racial awareness and the emotional explosion

Yesterday, I reflected on some important postures we whites need to take in order to become aware of racial injustices and how we participate in racist systems. Today, we look at one of the inevitable results of exposing ourselves in this way – the emotional explosion.

Few subjects are as emotionally volatile as race and ethnicity. When they first started teaching anti-racism, Louise Derman-Sparks and Carol Brunson Phillips discovered that there was always an “emotional explosion” about four or five weeks into their class. At first they tried to change the structure of the class so that the emotional explosion wouldn’t occur the following semester. It did anyway. Eventually they realized that the emotional explosion was a necessary part of the process and sought rather to channel it in a positive direction. Racial justice needs to be learned emotionally as well as cognitively.[1] We are emotional people, so when dealing with a subject as difficult as racism, uncomfortable emotions are inevitable.

The key is learning to manage our emotions in a wise way. With our emotions, we need to check the source, the usefulness and how we handle our emotions. We need to feel and experience our emotions, use and evaluate what they reveal about our beliefs and purposes, and express every emotion with the purpose of love. Again, we turn to Christian counselor Larry Crabb who lays out three types of reactions to blocked, uncertain or unreachable desires. When we have an inaccurate perception of ourselves and our goals, we tend to react in rage, worry or depressing inadequacy. A more accurate assessment of ourselves and our circumstances can transform these feelings into righteous anger, painful concern or productive sadness.[2] “Our deceitful hearts are capable of hiding strong emotions (particularly rage) which, if recognized and properly handled, could lead to life-changing repentance (Crabb, 185).”

Thus, to effectively promote racial justice, we need to learn to understand and use our emotions wisely.

  1. The first principle is to simply allow ourselves to feel our emotions (186). The common Christian habit of escape and denial of feelings is very unbiblical; the Bible is full of expressions of emotion.
  2. The second principle is to “evaluate and deal with acknowledged emotions (187).”
  3. Third, we need to abandon our self-protection and fearlessly be willing to state exactly how we feel.

Our open expressions should be tempered only by our love for others – not any kind of fear. This is particularly important in our interactions with African-Americans. More importantly, we need to provide safe environments for blacks to express their emotions honestly – especially anger, which is present in nearly all American blacks who have been dealing with injustices all their lives.[3]

Rather than reacting negatively to this anger, we must seek the reasons behind this anger and learn not fear it.


[1] Louise Derman-Sparks and Carol Brunson Phillips, Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism: A Developmental Approach, (New York: Teacher’s College Press, 1997), 4.

[2] Larry Crabb, Understanding People, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 177-182.

[3] Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, More than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000 revised edition), 95.

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