asses kicked. When we share something we’ve created with the world or with colleagues or family, we are putting ourselves in a risky situation because we are opening ourselves up to the possibility of rejection, hate, or to be pointed out where we’ve err’d or came up short. When this happens, the painful emotions that are associated with feeling unworthy or not good enough can spur, especially if you’re Black or Indigenous.
There’s a lot of causes that create this feeling for Black and Indigenous folks, and I can’t speak for Black folks but we do share a lot of commonalities in the racist systems that we live under in Turtle Island, very much due to the fact that both groups have experienced historical trauma from colonization. My research has focused on Indigenous folks, so that’s where I’ll speak from.
I remember when I was a child. My father would shame me, he would call me down, he would make me feel unworthy and not good enough. This effected me because once I got older, I realized that my immediate assumption, when I made a mistake, was that I was unworthy and not good enough. That emotion of shame is a key piece to my research. When you’re treated like a dog, your dignity and humanity is stripped from you. When I was shamed as a child, I felt shame and powerlessness. When you’re in that state, the research says you have two options: withdraw… or fight back.
We shame dogs to get them to be good, not humans, and Indigenous and Black folks in this continent have been treated like dogs. For many Indigenous families, shame is the language we know because that’s how English was taught to us, in a manner that put us down constantly, and so we unwittingly pass that trauma onto our children. When a people have been treated in such a way, in a way that tells us that we’re less than, or unworthy (which is the core message of racism), that shame and powerlessness creates an anger.
When you’re assaulted, many folks will feel the same way. It’s not the assault that created the trauma, it’s the shame that created the trauma. Victims will tend to feel angry, at themselves, and at the person who harmed them. Wishing to find blame.
What we know from the research is that shame is a painful, painful emotion. When we feel unworthy, when we question the worth of our self, the pain can be devastating. This is, in my opinion, why it’s so hard for white folks to understand the pain in our communities. You don’t have to face a society that constantly questions the worth of your self, of your soul, of your very existence, and you don’t feel the painful emotions that come along with those experiences.
Recently I had a couple of big failures. I immediately questioned the worth of my self, because, again, as an Indigenous person it’s what I’m used to feeling, it’s what my society has wanted me to feel since the start of colonization. I felt all the emotions associated with shame. Dis-empowerment. Anger. I immediately wanted to either withdraw or fight back, but as any Indigenous person can tell you, when it comes to the feeling of shame, “you can run but you can’t hide.” So we fight.
The Protests: Blaming or Daring Greatly?
The fighting back option is a function of blaming. So when I first started thinking about protests in my early years with the context of my research and understanding, I thought: “Are we just blaming society without actually taking accountability for our own lives?” And you hear this argument from the other side often. You hear things like “You just gotta act this way and you won’t get killed or harassed by police,” or “if your people weren’t so lazy/bad, then you wouldn’t have the problems you have right now.” As an Indigenous person working in academia, I thought, damn… maybe we are wrong.
…Or maybe that’s just my predisposition of feeling shame in a society that thinks less of me. On that note, I immediately thought this needs to be flipped the other way.
So today my key message is this: we’re not blaming society because of our own mistakes, because of our own shortcomings. In fact, this isn’t a shame response as a result of doing something wrong, or of failing. The current protests and other recent protests are a “We’re tired of feeling fucking worthless and so we’re going to burn everything to the fucking ground” response.
In fact, the Black and Indigenous folks who protest are a people daring greatly. Brené Brown uses the term “Daring Greatly” because she says that, when we’re open and vulnerable with the world, we might know the feelings of high achievement, but that, if we fail, at least we fail while daring greatly because putting ourselves out there is part of living, of thriving, opposed from just existing. It’s a quote from Theodore Roosevelt called “The Man in the Arena” quote where he suggests that putting ourselves out there is the difference between living and simply just existing, and that the credit belongs to those who are putting themselves out there, not the critics. Early colonizers seen Indigenous and Black folks as people who shouldn’t be living, and that if we were to live, we should be useful or we should be dead. And because of that, Indigenous and Black folks have had to simply exist because we weren’t allowed to dare greatly. That was a thing for the white man, not for us.
Now anytime we attempt to dare greatly in our lives, we are taking on a society that actively pushes us down, using racism with shame as its cleaver to stop us in our tracks.
Almost every generation since colonization has had to be vulnerable, to put ourselves at risk through protest and riots in order to look the colonizer and the colonizer society in its eyes and say:
Our lives matter. We won’t be idle anymore. We are worthy. We deserve to live and not just exist.
As I’m dealing with my own stuff, my own failures, I continuously remind myself that I am daring greatly. I never do anything small because I want to live my life to the fullest. I went through multiple surgeries in my life, I almost died in one of them, I’ve gone through abuse, trauma, racism, abandonment. I’ve gone through so many situations in my life that have cemented the thoughts of “I’m not good enough” into me. Now, I’m healing, like many Indigenous folks are today.
I’ve worked and lived in mostly a non-Indigenous atmosphere and it’s truly exhausting because of the reasons I’ve shared in this post. I was talking to a friend recently and she told me she understood, that having to work in an environment that doesn’t have many Indigenous folks can be challenging and lonely. I guess I’ve gotten used to it, or at least I’ve gotten used to the struggle.
I wish I had a better message to leave on but, as the protests continue, life is still challenging for folks like me, and that’s the urgency that protests brings attention to. That’s why we demand change and representation.
Because it matters.