Spiritual Bypassing and White Fragility, By the Playbook

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Photo by Valentina Aleksandrovna on Unsplash

At the end of this essay are some links to pertinent articles, videos and books, mostly by women of color whose perspectives on this matter most. Also, on a time-sensitive note: on May 17, there is a free webinar for white women who want to do the internal work necessary to be part of the solution on these issues. More info and sign-up link here.

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Last week, Danielle LaPorte, one of the biggest names in women’s spirituality/personal growth entrepreneurship, launched a program with some marketing images that were racially problematic at best. When she posted her promotion of the program on her business’s Facebook page, numerous women of color (WOC) and white women in her target audience, many of whom had followed her and bought her products and programs for years, were upset and concerned. They let her know this with thoughtfully written, heartfelt (and yes, in some cases, angry!) explanations of why the marketing campaign was racist, and gave a wealth of educational links and suggestions for repair.

The original insult was compounded by her response to the feedback. She removed the images from online marketing materials and acknowledged the problem with her marketing campaign, but simultaneously implied the real harm was being done by the people giving the feedback rather than by her actions. In addition, she deleted the original post with hundreds of substantive comments, pertinent links, and important discussion attached. This was an act of erasure of WOC’s voices and profound disrespect of their time, energy and wisdom. It was also a form of gaslighting, since her “apology” post mischaracterized what occurred as an attack on her while rendering people unable to see for themselves what transpired.

Further compounding the damage, her post signaled to her loyal supporters that she was being “attacked,” so of course they arrived in droves to defend her. She allowed this to go on for days while she and her team were absent from the discussions.

Let’s pause here to ask ourselves a question: if you realized you had done something deeply offensive and hurtful to thousands of people and were trying to make sincere amends and learn from the situation so as never to repeat it, would you stand by silently and allow a crowd of people to repeatedly defend those very actions and attempt to discredit the people you harmed? Especially if you claimed the whole basis of your business is love and truth? Especially if you knew that thousands of people were watching and waiting for a demonstration of true leadership? Or might you speak up and say something like, “Whoa, hold on—I did something harmful here and I want to repair and heal this. We ALL need to learn from this. Defending my actions is doing further damage, so please don’t!”

Needless to say, nothing of the sort happened. In their comments, LaPorte’s apologists and defenders minimized the racism that had occurred, endlessly questioned WOC’s interpretation of the original images and the fauxpology in devil’s advocate fashion, tone policed the way WOC addressed it, or criticized them for pointing it out at all. All the usual tropes were present: greater concern for the white woman who harmed thousands of people than for the women of color she harmed, demonizing legitimate anger in response to racism and dismissal, characterizing people who name racism as divisive, equating pointing out racism with engaging in racism, and calling the former “hate” instead of the latter.  Whew, that’s a lot already, but let’s not forget the insidious favorite in these communities: implying that people who call out oppression exemplify the “real” problem—misalignment with some superficial, selective definition of “love and light.”

After several days and over a thousand comments, LaPorte returned to deliver an improved apology with the announcement that she would cancel her program while hiring experts to help her untangle how racism was showing up in her business. These are significant and important steps. However, any positive impact of her announcement was diluted by her silently standing by for several more days while her supporters continued to defend her actions and dismiss those she had harmed on the new thread, for the third time.

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Seven months ago, after witnessing racism wrapped in “love and light” in another online personal growth/spirituality community, I wrote a piece called When Spiritual Bypassing Meets Racism Meets Gaslighting. That post started circulating again last week. People who didn’t see it the first time and didn’t notice the publish date assumed it had just been written about the situation with LaPorte.

Why is this worth noting? Because it illustrates that these scenarios tend to play out in pretty much the same way every time. The eerily formulaic way it unfolds is creepy in itself.

If only more white women in spirituality circles would see how depressingly predictable we can be in the ways we deny, defend, uphold and perpetuate oppression. We habitually sabotage possibilities for the sisterhood and unity we say we want. There is a playbook here, and LaPorte and her loyalists didn’t even see they were operating from it so perfectly (or did they?).

We will make mistakes, speaking and acting out of unrecognized white privilege and bias. I certainly have, and unfortunately it probably won’t be the last time.  How we respond when we are made aware of our missteps is crucial. This is still true even though the offense may be due to blind spots or carelessness rather than malintent.  We can choose to own and work through the shame, embarrassment and defensive feelings that can arise when called out for harmful actions, and look deeper into the assumptions and dysfunctions that led to them. Only then do we have a chance at making amends from a place of compassion, integrity and humility rather than thinly veiled defense and deflection. (And without imagining we are entitled to have our apology accepted, right away or at all!)

But instead of delivering a clean, unequivocal apology, the subtexts underneath often seem to be: “Actually, no! It’s not true! It can’t be, because I’m such a good person! See? Look at all the good I’ve done!” or “I’m sorry you’re choosing to feel that way. This is really about your unresolved pain, not about what I did or said.”  or “Thank you very much for the feedback, and part of me really means that, but also, how DARE you bring me your brilliance and your anger and say NO to me. Now I’m going to let my supporters say what I can’t say, for PR reasons. ”

And what about the anger some women of color express in these situations? Along with the calmer, more measured feedback, what about the comments that get labeled “vitriol” and “venom?”  First of all, we should check our interpretations. Is it even anger that’s there?  Sometimes we see anger when we are actually witnessing clarity, sovereignty and directness. From whom are we willing to hear hard truths? That’s another common theme in these situations—all too often, a white woman will readily accept a reflection from another white woman right after dismissing, ignoring, or arguing with a woman of color who said the same thing.

