Bad things happen to people. Pretending they don’t or, worse, denying the validity of peoples’ experiences, robs them of the opportunity to heal and grow. Worse though is the willful blindness to the very real systemic inequalities affecting many people every day that toxic positivity enables. In this episode, I’m exploring how toxic positivity is propping up white supremacy and racism.
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How Toxic Positivity Props Up White Supremacy
On its face, toxic positivity is problematic. An idea that you can only be, do or say positive things or you’re just “spreading negativity.” When toxic positivity rears its ugly head in response to racist violence and other civil rights issues, then you begin to see its insidious ugly side. We’re going to discuss how toxic positivity props up white supremacy and what we, as white women, can do better.
I’m recording this episode on May 31, 2020. In light of the events and because I have built this platform, and I’m committed to my mission of creating change, I have to say something. As a white woman, I have a duty to speak up, speak out and educate myself, as well as educate other white women, so that we can do better because we have to do better. If the title of this episode made you uncomfortable, then it did its job. I’m not here to mince words. If you were uncomfortable and you’re reading this anyway, then good, welcome. Let’s get ready to have a hard conversation.
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My original idea for this episode was to discuss how toxic positivity fucks with people’s heads. It denies them the entirety of the human experience and contributes to an already exacerbated mental health problem of suffering in silence. While those things are all bad, toxic positivity can be a lot more insidious than that.
As of this recording, we are on day 5 of nationwide riots that erupted after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Black people are angry, they’re hurt, and they’re tired. Don’t come at me about how they should be peacefully protesting because one, a white person doesn’t get to decide how the black community grieves over centuries of racism, murder, and depression.
Two, they’ve tried peacefully kneeling and you didn’t like that either.
Three, there’s more than sufficient evidence out there that an overwhelming amount of the violence was started and perpetuated by white people.
I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I live directly across the street from the police station. There was a peaceful protest that turned into a destructive riot. I’m not going to call it violent because no one was injured, no one was shot or died. No one was arrested, but it was very destructive. Lots of buildings were vandalized, windows were broken, and looted. They set a few cars on fire. I know at least 1 or 2 buildings were set on fire, dumpsters, trash cans, etc.
All of this took place right outside my apartment building. I live on the fifth floor of a high-rise in downtown. Tear gas, flashbangs, people were setting off fireworks in the street. It sounded like a war zone out there. I wasn’t worried that people were going to get into my building because my building is incredibly secure. Even if they broke into the lobby, they would not have been able to get up to residential floors because of building security. I was worried about fires. I know they were setting fires on a couple of streets away. I was worried about being harmed or killed in a fire.
Throughout it all, I experienced a rollercoaster of emotions while all that was happening. I was angry on behalf of black people. I was sad about the destruction of businesses. I was scared for myself and my two fur children. I started to think, if this fear that I’m experiencing is even 1/1,000th of the fear that black and brown people feel every single day, just for existing in the color of their skin, it’s no wonder these protests have erupted in violence.
When you compound that daily fear, the trauma, and the damage that does to you mentally, if you compound that with centuries of generational trauma, from slavery, oppression, systemic racism, and all this stuff, then it’s no wonder we are where we are.
White people aren’t listening. They don’t listen when it’s peaceful. They don’t listen when it’s violent. How else are they supposed to express their anger, rage, grief, and their desire for change? It’s all boiled over. Honestly, I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same if I was in their position, feeling that fear every single second of every single day, wondering if your family was going to come home. If you’re ever going to see your son again or if your daughter was going to be shot while playing video games in her living room. When you live with that trauma, there is no wonder that we are where we are.
I’ve seen far too many white people who are either silent, who are centering, which is where they take the situation and they talk about how they feel–it’s not about how we feel–or they post about it once and never again. That is the problem. We cannot fix racism without white people standing up and saying over and over again, “This is fucked up. We cannot let this happen anymore.”
Let’s back up quickly and talk about what toxic positivity is. Toxic positivity is the idea that you always have to think positively that somehow thinking a negative thought or expressing opinions or thoughts that aren’t constantly positive means you’re making a bad situation worse.
