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 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 provide the content of a transformative learning experience
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 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 I perform a politics that is convenient for you
On whether it fits your personal brand
On whether it contributes to your legacy
On whether you will get rewarded for doing it
On whether it feels good
Or makes you look good
Or gives you the sense that we are “moving forward”
Because when you ‘give’ me space to speak
It comes with strings attached 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 own 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?
18 Replies to “Why I Can’t Hold Space for You Anymore”
Please may I ask permission from the authors of the poem to share it an open letter that is currently being written about systemic racism?
Thank you for asking! Everything on the website is licensed under Creative Commons: you can use it as long as you acknowledge the source.:)
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Hi Voa, thank you for getting back to me. Yes of course, I will reference the we page and the authors. Thank you very much!
Warm wishes, S.
Thank you so much for this resource. I would love to use it and would very much credit (and share link to the website and social media). Very grateful for this x
Who is the author of this poem? I cant find the author and id like to share.
Hi Jocelyn, the poem was written by many people together. The authorship should be attributed to GTDF arts/research collective.
When I was a young teenager and news broke that two young white men who’d gone south to help register southern blacks to vote were found with a young black companion in a shallow grave, and this shocked the nation, my mom turned to me and said “this only made the news because of the two white men as black men dead in the south was nothing new. her message was clear. She didn’t have the words “white privilege” but it was what she was telling me. When I first heard the term White privilege some 40 +years later, her words came back to me. When, in the 60’s folks spoke of Jews experiencing the same racism as blacks but “pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps,” she pointed out that she claimed to be Italian when Jews weren’t being hired in the late 30′ and early 40’s, and folks of color didn’t have that option. When someone says”well others have suffered too” it is an attempt to negate the suffering of the person sharing when in fact both experiences of prejudice are wrong and we need to stand up against all acts of prejudice. When my daughter shared with me that she got angry and “went off” on the Beverly Hills cop who stopped her after midnight for a bench warrant and impounded her car and let her boyfriend drive her home all I could think of was “thank G-d she was a white female in Beverly Hills” how anyone can deny the differences we receive depending on race, or economic status is beyond me. After video of Rodney King video aired, I learned from folks willing to share their experiences that there wasnt one MD of color at my hospital who hadn’t been stopped for driving while black in a predominantly white neighborhood. Thank you for sharing this poem and exercise. Though the author claims to be ‘not holding space,’ clearly this is another offer to help the rest of us ‘get it’ I appreciate both the being tired of holding space and the frustration and love shown in still trying to educate to understanding. Thanks
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I just wanted to thank you wholeheartedly for this poem and the gentle guidance on how to learn and reflect from it. I also appreciate the question about how to share and who to acknowledge as I would like to do so 🙂
Thank you for your comment, Jodi. The resources on this website are creative commons and can be attributed to the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective (GTDF). We often ask people to include a link to the original poem when they use it somewhere else. This poem/exercise was written in 2019 by many hands. Thanks for asking.
My best friend for many years was a black man, I am a white woman. He made several statements to me throughout those years that made a significant impression on me. The first being, “There are forces in this country that would like to reduce me to a bar of soap.”
The second being, that the German women that he met during the war were crazy about black men.
The third being that when he and a white friend of his were visiting the south they wanted to go to the movies, The cashier wouldn’t let his white friend in. He said to the cashier, “He’s black.” Then, he was let in.
Many people have accepted the mindset that the white race is privileged. This colonial bias is pervasive. I don’t know how long it will take to change this perception, or if it will ever change. I would like to believe that the future of this planet depends on changing this perception.
Wow what a powerful poem and exercise. As an Indigenous nurse, this is everything I experienced in my 30+ years in the healthcare system. Reading this makes me feel that I am not alone. Thank you for sharing.
Very important and interesting project. Thank you.
Thank you. It is powerful and needed.
Wow! this is just what I needed to read. To hold, to cry and to laugh and hold close to my heart.
Thank you from a Nisga’a Nations Sister.
A Métis friend/colleague forwarded this poem and link to me this evening. As an Métis educator– I cannot stress how much this spoke to my heart.
Thank you for this poem. It says so much of what I am tired of saying and teaching. I am sure it will find its way into my discussions (with attribution of course) with students and colleagues about what it feels like to be treated as “other”. The burden of explaining is exhausting!
Thank you – powerful and thought provoking for all humanity especially for those of us who know yet do not know enough and/or do not do enough to start to reflect, to change, to talk, to help , to ensure healing and more, especially for Earth