And then sometimes it is anger. Maybe it’s FURY.  No wonder. It’s probably not even their first rodeo that day.

How many of us have ever yelled at our kids or partner/spouse because we’ve told them the same thing a bunch of times, a bunch of different ways and they weren’t hearing us? I’m thinking most of us have. Maybe it’s not our ideal form of communication, but sometimes we do it because we’re at a loss for how to be heard otherwise.

Maybe some women of color are “yelling” because we. are. not. hearing. them.  And these are life or death issues. Maybe a woman whose anger is being judged is afraid for her son’s safety and life every time he leaves the house. Maybe another woman’s pregnancy was plagued by fear that she or her baby would become a statistic regardless of her health status or self care efforts. I could go on, unfortunately. It’s troubling and perverse to see so many white women spend so much time and energy trying to micromanage WOC’s interactions while giving little (if any!) time and attention to those issues.

What if some WOC are especially, definitively DONE taking abuses in any form, and have no patience left for our (willfully?) slow learning curve? As people who claim to value spiritual growth, evolution, and empowerment for women, don’t we want them to be done? Don’t we want all women to say a firm “NO” to being walked on? Even if we have to face the painful truth that sometimes we’re the ones doing the trampling, and do the work necessary to change that?

“But they’re not being walked on! It’s just a discussion!” I can hear the detractors saying. Comments that illicit anger may not always look like abuses at first glance (though some blatantly are). Sometimes it’s under the guise of “innocent” questioning and “trying to understand,” only as soon as explanations and education are generously given, the goal posts are moved. It’s manipulative and disingenuous, and it reveals the entitled and intrusive expectation that we should have limitless access to WOC’s time and energy. Other times, it’s dismissal of very real concerns with platitudes about universal love, as if this fixes anything and removes any further responsibility for dealing with the issues at hand. That’s hard to pin down and address, because how can declarations of love and desire for sisterhood be so infuriating? But in this context, they are. That’s why the spiritual bypass at the heart of what we’re talking about is so insidious and toxic.

We talk about empowerment and sacred boundaries all the time. Is that only for us white women? Why is it never for women of color when they need to stand in their power and hold sacred boundaries with us?

Can we accept that our white fragility is indeed a thing, and do our best to confront it so it doesn’t drive how we’re engaging? When we feel challenged, either directly or by proxy via challenge to another white woman we identify with, our white fragility will come up within us. It’s in our programming as part of this culture. Maybe it’s not our fault we have it, but it’s our responsibility to manage it so it doesn’t become a weapon. Can we learn to recognize it for what it is, name it, and make a conscious decision not to respond from that place?

That’s mindfulness practice, which we claim to know all about.

Besides that, can we simply buck up and be willing to hear righteous anger? Can we stop using it as an excuse to dismiss the underlying message?

Let’s change this script that keeps playing out. We talk about the importance of facing our shadows. Are we serious about that? Because now’s our chance to walk our talk. It’s time to deal with the shadow of our implicit biases and the ways we uphold white supremacy—not the KKK kind—the subtler, everyday kind. Let’s do the ongoing work of uncovering and dismantling it so we can stop doing damage and move toward true solidarity, inclusion and community.

Wouldn’t that be unifying and spiritual?

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Here are some pertinent links I highly recommend reading or watching. Some of these writers have Patreon communities where we can support and learn from their work. (See the bottom of my previous post on spiritual bypassing for more links to recommended articles and books.)

On White Leaders Who Dehumanize Black People and Danielle LaPorte’s New Program, by Sara Haile-Mariam

Ow, Ouch!: How to Apologize, by Killing Georgina

White Feminism, White Supremacy and the Silencing of Black Women (Video), by Layla Saad.  Layla Saad is writing what will surely be THE seminal book on the subject of white supremacy within personal growth/spirituality communities.

Proof that the Spiritual Healing Community, Feminist Leadership, and Personal Growth Industry is Inherently Toxic and Racist, by Torrie Pattillo. Along with important insights and hard truths, there are many concrete examples in this Medium post for those who are still unclear on how these dynamics are playing out.

White Spaces Missing Faces, by Catrice Jackson (book).

Why Calling Me a Spiritual Activist Reveals Your Unconscious Bias (video), by Leesa Renee Hall. Leesa Renee Hall is in the process of making a documentary film about white fragility.

Glennon Doyle is Coming to Get the White Women, by Ann Friedman. Here’s an example of an influential white woman sincerely doing the work and using her large platform to urge us to do the same. Glennon Doyle also pointed out recently that while she gets accolades for her anti-racism work, black women get banned and have posts removed on social media for speaking the same truths. (See Layla Saad’s video linked above.)  

Thank you for reading and being willing to learn, and unlearn, along with me.

© Copyright Camille Williams and Wake Up, Mama! All rights reserved. 

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