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18th of July 2018


3 Ways to Heal the Racial Shadow - The Good Men Project

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shadowWe can’t “namaste” our way to a more just world


I didn’t want to follow this story. I buried it beneath Kim’s butt and Jeter’s retirement and what I’m hoping to get for Christmas this year. So I closed my eyes and ears to the Ferguson story,

Just like I did the Amadou Diallo case,

Just like I did the Trayvon Martin case.

Jung had a fancy name for this kind of thing. He called it “Shadow”, the psychic mass of all the things I want to hide, repress and deny about myself and the world around me. Because, lets be honest here: there’s only so much reality one person can take. 

There’s far too many things that hurt to look at in this world. Sometimes reality needs a buffer, a white noise machine.

I first learned about White Noise machines when I was doing a private practice in NYC. I was looking to protect my clients secrets from seeping out into the waiting room, because secrets are more powerful when they remain secrets. The machine muffles sound so no one can hear the tears, the sobs, the rage, and the stories that muffle us. It gives the impression that everything is soft and fluffy. Clients in the waiting room fall asleep imagining that they are the only ones with dark clouds that day. A very effective little trickster, the Bugs Bunny of therapists everywhere.

Emmitt Till. Amadou Diallo. Micheal Griffith. Yusef Hawkins. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. 

After a while, a White Noise machine cannot drown out the howls of a glaring pattern. That little bugger’s been humming for centuries now. It emits these fluffy little sounds like,

“That didn’t happen”,

“It was their fault”,

“I was just defending myself”,

“My rights are more valid than theirs”, 

and, the accompanying disclaimers,

“I had nothing to do with that, it was a long time ago, let the past stay in the past.”

That’s a lot of White Noise, an efficient buffer for a reality that sounds like a train screeching its brakes on steel track. White Noise oozes the distinctly foul odor of denial. Denial happens on multiple floors in that building. the denial starts from “I don’t see it”, escalating up to “I don’t see YOU.” All the breath mints in the world can’t cure the  halitosis of racism, especially when it seeps into the justice system.

Good thing I’m white. Being white, I can fall asleep if I want, and turn my attention to things that affect me, like who the Yankees are going to replace Jeter with, and how can we get rid of Arod.

They call that “White privilege”, a term that used to offend me.

Until, that is, I went to live in a developing country where 97% of the population was black and not particularly happy to see me. I found out how much easier it is to be white in America.  Without an experience to contrast it with, its almost impossible to acknowledge.

White privilege means that, if you want, you can avoid the sight and sound of things that disturb you. You can make believe these things don’t have anything to do with you, that they don’t touch your life.  

When something crazy happens to someone like Michael Brown, you can tell yourself, “well, I’m sure he did something to deserve that, otherwise the jury would have found the cop guilty.”

When you’re white, there are a bunch of things you just never have to deal with. For instance, you can be a grumpy S.O.B. and mouth off without getting murdered for it.  

Because yeah, its possible that Trayvon Martin wasn’t being polite when Zimmerman decided to shoot him, and maybe Michael Brown wasn’t inviting Wilson home for tea when he was killed. Just sayin’. But people have a right to have a bad day, or wear the wrong outfit, without getting killed for it. Just sayin’.

Intermittently, black rage and white noise compete for the right to be heard. I Gotta admit, it’s getting hard to sleep with all this racket. White Privilege means being able to fall asleep even when the village is on fire. But even now, there are a lot of white people pretty, um, fed up with this nonsense. Black people are laying on the floor dying, while Black-rage and White-rage bleed together.

Rage doesn’t have a color. 

Its not “Black rage” or “White rage”. Its OUTrage, and outrage is a rainbow on fire. Sooner or later, the thick carpet that covers this ugly Shadow won’t be enough to muffle the sounds of this revolution.

1955. A black 14 year old boy named Emmitt Till supposedly whistled at a white woman. He was tied up, had his eyes gauged out, hanged,and had his body burned for that indiscretion. Did I mention he was only 14 years old? Nobody did any jail time for that, even after the murderers confessed. When I heard that story, when I was 14, I remember thinking, 

wow, how horrible it must have been for black people back in those days. I’m so glad things have changed.   

But in 1986 the skies began to open. A black man named Michael Griffith dared to actually walk through Howard Beach, a nice neighborhood in Queens, NY.  That’s where John Gotti lived. By all accounts Gotti made sure his neighborhood was the safest  in the city. For everybody, that is, except for people who looked like Michael Griffith. He and his pals were beaten by local thugs, and while trying to escape, Griffith ran onto the highway. He ended up trading his life for a few more moments of freedom.

