He was a black man, a school counselor, speaking to our group about his experience working with kids in Minnesota. He looked out over the sea of white therapists and said what we were all thinking: I have one question. Where are your black people?
This annual psychotherapy conference was a favorite of mine. But the overwhelming predominance of white bodies in the group said it all. “Once again,” I grimaced, “I've managed to surround myself with people who basically look and act like me.” I felt ashamed and frustrated. I never wanted to feel racist, not at all! But could a life surrounded by white people mean anything about how racism showed up in my own life?
Later that weekend I met up with some other concerned therapists worried about the fact that this conference was predominantly attended by white people. We openly discussed how we felt about being in such a segregated group and what we could do to correct the problem. Though it was obvious that societal racism was the basic issue, we realized we needed to address it personally before we could do anything else.
The simple lunch meeting at that 2015 conference led me into a 2 1/2 year project with several other therapists. We worked in dyads and in group conversations using a therapeutic model called Internal Family Systems to help us get clear and to unburden racist thinking and behavior – starting inside ourselves.
2020, despite (or maybe due to) my years of work on racism, felt like I was in a crash course to understand my own whiteness. The layer upon layer of ignorance residing within me continually amazes me.
In fairness, it's so hard to see what we've inherited, breathed in and swallowed for our entire lives.
Here's one of the most important things I've learned: Once you begin to notice the truth about what it means to be white in this world, you just can't stop seeing the privilege and double standards absolutely everywhere. And I've learned that racist patterns respond a lot like worried parts in our personality – it seems like it's better to ignore or deny them, but when met with curiosity and compassion, they heal.
If you’re white and you tend to worry, I know it can feel good to put your head in the sand and just go on with your life. Unfortunately, that won’t help you. You see, if you ignore the plight of anyone who has been systematically discriminated and thought of as less important, you ultimately harm yourself. I don’t mean this in a self-concerned way. It’s just truth.
See the canary drop and watch the coal miners die. Ignore the coral and watch the whole ocean collapse. Disregard the high maternal mortality rate of impoverished people in this country, watch when it hits your pregnant white friends. Dismiss the opioid deaths in inner city communities, see your suburban friends’ children die.
Black people have always been treated as second class in our society.
February is Black History Month. Like many, I hope for a day when Black History Month is unnecessary because Black History will be accurately and openly told in an honest recounting of American history.
In the meantime, here are 5 steps to begin to acknowledge, address, understand and heal yourself of literally centuries of lies and bias.
- Read, read, read. Make sure the information is accurate and complete. There are resources at the end of the article you may use.
- Listen and learn from those who know. This means Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC).
- Do your own work using a number of tools so that you can help biased and racist parts of you from an open and compassionate place.
- Keep in mind that when you recognize the ways we are trained to protect white culture as supreme, it feels painful. But it’s never as hard as being the ones tortured by those lies.
- Be willing to make mistakes and look foolish. Occasionally you'll say the wrong thing. Keep going.
A little background: I was raised in the 60’s and 70’s in an overwhelmingly white rural community.
The messages I received as a little girl were:
- Everyone is the same (never mind that we don’t know any black people.)
- Black people are a different race from us. We are Caucasoid. They are Negroid. (I learned this in school in my textbooks complete with pictures. Must be true, right?)
- Black people by nature are cool, especially talented and often hilarious – look at the Jackson 5, Flip Wilson, Sammy Davis, Moms Mabley, OJ Simpson and Shaft.
- Black people's photos are often shown on the news beside stories of arson, murder and theft.
- We love everyone.
By the time I was in college, I felt so confused about black people I didn’t know how to relate to them. When I was around the one or two people who I knew shared or assimilated to my culture and dressed and spoke like I did, I could calm down enough to try and socialize. When I met urban black students from Chicago at college, I felt confused and disappointed. (Yes – I know. This thinking is completely embarrassing, but I’m owning it anyway.) I felt anger (toward them) that was protecting a deep sense of shame (toward myself).
If you're white and it frightens you to look at yourself and your biases, prejudices and outright racism, you're in good company.
In fact, it's so tough to look at that white people have, over the years, responded with various ideas to help us feel better. These include rejecting the idea that we see people's skin color and make immediate and sometimes unconscious opinions. How often have you heard (or said) I don't see color! And I hate being called white or identifying that way. Simple denial solves nothing.
Similarly, we deny our own culture. This has been a stance of people who live in white bodies and feel terrible about the behavior toward BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color). I lived here for a very long time and occasionally still visit this position. It sounds like this: We as white people are horrible. I cannot stand my culture! This statement, while it might feel accurate, serves no one. The point is not to hate yourself or your origins. It is to be able to care enough about yourself to heal the wrongs while you seek justice for everyone.
We can know for sure that everyone is a person and as valuable as another.
But to imagine that anyone has the power to just dismiss the dismal bigotry and oppression that black people endure by denying white culture or by proclaiming color as no longer relevant by any other shortcut is the arrogant assumption of the privileged. In our society white skin is either invisible or preferred. This is not true for black and brown bodies.
Truth is, anti-racism work is painful, haunting, humbling, frightening and frustrating. But it is nothing compared to the trauma of simply being a black body in the United States. I am not advocating doing anti-racist work as a self-improvement course. However, if we want to improve life for all beings, we must address racism. And, if you, like me, are living in a white body, confronting white privilege and healing racism has incredible systemic effects for your life and the planet.
When you confront white privilege and work to heal racism, you have the opportunity to:
- Gain compassion for the earth and all its beings.
- Decrease your own ambiguous anxiety and gain self-confidence.
- Move toward more authentic relationships.
- Clarify other burdens that hold people down like body shaming, perfectionism, classism, etc.
- Help transform the burdens of your own ancestors and pass a better future to your children.
- Develop daily awareness of safety and wholeness in a diverse community.
- Open to and enjoy the gifts of all those around you.
- Increase your understanding of accurate history.
- Remove automatic body cues of danger placed there through generations of conditioning.
- Become a more honest, productive and loving member of society.
Ready to drop your old ideas and begin learning about whiteness and racist patterns? I have a few helpful resources to get you started.
Anti-racism Daily – a daily email newsletter with enlightening and well-written essays.
The Great Unlearn – by Rachel Cargle. A platform to educate and inspire.
My Grandmother's Hands – A book/workbook to heal radicalized trauma by Resmaa Menakem
From Privilege to Progress – on Instagram – Desegregating the convo about racism since ‘18. By Michelle Saahene and Melissa DePino. Bite-sized concepts (via Instagram) with huge impact.
Be Antiracist – A book by Ibram Kendi. (Or anything he writes).
Dr. Bertice Berry – Amazing speaker and story-teller on FaceBook and Instagram. She gets her point across with love and humor.
I'm Still Here: Black Dignity In A World Made For Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
The Bookshop's list of Anti-Racism Books – start somewhere.
The One Inside Episode from 12/11/2020 by Tammy Sollenberger with me and Dorothea Hrossowyc discussing the experiment described at the start of this blog and from 1/29/2021 with Virginia Seewaldt examining whiteness.