Waking Up Can't Wait

Black survival has so often depended on white comfort.

--Chenjerai Kumanyika

I keep sitting down to write the post I intended to pen about the trials, tribulations, and riches of being a 39-year-old pregnant queer person. But since the Charleston murders, I'm having a hard time thinking about something other than the urgent need for white people in this country, myself included, not only to acknowledge the ongoing legacy of white supremacy but also to do our damnedest to eradicate the systems of exploitation, oppression, genocide, and othering that are its descendants.

The Nine People Killed in Charleston. Credit to WSB-TV


In the wake of the Charleston church shooting, I highlighted people of color's voices about the entrenched history of violence and racism of which this massacre is but one example. When it comes to racism, I'm often in spaces where it's appropriate and helpful for me to shut up, listen, and do the work of becoming ever more awake to the ways in which my racial identity in a country founded on white dominance grants me innumerable privileges while degrading someone else's humanity. But there are other contexts when struggles for peace and justice demand white people's individual and collective voices and contributions. This is one of those times. And I have no illusions that with this blog post I am doing anything other than my best to join the chorus of voices saying--screaming--"Enough!"

As I'm preparing to become the parent of a racially and financially privileged child, I keep thinking of parents who do not have the luxury of assuming this society will welcome their babies into it with open arms. I imagine the training these parents may offer to their children in their best attempts to keep them safe from harm, such as to be ever vigilant of the dangers lurking in so many public and private spaces within this country. To survive, those children may learn to live in a state of nearly constant fear. This reality constitutes trauma, for the parent and the child. And that is unacceptable.

When I was an academic, conversations about trauma were often dismissed because they introduced bodies and emotions into ideological arguments about injustice. As a therapist, I am a lot more confident asserting that systems of oppression and domination create devastating amounts of individual and collective trauma, the effects of which are experienced for generations. I would hope to get widespread agreement that all human beings deserve safety. Yet we have created a society that is not safe for so many of its citizens and never has been. Can we face that truth and work to change it rather than resort to defenses that keep us asleep and moving toward ever more violence, inequality, and fear? As Tara Brach said in her poignant talk on beloved community, "When we don't pay attention, others are still unreal others. We have to get close in...We have to let our hearts be broken. Otherwise we're going to stay in a very insulated identity because you can live for decades and not get exposed. And then not care enough to be part of the healing...We have to pay attention. We have to pay attention."

For several years I succumbed to the false belief that I needed to shame and blame myself for the atrocities committed in the service of maintaining white supremacy. I like to think I have more wisdom these days and instead of following that route, which is both self-destructive and not helpful to collective struggles for justice, actively look for the pervasive and subtle ways that both the institutions in this society and my own being have internalized dehumanizing and discriminatory messages about black people and people of color more generally. I inherited this racist legacy and understanding it to the best of my ability gives me a fighting chance to co-create a world in which safety and dignity are human rights, not privileges. To deny the legacy of white supremacy is to fight reality. Fighting reality may bring momentary comfort, but it is the kind of comfort Kumanyika mentioned in the quote above. And the costs of such comfort are incredibly high. They include being complicit in the ongoing violation and traumatization of millions of lives. Since I believe we are all interconnected, such complicity also and ultimately amounts to the desecration of our own humanity.

May we therefore awaken, individually and collectively, to the suffering generated by our systems of belief and action and work to alleviate that suffering in all its manifestations. In the words of James Baldwin, "We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is."