A couple of controversial thoughts re Baltimore. More accurately, some thoughts in response to the discussion concerning Baltimore in my Facebook newsfeed via my white liberal American friends. (After all, what do I know about being black in America or growing up in a ghetto existence?) It’s about how emotion, sensation, and energy work (what I do in my professional life) intertwine with racism and politics.
I want to begin with a story. When I was in my mid twenties I took a night course at a university outside Detroit (where I lived at the time). I met a woman from South Africa in that class. We befriended each other and would hang out and chat during the breaks and after class. This started earlier on in the course and continued throughout the class. After a while I realized something felt different. Or rather something I was used to feeling was noticeably absent in our interactions. I couldn’t put my finger on for a long time but eventually (and to my horror) it dawned on me. I didn’t feel a certain fear in her presence, a fear that I realized now I had grown accustomed to in all my interactions with African Americans throughout the entirely of my life up until that point.
This was a terrible realization.
I grew up in a world in which I was told there was racial animosity between whites and blacks. It was never described as between White and Black Americans but blacks and whites period. Yet here in this experience I interacted with the first non-African American black person for any significant length of time in my life and felt no such experience. (The fact that I had never spent significant time with a black person not from the US was problematic given my age but nevertheless it was true.)
I realized in spending time with her that it wasn’t a black versus white thing per se. It was a white/black American thing. There was specific history involved. Painful, oppressive history. History that was still present in an institutional sense but actually as a lived, felt realty in my experience.
I grew up in a very white middle class suburb. I spent good portions of my pre-teen and teenage years however in summer camps that were mixed race (black and white). I had connections with black and mixed-race kids (white and black) throughout my youth. I had African American classmates in high school (though not many admittedly). All these relationships weren’t the dominant ones of my upbringing clearly but it was not as if I had never ever spent time around African Americans. I got invited over to homes, others came to my home; we played sports together, and worked together (as I got older).
And yet through all of that I never realized that this subtle layer of fear, pain, and discomfort was always present. Sometimes it was more apparent–like if I was walking in an unknown neighborhood at night that felt threatening–others times far less so. But it turns out it was always there.
This fear-pain-discomfort was not because any of those individuals that I spent time were threatening to me in anyway whatsoever. In fact it was quite the opposite. Yet it was still there.
It was so subtle, so pernicious I didn’t even realize it until I met a black (but not African American) woman. She and I, in terms of our histories, in terms of the histories of our ancestors, had no negative past. If, however, I were say Dutch, given her South African heritage, then some of that energy would have been present. But since we had a clean history, energetically speaking, there was none of that subtle dare-not-speak-its-name tension with her.
My ancestors came to the US from Germany and Ireland. They arrived after the American Civil War had ended and slavery was abolished. They moved to the north (I grew up in Ohio), where there was no official legal segregation as in the South. Though even to this day there is plenty of unofficial though quite real segregation.
My ancestors were Roman Catholics and experienced their share of prejudice. People forget how strong anti-Catholic bigotry was in the US up until JKF (1960s). Nevertheless, over the course of the 20th century my family was able to be accepted as part of the white (formerly Protestant) majority in America. So while I could try to claim that “my ancestors didn’t own slaves” (and honestly they didn’t), it doesn’t matter. Because energetically and ancestrally I was enfolded into that tradition. It showed up in my being as a result.
In other words, with that integration of my family into the mainstream came the inclusion of the particular pains and illnesses of the white American soul.
On the whole, the culture of my upbringing was (and still is) supportive of the civil rights movement but included a major recoil in the face of the race riots of the later 60s, criticized the enforced integration movement and the crime wave of 70s, and from there began shifting from the Democratic to the Republican party, eventually buying into the racist tropes of welfare queens driving Cadillacs, lazy poor people (usually black Americans) sucking up all their middle class wealth and so on. Never mind that it’s actually the ultra-rich that are taking the economic gains created by the increasing productivity of workers like my family. There is a strong dosage of the ideology of Fox News, as brilliantly articulated by Thomas Frank in What’s The Matter With Kansas? I do after all come from one of the more racially polarized cities in America: Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s North of the Mason-Dixon line but just barely for a reason. Whenever you watch the elections of Ohio, it’s the great battleground state. I grew up in the lower left part, which is always colored very red.
