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White Fragility and Shadow Work

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January 2016, by Alyce Barry

Alyce Barry author of Practically Shameless Many of the people reading this newsletter know me as the author of a book called Practically Shameless about my journey into Shadow Work®.

I've been on a new journey since last April. It was the result of a wake-up moment — actually, several wake-up moments — in which "life as usual" was pierced by a striking new awareness.

I had done some Shadow Work processes around diversity in recent years. In each of these processes, I found to my surprise that my bias was the result of having projected one of my family members onto a group of people.

For example, I projected onto the clergy of another faith a certain point of view about suffering, and when I stepped into the role of those clergy, I discovered I was playing my mother.

After several of these experiences, I began to wonder if all the prejudice in the world is the result of projection. I haven't found an exception so far, so that's my working theory.

Shadow Work is a quick and remarkably easy way to discover what we're projecting onto others. It also comes in really handy once we've made the discovery. For example, are we projecting as a way of loving someone? If so, we can do a Tombstone process to give the projection back to the loved one.


One of my wake-up moments came last spring when I read an article called, "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism" by Dr. Robin DiAngelo.

I had heard of racism, and of white privilege, but I hadn't heard of white fragility. As I read the article, I realized it was talking about me.

One paragraph in particular really landed. Dr. DiAngelo talked about what she calls "The Good/Bad Binary," a belief that she believes is the fundamental misunderstanding on the part of many white people:

"[The misunderstanding that if] we are not aware of having negative thoughts about people of color, don't tell racist jokes, are nice people, and even have friends of color, then we cannot be racist. Thus, a person is either racist or not racist; if a person is racist, that person is bad...."
It turns out, you can be a nice person and still be racist. Because "racist" means something very different than what I thought it meant.

"Racist" doesn't mean speaking or acting badly toward people of color, though that's often part of it. "Racist" actually means something like this: Being part of a system — being complicit in it by not interrupting it — that institutionalizes an unequal distribution of resources and power between white people and people of color.

That's how it's possible to be a nice person and still be racist. I thought of myself as a nice person, and by Dr. DiAngelo's criteria, I was clearly a racist.

I'm a racist. That hit home.


In Shadow Work terms, I think white fragility means white resistance, which means to me that there's a Risk Manager involved.

Risk Manager is the name we often use in Shadow Work to describe the part of us that resists change because it looks too risky. The Risk Manager resists change for very good reasons but often based on outdated information.

I suspect that white fragility is a strategy used by a white person's Risk Manager to avoid believing we're bad, because that's painful.

This strategy isn't simple, it can show up in many ways, which Dr. DiAngelo listed in her article. I saw the resistance showing up in me in quite a few different ways. For example:

  • Thinking of race as something that exists only when a person of color is in the room.
  • Thinking of race as a taboo subject when I'm with other white people.
  • Thinking of my mostly white neighborhood as a "good" neighborhood and not seeing a mostly white neighborhood as a loss.
  • Thinking something is wrong if I'm feeling uncomfortable when the issue of race arises.
  • Not being surprised that images of Jesus, God, Adam, Eve, and Moses, are of white people.
To name just a few.


Another wake-up moment was seeing black author Ta-Nehisi Coates interviewed about his new book, Between the World and Me. I heard him say the words "trauma in the black body." The phrase haunted me for days.

I bought the book and was struck by how he used the word "body" there as well, often in place of the word "life." Instead of saying that slave owners stole the lives of black Africans, Coates talked about bodies. Slave owners stole black bodies so they'd have free labor. The Ku Klux Klan took bodies, and today's police officers take bodies.

Substituting the word "body" for "life" has a huge impact on me, maybe because it brings the issue of race, smack, into physical reality. Boom.


Trauma is something I am passionate about healing, in myself and in others. I heard Coates say that some black men have PTSD simply from walking down sidewalks, from being seen by police officers, because they believe their bodies may be taken at any time.

