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February 26, 2021

American Racism, Explained

Sometimes, the existence of racism seems confusing. Even the confusion seems confusing. However, I recently realized that there’s one perspective from which it all makes bizarrely perfect sense.

Light-skinned people of European descent who enjoy white privilege in this country — AKA, “white” people — resemble a family. Not in the sense that we care for one other or treat each other as equally valuable. That would be an idealized family.

We’re more like a dysfunctional family.

This American family of whiteness has worked hard to hide its roots. It also has a difficult time talking openly about the worst parts of its past — much in the same way that a dysfunctional family conspires to hide that which it feels ashamed of.

Imagine, if you will, a family like this: Dad is an alcoholic. He’s also a public figure. He and Mom volunteer at their kids’ schools, are active in their larger community, and seem to others to have a loving marriage. No one discusses Dad’s alcoholism, Mom ignores it, and both of the kids feel constant pressure to excel in school, look good in public, and show up to church every Sunday.

However, the tension of the ongoing silence around the  unpleasant truth starts to take its toll on Jonathan, the oldest child, who begins cutting school and abusing hard  drugs.

Now everyone in the family turns their attention to Jonathan, because he has become what’s known in family systems therapy as the “identified patient.” This means that the whole family focuses on Jonathan and his problems instead of facing Dad’s undealt-with alcoholism, and the ongoing lies of omission that provoked Jonathan’s problems in the first place. When Jonathan tries to discuss the dysfunction, he gets shut down immediately, and further scapegoated.

Meanwhile, Mom denies and enables the problem. She says, “Oh, it’s just a few beers at night,” as she delivers chips along with another bottle to an already-inebriated Dad settling in to watch his favorite show.

Sister Kate keeps busy with clubs, cheerleading practice, and friends. You’ll never meet anyone perkier or more positive. When Dad seems about to go into yet another alcoholic rage, Kate becomes charming and funny to distract everyone and divert disaster. Meanwhile, Mom pressures Jonathan to enroll in a boarding school for troubled children to help with  the  issues she insists have nothing to do with Dad.

You’ve probably seen or know of a family like this. Maybe you even grew up in one. Similar to the dysfunctional family that has a psyche of its own in addition to the individual psyches of its members, I find it useful to think of individual white people as part of a collective white psyche. Like the family, this white psyche is greater than the sum of its parts and is as complex as any individual or familial psyche. Also, like the family, this white collective psyche includes the shadow, archetypes, and sub-personalities, which individual white people act out in different ways. And finally, if we’re a light-skinned person of European descent who receives white privilege, we’re implicated in that collective white psyche by virtue of how we’re seen and treated, whether we identify with it or not.

In other words, we exist not just as individual white people but also as parts of a whole population-psyche known as whiteness. This creates what I call an intersubjective field. For these purposes, I define white intersubjectivity as the involuntary and automatic experience that comes with being perceived as “white,” irrespective of our actual ethnicity, other identities, or feelings on the matter.

For example, I’m white and Jewish. I have perhaps 150 relatives unborn — potential descendents  of ancestors who perished in the white-supremacy-fueled Jewish holocaust. So even though my identity and history include my family lineage and my sense of safety in the US today being harmed by the white supremacy myth, I still get perceived as “white”, which makes me a part of that white intersubjective field and puts me in a kind of familial relationship with other people who also get perceived as white.

Some examples: I might get selected for a team along with other white people because of affinity bias. Or granted a loan at a bank, or permitted to browse expensive merchandise freely because I am perceived as a member of the class of white people based on my appearance. These types of perks and freedoms collectively are also known as “white privilege.”

We are influenced by this white intersubjective field, or white psyche, and we can in turn influence it. For example, language use, appearance styles, and , music are all examples of ways in which we both receive and transmit cultural messages about “how to be white.” In this way, we are like a family. We can have multiple intersubjective identities that influence and shape us (and which we also shape and influence), such as gender, age, physical ability, height, and so on. Again, here, I’m talking about the “white” attribute.

Within that intersubjective field known as whiteness, just like within the dysfunctional family we met above, we also have a lack of facing and reckoning with the hard stuff.

However, also like the dysfunctional family, dissociation unfortunately transforms nothing.

In the USA, the problem that doesn’t always get discussed openly is our history — and in particular, white supremacy. (There’s alsopatriarchy, class oppression, sexual abuse, ableism, and the interrelationship of all these, but the topic right now is white supremacy.) Let’s look at the parallel set of roles people play around white supremacy in dysfunctional family of the US.

Here we have:

The perpetrators — the most obvious purveyorswhite-supremacist ideology, like the Ku Klux Klan.

The deniers — those who refuse to acknowledge the problem, and may even claimthat those who name the problem actually are the problem.