As much as in my early twenties I came to study a different way of thinking politically and socially from my family–liberation theology, Marxism, and critical theory–that unsettled and unhealed energy was still in my bones, in my nerves.
And to be clear it wasn’t non-white Americans all together. Or even people from other countries and cultures. I lived for a year in Guam and worked with Micronesian people. Closer to home, I spent years working among Latino Americans and never felt that energy. It was specifically with African Americans. Again because of the history. Because the soul of the United States is suffused with the history of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and lynching.
The soul is the subtle field of relations. Souls can and do get ill. The white American soul has such an illness. It is bigger than any individual and, absent specific work to undo its patterning, affects every individual who belongs to that collective energetic reality.
Which is to say, white Americans have, in their very nervous systems, fear of black Americans. This is true, incidentally, no matter what the white Americans’ various political views are. It is true until they learn to transmute the fear.
It took me a long time to come to appreciate this fact and acknowledge it about myself. I was ashamed of it but it was there. It’s inherited ancestrally at this point. It is fueled by media imagery. It is in the very field of our inter-relation. It is well beyond personal is what I’m trying to say. And yet what is beyond personal resides at the most personal place for each of us.
Therein lies the rub.
This fear is not on the surface in every moment obviously. But it does not take much to have it triggered. Once it does surface, however, it engenders a pattern of lock down–identifying totally with one’s own, rallying to our side and placing the other on the outside of our expectable boundary, whether that means rallying around police, blaming the moral failings of the entire population of a place (when of course only a very small fraction of people riot), or spending more time and energy concerned about property than human beings.
This is not to demonize myself or other white Americans. My point is simply that typically liberalism fails to acknowledge how deeply this goes. Call this political shamanism if you will.
I sometimes tragicomically refer to my political views as those of a conservative socialist. The conservative part is because conservatives, to my mind, have a much more honest appraisal of human motivation and experience than do liberals. That is to say, conservatives realize that we humans are much more driven by emotional and instinctual responses than we are by rational mental ones. (The socialist part is because I believe in justice. On that front, I’m definitely not a conservative.) This emotional and instinctual motivational core is particularly true under polarizing or extreme circumstances, like say a charged murder and subsequent protest, along with some pockets of rioting (the majority of the protests of course remain peaceful).
As a friend of mine likes to say, our nervous systems evolved before our brains. Hence our nervous systems do not have a sense of time. Our nervous systems essentially live in our inheritance as hunter-gatherers. Consequently all they need to have happen is a situation that triggers the flight-fight-freeze response. Media images of angry black American youths burnings cars are precisely that. Even though the vast majority of white Americans watching those images live nowhere near Baltimore, they probably have never even been to Baltimore or certainly not to West and East Baltimore, and they are, rationally speaking, in absolutely no danger whatsoever, it doesn’t matter. Their nervous systems, the deep ancestral patterning is now activated. Flight, fight, or freeze are the only unconscious options at this point.
US Conservatives get this in their bones. They are much more shrewd than liberals when it comes to human motivation. They understand that people are far more driven by their instincts and emotions than their thoughts (again, especially under charged conflict). So while the liberals on my newsfeed post all kinds of well-reasoned arguments, their arguments are essentially meaningless (in my mind). They’re missing the point.
All of them, in one way or another, advocate the great liberal theme of fairness and they argue for empathy–for imagining and feeling oneself in the other’s shoes. Whether that’s an argument for why (US) whites need to respect what Black America is feeling, how nonviolence can be a cover for oppression, or what it’s like to grow up in a ghetto.
It’s not that these are invalid points of view (I agree with them). My point is that they have no impact on the level at which the problem exists–at least when continually sent around by white American liberals to (largely) other white American liberals.
