“Father keeps the graveyards deep in his throat, between his collar and his chin, near his Adam’s apple. His Adam’s apple sticks out and is locked up. That way the graveyards can never pass his lips. His mouth drinks schnapps made from the darkest plums, and his songs for the Fuhrer are heavy and drunken.”
--Herta Müller, The Land of Green Plums
“If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage to his mind as it is in his society.”
--Wendell Berry, “The Hidden Wound”
One day, teaching my yoga class for seniors, one student remarked on a recent trip to Paris, “There’s so much to do there.” Another student laughed, saying, “That’s gotta be the understatement of the year.” We chitchatted a bit about what a wonderful city Paris is. Then I could not help adding how problematic it was to consider these grand cities of Europe in light of imperial history, how these cities were built up during the 1700s and 1800s from the money and resources garnered from colonizing other nations, and to consider the suffering caused by the exploitation and oppression of colonized and enslaved people.
Talk about bursting the bubble.
My elderly student, an elegant and refined white woman who grew up in Europe, who has a most lovely French/British accent, was silent for a moment, then said, “But France didn’t colonize.”
Her adult daughter, attending class with her said, “Sure they did, Mom.”
Mom remained silent for another moment. Then burst into, “Can you believe what that Scott Walker just did?” Eager to consciously or unconsiously shift the subject and relieve the tension she felt within herself and the group, she began a tirade about the latest Wisconsin Republican outrages.
In 36 years of living among white people (my first 12 years were in Korea and Hawaii), I have come to realize the deep and often impenetrable cognitive dissonance well-meaning white people live with. That is, in their most honest moments, they have difficulty reconciling their privilege with historical facts. The most prized ideal of white liberals is equality, while valorizing working people, and protecting the middle class. The cognitive dissonance consists of an inability to admit that their privileges of race and class resulted from the suffering of people of color. In the USA, this was primarily through genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans, but also exploitation of Asians and Central and South Americans, which continues to this day. The Koreas, Philippines, Vietnam and more all suffered at the hands of the US empire, which now includes Iraq and Afghanistan.
Joy deGruy writes about“post-traumatic slave syndrome” in which African Americans have deeply internalized the wounds caused by centuries of slavery, resulting in a sense of inferiority and self-oppression. She discusses the phenomenon of lynching, and the repression of compassion required to maintain it as a public social practice. In post-traumatic slave syndrome, the oppressor suffers a wound which mirrors the wound they inflict on the oppressed.
As Wendell Berry points out:
“I have been unwilling until now to open in myself what I have known all along to be a wound - a historical wound, prepared centuries ago to come alive in me at my birth like a hereditary disease, and to be augmented and deepened by my life.
“If I had thought it was only the black people who have suffered from the years of slavery and racism, then I could have dealt fully with the matter long ago; I could have filled myself with pity for them, and would no doubt have enjoyed it a great deal and thought highly of myself.”
If white people have also “suffered from the years of slavery and racism,” how does this white wound manifest itself? As a yoga teacher, I notice it in my students as a disocciation of mind and body. You know that cliché about “white people can’t dance”? I see this in many of my white students in their difficulty feeling what is happening in their bodies, not noticing asymmetries, and unable to bring their consciousness to various body parts. Many have difficulty connecting thoughts to actions in their body, and difficulty putting words to physical experience. I find this in the multi-racial gospel choir I sing in, when some white members clap and sway out of sync with the music.
If “white people can’t dance,” it’s because they are not feeling the music, the pulse, the rhythm, the vibration, the communal soul and spirit. I believe this is something that is taught to them, that “come[s] alive…at birth like a hereditary disease,” as Berry puts it. Although many white people overcome this disconnection of mind and body, I often find that a barrier arises at some point that my white friend cannot find the means to understand or traverse.
Once I was invited to perform poetry and dance at an elite college prep private school in suburban Milwaukee, to an ocean of white faces. I tried to teach them an audience participation “rhythm chant” which consisted of 3 different rhythms with speech and simple movement. They had difficulty enough coordinating a single rhythm, and it totally fell apart when we tried to create a polyrhythm by combining the 3 lines. I had taught this piece dozens of times to various groups, especially Milwaukee Public School students (ie majority students of color), and typically had great results.