When I heard Coates talk about trauma in the black body, my reaction inside was: There is widespread trauma out there, and it's increasing with every new incidence of police brutality, and I'm doing nothing about it.

My reactions began to add up to one very shaming message: "Where race is concerned, I'm not part of the solution, I'm part of the problem." I was a racist and doing nothing about it. I was part of the system that was taking black bodies. My body is important to me, and I wouldn't want anybody taking my body without my permission.

I worked for 16 years as a technical writer, and for most of those years I worked in the "junk mail" industry. I came to see that industry, and my job in it, as "part of the problem."

Having a Shadow Work practice, by contrast, seemed like part of the solution. And yet here I was, a racist and part of the problem.


The first step on my journey was to start learning. I'm still doing that and plan to continue. I have huge ignorance about race and how it has affected the United States, and I'm trying to stay in humility in order to learn. I used to think of humility as another word for low self-esteem, but that's not so. Humility in this case is surrendering to the fact of ignorance and wishing to change it.

I started reading and attending workshops. I discovered enormous ignorance about huge swaths of American population and culture. I embraced my shame about not knowing and not caring, and used the tools I acquired in years of Shadow Work to gradually turn the shame around. I started attending events where I was one of very few people with pale skin and sometimes said or did the "wrong" thing, and felt shame again. I've sought out conversations with people who do and don't look like me. I started a discussion group about race in my Quaker community, which has been quite a ride all by itself, with all kinds of shame involved. Each time the Shadow Work tools were critical to getting back to a good place.

I believe I discovered the reason I was fragile for so long: I wasn't ready to take the risk to feel the shame, anger and sometimes overwhelming sadness that come up when I see what white supremacy has done to people of color for centuries.

With the help of my Shadow Work tools, I've been ready to take that risk more and more often and to process the feelings that result. Doing this work has changed me and brought me great happiness. I'm more easily accessing the energy of humility. I'm more easily connecting with people who don't look like me, and that's tremendously satisfying and reassuring.


One of the big difficulties in starting this journey is that our language presents so many problems right off the bat.

The first hurdle in talking about race is that there's no such thing as race, at least not from a scientific perspective. There's no way to scientifically divide people into races. Human beings started in Africa and migrated from there to other continents. My pale skin is the result of my ancestors leaving Africa a very long time ago and adapting to other climates. The concept of race as used in today's world emerged during the 1600s. And yet in today's world it seems real.

Since there's no such thing as race, there's no such thing as whiteness or blackness, at least not biologically. Whiteness is a concept that developed since the 1600s. That's why I throw in a "so-called" now and then to make the point and try to keep the conversation honest.

I'm only just beginning to get comfortable using the phrase "white supremacy," which seems to be the idea behind race, and whiteness, and slavery.

I want to apologize to anyone reading this article who knows about white supremacy from a different point of view than whiteness or blackness. I haven't said anything about other ancestries because I'm still really ignorant about them.


One of the biggest challenges in finding those deeply held biases inside is that they're a brand of shadows: they're rooted in our unconscious selves and often difficult to locate.

Shadow Work is, in my opinion, the most effective tool available for finding unconscious biases and doing something about them.

A good place to start is the technique that in Shadow Work we call a "split." Splitting out a part of yourself can help you find out what you might be projecting onto a group of people that you're biased against.

If you haven't taken the Basic Facilitator Training, where people learn how to do a split on themselves and others, a Shadow Work Group Facilitator or Coach can help you do one. If nobody is nearby, there are Coaches who can help via Skype.

If you are willing to look at your biases I encourage you to join me in the journey, see what your projections about so-called race are and how they're affecting your behavior. It's not easy, but it's incredibly worthwhile, and on the right side of history. And you won't be alone.


Alyce Barry is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator and Coach in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She is the author of Practically Shameless, which is available in paperback and on audio CD. She is also co-producer of the Clean Talk CD. Read more about Alyce.

This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in January 2016. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.

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