At The Crossroads: White Privilege And The New Normal

“People can be slave ships in shoes.”

-Zora Neale Hurston, Author

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

-George Santayana (1863) philosopher/novelist

“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

-Gwendolyn Brooks, Poet

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My Dear Readers,

In Northern Ireland in the late 20th century, an ethno-nationalist and religious conflict that developed into a low-level war between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland became commonly known as “The Troubles.”

In America, we are waging a low-level war against children of color seeking protection from debilitating gang violence in Central America. Since early May of this year, over 2,000 children have been separated from their parents after crossing the southern border into the U.S. seeking asylum, as part of a policy from the Trump administration that has generated a public outcry. In all, over 10,000 unaccompanied immigrant children are being held in detention facilities across the United States. Currently, the US Department of Defense is planning to house 20,000 children on military bases across the country.

My heart is heavy. This is who we have become. “The Troubles“ of the British are now our own.

The Cries of Children

The world is watching as our country continues to spiral into state sanctioned child abuse and cruelty to children, and this was not an accident. This was part of a new immigration strategy by the Trump administration that was designed to deter further illegal immigration, but this approach has prompted widespread outcry.

No racial group understands the impact of complex trauma in children and the separation of families more than African-Americans. African-American families continue to feel the impact of historical and inter-generational traumas associated with slavery, segregation, the Jim Crow era, and the horrors of lynching men, women and children.

Even today, complex trauma continues to be endured in silence by those who as children, individually integrated white schools following the US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.   Since then, legislation has been passed and judicial battles have been won, but these children and subsequent generations continue to be psychologically impacted and their social mobility blocked.

How are the words “Land of the Free” defined? Immigrants coming to this country understand that in the United States of America we claim to be the land of the free because men are free to do whatever they wish. However what is really meant is that white men are free, not others.

Although segregation has formally ended as a means of control, it has been replaced by the subtler white privilege.

What is white privilege? 

White privilege is a societal benefit that favors people whom society identifies as white. White privilege confers passive advantages that white people may not recognize they have, which makes it different from and harder to address than overt bias or prejudice.

How does privilege differ from segregation? 

White privilege is voluntary and reinforced by societal norms and beliefs, where in comparison, segregation was reinforced by local and state laws. Once a person becomes aware of their own white privilege, they have the opportunity to change how it shows up in their lives and their interactions with others.

How does the utilization of privilege benefit the individual?

White privilege includes cultural affirmations by the greater society of one’s individual worth at the expense of other cultures, presumed greater social status, and freedom to move, buy, work, play, and speak freely without intimidation. There is no tangible benefit; only an ease of going about their lives that people without privilege do not experience.

How are non-whites harmed by the denial of privilege or the utilization of privilege?

The negative psychological and emotional effects of white privilege on people of color can be seen in professional, educational, and personal contexts. Because white privilege also implies the right to assume the universality of one’s own experiences, the experiences of others who do not operate in the same way can result in marking those people as “other,” “different,” or “less than” while perceiving oneself as “normal” or “superior.”

White Privilege: The New Normal

It is unlikely that white people of good conscience would disagree that slavery, the Jim Crow/segregation era, and lynching were evil. Yet, these evil acts repeatedly occurred because white people of good conscience chose not to intervene and remained silent instead.

Today, the new normal of white privilege is an outcome not only of the lack of action and silence, but also the “power of choice” in which white people of good conscience will focus their attention (i.e. moral outrage, political organization and financial resources) elsewhere. Without the sunlight of attention, micro- and macro-aggressions that did not receive attention before will continue to emotionally drain and psychologically impact communities of color across the country.

This may be the “new normal,” but it serves only to pit communities of color against each other in times of desperation and trauma to compete for the attention of those white people of good conscience.  Broad media coverage is given to Hispanic infants and children being separated from their parents at the border while limited media coverage is given to the East Pittsburgh police shooting death of a unarmed African-American adolescent. Meanwhile, media coverage and empathy has all but evaporated in North Dakota where Native and Aboriginal people continue to fight for their land and water rights.

In white privilege’s New Normal, communities of color fear the loss of hope, abandonment and the return to suffering in silence.

Using the Power of Choice

White privilege is not a derogatory term or an epithet. It’s simply a term for the things that white people don’t have to worry about as they go through life that people of color, particularly black people, do, because of the racial prejudices that are common in our society.

