Internalized White Privilege Silencing Healthy Rage around Class and Race

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Achievement of a Free Space (third space) or Bridge to Understanding

My enculturation by Anglo-Saxon birth into white privilege in Canada has silenced the healthy rage of others around race and class issues. Learning about this together in our Esprit group and with another brave person blew the lid off of my blindness. I feel that I can begin to write about this because I am open at fifty-one to facing the people I have oppressed and continue to oppress by my internalized white privilege. This discovery is not my honour, it belongs to the many others through history who have experienced devastating oppression by Euro/American white privilege and have chosen to challenge this domination and to those few who choose with patience, to try to get through to me personally.

Our Esprit group is just beginning to hold an embodied consciousness about the interconnectedness of race and class, and its enculturation. We can discuss the topic of privilege oppression, though some of us have not lived through many life-altering experiences that would require us to face our perpetration on an on-going basis. As Angela Davis explains, most of our knowledge about the interconnectedness of race, class and gender was at the level of “conceptual abstraction” (Davis, 1983, p.98).

I had to grapple to understand Isabel’s absolute clarity around the definition of white privilege and my veiled cloudiness. Minnie Bruce Pratt’s words provide an opening for me in her essay, Identity: Skin Blood Heart. “When we begin to understand that we have benefited, for no good reason, from the lives and work of others, when we begin to understand how false our sense of self-importance has been, we do experience a loss: our self-respect. To regain it, we need to find new ways to be in the world, those very actions a way of creating a positive self” (Pratt, 1984, p.42). I open myself to understand Isabel’s challenge to learn to develop an embodied understanding of my disguised white privilege that contains racism and classism. For this redemptive struggle, we had to shine light in three dark corners of my soul, as a requirement for constructing a free space that leads to crossing the bridge to understanding.

First, we needed to explore the meaning of the demand for sameness. Secondly, we needed to confront token knowledge around difference. Thirdly we needed to understand the subjectivity that guides many of us in our daily living or intersubjectively in co-creative dialogue, and to become aware of the effect on others of our personal context as it is enculturated in the society of our birth. Understanding “where we are coming from” took on deeper meaning.

A central key in understanding the source of the demand for sameness is that the rage of oppression is not held by white privilege. As a psychotherapist, I have lived under the delusion that everyone’s rage should be connected with how I have learned to work with rage. After all, isn’t rage just rage? We should get down to our childhood roots and go into a rage about the injustices or misattunements by caretakers with their children. Bell Hooks explains that “white rage is acceptable, can be both expressed and condoned, but black rage has no place and everyone knows it” (Hooks, 1995, p. 15). Why is this the case? Why such inequality?

By not allowing this to be conscious, what we really support is the status quo of our socio-political situation which overall contains disguises that hide oppression by white privilege. Eduardo Galeano, in his book, Open Veins of Latin America bares this secret in stark nakedness with the statement “the strength of the imperialist system as a whole rests on the necessary inequality of its parts” (Galeano, 1997, p.3). Our demand for assimilation may look benign but reveals inequities in many painful dramatic dimensions. I begin to look at these dimensions by walking into the shadows of my valleys and I do fear my evil as I look at the fields of devastation with Isabel. I feel open to Isabel’s challenge.

