YOU DIDN’T SOUND BLACK: BLACKS AND WHITES IN AMERICA
All Compensatory Programs Are Racist: We compensate when people have something wrong with them. Compensatory programs reinforce one’s sense of being defective; undermine self-initiating behaviors; and create a sense of entitlement. When I give you something for nothing, you become nothing – you become worth-less. Affirmative action, college admission quotas subsidized housing; all validate one’s inferiority. This is the problem with charity, which is one of the most demeaning and insidious forms of racism. Any gesture of “caring” that is non-reciprocal, is undermining of self-esteem. Industrialized nations have institutionalized “disabling help,” which gives the helper a very self-righteous and superior sense of doing good, but infantilizes the recipient and gives them a child-like feeling of inadequacy. Ironically, it’s been third world countries, like Bangladesh, that have codified truly ennobling help, through offering impoverished populations “micro-loans;” loans that, on average, have a 94% repayment rate.
There Are Two Types Of Racism: Experiential And Pathological: Racism depends on delusion and denial for its existence. Both delusions about others, and delusions about self. Denial about past and current reality is inextricably connected to living with delusions. What we chose to not look at, nor talk about is more important than all the meaningless chatter about “problems.” The Jewish community that I grew up in, actively shut down any discussion of why Jews have been such a consistent target of persecution, and more so, what role they’ve played in inviting and promulgating the terror inflicted on them. I can remember, as a teenager, raising the question of our complicity in one reign of terror after another, with my parents’ rabbi, and being shutdown with a ferocity that was stunning and brutal. The message was crystal clear – we don’t go there. Likewise, in the Black community, there are clear taboos when it comes to discussions of the role played by Black Africans in supplying other Blacks for the slave trade, or the persistence of the grievance industry in the teachings of so-called Black “leaders.” All of this delusion and denial is why racism remains a potent artifact of our culture.
Experiential Racism is an attitude, belief system and set of behaviors which devalues anyone who is, in any way, different from us. It is taught to us through our families, our communities, our schools, our businesses, our governments, and all other artifacts of our culture. It is, in essence, a product of our life experience. We absorb it like the air we breath, and it starts so early in life, that it feels natural – like we were born that way.
In one sense, we are all racists. We carry a set of assumptions about everyone who acts, looks, speaks and walks differently than we do. I tried, once, to catalogue all of my operating assumptions about other people, and ran out of psychic energy at something over a hundred. In the culture I grew up in, people who used double negatives, or had a Southern accent, were stupid and obviously uneducated. People who spoke with a Hispanic accent were migrant workers who were incapable of doing anything other than picking crops in endless fields. Women were judged and categorized by breast size and hair color (the bigger and blonder, the better); and Black men were either car jockeys or pimps. Black women were either cleaning ladies or hookers, and all drunks were Irish Catholics. You may not share my particular racist assumptions, but you have your own.
There are only two ways to combat Experiential Racism. The first, is self-awarenes. Stop kidding yourself about being tolerant and non-judgmental. The worst person to lie to, is yourself. Create a cheat-sheet of your top ten racist assumptions, and share it with people you work with and socialize with. If social engineers want to do something truly useful, start setting up groups across the country, that would get together solely to share their lists of prejudices. A sort of AA for all us racists.
The second way to combat Experiential Racism, is to learn how to use self-talk. Self-talk means that you call an internal “time-out” when you’re about to interact with someone different than you, and do a quick review of your assumptions about them. This is not as arduous a process as it sounds – it may take as much as 5 – 10 seconds, and no one, other than you, is aware of what’s going on. This internal awareness of where you immediately go, takes the energy out of the assumptions, and gives you other choices. All the good intentions in the world, and all the acts of will power, don’t change our behavior. Going there, feeling your beliefs – even momentarily – gives you an option that never existed before.
