When White People Say You Are Being “Too Sensitive”

Written by Rorri Geller-Mohamed, LCSW

November 1, 2019

How often this season have you heard white people in your life say you were being too “sensitive” or take things too “seriously” for:

  • denouncing and educating others about Columbus Day
  • spreading awareness about how to avoid cultural appropriation through costumes during Halloween
  • speaking the truth about the history of Thanksgiving

Whether you are having that conversation in real life or online it can be frustrating and hard when white people just don’t get it. Maybe you share facts with them but they are resistant to listen. Maybe it’s a family member that tunes you out because they are thinking ‘here she goes again’. Maybe you tried to have the conversation at your child’s school and felt that your concerns were ignored. Maybe you were shocked that someone so close to you couldn’t understand what you were trying to tell them.

As someone that values a racially equitable and better world, when this happens it can feel hurtful, demoralizing, upsetting, stressful, and overwhelming. You might question your own ability to stand up against racism and feel disappointed or angry that you couldn’t find the right words to express it. You might feel like you want to just write the person off as ignorant and move on with your life.

As a therapist, I like to look deeper at these interactions, think about what’s really happening, and what we can do to change the dynamic from painful to productive so that we are working to build a better anti-racist world.

We need to take a step back to get a better hold of the dynamics that are coming into play. As soon as someone labels what we said as “too” something or responds to us in a way that contradicts our anti-racism values, it often throws us directly into defense mode. We want to defend what we are saying and we want them to see it from our perspective. Although this makes sense that it’s often our immediate reaction, it’s often not the most productive way to handle this type of interaction if your goal is to help them be less racist.

What we can do is get a better idea of where their emotions and opinions are coming from. One great way to do this is by first clarifying what they are saying. Often by doing this, we are gaining more information on what’s causing such a big disconnect. So asking them a question instead of explaining to them why their perspective is wrong or racist is one way to open up a dialogue.

Creating space for the dialogue is where real change can happen. You want to understand where this idea comes from and what makes it so hard for them to recognize or be able to empathize with your feelings and experiences related to the issue. Helping them connect to the emotion it causes you can also be helpful. For example, talking about an experience they had that was painful and then exploring what it would feel like if someone made a comment that minimized or dismissed their pain. Then help them to understand how their comment makes you feel even if that wasn’t their intention. Then explore ways to take steps to repair the harm, see things differently in the future, and how their values are likely aligned with what you are hoping for in building a better world.

Anti-racism work isn’t easy and it can pull on a lot of emotions but you can do this. Imagine how amazing it would be if our children could grow up in a world where they are valued for the amazing people they are not judged on the color of their skin. So the next time someone tries to tell you that you are “too sensitive” focus on making that emotional connection and do the anti-racism work that we as white people need to do.

To navigating emotions.

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