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You see this a lot in spiritual circles with people who work with a lot of woo-woo, a lot of psychics and other people in that vein, whether you believe that it’s real or not. They’re all about the vibration. If you focus on the bad, bad things are going to happen. You’re not going to get any better. The truth is you have to heal.
That’s called spiritual bypassing where they’re just, “I don’t give in to the victim mentality.” It’s easy to say that when you haven’t been in dealing with centuries of systemic oppression. On its face, you can see how problematic toxic positivity is even if you’re just looking at it without the lens of racism. All on its own, it was always being positive is not normal.
When toxic positivity rears its ugly head amidst national tragedies, injustices against communities of color, and black and brown people that are killed for existing, all it’s doing in that sense is propping up white supremacy and racism. When you’re making excuses or telling people to look on the bright side or whatever the fuck when people are being murdered at the hands of police, you’re propping up a systemically racist system. That’s all you’re doing.
You’ve got Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, these are just a few names that have garnered national attention.
There are far too many black and brown men, women, and children who have been murdered by police for just existing. It would be hours to list them all, too many people. When that happens, we see this injustice get picked up by the national news cycle. It spins up into a movement. I see white women flock to social media, and then the toxic positivity commences.
They talk about how they’re seeing too much negativity in their feed. They hate watching the news and then they vow to stop watching the news. I saw a post the other day about how one woman who I quickly unfriended was going to post one positive thing a day and “not feed into the negativity of the world right now.”
This brand of toxic positivity tells black and brown people that you don’t care what happens to them. Just because you turn off the TV and stop reading the news, it doesn’t mean less black and brown people are being killed at the hands of police. It doesn’t mean that fewer black and brown people are being funneled through a racist for-profit prison system. It doesn’t mean that racism goes away.
It means that you have used your white privilege to build a protective bubble around you so that you don’t have to confront the uncomfortable realization that you have benefited from a system that inherently props up white people and pushes down, imprisons, and kills people of color. All you’ve done is insulate yourself from the truth because you have the privilege to do that.
I’m not saying that you have to be sucked into the 24-hour news cycle and constantly be consuming this news and whatever else. You can’t shut yourself off from it completely either. There has to be a balance because black and brown people don’t get to turn it off for the weekend. They don’t get to go home and say, “I’m not going to worry about being black now.” That’s not how that works.
You need to be able to stand up and be an ally. That means being uncomfortable. If you’re cutting yourself off from the news, then you’re not uncomfortable. Your silence makes you complicit in the marginalization of people of color. Feminism is about equality.
If we’re talking about what we can do, we have to realize that if you identify as a feminist, then that means that you are for equality. Not just between men and women but for everyone. Feminism is not just about men and women. Feminism is about universal equality.
If I suddenly woke up tomorrow and someone had waved a magic wand and I was magically equal to men in every way, women were equal in pay, in positions of power, in paid leave, and in job advancement, if we had suddenly eradicated thoughts like women are the homemakers, if we stop judging women for and by their sexuality, if we stopped expecting women to bear the brunt of emotional labor…if I woke up and all of that had changed, but black and brown communities were still living under the thumb of racism and oppression, then my work would not be done.
That is the work you are signing up for as a feminist. That is what intersectional feminism means. It is not just about you and women versus men. It is about everyone. If there is someone who is marginalized, then our work is not finished. We, as white women, have to speak up. It is not the responsibility of black people to dismantle a system that we created. That is our job.
I’m not saying that you went out and created racism, but you certainly are benefiting from it. You certainly are propping it up with your silence. You certainly are propping it up with toxic positivity. It’s our job to dismantle it. You cannot dismantle it without hard conversations.
When this all happened, a few friends of mine shared Marie Forleo’s weak response to people of color in her B-school community. They wanted to talk about these issues. After a few people shared that, my friend Latasha from The Launch Guild, shared a video by Rachel Rogers, who is a business coach, addressing these statements made by Marie Forleo. Rachel’s response was so spot on that I needed to include it here because her message is powerful for white women.
I’m paraphrasing from Rachel here. I want to make that clear. These ideas are not mine, but I could not agree with them more. “White women, if you are not uncomfortable, then you are not doing enough. We cannot create change from a place of safety, security, and warm fuzzies.”
