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Introduction to You Are Your Best Thing: A Conversation

In 2020, Tarana Burke and I co-edited You Are Your Best Thing, an anthology from a dynamic group of Black writers, organizers, artists, academics, and cultural figures on the topics the two of us have dedicated our lives to understanding and teaching: vulnerability and shame resilience. Here, in the anthology’s introduction, Tarana and I discuss how the book came to be.

Brené Brown: We could start the story of this book when you texted me to ask if we could talk, and I thought you wanted to continue our ongoing conversation about wallpaper and landscaping—but what came before that? When did the idea for this book come to you?

Tarana BurkeIt was after we did #SharetheMic on social media, in the summer of 2020. There had been this intense public unrest happening in the country after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered. In private, I was having these really heartfelt conversations with Black folks who were just struggling: I can’t watch any more of this. I can’t take this anymore. I cannot . . . And in public, the conversation was, How can we get white people to be better? How can we get white people to be antiracist? Antiracism became the order of the day. But there was no focus on Black humanity. I kept thinking, Where’s the space for us to talk about what this does to us, how this affects our lives? And so I was thinking to myself that I really wanted to have a conversation with you.

Tarana Burke

At first, I struggled to text you. I kept asking myself, why am I hesitating to reach out to her? We have a close enough friendship to talk about anything. Your work is so important to me and my experience as a human being, but as a Black woman, I often felt like I had to contort myself to fit into the work and see myself in it. I wanted to talk to you about adding to it: “What is the Black experience with shame resilience?” Because white supremacy has added another layer to the kind of shame we have to deal with, and the kind of resilience we have to build, and the kind of vulnerability that we are constantly subjected to whether we choose it or not.

So, yeah, I called and said all of that—but I was not as eloquent [laughter] at the time. I will never forget that phone call. I texted, “Can we talk?” and you texted back, “Sure.” Once we got on the phone and I shared the idea, the first thing you said was, “Oh hell, yeah. Oh, absolutely! Yes, I want to talk about that. Yes, I want to do this.” At that point I was just thinking, “Oh, and here I was worrying about offending you and wanting to have a real conversation.” So, that was the beginning from my side. What was happening on your side?

Brené: From my side, well, admittedly, I’d probably do anything you ask me to do. But the timing was bigger than us. I had really been grappling over the last couple of years with trying to figure out how to be more inclusive—how to present the work in a way that invited more people to see themselves. The last thing I ever wanted to do was put work in the world around shame, vulnerability, and courage, then make people feel like they had to do something extra to find themselves in it. I thought I had controlled for that with my sample, because I’ve always been hypervigilant about diversity in the people I interview and data sources. In fact, one of the early criticisms of my work was that the sample population actually overindexed around Black women and Latinx folks. But I started to get comments, especially from Black women and men: “I had to work at it more to see myself in it than I would have preferred or I would have liked to or that I even should have had to.” Finally, it was the combination of a conversation with you and a conversation with Austin Channing Brown on her TV show, where I thought, the problem isn’t the research.  The research resonates with a diverse group of people because it’s based on a diverse sample. But the way I present my research to the world does not always resonate because I often use myself and my stories as examples, and I have a very privileged white experience. That was the huge aha for me.

Tarana: Yeah, that makes sense.

Brené: One of the things that struck me was, in The Gifts of Imperfection, there’s a scene where I’m in sweats and have dirty hair and I’m running up the Nordstrom escalator with my daughter to exchange some shoes that her grandmother bought her. Immediately, I’m overwhelmed because I look and feel like shit, and there’s all these perfect-looking people giving me the side-eye. Just as I start to go into some shame, a pop song starts playing and Ellen breaks out into the robot. I mean full-on, unfiltered, unaware—just sheer joy. As the perfect people start staring at her, I’m reduced to this moment where I have to decide, Am I going to betray her and roll my eyes and say, “Ellen, settle down,“ or am I just going let her do her thing—let her be joyful and unashamed? I end up choosing her and actually dancing with her. It’s a great story about choosing my daughter over acceptance by strangers, but I’ve shopped with enough Black friends to know that if I was not dressed up—even if I was dressed up—and I was in a department store and my Black daughter broke into a dance, there would be a whole other set of variables to consider. Including being hassled by security, possibly separated from my daughter, even arrested. So when you asked me if we could focus the work through the lens of the Black experience, it was a “hell yes” from me. I want to figure out how to better serve. In addition to telling my story, which I think is helpful, I want to co-create so people see themselves in this work. Co-creation is how we can tell stories from the Black experience that illustrate the data. Does that make sense?

Tarana: It does. This is our first time really digging into your grappling with this. Your questions make absolute sense and it also makes sense why you wanted to do this together. You still said, “Are you sure you want me to do it with you? You have my permission to use my work and do it.”

Brené: I was scared. I’m still scared.

