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  • Writer's pictureHallie Swan

White people must feeL (A psychospiritual perspective on dismantling racism)

For white people, if we really commit to engaging with the material of racism and privilege, it will make us feel vicarious pain, suffering, discomfort, anger, etc. This may seem highly undesirable. But in actuality, it is the biggest blessing we could imagine. It is actually a huge unburdening of our spirit. I think white people suffer from an inability/ unwillingness to feel pain with regards to systemic racism. We may intellectualize it, but we rarely feel it on a deep, subjective, somatic level. On the surface, it may seem like other people's pain. But in reality, it is all of our collective pain. It is not possible to subject another to pain, or bear witness to his or her pain without feeling it personally. But as oppressors we have developed a strategy of dissociation where we contract from this pain and disown it. But this cuts us off from our own humanity. This pain still lives inside us, but if we don't feel it, it gets stuck and creates blockage to our hearts. We can only experience as much love and beauty, as we are able and willing to feel pain and grief. Feeling pain is actually an indication that our heart is opening. This numbing, desensitization, denial, normalization of disparity, disowning of responsibility, and "othering" that white people as a whole engage in and think is serving us takes its toll first and foremost on us. It is a major soul wound, and it is a sickness. Racism is a mental illness, and a somatic illness.

African author and psychologist Taiwo Afuape says, "we can't oppress others unless we are first oppressed ourselves." And indeed, most white people walk with a colonized heart. We have colonized our own first, and are conditioned into fear of scarcity, the illusion of separateness, and the myth of hierarchy and racial superiority. This creates a huge pain in us that we are not even aware of. Underlying our efforts to maintain our superior status, is a huge insecurity. White supremacy masquerades as strength with its brute force, intimidation, manipulation, gaslighting, etc, but really, it is deep insecurity. Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams says, "We need to change the language of privilege. Privilege implies that other marginalized people want whatever it is that privileged people have. I wouldn't wish that sickness on anyone." I love this quote. Indeed it is a sickness that within white/ dominator culture, segregation, exclusivity, homogeneity, and conformity are seen as desirable rather than celebrating diversity. It is a sickness that we hoard wealth and resources and in some cases live in gated communities that keep others out. In reality, we barricade ourselves into our own prison. And hoarding wealth is nothing but greed. Who wants to walk with that in their heart? Who wants to walk with selfishness, or fear of others in their heart? It takes us prisoner first.

This attempt to protect our privilege, and ward off feelings of pain, insecurity, and grief cuts us off from experiencing so much love and beauty... the beauty of being able to feel at all, and be fully alive...and the beauty of feeling kinship with those who are different from us, the joy of generosity and reciprocity, appreciating diverse Medicine, experiencing communion with others, solidarity with others, and the celebration and connection of our shared humanity.

White people must start feeling the pain of racism. The colossal, unimaginable pain...And we need to feel it in our souls... in our bodies!! We must feel it subjectively, as our own, and in its full force. For only when we know it subjectively will we begin to understand the gravity of what has happened, and will we begin to care, from our hearts. Not from our minds… not with any agenda to be politically correct or a “good” samaritan, but from our hearts. We will instigate change because it is our own suffering too… it is our own liberation too. We are not separate from one another. If white people feel this collective, systemic, intergenerational trauma and pain, we relate to one another as brothers and sisters... and I-thou relationship. As relations.

Another thing our culture does is stigmatize grief. We are told to "be a man," "suck it up," "get over it," or "be strong." Meanwhile, in many traditional indigenous cultures throughout the world, they have elaborate grief rituals which are community-based, with very big catharses of emotion, for a long time. I think it would do our society some real good to have such a ritual, as there is so much to grieve that has not been grieved for, including the genocide that has taken place on this land, all of the youth that have been lost to the school to prison/ gang/ addiction/ death pipeline, mothers being separated from babies because of the slave trade, boarding schools, or detention centers, forced assimilation, medical experiments on black and brown bodies and forced sterilization, and on and on....Feeling this pain is the only way we can disarm ourselves from exerting more violence and control over others, and it is the only way we can save ourselves. I believe white supremacy doesn't want us to feel, because as soon as we feel, we no longer feel motivated to enforce power over another...and we are hell-bent on securing power. Our humanity is very threatening to our dominion.

I am not saying that white people are all bad, or are the sole perpetrators, or are intrinsically bad. In fact, I believe we are just as human as everybody else. But for those of us who have bought into white supremacy culture (which we all have, to some degree,) we have a cancer, which we must extract from our systems by way of facing the reality and feeling. In this latest iteration of humanity, white people have been major torchbearers of colonialism and oppression. We must take responsibility for that.

By the way, all of the above holds implications not just for racial justice, but environmental justice as well. They are inextricable.


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