If you’re not having hard conversations with your racist uncle, if you’re not having hard conversations with your friend who tells racist jokes sometimes, if you’re not having hard conversations with your work colleague who perpetuates racist stereotypes, then you are not doing enough.
If you’re not risking anything, like black and brown people risk their lives every time they go out, and every time they exist, if you’re not risking anything, then you’re not doing enough. When she said that, it punched me in the face because that’s what it is. Black and brown people are risking their lives every single day just for existing in a system that has been created and propped up by white people. If you’re not risking anything to help dismantle that system, then you’re not doing enough.
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If you’re not willing to risk your business revenue, your family, your friends, your job, your reputation, to fight white supremacy and racism, you’re not doing enough. If you’re not calling out white leaders in the online space who were saying, and doing problematic things, then you’re not doing enough.
Don’t circle around it and try to protect the white person’s reputation. Why are you trying to protect someone who’s propping up racism? Black people’s lives are on the line. Brown people’s lives are on the line. Do not prop them up by trying to save someone’s reputation. If they’re saying shitty problematic things, call them out and name them. Don’t let them live behind a shield of white privilege.
While you’re doing the uncomfortable work of calling out other white people, you have to then go inward and do the deeply uncomfortable yet transformative work of calling out yourself. I didn’t arrive at this place with these thoughts and beliefs by accident. I grew up in a community that did not and does not think very highly of black people. I grew up with a lot of white apologists and racists.
I see all over my feed of people who are condemning the violence, but not the murder of George Floyd and other people like him. They’re condemning the property damage that’s covered by insurance and windows and cars that can be replaced, but they’re not upset about George Floyd. They’re silent about that.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with those people. I’ve unfriended a few people. I’ve been blocked by a few others. I used to say all the horrible stupid shit that they’re saying and unlearning this has not been easy. Speaking up about it has been even harder because I’ve got family members who no longer speak to me. I’ve had people tell me they don’t want to work with me because I’m too outspoken. I have a strained and awkward relationship with my brother because I call him on his shit every single time.
These are the things that I’m willing to risk. I say these things not to elicit sympathy from anyone. I don’t need any sympathy, but because that is what it looks like to risk something to stand up and be anti-racist.
I’m lucky that all that I’ve lost is a few family members because I’m still breathing and too many black and brown people are not because racism requires them to risk so much more to exist. It’s not enough to not overtly say or do racist things. You need to be actively anti-racist in order to dismantle that system. You have to call it out. You have to point it out. You have to help dismantle the system. You have to be willing to listen when a black or brown person takes the time out of their life to explain why and what you’re doing is wrong. You have to use that to make a change.
That’s the deeply uncomfortable transformative work for white people. You have to listen. You have to see where you’re falling short, and then you have to fix it. Don’t just write a check or sign a petition or throw a post on social media, and then go back to the way things were before the story made the news.
You have to show up over and over again. You have to read books, watch documentaries, educate, listen, learn. It’s not the responsibility of black and brown people to end racism. I’m speaking through the lens of my American experience, but racism exists in many forms in many colonized countries across the world.
It doesn’t matter where you live, speak up. It’s your duty as a white person to take up this fight on behalf of all black and brown people in the world. Wherever you live, however they’re being treated, you have to stand up. I saw the protest going on in London. I know a few are going on in other countries around the world. That’s amazing. There has to be action afterward.
I’m not looking for praise for speaking out about this. I don’t deserve that. As Rachel Rogers said, “I’m not looking for a cookie.” I truly believe that it is my duty as a white woman to have these conversations with other white people because this work is not easy.
Recording this episode was not easy, but that’s the point. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s a hard, messy, uncomfortable undoing, but it has to be done because black and brown people deserve justice. They deserve to go for a run, watch birds, sleep in their beds, play video games in their living rooms, and buy a bag of Skittles without being murdered for existing.
If you have something that you’d like to share with me on how I, and my business, can continue to support the black and brown community, please email me at Podcast@FeministVisionaries.com. I want you to remember that even though George Floyd’s story and others like it fall in and out of the news cycle, our work is not over. We can make changes, but we have to do it together.