Tarana: I get it. I understand the fear, and I know we have to be prepared for the question about you being an editor of a book about Black experience. But there’s nobody I trust more, particularly on these topics, who has studied them more and who cares more. It’s not just the research piece—there are other people who study these topics. But you combine the research expertise with compassion. You are—this sounds really corny—an embodiment of your work, of the research, of the knowledge. I think it takes the eye of somebody who has done the level of research you have done and who cares about other people’s stories. I feel such a sense of responsibility and protectiveness about the stories we’ve asked people to share for this anthology. We have to be good stewards of this information. So I definitely get the fear and reluctance, but I believe good stewardship takes both of us. I know as we read these powerful essays, we both took turns feeling a little overwhelmed with the responsibility of protecting them.

You Are Your Best Thing features essays from (left to right, ordered as they appear in the anthology) — Row 1: Jason Reynolds, Austin Channing Brown, Tanya Fields, Kiese Makeba Laymon, Prentis Hemphill; Row 2: Tracey Michae'l Lewis-Giggettes, Marc Lamont Hill, Keah Brown, Luvvie Ajayi Jones, Shawn A. Ginwright; Row 3: Kaia Naadira, Deran Young, Sonya Renee Taylor, Irene Antonia Diane Reece, Yolo Akili Robinson; Row 4: Laverne Cox, Jessica J. Williams, Aiko D. Bethea, Imani Perry, Tarana Burke
You Are Your Best Thing features essays from (left to right, ordered as they appear in the anthology) — Row 1: Jason Reynolds, Austin Channing Brown, Tanya Fields, Kiese Makeba Laymon, Prentis Hemphill; Row 2: Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggettes, Marc Lamont Hill, Keah Brown, Luvvie Ajayi Jones, Shawn A. Ginwright; Row 3: Kaia Naadira, Deran Young, Sonya Renee Taylor, Irene Antonia Diane Reece, Yolo Akili Robinson; Row 4: Laverne Cox, Jessica J. Williams, Aiko D. Bethea, Imani Perry, Tarana Burke

Brené: I’ve been doing this work for twenty-five years now. I know the stories in this book can change—even save—people’s lives. It’s an honor to do this with you. I’ve been a shame and vulnerability researcher for a long time, but not any longer than you have been an expert in the work. You have been teaching and training this work for decades. We both used the word shame long before most people could stomach it. They were experiencing it, of course. But we were naming it before most people were willing to do that.

Tarana: I just remember this feeling washing over me, again and again, and thinking: This shame is gonna kill us. This shame is gonna kill us. Being at family gatherings, being at cultural gatherings, watching the young people I worked with, knowing what they were like in our private spaces when they were open and free and then watching them in public spaces and saying, “Oh, my gosh, this is going to kill us.” And then this idea of shame resilience added another “Aha,” because my first thought was, “Oh, but shame hasn’t killed us yet.” Then I started asking myself, “Why hasn’t it?” I’ve learned it’s because there’s this powerful resilience that we’ve tapped into, but have yet to name.

Brené: Yes! And my hope is that co-creating this anthology with these incredible storytellers and writers helps us name it. There is one thing that I think is important to clarify about our process of working together—especially for other researchers and creators who are thinking, “Okay, but how does co-creation actually work?” For starters, I wouldn’t have done the book without you agreeing to be the first author.

Tarana: I didn’t understand that at all at first, but I get it now.

Brené: Here’s what we need to understand: In co-creation, lived experience always trumps academic experience.

Tarana: I don’t know. Is that a rule, like an academic rule?

Brené: No. It should be. It’s definitely my rule.

Tarana: I was about to say, that has to be a Brené rule, because I don’t know that all academics would agree. But I agree that you can’t make your research useful to people, accessible to people, if you don’t prioritize lived experience, relevance, and accessibility.

Brené: Lived experience has got to take the lead. Unquestionably. And in co-creation projects, lived experience should not only take the authorship lead, it should take a financial lead where it can, which is why all of my proceeds from this book are going back to storytellers in the Black community.

Tarana: When I think about our co-creating, the construct that I didn’t fully grasp until I read your book was vulnerability and the role it plays in our lives. My lived experience told me that the entire idea and experience of vulnerability feels like a very dangerous place to play, an unsafe thing to even consider or think about as a Black person in this country. As I read your work about vulnerability being the foundation of courage and the birthplace of love and joy and trust—these are the places that didn’t fit. I was forced to contort myself and try to understand my reaction of, “Oh, no. Vulnerability means something very different to me.” That was a big learning for me—just naming vulnerability and talking about it and thinking about it.

Brené: This is the bones of it. I believe the greatest casualty of trauma—including white supremacy, which is definitely a form of intergenerational systemic trauma—is that vulnerability becomes dangerous, risky, even life-threatening. But here’s the painful piece—it’s not like if you’re Black, you don’t need vulnerability to experience joy, belonging, intimacy,and love. It’s that we’ve created a culture that makes it unsafe for you to be vulnerable.

Tarana: Exactly! That’s the rub right there.

Brené: Yeah, it’s not like you need less. It’s just we’ve created a world where you’re afforded less.

Tarana: Exactly. And this is why I feel like this book is so critical. Our humanity, our individual and collective vulnerability, needs and deserves some breathing room.

Brené: That’s beautiful!

Tarana: We need to live in an antiracist society and people need to learn to be antiracist and practice antiracism. But I do not believe in your antiracist work if you have not engaged with Black humanity.

