Systemic violence is complex and multi-layered. One thing that cuts across layers is the disproportionate amount of labour that Indigenous, Black and other racialized people bear when they are expected to teach other people about systemic colonial and racial violence.
The poem below (by Elwood Jimmy, Vanessa Andreotti and Sharon Stein) lists the reason why it is emotionally and physically costly for Indigenous, Black and racialized people to hold spaces for other people to learn about their complicity in systemic harm. Read the poem once and pay attention to the different kinds of responses it evokes in you. After you have read the poem once, read the instructions that follow for the second part of the exercise.
Do You Really Want to Know Why I Can’t Hold Space for You Anymore?
You see my body as an extension of your entitlements
I have held space for you before
and every time, the same thing happens
You take up all the space
and expect me to use my time,
energy and emotion in service of fulfilling your desires
to validate you as someone who is good and innocent
to be the appreciative audience for your self-expression
to perform my trauma
to affirm your innocence
to celebrate your self-image
to center your feelings
to absolve you from guilt
to be always generous and generative
to filter what I say in order not to make you feel uncomfortable
to have a transformative experience
to make you feel loved, important, special and safe
and you don’t even realize you are doing it
Because your support is always conditional
On whether it aligns with your agenda
On whether it is requested in a gentle way
On whether you will get rewarded for doing it
On whether it feels good
Or makes you look good
On whether I perform a politics that is convenient for you
On whether it fits your personal brand
On whether it contributes to your legacy
Because even if you ‘give’ me space to speak
It comes with conditions about
what I can and cannot say
and about how I can say it
You want an easy way out
A quick checklist or one-day workshop
on how to avoid being criticized
while you carry out business as usual
And even when I say what I want to say anyway
You can’t hear it
Or you listen selectively
And when you think you hear it
You consume it
You look for a way to say ‘that’s not me’
‘I’m one of the good ones’
and use what I say to criticize someone else
Or you nod empathetically and emphatically to my face and then
The next thing you do shows that while you can repeat my words
Your harmful desires and perceived entitlements remain exactly the same
And when I put my foot down or show how deeply angry or frustrated I am
You read me as ungrateful, incompetent, unreliable and betraying your confidence
You complain behind my back that I’m creating a hostile environment
You say I’m being unprofessional, emotional, oversensitive
That I need to get over it
That I’m blocking progress
That I shouldn’t be so angry
That my ancestors lost the battle
That not everything is about colonialism or racism or whiteness
That aren’t we all just people, in the end?
That we are all indigenous to some place
That you feel really connected to the earth, too
That you have an Indigenous friend/colleague/girlfriend that really likes you…
You minimize and further invizibilize my pain
and your social mobility
always come at my expense.
That is why I can’t hold space for your anymore.
After you have read the poem once, we invite you to read it again (one or more times) as an exercise of observation of your neurophysiological responses. In this part of the exercise, we use a psychological narrative strategically to focus your attention on the responses of your amygdala, which is the part of the brain that stores information about emotional events and that manages situations of perceived threat.
In modern societies, our brain is trained to minimize threat and maximize reward. If something is perceived as a threat to one’s self-image, status, autonomy or security, the amygdala is triggered, prompting the responses of fight, flight, freeze and/or fawn (i.e. to please).
As you read the poem again, identify the parts of yourself that are engaged in these patterns of response:
As you identify these responses, write or draw how the responses manifest (could be e.g. thought or speaking bubbles). Next, consider/observe the fears, insecurities, and desires that could be behind these responses, and how these fears, insecurities, and desires could be unconsciously driving your actions and preventing other possibilities for forming different kinds of relationships. Finally, consider how the “Fragility Questions” below can help you go deeper, as this exercise is only a starting point in an ongoing, life-long process of historical and systemic undoing, unlearning, and disinvesting from harmful cognitive, affective, and relational patterns.
How can we stop insecurities and projections from limiting possibilities?
What underlying attachments may be directing your thinking, actions and relationships?
How do we learn to surrender perceived entitlements and underlying desires that become a barrier to our ability to have difficult conversations and go into difficult spaces together?
What fears, perceptions, projections, desires and expectations could be informing (consciously and unconsciously) what you are doing/thinking? How may these things be affecting your relationships in negative ways?
What cultural ignorances do you continue to embody and what social tensions are you failing to recognize?
How can being overwhelmed and disillusioned be productive?
What do you expect, what are you afraid of, what prompts defensiveness? Who is this really about?
What truths are you not ready, willing, or able to speak or to hear? What fantasies/delusions are you attached to?
Where are you stuck? What is keeping you there? How can you distinguish between distractions and the work that needs to be done?
What do you need to give up or let go of in order to go deeper? What is preventing you from being present and listening deeply without fear and without projections?