Updated: Mar 9, 2021
Have you ever thought about the way we all start out in the world? That is, how as infants, we're all wide-eyed, hopeful, expecting connection, attunement, nourishment, and love?
Some of us are fortunate enough to receive these things. We may also be fortunate enough to learn that when someone hurts us, or when we hurt someone, we have an opportunity to repair that hurt. For example, if you have a sore foot, and I accidentally step on it, I'll probably apologize, and offer to get you some ice or help you in some other way.
Of course it isn't always that simple. Especially with deeply entrenched, historical harms like white supremacy-based enslavement, torture, and genocide. As we grow older and learn about the histories of our ancestors, fellow citizens, and peoples of other backgrounds, we may find ourselves on the receiving end of privileges or harms we did nothing to merit. A little white child growing up may be wearing the historical suit of a predator. Their mere presence could trigger trauma in others of African, Asian, Latino/a/x or Indigenous descent because of the historical and ongoing harm caused by people who look like that child. That child might even be unwittingly perpetuating that harm through their words or actions. So unlike the simple, present-time situation of accidentally stepping on a sore toe, a white person realizing their implication in a white supremacy myth-based culture has no immediate recourse to repair the complex matrix of past and current harm. We can't simply issue an apology, grab an ice pack or offer an aspirin. Without a straightforward way to right these complex and deeply-entrenched wrongs, we defend against the pain of being implicated in them. We fight for the innocence we were born with.
I often hear deflections along the lines of, I didn't start this. It's not my fault. I don't even identify with whiteness. You're doing something to me by implying I'm somehow involved. When I hear these things, I try to remember that all of us are either children or former children. As large former children, we still carry around a deep longing for things to be right with everyone, even if that longing got buried under layers of reactions, defensiveness, attachment to strategies of dissociation, harm, accumulation of wealth, and so on. No one is born wired to do harm to others, to oppress or enslave them, or to benefit at their expense.
Part of what I feel committed to keeping in my awareness is the basic human innocence and bright-eyed goodness of the light-skinned people of European descent who are just now waking up rather painfully to the implications of being coded as "white" in the United States of America. I have seen many knee-jerk reactions like the ones above to even being seen as white. When someone is in this reactive state, their main concern is to protect their own sense of innocence and goodness, which the morass of historical harms in which we find ourselves makes it hard to do. But they may not know this. They probably haven't reflected on how the construction of white supremacy itself produces the types of reactions they find themselves having. So they try instead to turn the conversation around to how merely naming the differences in how we're treated is itself the problem, to make it easier to deflect it.
It's as if we're born with white supremacy myth grown into our skin like a barbed wire, which feels painful even to touch. So without a critical analysis, room to grieve, space to process and develop a coherent narrative around all that has happened, a white person uncomfortable with unexamined hard truths does what any normal human would do...they react, and push away the messenger.
And yet, if we're going to evolve as a species, we need to tell and hear the stories of what actually happened to create what we now know as the present day United States. We need to increase our capacity to behold the truth of present day systemic racism. We need to create space within our psyches to grieve as it is appropriate to grieve these horrors. And then we need to repair the harm. People of African, Indigenous, Latino/a/x, and Asian descent are still being harmed as I write this. However, we cannot do any of these things while in a reactive stance trying to defend our basic innocence, whilst unaware that we are in a defensive reaction trying to defend our basic innocence. This is one of the reasons that, when I am talking to a white person who seems unable or unwilling to hold the truth of our white supremacist history and present, I try to remember and relate to the innocent child still alive within them, and how confusing and painful this process must be. Online conversations around race do not typically proceed this way. I see a lot of blame, polarization, debate, and shaming. Yet I think the opposite needs to happen if we are to truly heal. Even as a seasoned anti-racist activist (which by the way does not mean I'm any better at any of this than anyone else, it just means I've been thinking about it and working on it for a long time), I still struggle with remembering my own innocence and basic goodness. Think about it: How could a human being enslave another human being without sacrificing some vital element of their own humanity? Resmaa Menakem talks about this in My Grandmother's Hands. What must have been happening in the bodies of the enslaver and the enslaved? How do we metabolize this history in the present time, starting with our own precious bodies?
One of the crucial components in this work has been the foregrounding of our basic innocence as human beings. I invite you now or at any time to put your hand on your heart, and your other hand on your belly, breathe, and feel in to the little innocent child within you that longs for things to be right for everyone. And let yourself feel the feelings that come. I see this type of practice as a vital piece of dismantling the white supremacy myth that has so many of us so deeply confused, and reacting with predictable patterns of denial and dismissiveness. Let's wake up, heal, and reclaim our humanity together, shall we?