Jacques Derrida said that which is repressed becomes a haunting. The image of the black American, in particular the image of the black male, especially the image of any black male acting in a violet manner, this is what haunts the soul of white America. The haunting of the black American male is an entity attachment, a ghost leeching off the white American soul. It requires a national exorcism not more “raising awareness” or whatever. To be clear, I’m definitely not arguing that black American men are such negative entities, rather the prejudicial image of them has become the haunting. Hence the ubiquitous reference to “thugs.” That word is a code word for the haunting. Black Ghosts.
US Conservatives recognize this. Their fatal conceit is to use it to continue the repression. They manipulate this fear mechanism instead of choosing to transmute it. Liberals, on the other hand, are emotional and instinctual bypassers. Hence the overall weakness and ungrounded energetic of liberalism.
All the pieces liberals are sharing around that call for empathy miss the most obvious point–once the instinctual fear button is pushed, empathy goes out the window. The only solution to that issue is to transform the nervous systems, the emotional responses themselves. Large-scale, political and social alchemy. Not to sit in self-righteous mentally safe space and seek to educate their poor, besotted, racist, ignorant brethren.
There is a pervasive fear button in the white American soul. Black Americans will speak often of how carefully they realize they must tread around white Americans, lest they offend them. Black Americans will tell you about how their very physical presence scares many white Americans. They are doing nothing other than walking down the street, ordering a coffee, eating at a restaurant, shopping in a store, applying for a job, inquiring about an apartment to rent, waiting for the bus, and they get “the stares.” They receive energetic darts a multitude of times on a daily basis.
The most astute black American voices will speak of sensing an enormous shame in white Americans. That place of deep shame is a very unhealed and therefore very unsafe place. If any black American, purposefully or simply by accident, touches that shame place in the white American, look out. At that point he is in danger: he can be labelled a reverse racist, be ostracized, called a racial epithet, or, especially if he is young and in the wrong place at the wrong time, murdered.
The white American soul carries this shame. There is a hatred that is twinned with this shame because black Americans, by their very existence, remind the white American of their shame. (The same basic process is at work in Canada, where I now live, between white Canadians and aboriginal peoples).
Yes there are explicit racists in US society (and in plenty of places elsewhere in the world). These folks are not going to change their minds and hearts of course.
But in cases like Baltimore and the war of words flying around it, there is a much larger population of well-meaning and not mentally-racially prejudiced individuals (I’m thinking here of white Americans.) Nevertheless the fear button has been pushed for them.
They aren’t racist. Their nervous systems are.
The brutal truth is that when a white American looks upon a black American, they often do so not as a person to a person, but as the conqueror to the conquered. This energetic reality doesn’t obviate the possibility of white and black Americans being friends, family members, co-workers, classmates, neighbors, and lovers. Both conditions can be true.
What comes out publicly in highly charged situations are various deflections, rationalizations, idiocies, and ideologies to protect against that vulnerable core of shame, fear (really terror), and hate.
At that point, liberals too quickly throw around the racist charge which only creates more shut down. If anyone ever wants to make an actual dent in this thorny problem, then it will require the white American liberals to stop congratulating themselves for being so enlightened, linking to more and more pieces that already prove the point of view they hold but don’t do anything for the actual fear.
For these white American liberals to actually be allies, I would suggest they learn within themselves how to reorient their emotional and nervous systems on the deep level to not have that subtle degree of fear. Or at least to be completely transparent about its continued existence. Such a move puts it out in the open and de-fangs it. Honestly, a white American can be a very effective ally for black American equality while still actually feeling that subtle fear. We must develop ways to help other white Americans to even acknowledge the “racist nervous system” (for lack of a better term) in their being.
