To Be a Better Ally, Stop People-Pleasing

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

Ashley Abramson
Forge
Published in
5 min readSep 8, 2020

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A stressed White woman biting her nails while looking at her cell phone.
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.

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Ashley Abramson
Forge

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