To Be a Better Ally, Stop People-Pleasing

Being anti-racist means learning to manage your automatic stress response

Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Most people have heard of fight or flight, but there’s a third, lesser-known way people respond to feeling threatened — and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, it was visible all over the social media accounts of White people.

As the fight for racial justice gained steam across the country, millions of White people found themselves unsure how to act on social media: agreeing with anti-racist memes that filled their Instagram feeds, but worried about adding to the performative noise flooding the platform. “I didn’t want to post just because other people were, but I was also worried what they would think about my silence,” one conflicted 31-year-old White woman told me. “So I ended up posting several times that week as a way to relieve my own stress about it.”

White people have a long history of centering ourselves in Black people’s trauma, of course. It’s rooted in what’s known as the “fawn” response, the instinct to people-please as a means of self-preservation. “A fawn response is an attempt to avoid conflict through people-pleasing or any behavior that would ensure your safety in an interaction,” says Nicola Pierre-Smith, a Philadelphia-based therapist.

And while it may not seem as overtly harmful as fight (like your angry, “all lives matter” relative’s Facebook rants) or flight (refusing to engage with conversations about race entirely), fawning can quietly be just as detrimental. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls logical thinking and learning, goes “offline” when the stress response is active — which means that when you’re feeling threatened, you can’t learn, and you can’t help other people. You’re stuck in self-preservation, unable to take any meaningful action.

“In the threat response, we’re just seeking the easiest routes to soothe ourselves, even if those aren’t what’s good for us or others long term,” says the Seattle-based therapist and artist Lindsay Braman.

When self-preservation is your knee-jerk response to anti-racist conversations, it may be time to examine what you’re protecting — and how you can open yourself up to growth. Braman captured it well in a June Instagram post: “If you are white and conversations about race elicit a threat response, that’s evidence that something you value is being threatened, and that something is implicit, unconscious, internalized white supremacy,” she wrote.

If you want to learn how to be a better ally to Black people, start by learning how to turn off your fawn response.

Notice how you fawn

Becoming aware of your own fawn triggers is the first step toward growing out of them. In the case of the woman I spoke to, fawning looked more like performative allyship — posting on Instagram to avoid feeling like others were mad at her. But the fawn response can also cause you to go silent in a group of White friends when someone makes a racist remark. The point in either case is that your actions are governed by your desire to avoid relational stress.

According to Braman, attempts to fawn through caring or performing can produce a flood of oxytocin, a hormone that plays a role in social bonding and soothes stress. But even though that self-protection might feel calming, it’s also conflict-averse — which means you won’t be able to take the risks necessary to be a real ally.

Reframe what conflict means

Work to reframe your perspective on conflict. Remind yourself that discomfort isn’t always bad: Like lifting weights or running a long race, the right kind of discomfort can make you stronger and healthier. Sometimes that means sitting with hard feelings instead of rushing to numb them.

“The reality is, becoming an ally requires growing pains — if at the first sight of discomfort White people move into a threat response, they will never grow in the space of anti-racism,” says Thema Bryant-Davis, a California-based psychologist.

The key is to practice making this cognitive shift when you’re not stressed, while your prefrontal cortex is fully functioning and you can integrate new information. Look for small ways to make yourself uncomfortable in daily life, even if it’s something as inconsequential as leaving your phone in another room for a while. The more you practice, the easier it will be to stay mentally “online” in times of stress, instead of going on autopilot to protect yourself.

Braman recommends thinking of it as growing your “window of tolerance” — the psychological sweet spot between under- and over-stimulation, where you can be maximally engaged and thoughtful.

Therapy can help with that, she adds. “I can’t imagine how I would have responded to anti-racism education before having my own experience as a client in therapy, getting the tools to grow my window of tolerance,” Braman says. “I felt so much more able to listen to someone else’s experience and reflect in a productive way.”

Practice!

Level up by practicing with people you trust. (A heated Facebook thread probably isn’t the place.) Pierre-Smith recommends practicing “rocking the boat” in relationships where you feel safe — not picking a fight for the sake of it, but speaking up about something you might otherwise let go unaddressed.

Notice how you feel after you go against the grain. Label that feeling — naming an emotion can make it less overwhelming, Pierre-Smith says, helping you to be present in the tension without resorting to people-pleasing for self-protection.

When you can tolerate challenge without feeling threatened by it, you can continue anti-racist work for the long haul in ways that are authentic and helpful. Maybe that means reposting resources on social media out of a genuine desire to learn from them. Maybe it means you simply listen instead of automatically speaking up. When you’re not so instinctively concerned about protecting yourself, you can do your part to stand up to protect others.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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