To this day, knowing all that I know, when I first meet a woman businessperson, I size up her boobs, give her hair a blond-rating, and then I’m ready to work with her as an equal professional. I don’t kid myself that I don’t notice her breast size (especially if cleavage is involved), or that her hair color may match that of the blond goddesses I was taught to worship. I go there; I leave there; and then its time to work. The same exact process occurs when I meet Black professionals. I review my assumptions, move through them, and then get to work. A number of years ago, I was returning a rental car at a major airport, and was running late for my flight. I parked the car, grabbed the keys, and saw, out of the corner of my eyes, a Black man just behind me. I turned and handed him the keys. He said something to the effect of – “Why are you giving me your keys: I have a flight to catch too.” I was, in the moment, appalled by what I had done, and once on my flight, ashamed by my thought-less, automatic behavior. It was one of those learning lessons that still has a sting to it.
Pathological Racism involves the transformation of individual psychological damage into hatred and rage toward groups of people who are readily accessible targets. In my forty plus years of working with people in government, criminal justice, education, non-profits and business, I have never encountered a pathological racist who wasn’t a product of childhood abandonment (emotional and/or physical), or abuse (emotional and/ or physical). I am not talking here, about garden variety dysfunctional families that invalidate their children’s feelings; turn them over to grandparents to raise; or hit them periodically out of utter frustration with their unsatisfying adult lives. In order to appreciate the rage engendered in children who become pathological racists, you need to see the world through the lenses of a 4 or 5 year old. Since most of us can’t do this, let me give you a couple of adult scenarios that may emotionally capture the intensity of these feelings.
Let’s say you’re having a wonderful dinner at your favorite eatery, and out of nowhere, two large, burly fellows descend on your table, call you a “worthless piece of shit,” and proceed to beat you nearly to death. They disappear as quickly as they appeared, leaving your bloody, in excruciating pain, gasping for breath. You have no idea of why this happened, nor what you did to deserve it.
Or, you’re a professional advisor delivering a plan to a couple. As soon as you arrive at their home, they throw you to the floor, strip off all your clothes, and begin sexually torturing you by shoving innumerable objects into your vagina, concluding the ordeal by the man raping you. Can you imagine your rage; your hurt; your utterly irresolvable question of “why?”
But here’s the huge difference. As an adult, you have a number of options. You can channel your rage into a number of forms of revenge – you can fight back. As a child, you have only two; and both are terrible, devastating, and life-scarring. You can choose to die (literally or emotionally) and decide to never again take the risk of engaging with people; or you can stuff your rage, sequester it in a dark corner of your psyche, and let it loose when your oppressors are safely out of your life. You can now give voice to your hurt, your pain, and your rage – by picking others to oppress – treating them like you were treated. Without a connection to our history, we will always do unto others, exactly what was done to us.
A number of years ago, a patient told me a story that even as an experienced clinician, evoked disbelief. As a normal first-grader, he went to the school bus stop with his mother, got on the bus, and had a typical day at school. He caught the bus at the end of the day, got off at his usual stop, but found no one there to meet him. He lived a few blocks away and decided to just walk home. He ascended the front porch steps, opened the front door and was frozen by what he saw. The house was empty – no furniture, no rugs, nothing. After a few moments, he called for his mother; then his father; then his sister. The family had moved. He never saw them again. He had come to see me because he was becoming increasingly worried by the ferocity of his hatred for Blacks and homosexuals, and could see himself doing harm to people.
Another patient, a woman in her 50’s, had had two failed marriages to abusive, alcoholic men. She was consumed by her hatred of “lazy Blacks, rich Jews, and dirty Arabs.” (She was obviously not an expert in deciphering last names.) She was told, as a child, that she was to serve others in the family, and as far back as she could remember, it was her job to be the cleaning lady, laundress, waitress and dishwasher. She lived in a room in the basement and was only allowed to leave the house, to do errands. Her mother regularly told her that she should be thankful that one day she could have sex, “because she was to ugly to attract men any other way.” She “escaped” from the family home in her late teens, but kept in touch with her mother up to the time she saw me. She was, sadly, addicted to her mother’s abuse.