Barbara, I believe this deep work is very serious and not to be toyed with. I appreciate and connect with your feelings and know that you are connected to the shadows. As you begin to uncover your veil to see your unconscious role in oppression, you have to be delicate with those around you, and with yourself. Your internalized white privileges create wounds at many levels that you have not understood. I will explain my rage to you and why some things are like they are. For a long time I compromised my feelings and my anger about your unconscious demand for my assimilation into your therapy culture because we have a solid bond and I felt that I would risk losing our relationship if I challenged you. Assimilation is a good way to maintain status quo and not rock the boat. The assimilation process prevents you Barbara from really understanding the dramatic dimensions of many centuries of oppression-domination and repression as it continues to this day. The murderous rage. The killing fields. I have no voice to express my rage against this push for sameness, and know that the constant daily oppression I experience keeps the fires blazing. I cannot effectively convey to you how the Black slaves and the native indigenous Latin American people were treated in the part of the world where I was born and raised. I find I can’t put into words the reality of just how they were enslaved and how they were tortured by the Spaniards, Portuguese, and other Europeans who annihilated all of the native civilizations in every Latin American country. Sadistic greed for the region’s rich natural resources fuelled the conquistadors. In the name of religion Latin American people were seen as savages and were killed off or brutally used as slaves. Over the course of six hundred years, first the Europeans and later the American bourgeoisie dominated the countries of Latin America in order to possess a range of natural resources they felt was their due. Monoculture products, like rubber or coffee were harvested by the poor citizens who were part of the business equation as an invaluable source of cheap labour. Rich and powerful Europeans and Americans did not allow people from Latin America to harvest a diversity of agricultural products or to gather resources for the benefit of local economies. Small-gated communities of rich “latifundio” filtered all the riches to the imperialism of the north (Galeano, 1997). In present day Latin America and throughout the world, torture and murder continue to be sanctioned by dictatorships, military interventions and secret police. You can say this is awful but you do not really fully understand that these human rights violations are, in fact, all supported by American and European capitalism, and stoked clandestinely by the white patriarchy. It is truly sickening. I have been hungering all of my life to dialogue about this topic. It brings tears to my eyes and it pains my stomach to get in touch with so much so much agony. Because of my embodied pain, I have trouble explaining this to you in nice words. Barb, you can now see my full rage and pain and I ask you to begin to hold these feelings, and I know that this is rage that you never experienced.

You are beginning to understand that your unconscious demand for sameness in the exploration of my personal psychodynamics of childhood pales when you take into account the horror of destroyed bodies lying at the doorstep of their own homes on the edge of fields that were stolen from them. In your therapy world you have a token knowledge of difference. Therapists who are going to work with non-Anglo Saxon people must absolutely learn about and self-reflect on racism enculturation at their very core. You know the right “lingo” and have the right expressions at hand to show empathy, but it is so much more than that and when I think of this, my full rage comes up once more. For me, it all centres on the notion of false compassion or empathic attunement. I say notion, because this kind of compassion is not embodied, it is not real. What therapists do is search for misattunements with their own childhood caretakers that promoted feelings of victimization. They can then say, I understand your feelings and as such your difference. It is much deeper than that, Barbara. It is once again the demand for sameness, because in the absence of a full, embodied understanding of another culture; an assumption is made that a client’s core experience will be similar in some way to the therapist’s.

This is false compassion masking unspoken racism. This is like two human beings connecting at a level of the rape (mental, emotional, physical and torture) endured by the non-Anglo Saxon clients at the hands of a racist and domineering culture. This tokenism supports repression of the non-Anglo Saxon’s authentic rage because he or she fears a thinly disguised retaliation that goes like this: if you don’t agree with me then I don’t know if this is for you or as an expert in the field of psychology, you are not a good candidate for therapy. As Angela Davis explains, unacknowledged oppression supports a “terror that keeps all rage at bay” (Davis, 1984, p.15). All I can do then Barbara is pretend that we are the same and put my rage away.

Himani Bannerji expresses your token knowledge of otherness best when she says “difference becomes empty and only a cultural expression within a general format of civil liberties” (Banerji, 1991, p.83). To understand this unknown rage you have to understand why you don’t stand with women who were not born into white privilege, why you take from others and don’t put back. Minnie Bruce Pratt expresses this clearly, “sometimes we don’t pretend to be the other, but we take something made by the other and use if for our own” (Pratt, 1984, p.41). Rape takes place in many different forms.

Why as a therapist, working in private practice and working continuously on my own life for thirty years, did I not embody this death and destruction? I came to see that whatever impoverishments I have had in my childhood, they could be overlooked simply because of my white Anglo Saxon heritage. I could cover up the pains of my childhood and pretend that I could do anything and if I could meet the challenge of living with a competitive hierarchy, this was true. I could always strive to be better. I had an opportunity at every corner to build my ego as long as I split off from seeing the plains of destruction. I was not told that to keep this propaganda intact, I had to crush the backbone of others to hold white competitive hierarchy in place.

Growing up on a military base there would be no questioning of the rightness of Canadian society and the seduction into secrecy was powerfully hidden by big capitalist gift offerings. The unspoken code of protection against “bad people” was always there. White men were glorified and had a sense of entitlement that spoke of heroes. Families were given every economic support from housing and schools to recreation and long vacations. Although there were many wounds and complex interactions happening in my household, I was offered the promise that I could do anything that I wanted on the outside, in the world. In order to become a therapist, I thought that I would work through the wounds of my childhood and then help others with similar unfinished selves.