White people of good conscience have consistently bombarded communities of color with questions that have the following common thread:

  • What can we do to resolve the problems of injustice, inequality and racism?
  • How can we help?
  • How can we work together?

Despite their good intentions, communities of color continue to be psychologically impacted by problems of injustice, inequality and racism. So, the question remains… what can white people of good conscience do?

  • They can take a stand within their own communities.
  • They can STOP seeking out communities of color for answers. You already have the answers. Do something!
  • They can utilize and apply the clinical concept of RACE (responsibility, accountability, consequences and empowerment) in working within their respective communities.

Responsibility:  End your silence.  Injustice, inequality, and racism all thrive because the unaffected majority places their interests above all others. This inaction reinforces the foundations of inequality and racism. Simply put: when you see injustice, inequality, and racism, speak out. I am responsible.  I will respond.

Accountability:  Understand that you are accountable. Accept that having privilege means that you gain when someone else suffers. Accept the personal accountability that comes along with those gains. I will be accountable.

Consequences: Understand the impact of your action and inaction. Be willing to balance your intent with the outcome of a particular act.  I accept the consequences of my action or inaction.

Empowerment: Transform your community. Acknowledge that you possess the tools and resources to transform your community. Stop wanting more and then settling for less. I will work towards transforming my community.

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Concluding Words-Dr. Kane

A white ally who I consider to be a brother recently half-jokingly and half seriously remarked in one of his pieces:

“I am starting to grow bored with the “Ally” role. I want to explore the possibility of becoming something of a Co-Conspirator.” 

Those holding the privilege can best help end inequality, injustice, and racism by working within their communities as we continue to work within ours. Otherwise, the words amount to little more than intellectualizing the suffering of others.

I also want to assume my own responsibility by balancing my intent with the outcome of my actions. I have often been criticized for generalizing my language. I have been informed that in saying “all white people do ____,” the outcome is that some white people will feel uncomfortable. They would prefer that I use language such as “some” or perhaps, “more than not,” instead.

I can understand the discomfort with the generalization. This is a great opportunity to see where white privilege becomes an issue. These white people are asking to be viewed as individuals, and not as a group– but that is the heart of white privilege. As a black man, I do not have the ability to be viewed as an individual. Everything that I say and do are seen as representations of my entire race and culture. Because white people have always had the privilege of being judged by their individual merits, they miss that privilege when it is no longer extended to them, and feel that it is their right to be seen that way. The key here is for white people to demolish that status as “privileged” by fighting to see that all people are able to be judged on their individual merits and not based on generalizations based on what race they appear to be.

In using the term “white people of good conscience,” I seek to address two concerns:

  • I am asking white people to take the opportunity to look within themselves, holding themselves accountable by asking themselves: am I engaging in micro- or macro- aggressive behavior?
  • I am fearful that only speaking of “some” white people will result in no white people examining themselves and their own behavior, because they will count themselves as not part of the “some.” White privilege benefits all white people. Therefore, all white people must be aware of the role it plays in their lives.

As I seek to understand the differences, I reflect upon the following quote:

“Don’t try to understand them; and don’t try to make them understand you.  For they are a breed apart and make no sense.”

-Chingachgook, Chief of the Mohican People

Last of The Mohicans, (1992)

The history of silence from well-meaning white people in the face of atrocity and trauma has left the African-American community with a lot of anger. There are many who feel that the white people of good conscience abandoned the civil rights movement after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, choosing to believe that their work of civil rights for the black community had been done.

Michael Harriot, writing for The Root, states that these well-meaning white people, due to their silence, are cowards. He utilizes strong quotes such as this one by Desmond Tutu:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

What has been the reaction of reaction from whites of good conscience? More silence. The words of Chingachgook ring loud and true. Yes, they are a breed apart and make no sense. However, we all live on the same planet. We breathe the same air. Therefore, we share the:

  • Responsibility- to create understanding among each other.
  • Accountability- to hold each other accountable to what we say and do.
  • Consequences- to understand the impact of our actions and inaction.
  • Empowerment- to work together to transform our respective communities

I choose to believe that white people of good conscience default to the same behavior or inaction as people residing in communities of color for the same reasons… they are living in fear. Both communities live in fear of each other. The fear is based on stereotypes, biases, guilt, shame, denial and a host of many more reasons not mentioned.