The identified patients — In the US, the identified patient is the white pariah. He is Dylann Roof, who, in 2015, shot and killed nine Black people praying peacefully in church. He is Derek Chauvin, who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight fatal minutes. She is “Karen,” one of any number of white women who called the police because they were  frightened by the mere presence of a Black person. Each of these examples is the identified pariah because they do the most visible harm. They are the “other white people” from whom self-described anti-racist white people seek to dissociate themselves.

The dissociators — Anti-racist white people who distance themselves from not only the identified patients but also the deniers.

The white people who unfriend, and block, and cut out of their lives the other white people who say and do racist things are examples of the role of the dissociator. tAs with the dysfunctional family, denial and dissociation enables the problem to continue. In the US, these dissociative actions themselves exemplify white privilege: the privilege of  being able to walk away from the more overt expressions of white supremacy and give up on relating with those who express it simply because we’re personally bothered by it.

People of African, Asian, Latino, and Indigenous descent do not have this privilege.

They have to work alongside those “other white people,” perhaps by answering to or supervising them; delivering their food; conducting them in an orchestra; making decisions about their health; relying on their decisions about their own health; doing their laundry; or taking care of their children.

The list of roles I’ve presented here isn’t exhaustive. Being aware of our shared white psychereality and the roles we step into,  including roles not mentioned here, — can help us choose to step out of them. (This also applies to any group.) Like the smaller dysfunctional family we met earlier, white people need to hear each other’s truths and each other’s pain in order to heal.

White people didn’t just harm the hundreds of thousands of Black people who survived and died in the Middle Passage or the Indigenous nations who barely survived white genocide. Theyalso harmed themselves.. Through their actions, they warped an essential part of their own humanity: the capacity to honor and revere the human lives of those superficially different from them.  They also harmed their descendants — some of us — who must now reckon with that legacy.

White people’s task of dismantling white supremacy consists of nothing less than recovering our own full humanity, and reuniting the fractured pieces of our splinteredwhite psyche — those individuals and groups playing dysfunctional family roles held apart by class, education, ancestry, privilege and more.

These aspects all intersect in multiple, complex, changing, and sometimes contradictory ways, but beginning the process of repair is really quite simple. It begins with three commitments:

  1. Face the whole truth. Muster a willingness (the ability will come) to face and reckon with even the hardest truths.
  1. Grieve. An awareness of and commitment to replacing denial with a willingness to allow oneself to feel and express all the grief as it arises.

***Realize that the cost of not doing 1 & 2 is to maintain a fracture in the wholeness of our humanity, both collectively and individually.***

I predict that in the next decade or two, the DSM will include some number of entries for “whiteness disorder” in its list of psychological maladies, for which not facing the whole truth of our legacy and not grieving will be the cause.

  1. Act. Allow your natural desire for things to be right with everyone to catalyze your own unique actions toward greater justice for all.

These commitments all work together. When we decide to face the truth of our history, we see that the United States was built with slave labor of Africans kidnapped, enslaved, tortured, and torn from their families. People of African descent living in the US still suffer the effects of that legacy in the form of ongoing systemic racism with no formal acknowledgment let alone reparations.

We must choose to remember that white people colonized the land on which we live using a white-supremacist justification called “Manifest Destiny” to slaughter almost all of the Indigenous people who were living here in harmony with nature. The amount of cruelty dispensed to brown and black people just so white people could occupy this land is almost too much for a human psyche to bear. I know I have trouble fathoming it.

When we begin to face the whole truth of this legacy and allow the last shreds of denial to slough off, our hearts will want to grieve. We don’t get taught grief literacy in this culture, so most of us push our grief away, as we were taught to do from youth,except in a few “acceptable” situations like funerals. So we have a huge learning opportunity to reclaim our humanity by learning to grieve. We can begin by deciding  to begin to learn how to welcome, make space for, and attend to our feelings of deep mourning; to take time to allow our emotions to flow and our hearts to break, realizing that emotions will always ebb and flow, and will never harm or kill us.

This ability to accept and release grief is a key difference between a denier in the dysfunctional white family and someone able to step out of the system, reclaim their wholeness, evolve into a new level of human decency. In that more recovered and restored state, a human may be far better able to truly help. The desire to act for justice will arise organically from this newly clear state, and it can take an infinite number of forms.

Arranging ourselves into rigid roles including the ones I’ve mentioned is a clue to a dysfunction not being named or dealt with. We may not have chosen the roles we find ourselves playing, but we can choose to step out of them. It begins with a commitment to face the hard truths and continues with a willingness to grieve and an openness to allow our natural desire for healing to express itself in the world.

If you would enjoy support, mentorship, community, powerful tools that work not just for dismantling the white supremacy myth, but also personal transformation, with an incredible, rarely-available-together couple of facilitators, check out our 22nd Century Leaders program.

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