A call for emotional equity

By the door to an elementary school in a small town in Mississippi hangs a sign that reads:

FOR COLORED CHILDREN ONLY

A few years ago, the district of which this school is a part received a failing grade from the state and was consolidated with another district. As the consolidation began, members of the community held a meeting to discuss what they should do. Emotions ran high, particularly among those who had worked for so many years to improve the school. The conversation was pitched, punctuated only by the occasional eruption of an even more pitched silence. During one such eruption, a woman from a nonprofit working in the community spoke softly into the void, “Do you think it’s time to take down the sign?” After a few moments, community members looked up at her and asked, “What sign?”

The past decade has seen a dramatic increase in the attention given to issues of justice. One now hears frequent calls for social justice, economic justice, environmental justice, racial justice, and health equity. These calls all address inequities in the systems in which we live. For example, racial justice means an end to racial discrimination by people and institutions. Social justice means that policies are inclusive of once-marginalized groups. Economic justice implies a more equitable distribution of wealth and income. Environmental justice means that the burden of ecological damage will be shared evenly. Health equity means the elimination of health disparities resulting from inadequate access to nutritious food, safe neighborhoods, quality health care, etc.

I think there is another kind of justice that is at least as important as anything I have mentioned thus far, and that we have not yet even begun to talk about. It addresses not the current injustices of the systems in which we live, but rather the past injustices that people carry around in their hearts. Thus, it affects people’s ability to participate fully in the other forms of justice that may be created around them.

I call it “emotional equity,” and I see its attainment as having four key attributes:

  1. It is widely recognized that all human beings are created equal with inherent worth and dignity.
  2. Every person’s emotional experience is viewed as inherently valid given the life context in which their emotions arise.
  3. Every person has access to a support system within which to process the emotional experience of their lives.
  4. Those with disproportionate emotional burdens from the past are helped to release those emotions so that they can fully participate in the systems around them.

As one might suspect given the story with which I started this post, I believe that this fourth attribute is particularly relevant for African-Americans. The traumatic legacy of slavery, segregation, and discrimination has given rise to strong (and valid) negative emotions among African-Americans, including anger, indignation, resentment, and even self-loathing. These emotions are transmitted from generation to generation, playing a toxic role in shaping life outcomes.

Many believe that this toxicity will dissipate on its own once we achieve justice in the systemic domains listed above. But will it? Why should African-Americans ever respect a social and economic system that has an unacknowledged history of viewing them as inferior, unworthy, dangerous, and even subhuman? No matter how just the system ultimately becomes, it will always be viewed through the lens of the past – that is, until we have acknowledged the past and grounded the emotional charge it carries.

And there are ways to do this. Emotional healing takes place every day, and the process can be understood and replicated. Its components include:

  • Creating and holding a safe space where people can speak their truths without fear of rejection or retribution.
  • Validating their emotional experience by having others convey to them that their emotions “make sense” and that there is nothing wrong with them as people.
  • Generating an awareness of choice – that is, that we choose our emotions and that the emotions we choose shape the actions we take.
  • Inviting people to make a new choice, and to enact their new choices through specific practices that they adopt in the service of a better life.

Attaining justice in our social and economic system would be sufficient if all people entered those systems as “blank slates” devoid of memory. But we don’t. We all enter with conscious and unconscious memories of the past that shape how we interpret whatever happens next. To be just, a society must engage its members at this deeper level, freeing them from the past so that they can participate fully in the future.