The question in our respective communities is this: what do we do with our fear? The answer is that fear is simply a feeling. Because it is your fear, then:

  • Take ownership of your fear.
  • Embrace your fear.
  • Be willing to take action, walking with your fear.

The land of the free is in danger and put at risk by those who now lead our country. We stand at the crossroads. WE and not them must choose the direction.

Safe journeys…

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“Choose your leaders with wisdom and foresight.  To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.  To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.

To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.

To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”

-Octavia Butler

Until the next crossroads…  The journey continues…

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In Our Corner: The Silence of Black Suicide

Do you ever wonder
That to win, somebody’s got to lose
I might as well get over the blues
Just like fishing in the ocean
There’ll always be someone new
You did me wrong ’cause I’ve been through stormy weather                                                      And the beat goes on.

-“And The Beat Goes On,” The Whispers, R&B Vocal Group

“Very few suicidal people want to die; they just don’t want to live the way they’re living.”

-Althea Hankins, MD, FACP, Director, Germantown Medical Center, Philadelphia, PA

“Every year, without any treatment at all, thousands stop suffering from depression.  Because it kills them.”

-Dr. Paul Greencard, 2000 Nobel Laureate in Medicine

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My Dear Readers,

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

In the past week, the world was shocked to hear of the suicides of two celebrities: fashion designer Kate Spade and food critic/chef Anthony Bourdain.  Following the deaths of Spade and Bourdain, the Washington Post reported that suicide is being viewed not only as a mental health problem, but also as a public health problem.  Specifically:

  • Nearly 45,000 suicides occurred in the United States in 2016 –more than twice the number of homicides
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 34
  • In half the states, suicide among people ages 10 and older increased more than 30%.

Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the US Center for Disease Control observes:

“The data is disturbing.  The widespread nature of the increase, in every state but one, really suggests that this is a national problem hitting most communities.”

Professional health care organizations are frustrated by the lack of action by governmental agencies.  Nadine Kaslow, a past president of the American Psychological Association, states:

“At what point does it become a crisis?  Suicide is a public health care crisis when you look at the numbers, and they keep going up.  It’s up everywhere.  And we know that the rates are actually higher that what’s reported.”

So, what is the impact of suicide in black communities across the country?  The American Association of Suicidology reports the following:

  • African-American women are more likely than African-American men to attempt suicide.
  • Firearms are the predominant method of suicide, followed by suffocation.
  • Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for blacks of all ages and the third leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 24.
  • The number of suicides for black boys ages 5-11 have doubled in the last 20 years.
  • Hanging deaths among black boys have nearly tripled while suicide among white youth has declined in the same category.

The research shows that black males and females have similar suicidal behavior to whites including:

  • Serious thoughts of suicide
  • Making suicide plans
  • Attempting suicide and
  • Needing medical attention for attempted suicide

In essences, if a tree falls in a forest, who hears it depends on which community it has fallen in.

In white communities, two well-known individuals committed suicide quietly and alone—yet, the world erupts in shock and devastation.  There are fears that copycat suicides will follow, like the 2,000 deaths in the four months following Robin Williams’ 2014 suicide.

It is not the case in the forest of the black community.  Eight black men per day commit suicide across the U.S., and all we hear is the weeping of family members and the deafening silence from the media.

Recently in Spokane, WA, a young black man, a loving father and beloved son, legally brought a firearm, went into the bathroom of his home, and shot himself to death.

Like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, this young man was alone when he took his life.  He too leaves behind grieving family and friends.  The difference is that unlike the focus on suicide prevention following the deaths of Spade and Bourdain, the silence continues in the black community… and life goes on.

Are black people disinterested in the welfare of their loved ones? If they do care, why do they respond like this?

In past writings, I have suggested that “why” questions invite answers that circle back on themselves and as a result, they do not lead us to a full understanding of the foundation of the issue.

A more useful method of inquiry would be focusing on the “what,” instead.  Specifically,

  • What has been the view of mental health and suicide in the black community?
  • What creates distance between black and white communities when it comes to working together on the issues of mental health and suicide?

What has been the view of mental health and suicide in the black community?

Stoicism- the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.

Historically and inter-generationally, African-Americans have created specific internalized methods such as “grin and bear it” and “quietly handling one’s business” to protect themselves during times of suffering. However, such methods create hurtful roles that African-Americans are expected to live up to, such as “the strong black woman,” and expecting men to “man up,” by not expressing emotion.

