The Unspoken Truth: Slave Play and White Fragility

“The play shows the unconscious ways that white people take up space, that they don’t leave open for black people.”

-Jeremy O. Harris, playwright, Slave Play

“…[It’s] a whole bunch of stuff about how white people don’t get how racist they are.”

-Comments shouted by angered white woman to playwright Jeremy O. Harris during discussion session following play

“This isn’t about every white person.  This play is about eight specific people and if you don’t see yourself up here, that’s great, you aren’t one of them-you aren’t.  These are eight specific people that are in a play that is a metaphor for our country and therefore doesn’t represent every single person in it.”

-Jeremy O. Harris, playwright, (in response to the white woman’s criticism)

 

My Dear Readers,

As 2019 comes to an end, I would like you to join me in a recounting of my travels during the year. I’ve made two trips to Europe to research the psychological trauma experienced by African American soldiers fighting for democracy while under the command of white segregationist political and military leadership during World Wars I & II.

I also completed a 15,000-mile round trip journey to Ghana, West Africa where I stood at the Door of No Return at Elmina Castle.  It was through this narrow door that frightened and traumatized Africans were forced into the bellies of slave ships to be carted to the “New World” as human chattel.

Finally, I chose to do something very different and extraordinary to conclude the year. I took a 5,000-mile round trip excursion to see a Broadway play called Slave Play.

Slave Play, created by Jeremy O. Harris, boldly examines power, sex and history through the lens of three interracial relationships. In the play, Harris seeks to show how white people refuse to hear black people and how they don’t allow black people to work out the magnitude of their traumas in their presence.

Without giving too much away, the play depicts the lives of three interracial couples involved in a present-day therapy treatment program in which they act out their sexual dysfunction issues based on a treatment protocol known as Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy (ASPT).  It is a radical role-play-based therapy intended to help black partners reengage intimately with white partners from whom they no longer receive sexual pleasure.

The scenes are set in the pre-Civil War South and move towards interactions set in the 21st Century.  They depict psychosexual power games between an enslaved black person and a white Southerner with provocative items such as bull whips being symbolically utilized during demonstrations of domination and submission.

During the first scene, there are three vignettes of seduction and copulation:

  • A female slave who seduces Massa Jim by throwing herself on the cabin floor and twerking.
  • A sexually frustrated Southern belle bounces seductively on her great big canopied bed and her very handsome servant has no choice but to service his lusty mistress.
  • A white indentured servant sexually gratifies his black overseer.

The ASPT concludes in the final act of the play with the three couples processing and talking through the experience. Though it is apparent that the therapy is supposed to focus on the black characters, the white characters wouldn’t shut up and allow them to process their thoughts. This demonstrates the playwright’s clear intent to show the failure of whites to receive information about the traumatic experiences that their black lovers so desperately want to share.

Unlike films of this genre, plays make the audience actively participating observers. The films usually focus on the white master or mistress’s inhumane treatment of humans whose only difference is the color of their skin.  Scenes of rape, brutality, violence, and unimaginable cruelty dominate and in doing so, often forces the psychological self of the white observer to retreat in horror, shame and, most importantly, denial of what is truth in American history.

The brilliance of Slave Play is that its focus is not on the physical torment of enslaved peoples but rather on encouraging the audience to listen to the psychological trauma that arises from those traumatized.

The play seeks to confront the past and yet also focus on the unhealed wounds of the present while not shying away from causing possible discomfort to its white audience. It is a willfully provocative and entertaining production.

 When White Discomfort Transforms into White Fragility

“This isn’t about every white person.  This play is about eight specific people and if you don’t see yourself up here, that’s great, you aren’t one of them-you aren’t.” 

-The words of Jeremy O. Harris, playwright, in response to numerous calls for the play’s removal from the theatrical stage.

During an interaction with the playwright, one white audience member angrily storms out the event, yelling that “I have undergone hardships ranging from rape to false arrest to single motherhood. How am I not marginalized?”

Is this woman and women like her marginalized? Given her statement, yes, she is. However, her words and actions reflect her inability to provide space for the expression of traumatic impact in the lives of others.  Her discomfort has now been publicity transformed into an example of “White Fragility”.

