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American Racism, Explained

Updated: Feb 27, 2021

The other day, I stumbled upon something that helped me understand how anti-Black racism in the United States of America makes complete sense. Fortunately, this discovery also points to a way forward.

Light-skinned people of European descent who enjoy white privilege in this country — AKA, “white” people — are kind of like a family. Not because we take care of each other or see each other as related and mattering equally. That would be an idealized family.

We’re more like a dysfunctional family.

American racism has worked hard to hide its roots and has a difficult time talking openly about itself — much in the same way that a dysfunctional family conspires to hide that which it feels ashamed of.

Imagine this family: Brian the dad is an alcoholic.He's also a pillar of the community. He and his wife Chloe entertain, go out a lot, and to all appearances, seem the perfect couple. No one discusses Dad’s alcoholism, Chloe the mom defends, aids, and abets it, and both of the kids feel constant pressure to excel in school and sports and to show up to church every Sunday.

However, the buried truths of the family start to take their toll on Michael, the oldest child, who begins abusing drugs.

Now the whole family puts their attention on Michael, because he has become what’s known in family systems therapy as the “identified patient.” This means that everyone in the family focuses on Michael and his problems instead of the other issues that caused his problems in the first place. When Michael says anything that points back at the dysfunction, he gets shut down immediately.

Meanwhile, Chloe denies and enables Brian's alcoholism. 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 Tess 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, Tess becomes charming and funny to distract everyone and divert disaster. Meanwhile, Mom pressures Michael to sign up for an inpatient rehab program to get treatment for a drug problem she wants to believe has nothing to do with Dad’s alcoholism.

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 family identity in addition to the individual identities of its members, I find it useful to think of individual white people as part of a collective white identity. Like the family, this white psyche is greater than the sum of its parts and is as complex as any individual or familial identity. Also, like the family, this white collective identity 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 identity by virtue of how we’re seen and treated, whether we like it or not.

In other words, we exist not just as individual white people but also as parts of a whole organism-identity known as whiteness. This creates what I call an intersubjective field. The notion of intersubjectivity is more typically used to indicate a variety of ways in which people share a common consciousness. Here, I define white intersubjectivity as the involuntary and automatic experience that comes with being perceived as “white.” It has nothing to do with one’s other identities, or feelings on the matter.

For example, I’m white and Jewish. I have perhaps 150 relatives who were never born because of ancestors who perished in the white-supremacy-fueled Jewish holocaust. So even though my identity and history are complex, I still get perceived as “white” in the U.S., which makes me a part of that white intersubjective field and puts me in common 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, and we can in turn influence it. For example, fashion, music, and literature are all 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 organism-identity-“family” — that intersubjective field known as whiteness — there's also denial. However, that dissociation is on the surface only.

In other words, just like the dysfunctional family who want to dissociate themselves from the member who expresses the larger problem most obviously (in their case, by abusing drugs), so do white people seek to dissociate ourselves from the “other white people” who make the racist comments we cringe at or that we ourselves have said in the past. However, also like the dysfunctional family, dissociation transforms nothing.

In the USA, the problem that doesn’t always get discussed openly is our history — and in particular, the continuation of white supremacy. (We have other problems, too, like patriarchy, class oppression, ableism, and so on, but, for now, we’re discussing white supremacy.) It’s not quite as simple as the dysfunctional family, but we have a similar, if fuzzier, cast of characters in the dysfunctional family of the US.

Here we have:

The perpetrators — the most overt enactors of white-supremacist ideology, like the Ku Klux Klan.

The deniers — those who claim that nothing’s really wrong and that, in fact, people who bring up 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 unfriending and blocking those who make racist comments are examples of the role of the dissociator. I have not seen nor heard anyone naming this as part of the problem (except Dr. Cleo Manago). In the dysfunctional family, denial of one’s part in the larger picture figures prominently. And so it does with racism.

No one calls out these dissociative actions themselves as examples of white privilege or as artifacts of white supremacy: 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.

When we reject the opportunity to connect with those “other white people,” we perpetuate white supremacy in two ways. One, we abdicate a grand opportunity to use our white privilege to show up and have conversations that only we can have. We can go to places in our families and white communities where people of color cannot, and we can be heard in ways they cannot. This is a major way we can step outside of our comfort zone and use our white-skin privilege.

Two, we uphold the mythology that the worst kind of white supremacy is what “they” are perpetrating. In fact, the more invisible and entrenched forms of white supremacy are harder to untangle and remove — and those are the very ones we’re enacting. When we shut out “other white people” whose overt white supremacy seems repulsive to us, like the smaller dysfunctional family sending off the identified patient to rehab, we make it easier to think of ourselves as free of the disease of white supremacy: At least we’re not “them.” We’re somehow a better kind of white person, now that we’ve banished the “real” problem from our midst.

The list of roles I’ve presented here isn’t exhaustive. Being aware of our intersubjective reality and how we arrange ourselves into roles — including any 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.

History 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. These actions also harmed the very same light-skinned people of European descent, AKA white people, who authored these acts. 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.

The task of dismantling white supremacy for white people is nothing less than recovering our own full humanity, and reuniting the fractured pieces of the white psyche — those individuals and groups 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.

2. 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 a gap in the full range of your humanity.*** I predict that in the next decade or two, the DSM will include some for of "whiteness disorder" in its list of psychological maladies, and that not facing the whole truth of our legacy and not grieving will be the cause.

3. Act. Allow your natural desire for things to be right with everyone to spark 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 aren’t taught how to grieve in this culture — and especially not how to grieve fully, well, or in a way that truly heals. In fact, we’re taught to suppress grief except in a few situations like funerals. We may need to learn how to welcome, make space for, and attend to our feelings of deep grief; to take time to allow our emotions to flow and our hearts to break.

This ability to accept and release is a key difference between a denier in the dysfunctional white family and someone who can step out of the system, reclaim their wholeness, evolve into a new level of human decency, and truly help, although sometimes the cost of stepping out of the system and expressing grief is to lose the family system altogether. Sometimes, family/ancestral loyalties and human habits of mind and emotion preclude stepping out of a system, and in fact the system punishes, scapegoats, or ejects those who openly challenge it, even and sometimes especially if the path they illuminate is one toward healing and wholeness. The desire to act 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. Or join us for an upcoming shorter event (just four more before the main program starts).

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