Waking up to Whiteness in the day of George Floyd
Updated: Sep 19, 2020
As a little White girl, I watched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking on television and found him so charismatic. I was deeply moved and in my ignorance I assumed that racism was over. How shocking, decades later, to realize that racism was barely getting started. When MLK was marching in the streets of Selma, could he have imagined that police brutality would continue unabated? That more than 50 years after his death, police would be able to enter the homes of Black Americans and shoot them in their beds? That they would kneel on the necks of Black men in front of dozens of witnesses and unemotionally squeeze the last drop of air from their lungs? Could he have imagined a woman weaponizing her White Privilege to bring down harm on a Black man for asking her to follow the rules? Could he have imagined that in 2020, Black parents would still have to teach their children how to act if they should ever be stopped by police, while their well-meaning White neighbors tell them that "the cops have a tough job" and assume that if someone is stopped by the police, they "must have done something"?
Racism is not the selfish or demeaning actions of an individual, but rather, an intentional, devious, insidious structure that is just as much of a cage as chattel slavery. The same system that permitted White Europeans to decide they could kidnap Africans and bring them to a different continent to do their work for them and make them rich, was the same system that allowed Europeans to cross the Atlantic to a New World and begin to systematically rid the land of its inhabitants, and the same system that warehouses people of color by the millions in for-profit prisons. It is the same system that writes laws that both explicitly and implicitly assume a White default, and punishes those who are not White. The system that allows police to enter a situation and assume bad intent based on skin color; that allows them to rain down blows on a body because of its skin color; that permits police to act this way without fear of punishment; this is Racism. Racism is not the beliefs or actions of a single person, it is the System that permits White people to see Black people as less-than.
The damage done to the psyche of people who have been brutally taken advantage of, generation after generation, and taught (again explicitly and implicitly) that White means power and potentially deadly force, has resulted significant negative health outcomes for Black people that are passed from generation to generation. Take, for example, historical and present-day denial of access to safe neighborhoods with clean air and water and an abundance of high-quality food, well-funded and equipped schools, and excellent medical care, and substitute neighborhoods where air and water are toxic, where high-quality food is hard to come by, where school is conducted in buildings that are not safe for children and don't encourage learning, where the best medical care is withheld, and where there is no safe place to gather or or to enjoy outdoor activities. Add the fear of police, who are encouraged to stop people with Black skin if seen outside their homes, and with whom the wrong answer could result in violence or even death, even without any provocation. This harms people.
Generations of being reminded that they are "less-than" and that the larger world of opportunity - or even an assumption of safety - results in an increase in stress and anxiety which then often lead to an increase in stress-related illnesses. Add to these the likelihood that a person of color will not be afforded the same medical care as their White neighbor, and these stressors manifest as poorer health, more disease, higher infant and maternal mortality rates, a constant underlying anxiety, and a shorter life span overall. This must be faced and addressed by White therapists because to be "color-blind" is to deny this legacy of abuse and refuse Black clients a space where they can speak freely. When I think of the years of ignorant remarks I must have made to Black friends over the years, completely oblivious to my own Whiteness and the privilege it affords me, I am deeply ashamed. I remember my shock and hurt when a friend of many years yelled at me "You White women...!". I don't remember the rest. I was too shocked to learn that she saw me that way. It is essential for White therapists to own our Whiteness, to educate ourselves of the potential impact of our Whiteness on our clients of color, and to be the first to bring up race in therapeutic relationship, so our clients know it is a space where the impact of Whiteness and Racism can be discussed. Because, without this, we cannot hope to lead our clients to the healing they want and deserve from us.