This article was published in the May 2016 issue of the Newsletter of the Pennsylvania Society for Clinical Social Work.
How Racism Hurts Us, White People, Too
By Elana Stanger, LCSW
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
— Lilla Watson
“If White people have suffered less obviously from racism than Black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. If the White man has inflicted the wound of racism upon Black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound unto himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown, the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in society.”
— Wendell Berry
White Liberation from the Role of the Oppressor
A lot of times, White people have difficulty with and avoid the discussion around being White and what it means to be a White person in our society. Feelings come up that we learned to suppress and about which we learned to remain in sustained denial. We had to do this for our survival, and when we tried as young people to question or struggle against the injustice when we noticed it, we were squelched and adultism came into play. We listened to those in authority, our parents or caregivers, family members, teachers, those in whom we knew we had to trust, those who had already been hurt by internalizing their role as the oppressor. Perhaps we became numb from denial.
Recently, I have been attending a workshop called Unpacking Race which has been meeting one night every week for the month of March in West Philadelphia. It is based on Theatre of the Oppressed and other methods to help us, the participants, learn more about ourselves and hopefully unlearn some of the social conditioning we have internalized as people living within a racist system. I am in this workshop, as we all are, to learn more about these issues and where we all are with them, and to offer my expertise in aiding the healing process as opportunities for healing present themselves.
As a facilitator of intercultural dialogue myself and healing racism through art for the last 25 years, I asked a question of the group, “At what age and during what experience might you have first realized that you were White?”
I shared that I grew up in the Bronx, a very culturally diverse environment in New York City. When I tell people I am from the Bronx and they see that I am a person considered to be White, they often question what part of the Bronx I am from. Well, I am from the part of the Bronx that includes people of all races, nationalities, languages, religions, genders, sexual orientations, ages, mental and physical abilities, educational levels, socioeconomic classes, sizes, etc. The diversity of New York is wonderful and provided me with a most valuable and significant education, simply in terms of being able to grow up in my neighborhood and go to public schools where diversity was, and is, ubiquitous.
I did not learn that I was a person considered White until I arrived at Ithaca College in Upstate New York, a homogenous White environment, at 17 years of age. I was experiencing extreme culture shock, and I wondered whether the people of color were feeling something similar. I could blend in, but many could not blend in the same fashion. I was so uncomfortable that I took a vow to do something about this situation before I graduated. This led to the birth of Students for an Interracial Dialogue, a student organization which I founded to hold dialogues on the campus about race and racism. They were well-attended and I had discovered my calling as a facilitator of interracial communication. This calling led me to open an art gallery and community center devoted to cultural diversity awareness and building bridges, leading prejudice-reduction workshops nationally, and conducting diversity training and consulting for large corporations. I also began creating artwork around cultural diversity issues and have maintained a website of my artwork, also making it available on products, for many years.
Around the room at the workshop, however, many of these White folks shared that they knew they were White for as long as they could remember.
Being One’s Authentic Self
As Therapists, most of us are concerned with the authentic self and help our clients to find their own authenticity and their own truth. Yet, many White Therapists do not take the time to consider the ways we have been hurt by racism and how this system has greatly impacted our ability to be fully human and authentic. Many of us carry around the burden of guilt, shame, anxiety, and other stressors connected to racism. We have had to remain in denial, lest we notice too clearly the frightening impact that this injustice has on people of color. Racism makes us mean, selfish, and greedy. It has caused us to embrace a role that is often devoid of creativity, uniqueness and authenticity, while we are merely trying to blend in. Most of all, being White has kept us artificially separate and isolated from the entirety of humanity.
Having Your Heart in the Right Place
So, what can we do? We can collectively make sure our hearts are in the right place. This means that we must daily, actively work toward the dismantling of racism within our inner and outer worlds, our psyches and our society. How do we do this? We offer lovingkindness, compassion, truth, acknowledgment of the injustice. We act in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, with people of color everywhere, and we respond with love and acceptance. We respond with a heart-felt desire to make everything as right as possible, to bring justice, to bring peace.
Having Your Mind in the Right Place
Knowledge is power. Let us participate in learning groups and activities for healing racism. Let us learn about the histories and cultures of those in our midst who may have a different skin color. Let us acknowledge the horrific experience of the enslavement of African peoples and the African diaspora as a story of survival that is extraordinary, real, and worthy of our utmost respect.
Having Your Soul in the Right Place
Our souls long to be connected with all of our brothers and sisters as one human family, one people, and one race. Let us leave behind denial and learn to follow that instinct that leads us forward to explore and discover a new day, one based on justice and equality, love and authenticity. Let us gently, yet with strength and fortitude, honor that spark that unites us all.
Compassion and Self-Compassion
It is important to heal ourselves from the effects of racism that we, too, have internalized indirectly as White people. We may do this with compassion for ourselves. It is also important that we have and exhibit compassion for others, as we have compassion for ourselves. It is important to allow ourselves to try something new, to make mistakes if necessary, as this may be the only way to learn. Let us find safe spaces in which to do our own healing work, give up our role as oppressors, and right the scales of justice. We do this for our own liberation, too.
Being an Ambassador of the White Race
Remember to be an ambassador of the White race. Give some thought to what it means to be an ambassador. An ambassador is defined as an accredited diplomat sent by one country as its official representative to another country. When we are doing the work of building intercultural bridges, let us be intelligent, gracious, and respectful of those with whom we interact.
Elana Stanger is a licensed clinical social worker who has been involved in the work of bringing cultural diversity awareness through art and healing racism for the last 25 years. She is currently publishing a book of her spiritual and inspirational art and writing called, The Apology: The Art of Interracial Healing. She would like you to visit www.OurApologyforRacism.org to consider what it would mean to apologize to people of color for racism, and write an original apology for possible inclusion in her book. Another of her books, My Heart Goes Out to You: The Art of Building Intercultural Unity, will soon be available through Amazon. Elana’s diversity artwork, Art to Touch the Heart, and her blog, The Love Letter, may also be helpful resources: www.DiversityArts.org. Also see www.DiversityTherapy.com for information about what Elana is doing to heal racism on a deeper level. Contact Elana: Elana@DiversityArts.org.