Three years later, another black kid named Yusef Hawkins was killed for walking through Bensonhurst with a local girl. The situation made it very uncomfortable for us white folks who shared subway seats and sidewalks with black people amidst all that tension. It was very hard to stay asleep in those days. Hard not to notice the slow boil rising to the surface. Hard not to feel the storm screaming out from the eyes of the man sitting across from me. Even harder not to hear howl of all those grandmothers sitting within the eyes of the woman next to me falling like bricks on my soul.

All that anger made me afraid, which made me more dangerous. Fear distorts your vision. It acts like “drunk goggles”, making you run over everybody and leave tread marks on their faces. I started looking at black people through”drunk goggles”. Let me tell you, that throws a real monkey wrench into interpersonal relations. Its hard to like someone who only sees a predator when they look at you.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, I didn’t want to know about it.

I wanted to believe that the kid was doing something he shouldn’t have been doing, something worse than wearing a hoodie. White Noise. I didn’t want to accept he was a killed for no other reason than, well the same reason Emmitt Till was killed: being young and black. I just stayed quiet and hoped the situation would go away so I could go back to being comfortable. And it did. For a minute. But there’s always another incident to disrupt the sleep, a reminder that things just ain’t right around here.

This thing keeps happening. And when the Outraged Gods of Justice rise up from their slumber and begin to make a racket, we call it “Black Rage” and criticize the people for their behavior. The White Noise machine loves to encourage people to shove their out-rage under the carpet. 

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess the Boston Tea Party was no black-tie affair. I’ll bet they really offended the British while they were dumping all that tea in the water. Those Brits probably thought the “rebels” were pretty uncivilized. Oh well. God Bless America. 

Something. Just. Aint. Right. Here.

There’s this Great Big Shadow stuck in our throats, threatening to choke the life out of our culture if we don’t spit it out. 

After 9/11, I decided to clear my throat. I went down to South Carolina and began facilitating dialogues between Whites and Blacks. Some of us called the community to come together and have hundreds of dialogues about what experiences, misconceptions, and misunderstandings we hold about each other. Three things became very clear: 

We are all the same. We are all so different. We heal when we give each other safe space by listening to each other share our experiences. 

People need to hear each other’s experience of reality. Not to agree on it, but to acknowledge it. We come from such different experiences – historical and personal – that we don’t understand each other very well. We tend to avoid exposing our myths, fears, and assumptions about each other. But when we risk telling the truth, we begin to bridge these waters. The only way to take the Drunk Goggles off  is to create safe spaces to tell our stories, to share our experiences, and to listen. To tell the TRUTH about the fears we harbor about things we don’t really understand. 

I once lived in a place where everybody liked to bow and say things like “namaste” a lot. It was a lot easier up on that mountain. Blacks, Whites, Asians, Native Americans: we just bowed to each other and said, “Namaste”:

“I bow to that  part of you that is divine and the same within me.”   

My teacher surprised me when he said, 

“The world doesn’t need people going up into caves anymore. The world needs people to bring their fire, their soul, and their  love into the world. The God of Today asks us to bring our prayer into our daily interactions with each other. Your spiritual practice is right there.”

A “spiritual  breath-mint” is not going to cure this dis-ease. This won’t go away by pretending bad things never happened. This can only be healed by each of us becoming aware of our shadows: the tendency to pre-judge (pre-judice) others based on their looks or culture; becoming aware of our own inherited fear of “other”, and in particular, an inherited complicity in the inequalities inflicted upon people of color since this country was still in the womb.  

To make believe something foul isn’t happening is to break your eardrums against the  deafening White Noise machine. The past presents itself in the PRESENT for a purpose. It comes forward, like a hungry child, begging for acknowledgement.  

The spirit of Emmett Till rises up for a voice each time something like this happens. Every time we look away, we feed the pattern. This is a call for a cultural AWAKENING: A call to acknowledge what is happening in this world,  and listen to that which simmers beneath the White Noise.  To face the reality of what IS.

If we are ignorant out of fear or discomfort and hope reality will go away, we fall asleep and miss the opportunity. There’s no real “namaste” happening there. We simply lose ourselves and bleed together in a demi-god called “Shadow.” 

 Photo: Georgie Pauwels/Flickr

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