These methods serve only to reinforce the perception that mental health and suicide are “white people issues”.  It creates pressure to maintain “face and image” within the community, even as they suffer in silence.  Needless to say, these methods are psychologically destructive.

What separates the black community from the white community on the issues of mental health and suicide?

 “The truth is that I can’t go anywhere.  And let’s get real: With the whites in the white coats and it’s mostly us getting sent to the loony bin, I don’t have much of a choice.”

-Anonymous

Racism. Most African-Americans believe that racism and stereotypical beliefs held about African Americans prevents the establishment of trusting relationships with white healthcare professionals and the white community.

A recent study on racial empathy gaps found that people, including medical personnel, assumed that black people feel less pain than white people. The researchers concluded that people assume that “blacks feel less pain because they faced more hardships relative to whites.”

The lack of black professionals in the mental health field exacerbates the lack of trust.  Although African-Americans are 12% of the population, in the mental healthcare nationwide, they are only:

  • 2% of the psychiatrists,
  • 2% of psychologists, and
  • 4% of social workers.

The dearth of black healthcare professionals reinforces the misbelief that mental health and suicide are “white people issues.”

What Can Be Done Regarding Mental Health in The Black Community?

“Not everything that is faced can be changed.  But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

-James Baldwin, Author

Normalize Suicidal Ideation

There are times in life when we feel hopeless, helpless and overwhelmed with emotional pain.  Suicidal thoughts can result when a person experiences too much pain without having enough resources to cope.  The emotional pain never seems to stop, and it seems impossible to resolve when all other ideas and possible solutions to alleviate it have been exhausted.

For others, suicide may be a way of punishing others, or letting them know how much pain you are in.  However, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  Given time and work, more and clearer options and alternatives can arise.

Those Thoughts Can and Will Pass

Depression, the basis of these suicidal thoughts, often feels permanent, even though the suicidal thoughts are temporary.  Depression can and does come and go.

Suicidal thoughts are a temporary crisis and are your psychological self’s attempt to stop emotional pain.

 Helping Those with Suicidal Thoughts

  • Ask the person if they are thinking about killing themselves. Ask directly, even though the question may seem awkward.
  • Let the person know that you are concerned about them and the situation they are in.
  • Find out if they have a specific plan, and if so, how far the person has gone to carry out the plan.
  • Let the person know the importance of getting help, and that treatment can really help make a difference.
  • Get the person professional help immediately. Contact a suicide prevention hotline, hospital emergency room, local crisis center or dial 911 for assistance.
  • Make an agreement with the person that they will not commit suicide.
  • Check in with the person to find out how they are doing.
  • Encourage the person to seek follow-up care.
  • Keep in mind that a quick recovery from suicidal thoughts and feelings may be the person’s attempt to deny, consciously, or unconsciously, the intensity of the depression.
  • Understand that suicidal thoughts and feelings may return.

What NOT to Do

  • Don’t assume that the situation will take care of itself.
  • Don’t leave the person alone.
  • Don’t allow yourself to be sworn to secrecy.
  • Don’t act shocked or surprised at what the person may say about their thoughts and feelings.
  • Don’t challenge, dare, or use verbal shock statements.
  • Don’t argue or debate moral issues.
  • Don’t offer alcohol or drugs to cheer up the person

REMEMBER:

You are not responsible for the actions of others.  You can encourage a friend or loved one to get professional help, but you cannot stop someone who is intent on committing suicide. 

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Concluding Words-Dr. Kane

In my academic scholarship, forensic and clinical practices, I have found that African-Americans react and respond to 13 different types of traumas and 10 forms of racism daily. It is not surprising that suicidal thoughts arise in people who consistently withstand the intense psychological pressure from this constantly hostile external environment, and that anyone under such pressure may consider suicide to escape or relieve themselves of such intense emotional or psychological pain.

Suicidal thoughts, attempts and completion are not evidence of one’s weakness.  These are the reactions and responses to pressure that has brought the individual to the brink of termination.

We must seek to end the silence of mental health and the denial of suicide in the African-American community. In doing so, we embrace and normalize our pain so that we are no longer isolated and exposed to the pressure that our environment visits upon us.

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“When truth is replaced by silence, the silence becomes a lie.”

-Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Russian Poet

“Our lives begin to end the day we are silent about things that matter.”

-Martin Luther King Jr.

 

 Until the next time.  Remaining…In Our Corner.