It would be a mistake to focus on the question “why are white people so fragile?”. Questions that lead with “why” are circular and distract from fully examining the foundation of the issue. With that in mind, let’s seek to answer the issues of white fragility utilizing the framework of “what”.

  • What is white fragility?
  • What is the foundation of white fragility?
  • What is the behavior of white fragility?
  • What is the expectation of white people towards people of color regarding white fragility?

What is white fragility?

White fragility is a form of aversive racism that encourages individuals to engage in interactions with people of color by overtly denying racist intent while acting in ways that feel racist to the person being impacted.

What is the foundation of white fragility?

White people are not raised to see themselves in terms of race or to see general spaces as “white spaces”.  Consequently, this insulation can render white people “innocent” of the concept of race.  It is this “innocence” that gives rise to white fragility.

What is the behavior of white fragility?

When the behavior is pointed out to the white person, the white person reacts, often negatively, to the concept that they are racist, and expects the person of color to be sensitive to their racial innocence, requiring the person of color to make them feel safe including:

  • A softer tone
  • Looking deeper for their intent
  • Disregard the impact of their actions
  • Never giving feedback again.

What is the expectation of white people towards people of color regarding white fragility?

People of color are expected to provide safe nurturing environments for white people, regardless of the psychological danger to themselves and if this is not provided, the person of color is regarded as unforgiving, unkind and oversensitive.

 

White Fragility and Insidious Trauma

People of color may develop feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness as they continue to be psychologically and emotionally impacted by white fragility.  This form of trauma is insidious due to its nature of constantly denigrating and demeaning the intelligence, skills, capacities, and the value of the lives of people of color.

Awareness of Reactions & Responses

Reactions to white fragility may create fight or flight responses which prepare the physical body, the intellectual mind, and the psychological self to react to danger.  However constant, repetitive triggering of these reactions also release hormones such as cortisol, which contribute to weight gain, heart damage, and other stress-related health issues.

 

Healing from White Fragility

When instances of white fragility arise, the ABC’s of Empowerment can bring relief to the physical, psychological and emotional self.

  • Advocacy– Speak up for yourself and don’t depend on others to do so on your behalf.
  • Balance– Psychologically step away and embrace your emotions while weighing what you’re feeling and thinking.
  • Calmness-While holding your psychological space, allow yourself to be centered as you deliver your external response.

 

Concluding Words

“White Fragility is the discomfort and defensiveness on the part of the white person when they are confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice.”

-Dr. Robin DiAngelo, author

My Dear Readers,

As I was exiting the play, I overheard the comments of two white males who’d also been in attendance. One asked the other “what did you think about the play?  The other individual responded, “It was interesting.”

Interesting.  Only interesting?  The question was a set up for denial of feelings.  Because the question did not focus on feelings i.e. “what did you feel about the play?” The person asking the question subsequently gave the respondent “a way out” from touching the foundation of his feelings.

This answer kept both the questioner and the respondent on the intellectual level and denied them, as well the white actors, the insight and willingness of exploring the foundation of the traumas being felt by black actors.

As I stood there absorbing the remark, I understood the benefit of traveling the 5,000 miles to allow the psychological self to experience a theatrical performance that provided the reality of psychological trauma of not only of those sold into bondage but also of those who continue to experience traumas 400 years later.

Sitting in that theater, if willing, one could conceptualize the commentary among buyers as they ignored the pleading cries of fellow humans held in bondage as they sold and bartered for them like cattle.  Interesting, indeed.

While it is true that white fragility is an insidious trauma injury to people of color, white people are not raised to see themselves in terms of race. This inability to see themselves in terms of race and consequently “innocent of race” does not prevent them from inflicting invasive and psychologically traumatic wounds that persist. So, claims of “my ancestors did not own slaves” does not absolve them of the guilt and shame of knowing that the white majority profited from slavery. Their denial of what is true only serves to reinforce their white fragility.

 

What can White People do about White Fragility? 

When instances of white fragility arise, the ABC’s of Empowerment can bring relief to the physical, psychological and emotional self.