This isn’t personal but boy oh boy will it be taken so. When our society builds itself around egos, around our mental selves, then the charge of racism is very personal. If one identifies as a mental-egoic identity, then the charge of being a racist would mean one’s entire being is racist, since one (in that view) is an ego. This leads inevitably to the “but I’m not a racist” rebuttal and the “oh yes you are” counter-rebuttal. Basically, it’s an adult version of the great kids game, “yes you are, no I’m not.”
We need to be moving to a place where we identify ourselves as the fullness of our experience: mind, body, emotion, shadow, and nervous system.
Seeing things in that light, we could say a person (in this case a white American person) is not a racist but has racially negative patterning within their being. In that way of viewing the matter, the pattern can be dealt with. It’s still challenging work, but now it’s at least properly framed. The negative patterning does not define the whole of their being, but never is it separate from the whole of their being either.
The majority of people, however, believe they are their emotional and energetic reactions. They do not have such reactions; they are them. So to point out the negative patterning of the ancestral energy carried in the nervous system is to accuse them of being racists.
If we had a more honest understanding of the multi-dimensional nature of our being as humans, it would be more truthful to speak about how we all have racist or perhaps ethnically prejudiced aspects of our being. For those who come from a culture in which one group has held a dominant position–as for example whites in America–there will be a specific form this energy will take. With that specific form comes a specific responsibility as a consequence. A person born into the dominant group is not personally guilty of the historic realities but they do have a responsibility to consciously participate in creating an alternative order, since the history, both energetically and institutionally, is still present reality.
Alfred North Whitehead, the father of process philosophy, said that every moment was the entirety of history enfolded into the present, free and creative moment. That moment now becomes part of the great energetic train, along with the present, free, creative moment.
Which is why the subtle energy, the pernicious interference, of racism still exists within us. Only by working to energetically heal and liberate those painful histories in the present, free, creative moment is their any hope of redemption. Such subtle energetics, such political-energetic shamanism will not be enough. It will have to be twinned with very gross-world, practical strategies and actions. But until we come to acknowledge that racism is not simply a waking-world, (ir)rational reality, but a subtle body energetic, I believe we have no real hope of true transformation.
Incidentally, this area is one in which political correctness, multicultural purity codes, privilege critiques, and the like are deeply counterproductive. Those movements typically have some insight into the fear, shame, and disowned emotions on the dominant group but they wield them as weapon. There is not an acknowledgment of the intrinsic interdependent nature of our lives, our interbeing with one another (racist patterning and all). I don’t see (by and large) in those traditions the energetic and emotional solidity necessary to create the very safe, compassionate, and contained space necessary to play with these energies. Playing with these raw energetics without knowing how to bring them to rest is basically to be a Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Unconscious and unskilled shamanic apprentices are some of the most dangerous folk imaginable.
In terms of the specific context I’m speaking of here, the healing of the shame in the white American soul, the transmutation of that energy, would go a long way towards healing the land. I don’t want to say that it would fix everything because that would only reinforce the narrative that white Americans are the most important and central actors in the American story and therefore in the American soul (a view I don’t hold). But it would play a significant role.
So much control and violence–to others and to one’s own psyche–is required to keep that much unacknowledged, deep, karmic fear and shame at bay.
In terms of specific responsibilities, I can only speak more to what I know from the inside as a white American. I can’t claim to speak with such authority on behalf of the African American soul. It’s important to say that while there are specific forms of soul work (speaking very very very broadly) to both cultures, I don’t want to be understood to be saying that both groups need to do their soul work and then all will be well. As if the various work both groups have to do are of equal footing. Both do their work yes, but the actual history of political oppression and dominance of relations has to be taken into account.
As a conservative socialist, as something like a political shaman, I’m convinced that the ability to transmute the ethnic-racial-social fear, hatred, and shame held in our beings is one of the great possibilities of the 21st century. It will not however be easy. This is taboo territory I’m inviting us into, rife with serious pain, terror, trauma, as well as potentially explosive hatred, not to mention vile disgust both at ourselves and at each other. It will take extreme care to be able to handle and work with these energies accordingly.
Image by Stephen Melkisethian, courtesy of Creative Commons license.