A very short look at racial anxiety

This week’s post will be short. My work team and coalition just wrapped up a third event in two weeks and one more to go on Saturday. All of the events are great and changing our civic landscape in positive ways, but it means I haven’t put a lot of thought into what to write about this week. Apologies too for this posting a little later than normal. I thought it posted early this morning, but it hadn’t. Here it is and have a great weekend. P.S. If you will be at the El Centro de la Raza gala on Saturday please say hi. And to our friends and colleagues observing Yom Kippur, G’mar Fatima Tova.


Tonight, my organization hosted a talk with professor john a. powell (he doesn’t capitalize his name). I’ve written about his work before and want to return to one of the themes. He speaks often about othering and belonging. During his talk tonight, he answered a question about being able to name our anxieties and how they show up.

I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t experience anxiety on some level. It is a part of living to experience anxiety. We can’t control everything and many times anxiety is produced because we have to rely on others to make our way through the world. Prof. powell shared a slide saying as diversity increases in our country, so does anxiety and racial resentment.

I hear this anxiety a lot when I am in meetings with people not accustomed to talking about race. During the start of the meeting when we do community agreements and I mention we need to add a community agreement about being clear with our language around race, equity, immigration status, etc. people start to shift in their seats. They nod and may say “that is a good one,” but I’ve broken the unsaid rule around talking about that thing that we don’t talk about. I named a fear and heightened their anxiety because talking about race is now elevated. This is also why people, whites and pocs, dread mandatory diversity training, cultural competency training, race and social meetings, etc. All of a sudden people are forced to talk about what they only want to talk about in private in hushed voices.

When we name our fears, we can begin to unpack them. If we let them simmer in the background we end up with a broken narrative that leads to what Prof. powell calls breaking behavior, meta-narratives around anger, fear, othering. Trump is very good at this narrative: Those Mexicans will take your jobs, they are bad very bad people, etc.

When I see people of color come to my coalition’s meeting I feel a different vibe. People begin to unwind because they know they can talk about race. As a colleague of color said, “I don’t have to defend my existence.” We create this space by centering people of color first and by inviting honesty and naming our fears and anxieties. I don’t always get it right in this space either and there are many times I trip over my own words and thinking, but there is more grace to do so because we’re used to talking about race. I do my best to create a space where we can be brave and talk about race and trip and pick ourselves up together. This is how we create a space of belonging and not othering.

Some quick ways to open up conversations about race to help people become comfortable naming their anxieties. The more we normalize constructive ways to talk about race the greater our change of naming fears and anxieties.

  • Use the Color Brave Space in meetings, create the expectation you’ll be talking about race
  • During introductions or icebreakers introduce prompts related to race
  • Model how to talk about race by talking about it
  • Create a space for talking about race, some non-threatening ways are start a group where you all read an article or book by an author of color, or watch a TED Talk or movie by a person of color. This will help to create a habit of acknowledging race.

There is a lot more to look at on this topic, but it’s been a long week and I still have a few more work events to go. If you have questions or thoughts about this topic please email me at fakequity@gmail.com.

Posted by Erin Okuno

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