Brené: Oh, my God. Please say that again.

We need to live in an antiracist society and people need to learn to be antiracist and practice antiracism. But I do not believe in your antiracist work if you have not engaged with Black humanity.

Tarana Burke

Tarana: I don’t believe your antiracist work is complete or valid or useful if you haven’t engaged with Black humanity. And so to that end, I feel like the audience for this book is first and foremost Black people, right?

Brené: Absolutely.

Tarana: These pages are breathing room for our humanity. I learned so much about the Black experience reading these essays. It’s not like Black people don’t have anything to learn about the Black experience. Our experiences are vast and different. It’s validating to see that even in our various identities and experiences, we engage in similar struggles, we have the same needs. And as other people engage with the book, it’s about seeing the breadth of our humanity, and the depth of it, because this is the reality. It comes back to compassion and love. Always love.

Brené: When I read the book as a whole, it was very, very overwhelming for me. Was it overwhelming for you?

Tarana: Yes.

Brené: I mean, just as each essay came in—

Tarana: It takes your breath away.

Brené: I kept thinking about bell hooks’s concept of lovelessness and how she talks about lovelessness as the root of white supremacy and the patriarchy and all forms of oppression. And that the answer to lovelessness is love. I’ve read bell hooks for thirty years, but these essays and the process of co-creating with you taught me what love in the face of lovelessness really feels like. The marrow of it. When you say, “I don’t trust any antiracism work that doesn’t embrace and see our humanity,” I can feel the call for love. I get it so fully right now. It’s like you’re telling us that if you don’t see the heart and the love and the humanity and the joy of the Black experience—of Black humanity—then the antiracism work is bankrupt.

Tarana: Exactly. It’s just like knowing something intellectually but not feeling it, and this is feeling work. It’s heart work as much as it is head work. Those two things have to be in tandem. And I love that we have the ability to make this offering to Black folks who have felt stifled in this moment and overwhelmed and have not had space.

Brené: Was your hope for the book, then, that it lands in the hands and hearts of Black folks who’ve had that experience that you’ve had, where you’re like, “Oh, my God. There’s language for this. There’s words for this. I’m not alone”?

Tarana: Absolutely. I haven’t read many books about the Black experience that get past some of the first-layer stuff and really get into the heart work. And I just want us to see ourselves in this differently, to see our insides, the parts that we don’t want to show people, the parts that we don’t talk about often, the parts that we feel we have to cover and hide and keep away from the world in order to survive, in order to exist. I don’t want to talk about my illness. I don’t want to talk about my insecurities. I don’t want to talk about how this thing really bothers me—but I need to and I can only do that with some semblance of safety. I want this book to be a soft place to land. “Give our humanity breathing room.”

Brené: I think you can make it that. I think we can. I think we can translate it because collecting and sharing these stories is breath and space and the act of seeing people. I don’t know what to make of this, but every time I read an essay, I had this really paradoxical experience of a deeper understanding of how much more I have to learn about the Black experience, yet I saw myself and connected deeply to the shared humanity of the yearnings.

Tarana: That’s so interesting, right? That’s another reason why antiracist work is important. You have to engage with Black humanity, because the expansiveness of our humanity is so great that it reaches to other people. I don’t want to sound all kumbaya and “we’re all just human beings” but we’re all just human beings whose experiences and environments and these systems have affected in different ways. But we must tear away the layers to reveal the core, then work our way back from that.

Brené: One of the things that I learned a lot about is the unrelenting nature of intergenerational trauma.

Tarana: And that’s not familial trauma. There are some things that have improved for Black people in the United States, and then there are other things that are exactly the same but with new faces. Systems that have not necessarily improved, they just look different. And we just keep trying to reshape the same tools that we use to dismantle the ever-changing systems. It’s very tricky, but I do think this is a great moment for us to stop and focus on and give real attention to what effective dismantling looks like and requires. We need specific attention and action, not just general thoughts.

Brené: I think I even feel different after this conversation, to be honest with you.

Tarana: Years ago, I went on a trip to Tunisia and it was for this big conference. It was a delegation of folks from the United States, from all over. I met this woman named Ra. She was a Vietnamese woman who also did work against sexual violence, also with young girls. We just connected quickly and became fast friends. And in the course of three or four days of us just talking, talking, talking, talking, I learned so much more about what Asian women, particularly the Vietnamese girls she worked with, have to deal with every day. There were very similar issues, very similar consequences, but very different reasons that explained how they had arrived at the places they were. I had the same experience with another girlfriend of mine, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit Indian woman who does work around sexual violence among her people. We always landed in the same places. We often carry our trauma in similar ways, but the roads that led us to the trauma are all so different. We must pay attention to that road. That road is our humanity. That road is the piece that we’re talking about. A lot of times, we’re happy and relieved to find similarities: “Oh, you too? You too? Me too.” No pun intended. These experiences create community, and it’s wonderful, but it is still critical to understand the very different paths that led you to the trauma.

Brené: That makes so much sense. We have to know the road if we’re going to walk back down it and dismantle the systems that lead us to trauma.

Tarana: Exactly.