“We have some racists… but 99.95% of the people you meet are colorblind and don’t have a racial bone in their body. We have some bad cops, but 99.995% of the law enforcement personnel you encounter would risk their lives to save yours. If you choose to see evil, then evil is all you’ll see. As for me, I choose to see the good in people. My heart is full. I’ve got nothing but love for all of you.”
In response, I typed out the words, “It must be nice to have that privilege,” then deleted them. I couldn’t give into a debate about my and my loved ones’ rightful anxiety when it comes to racism. I didn’t have the emotional energy necessary to respond to such a blatant example of toxic positivity.
Cleopatra Kamperveen, Ph.D., assistant professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California, views positivity culture as a byproduct of social media and the personal development movement. Gratitude and positive thinking can be helpful—they’re key parts of building resilience. But the toxic positivity of insisting someone consistently feel grateful and optimistic—even in the face of systemic racism—can be actively harmful.
“Positivity becomes toxic when it is implied that we should always look on the bright side at all times and not allow ourselves to feel difficult emotions,” Kamperveen says. “The downside of positivity culture is that it can vilify the normal range of human emotional experience.”
As a rule, toxic positivity undermines the pain of others. Now especially is not the time for it. For almost two months, cities across our country have seen peaceful and sometimes violent protests, which were sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died while being detained for what was thought to be a counterfeit $20 bill. The harrowing video of his death and the resulting protests have forced police departments, policymakers, and everyday individuals to examine systemic racism and discriminatory processes that affect the lives of marginalized groups in this country.
Yet some still don’t get it. Social media is showing us that some people are over the “negativity,” that they want everyone to focus on the good in people and to stop denigrating the bad ones. Grappling with the very real harms of racism in this country doesn’t feel good, but neither does toxic positivity to a hurting person.
Getting toxic positivity in response to conversations about racism can lead to questioning your own reality, feeling invalidated, or trying to shut off your emotions because of shame. “It is normal to have hard days; it is normal to feel sad, hurt, and angry in response to difficult experiences,” Kamperveen says. “In reality, difficult emotions need to be felt, appropriately expressed, and processed.”
Research has found that processing negative emotions—not denying them—ultimately helps us to heal. Trying to stifle these negative emotions, whether in response to toxic positivity or out of your own self-preservation, might make you feel more functional in the moment but can just make things worse over time. “The problem is that the negative thoughts don’t just vanish,” Kamperveen tells SELF. “They continue to live with you and in you, sending subtle but powerful signals to the brain and body that you are in stress, emergency, and trauma.”
Kamperveen, who also specializes in reproductive health and is the founder of the Fertility & Pregnancy Institute, keeps this top of mind when helping couples through infertility. “When we are counseling couples who have experienced fertility challenges, one of the first steps we take with them is to encourage them to air out their worst-case scenario and how they would cope with it if it ever came to pass,” she says. “We do this because we know that they have years of social conditioning telling them to think positively and to avoid entertaining their negative thoughts.”
Sometimes it can feel that allowing room for realism and negativity, when warranted, can take away from that rush of good emotions when things actually go the way you hope. That doesn’t have to be the case. I saw a great example of this in the feelings-heavy show *This Is Us.. Beth and Randall practice figuring out worst-case scenarios with their kids so they’re prepared to take on whatever hurdles await them. As seen in the show, and as I’ve experienced, being realistic about potential struggles doesn’t take away from moments of success and relief—it only emphasizes them.
Despite my deleting my Facebook comment that day, I do try to educate others on social media, as well as in real life, about why so many people of color cannot simply carry on and see the bright side. It does get exhausting, especially when my attempts are in vain. Still, I encourage my friends and acquaintances to not reflexively inject positivity into tough conversations. Instead, I ask them to step outside of their privilege and see that we don’t all have the luxury to not fear cops or to not wonder if our interactions with others are colored by our identities. Seeing the good does not ease the pain when someone is killed by police officers while sleeping in bed or while walking home alone. We can think positively, but another terrible story will take center stage on the news, and our emotions will come crashing back down.
Until racism subsides and real changes are made, we cannot vibrate our way out of discrimination and scary police encounters. The solution to solving systemic racism does not depend on whether or not we let in gratitude and positivity. But knowing we have allies who will sit in that discomfort and fight for change with us does alleviate some of the pain.
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