The privileged white students couldn’t listen to each other, or feel each other, or even feel or listen to themselves, enough to create a multi-rhythm. These are practices of self-knowledge and sensitivity to others required for empathy and compassion. How does this dissociation and disconnection happen?
An acquaintance had a child enrolled in this school. At a parent-teacher conference, the teacher reported that this child struggled with “time management.” This child was in kindergarten. Why indeed would a 4 or 5 year-old need to manage her time?
When a kindergartener is taught to manage her time, she is taught by the culture of the oppressor to ignore her feelings and needs, and thus to disocciate mind and body. By learning as a toddler to manage her time, she would begin early to ignore her need to play, or to eat, or to rest, in order to conform to her teacher’s agenda. She would learn to neglect her friends in order to stay on schedule.
I see the white wound in white friends and family members who cannot accompany me in my journey of racial healing, because it hurts too much to explore these dark places. I can’t share my deepest hurts and realizations with such friends and family members without their becoming defensive or depressed. I see the white wound today in white roommates in our housing cooperative who feel unwelcome, uncomfortable, and sometimes scared, when I and friends of color speak openly and unabashedly about race.
One day, as I shared this reflection with a white friend, in a moment of insight and honesty, he wondered if he was “emotionally stunted.” In fact, the burden of whiteness stunts the emotional development of generation after generation. Furthermore, the ethic of privacy requires one to hold their cards close, not make oneself vulnerable. After all, one would have to become emotionally stunted in order to protect their privilege without shame.
I see the white wound in many white friends and acquaintances who direct their anger toward the Republican or Tea Parties, or Big Business, or the Oil Industry, or whatever convenient enemy there may be. Anyone or anything except looking inward.
I see the white wound in addictive and compulsive behaviors, and could even include moderate alcohol consumption, or other seemingly innocuous actions that “take the edge off,” allowing one to maintain a mild and manageable state of cognitive dissonance. You know that niggling discomfort, like that moment I pointed out the history of European empire to my elderly yoga students? Instead of staying with that discomfort and processing it, we would rather drink a glass of red wine, smoke a cigarette, update our Facebook status, anything.
In Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein contrasts “the story of the separate self” with “the story of the interconnected self.” The story of the separate self is based on the Cartesian model of individuality which shapes Eurocentric thought and culture. The story of the interconnected self tells us we are essentially one consciousness, and that what we do and choose pushes and pulls at the fabric of community that binds us to one another.
Dr. Gabor Maté discusses the effects of detached parenting, in which infant cries are left unanswered. When we ignore their cries, we teach our children early on the message of separateness, and the denial of feelings. As a physician, Maté examines the biochemical effect of being ignored as a helpless being. He describes how this stressful state can become a neurological imprint which remains with us as we grow up. Ignored cries in infancy can lead to compulsive behavior in chidren to alleviate their stress, sometimes manifesting as addictive behavior in adults.
I see the white wound in myself and other people of color, when we buy into the story of the separate self instead of the story of the interconnected self. I witness the white wound working in me when I buy into the illusion of scarcity, refusing to share my time, energy, and resources; when I hide my vulnerability, putting up a front of self-sufficiency; when I act out of fear rather than trust. Every time I protect my ego, I am buying into the story of separateness which informs the white wound.
I see the white wound in myself as a person of color, who has internalized the values of whiteness, success, and security. I see myself deferring to white people, and protecting white people at the expense of people of color, and allowing myself and others to be mistreated.
I see the white wound internalized in Koreans, in their drive to rebuild the nation after decades of Japanese colonization followed by a proxy civil war fueled by emerging super-powers. From the 1960s to the present day, as the economy has exploded in magnitude through workaholism, alcoholism and consumerism plague society: release valves for the pressure created by this drive for material prosperity and success on the global stage.
How do we heal the white wound? Every wound must be examined and cleaned. White people need to recognize their woundedness and begin undoing the trappings created by white culture. People of color need to recognize ways they have been complicit and accommodating. The degree to which we willingly stumble through this dark place of woundedness, to explore it and own it, is the degree to which we bring it to light and heal. The degree to which we heal the wounds determines the degree to which we live the story of the interconnected self.
Let’s not blame Scott Walker. Let’s not deny colonial history. Let us open our hearts to each other, by recognizing how white people, through denial of their woundedness, and people of color, through internalization of white values, have all upheld racism and white supremacy. By revealing our wounds and admitting our complicity, we bring light into those dark places.