I write this as a fan of On Being, and as someone who enjoyed and shared Brene Brown's TED talk on vulnerability with colleagues and friends when it was first shared on the website several weeks ago. That being said, after listening to this show, I felt compelled to point out some glaring flaws that I noticed, both in Dr. Brown's research and in the way the conversation was contextualized and directed by Mrs. Tippett.
As I listened to this conversation, I found myself increasingly perplexed by the "insights" and "wisdom" that Dr. Brown had learned through her research. I was perplexed because much of these insights seemed quite obvious to me, and so I could not understand why these realizations had apparently been so hard won or difficult to access for Dr. Brown. Eventually I realized the difference - I am a woman of color and Dr. Brown and Mrs. Tippett are not. As such, I had not been shielded from confronting feelings of shame and vulnerability in the way that Dr. Brown and Mrs. Tippett clearly have been. Moreover, because I have had to face such experiences on an ongoing basis, I have learned from a relatively early age much of the resilience and insights that were so hard won for Dr. Brown and Mrs. Tippett later in life.
Dr. Brown mentioned at one point that she realized she was in error for omitting the male experience from her research. I hope that my criticisms which follow will lead her to realize that she has also made a critical error in omitting the experiences of people of color from her research. Had she included their experiences, she may have learned far earlier than when she finally did something of the wisdom, creativity, and resilience of a people who have faced vulnerability for generations due to ongoing racism and oppression. This omission then is a very large missed opportunity for her and the public at large to engage in a more critical and nuanced examination of American culture, especially the phenomenon of white privilege and how it operates within the lives of white people and people of color.
Dr. Brown became very emotional when talking about shame and specifically pointed to the messages embedded in shame such as - "You're not good enough," "Who do you think you are?" and "You are nothing." People of color in the United States have been contending with these kinds of messages for literally hundreds of years now. Shame is absolutely nothing new to the experience of a person of color in the United States. On quite the opposite hand, resisting the ongoing onslaught of overt and covert messages designed to shame people of color is merely a normal part of our daily existence. Every single day I and every person of color must contend with subtle and overt messages about what it means to be successful or attractive in the United States, or more pertinently, who is capable of being successful and attractive. Dr. Brown mentioned standards of beauty as a source of shame for women, particularly contemporary standards of beauty, but for women of color such standards of beauty have always been unattainable. Even now it is still not the norm to see people of color depicted as successful and attractive in the media, especially if they are women of African descent with dark skin and natural hair. If Dr. Brown intends to become an expert on vulnerability and shame as it relates to the experiences of women, then she is obligated to find and watch a copy of the film "Dark Girls." I know of no other film that addresses with such brutal and heart-wrenching honesty the psychological damage inflicted upon women who are unable to attain the American standard of beauty.
In discussing how one raises resilient children, Dr. Brown mentioned that "people" often make the mistake of trying to raise their children in a bubble of safety and protection designed to shield them from more difficult realities. It is clear to me from her context that the people that she refers to are white people, as there is not a single parent of color that I know of, particularly African American, Latino, and Arabic parents, who has not had a conversation with their children about what it means for them to be a young person of color in the United States. If their children are male, such conversations start particularly early. Far from shielding their children from such unpleasant realities, people of color have recognized for generations that revealing such unpleasant realities is a necessary part of child-rearing - their children's safety and lives depend on them knowing how to operate within a white world that still fears and vilifies them. Parents of color, regardless of their wealth, have never had the means to protect their children from the uncertainty and adversity that comes with not having white skin and the white privilege it confers in the United States of America.
Dr. Brown also discussed the link between struggle and creativity, and here again the inclusion of the experiences of people of color in her research sample could have been enriching. Despite generations of oppression, African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and other people of color have continued to excel in the creative and performing arts, and while some have attempted to diminish the meaning or significance of that success, Dr. Brown's research begins to show that this success may very well be because of rather than in spite of the ongoing struggles and difficulties faced by people of color.
Dr. Brown also mentioned the link between a strong sense of hope and the experience of struggle. As a woman of color, I immediately thought of Dr. King and the many civil rights leaders and activists of color over the centuries who have embodied this connection. That none of this was mentioned in the course of this aspect of the discussion I found to be a particularly glaring and unfortunate error on the part of Dr. Brown and Mrs. Tippett.
Dr. Brown discussed that living a full life involves the willingness to be afraid and brave on a daily basis. When people of color get together in a safe space to discuss what it is like to work and live in the white world of the United States, especially young men of color, this idea is often at the heart of what is discussed - the fear and stress that comes with having to face microaggressions from white people, or from getting stopped by a cop for walking or driving in the 'wrong' part of town, or from feeling that one is responsible for representing their entire race well when interacting with others of another race, or from wondering if they were passed over for recognition because of their race. The stress and fears that people of color experience from confronting these issues on an ongoing basis are very real, and that we continue to face such conditions on a daily basis in order to work towards our goals on behalf of ourselves and our families speaks to the bravery that people of color must engender within themselves to continue to live and work in the United States. This is not a reality that white people have access to as revealed by Dr. Brown's conversation, and I believe that this is why this particular insight was especially novel and interesting for her. If, however, Dr. Brown had spent a meaningful amount of time engaged with people of color and their experiences, she could have gained a much deeper insight into what it means to live that contradiction as daily reality.
Finally, as an anti-racist activist and educator, I am particularly interested in what Dr. Brown's research might lend to the kind of work that I do since I find her research to be particularly revelatory about some of the deeper psychological aspects at work in the idea of "whiteness" and white privilege. She mentioned that people need to be able to hold a vulnerable space with each other in order to foster real relationships and connections, and that for many [white] people this is quite difficult. Anti-racist activists of all colors are all too familiar with the truth of her statement. White people often have an inordinate amount of difficulty in being able to be vulnerable and honest with people of color when having conversations about racism. I believe this is so because they simply do not know how to effectively handle and confront the guilt and shame that they experience when they are forced to confront white privilege, to accept their complicity in benefiting from that privilege, and to accept that society is as unjust and painful for people of color as they say it is. This resistance to psychological vulnerability is a very real impediment to making further inroads in the fight for equity and civil rights, and I believe that Dr. Brown's research when combined with critical race theories could prove to be a valuable tool in helping white people to develop a deeper understanding of and solidarity with people of color such that they are able to become effective anti-racist allies.
I do not know if my critiques will reach either Mrs. Tippett or Dr. Brown, but it is my sincere hope that they do, and that both will take the time to stay with their vulnerability, and to think critically about what I have shared in this post. Sincerely, Davina Allen.
More information about text formats