Will history recall 2020 as the start of a new civil rights movement? This year’s events have certainly moved me. Violent policing of people of color, widespread protests, a deadly virus that disproportionately affects Blacks – all have prompted me to examine my role in a system of white privilege and racism.
But I want my self-examination and consequent actions to be more than a flash in the pan of societal togetherness. I’m trying to discern a course based on “solid self,” which Murray Bowen described as “firmly held convictions…formed slowly and changed only from within self.” (Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, p. 200)
So I’m new on the journey toward “woke,” but I’d like to share the thinking that propels my first steps.
Bridging the Cutoff of Segregation
I grew up with the de facto segregation of the 1950’s and 60’s, living in all-white neighborhoods and attending mostly white schools. Some 50 years later, I still move in mostly white circles. When whites like me don’t know people of color, it’s no wonder prejudice is prevalent.
In Bowen theory terms, I see this pattern as generational cutoff, as when two family members stop speaking and their respective children will have nothing to do with each other. Early in our country’s history, white slaveholders enforced caste-like boundaries with those they enslaved. This corporate cutoff between the races passed down through the Jim Crow era to folks of today, to the detriment of us all.
It’s obvious to me that I need to undo the segregation in my own life. But if I suddenly proclaim myself an ally to people of color, why should they trust me?
Psychotherapist Resmaa Menakem, who is African American, cautions would-be white allies against pushing themselves on people of color, good intentions notwithstanding. “I’m not interested in your virtue-signaling,” Menakem warns. (“On Being” podcast 7/9/2020) Thinking in terms of family cutoff helps me understand this. If I’ve shunned my cousin since our mothers first quarreled years ago, she’ll not likely jump at my offer to reconcile. As a student of Bowen theory, I’ve learned not to take such things personally. Low-key, gradual efforts work best for bridging cutoff.
So in terms of the racial divide, I’ll look for natural, low-key ways to get to know people of color. For example, the church I attend is largely white. Recently, a new church opened nearby, pastored by an African American, professing values I hold, and peopled with more Blacks than whites. When the pandemic recedes and in-person services resume, I’ll join them. If there’s a good fit, I’ll have a natural context for gradually building friendships with people of color. Such relationships may even form the ground for collaborative efforts against racism. I see collaboration as a good way to avoid “benevolent overfunctioning” on my part.
Speaking out against racism
Many years ago I puzzled over what to do when I heard someone use a racial slur or tell a racist joke. At the time, I remember being pleased with the solution I devised – I responded with disapproval, but did so in a sugar-coated voice – “Now – that’s not nice!”
I won’t do that again. My sweet voice falsely implied, “Maybe I agree with you,” while truthfully signaling, “I don’t want to upset you.” Now I believe that a racial affront requires a strong, straightforward reproach – “Please don’t use that word around me; I find it insulting,” or “I don’t find that funny.” If this upsets some people, so be it.
When my new approach becomes well-practiced and habitual, I can claim it as “solid self.”
For now, I’ll concentrate on actions I can take as an individual that counter the white privilege and systemic racism I unwittingly inherited. In the future, I may also take actions directed specifically at the systemic level. But that requires further thinking, and perhaps another blog post!
Ann Depner, LCSW
WPFC Faculty Member