I assumed no responsibility for holding an unknown, outside the context of my culture of birth. I thought that all other cultures should be given the same opportunities as me and I would help them get there with their personal psychological conflicts.

I begin to look at the price I have paid for such ignorance. As Pratt states, “we are offered some false gains to keep us from making that choice to stand with women different from ourselves” (Pratt, 1984, p.54). I had to face, as she notes, the box that I was in, “the benefits of my privilege, the restrictions, the injustice, the pain, the broken urgings of the heart, the unknown horrors” (Ibid. p.52). Nowhere was I taught that I should question my culture or feel the pain of oppression perpetrated by my culture.

You can now hear Barbara, about the cost of the demand for sameness, as you have now opened yourself up to question your own culture and allow for a deeper exchange of information in an unknown realm. You can now hear my story and that of others who experience, “separations, dislocations, and a sense of alienation” as a result of migration and then suffer from the demand for impossible sameness in a new country. Whatever way you put it, immigration to Canada means that you kill yourself to do better but never ever get on the last wrung of the white competitive hierarchy (Mohammed and Smith, 1999, p.143). I feel now, that you can hear another slice of my story, that of the 14-year-old who left Uruguay and moved to Canada, and then the 15 and 16 year old living in Canada. You can hear about the emotional damage caused by my trying to forget my former culture and freeze my passionate self. You can hear about my learning to speak English, which I thought was one of the most difficult languages on earth.

Even though I worked out some of my personal childhood rage in the therapy room, a part of my rage was not addressed. I was robbed of my naturally expressive being and the only way out was to blend in but even then I was not accepted simply by not having a perfect handle on the language. Discrimination of people with a second language keeps the glory of white privilege intact. You can’t get on that hierarchical ladder with an accent. Never mind that I am completely competent in two languages.

You can begin to understand Barbara that demands for sameness, on one hand and my reality, on the other are like parallel, and totally unrelated universes. I can best illustrate it like this. Many immigrant Latin women, for example, work 12 to 16 hour days at back breaking jobs in factories or cleaning offices and homes primarily because of their difficulties with the English language.

They then come home and have to look after their own homes and their husbands and children by cooking and cleaning. There is no cleaning lady to come once or twice a week to clean their homes, nor a husband with a good profession making big bucks to respond to every material whim. These Latin women know their authentic self and it is not sitting in front of a laptop all evening. They have to adjust to a new culture, a new climate, plus they work so hard to support their families that many develop health problems. They worry about their children who are trying to survive in this culture and with Canadian teachers that have not confronted their own racism. Some of these Latin women do not have time to sit and reflect and the only time they have is when they go to bed bone and heart tired. I know of a woman who was very ill with cancer but worked cleaning offices for her family until she died. Where is the richness of life in this as she works herself to death with no thought of herself so that her children can have a computer and so her husband can continue to demand her slavery? Yes Barb, I do sound bitter; because the only thing these women can say at the end of the day is that they have survived from their own blood, sweat, and tears. And I can assure you that there are no crocodile tears, and that when they are sick, they are really sick. They are not going to receive an inheritance from their rich families, or big bucks from their husband’s professional jobs. But few choose to rebel because they know the worst, as Bell Hooks expresses so clearly, that they will be “exiled forever from the promise of economic well-being if rage is not permanently silenced” (Hooks, 1994, p.14). These are the Latin women that I know.

These women, Barbara, don’t deserve a middle class woman’s crumbs. They deserve to be really heard to have their deep rivers fathomed by people who can truly hear them and take in their suffering and experience of discrimination. You have to have an open, porous heart, truly accept an unknown experience, and be willing to question the encrustation of your birth culture. We need to create a bridge to a free space where people from different cultures can learn to understand each other. In this free space, we will not presume to learn about each other by trying to find common life experience. Other cultural realities can’t be compared but they can be connected by the construction of ongoing bridges to understanding. Before this process of construction can take place, white privilege has to deconstruct the secret weapons that are used to oppress people, steal resources and maintain domination. This deconstruction involves exposing the demand for sameness, the lip service to difference and the inability or refusal to question our birth culture. If we do not shed light on these attitudes and behaviours we will continue to objectify the actual lived reality of another culture, refuse to hold the unknown about others and distort the truth to support only our interests.