Ep. 5: True Allyship and the Willingness to be Uncomfortable

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If you’re like most mindful people right now, you are responding to racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement and the awakening that has resulted from the murder of George Floyd and those before him – and those after as well.

You may be engaging deeply or supporting materially or recommitting yourself to anti-racism work and education for the long-haul. You may have questions, be grappling with how best to take action and show up, or be wondering what true allyship looks like and how you can embody it, now and always.

All this might look different if you’re a white person thinking through the complexities and limitations but necessity of allyship, or a non-Black person of color possibly already steeped the various ways to stand in solidarity with the movement for Black lives.

The truth is, at the most basic level of true allyship and the heart of what anti-racism work requires is this simple thing that many people – white folks in particular – still actively struggle with, whether they’re conscious of it or not: a genuine willingness to be uncomfortable.

This work is not easy. It’s not clean and it’s not pretty and if you think you can show up for the movement without ever having to step outside your comfort zone, you’ve got another thing coming.

One thing that goes hand-in-hand with – and is often a product of – someone’s UNwillingness to be uncomfortable is the focus of this episode: a harmful habit called tone policing.

Let’s break this down.

In her book Me and White Supremacy and her Instagram course on this topic (see ‘Resources’ below), Layla Saad describes tone policing as “a tactic used by those who have privilege to silence those who don’t by focusing on the ‘tone’ of what is being said, rather than the actual content.

It is when white people ask BIPOC to say what they’re saying in a ‘nicer’ way.

It’s saying (or thinking) things like: I can’t take in what you’re telling me about racism because you sound ‘too angry’. Or your tone is ‘too aggressive’….Or if you would just ‘calm down’ then maybe I might want to listen to you. Or you’re bringing too much ‘negativity’ into this space and you should focus on the positive. Or, or, or…

There are so many direct and subtle ways [akin to gaslighting] that tone policing takes over. Essentially, it is a request that BIPOC share experiences about racism without sharing any of their (real) emotions about it. It is also a demand that racism be presented in a form that is more palatable, and doesn’t make White Fragility flare up.”

Tone policing didn’t just come out of nowhere.

It stems from a looong history of policing Black bodies in this country. It has origins in the rhetoric, ideologies and structures of white supremacy designed to control and “civilize” BIPOC, so it’s not new or specific to this moment, even though this conversation is especially pertinent right now.

When white people or non-Black allies tone police Black voices – even when we don’t know or recognize that we’re doing it – it is one way that white supremacy, racist ideology and internalized anti-Blackness manifests in the contemporary moment.

Know what? It’s well past time to learn how to check these habits.

To learn to be an anti-racist, to be a true ally when it comes to racial justice, one has to develop the reflex of checking their own defensiveness, their tendencies to tone police or assert their “manual” for others in order to avoid their own discomfort.

What’s interesting is we often don’t know we have a manual until people stop following it, until our little “instruction book” is being challenged. When this happens, we have to face the fact that we’ve subconsciously tied all of our emotional life to whether or not people follow our manual. If they don’t, the walls we’ve built to protect ourselves from experiencing discomfort become destabilized, and we lash out instead of listening and really taking in valid criticism or feedback.

In the case of tone policing, white people often think they are asking something reasonable when they expect BIPOC to share experiences of racism without sharing any of their (real) emotions about it.

But asking someone to recount, explain or describe their experience of racism in a form that is more “palatable” or “safe” for white people – that only reproduces harm.

People seeking to embody true allyship when fighting against racial injustice must learn to sit and be present with what makes us uncomfortable. We must learn to self-soothe, to manage our reactions, to listen in a deep way to what is being said and learn to interrupt our thoughts and habits that make an important conversation, encounter or moment about us.

Because we are responsible for our emotions. Not someone else.

I want to invite you to start this learning now. I want to invite you to put yourself in positions that are risky. That create fear or self doubt.

I want you to really listen to Black voices, to BIPOC voices that make you feel uncomfortable – ask yourself why and then do the honest work to shift this.

I want you to get past the tone and listen to the content, because you have the capacity for that. You are capable of far more than you think. And in truth, you can’t afford to wait.

In This Episode You’ll Learn:

  • What tone policing is and how it manifests in many forms
  • Why, in order to practice true allyship, you MUST have a willingness to be uncomfortable
  • Tools for recognizing when you’re resisting emotions – and how to instead hold space for those emotions so that you can manage them on your own time, be more present for difficult conversations, and show up as a stronger ally
  • How to sit in “fearless presence of the discomfort”
  • Why anti-racism work and listening to BIPOC voices isn’t about making white people feel good
  • How radical mindfulness can help us accept the responsibility of our power and move society towards racial and social justice


// Read this short piece in Time Magazine and watch the interview featuring Andra Day, the singer whose song “Rise Up” became “an unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement” – Andra Day: True Allyship Requires a Willingness to Be Uncomfortable

// Read this poem on Lions Roar, “Darkness is Asking to be Loved” by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel who invites you – “if you’re holding up and trying to meditate right now” – to instead fall down.

// Poem by Thich Nhat Hanh:
Waking Up
Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty‐four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

// Read about one of my über uncomfortable (but proud) moments, and consider who you are willing to disappoint or make uncomfortable to honor your truth