  • Advocacy– Speak to yourself, acknowledge your white fragility and do so even when others refuse to do the same.
  • Balance-Psychologically step away and embrace your white fragility while weighing what you are feeling and thinking.
  • Calmness-While holding your psychological space, allow yourself to be centered as you deliver your external response and move forward to live the life you want and not the life you have.

New Possibilities

Life is a journey filled with new possibilities.

And sometimes because of the person you are, or have become, you find yourself in the right place at the right time for…

New possibilities

-Micheal Kane

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Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
So long?

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
You do not hear
My inner cry?
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing
You do not know
I die?”
― Langston Hughes

 

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“I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.”
― Langston Hughes

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I will begin the New Year by returning to New York in January 2020 to see another Broadway production regarding the impact of trauma on African Americans.  This play, A Soldier Play, takes place on a Louisiana army base in 1944 where a black Sergeant is murdered and a black investigator must fight with his white leadership to find out the truth.

Blessings to all in the coming year!!

 

Standing Alone… The Unspoken Truth

The Visible Man: The Opening of Invisibility’s Old Wounds

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

Matthew 5:38-39 (NIV)

“So I say to you: Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Luke 11: 9-10 (NIV)

“I had crossed the line.  I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom.  I was a stranger in a strange land. But I was free, and they (my family) should be free.

-Harriet Tubman, Conductor, Underground Railroad, Army Scout & Civil Rights Activist

Police Chief Gillespie: “Virgil-that’s a funny name for a nigger boy that comes from Philadelphia.  What do they call you up there?”

Detective Tibbs: “They call me MISTER Tibbs!”

-In the Heat of the Night (1967)

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My Dear Readers,

As we move towards the holiday season, we want to be thankful for what we have, for the blessings our Creator has bestowed and the lives we cherish. And yet there are those who are faced with difficult choices.

In my previous blog, The Perfect Storm Part II, I quoted the following from the Army War College written in 1936:

“As an individual, the Negro is docile, tractable, lighthearted, carefree and good natured.  If unjustly treated, he is likely to become surly and stubborn.  He is careless, shiftless, irresponsible and secretive.  He is immoral, untruthful, and his sense of right doing relatively inferior.  Crimes and convictions involving moral turpitude are nearly five to one compared to convictions of whites on similar charges”.

So, here we are in 2019…. not much has changed regarding how African American males are viewed by the dominant group.  Except now, given the portrayals in the media, the stereotype of black men being easily moved to violence has been reinforced.

Too many times we have witnessed black men being sanctioned in the sports arena or arrested and hauled off to jail due to their “violent nature”. Just recently, the media repeatedly played the “shocking” violent assault of a white football quarterback by an opposing player who was black.

The black player asserts that he was reacting to a racial slur made by the white player.  The white player denies doing so.  The league states there is no evidence of a racial slur being made.

In the end, the black player is out of football for the remainder of the season and will forever be seen as the perpetrator of a vicious assault and the white player will forever be seen as the victim.

These actions reinforce stereotypes that African American people endure daily. However, below is a story that will not garnish national headlines, even though its outcome and impact can have psychologically similar effects on the people involved.

Below is a story of a young man who has endured racial micro-aggressions and now must make the difficult choice of reacting or responding. Either way he must be willing to walk the landscape… alone.

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Dear Dr. Kane,

I am an African American man residing in a major city in the Midwestern United States. I am writing to you out of anger and despair. I recently read your blog about the black man who wanted to physically assault the next white man who insulted him and I find myself in a similar situation.

I am in the last year of my pediatric surgery residency. I have endured years of psychological abuse ranging from youthful bullying and taunts of “wannabe white boy” because I simply wanted to do well in school to more recently, the Associate Dean of my university screaming at me, upset about the trash not being removed from his office after mistaking me for a janitor. An apology would have been appreciated, but none was extended.  Instead, he acted as if it never happened.

During my undergraduate and now medical education, I have endured constant negative comments about my race, my abilities and my standing in my prestigious academic program.  One of my professors even inferred, in open class, that I was taking the seat of a “more deserving student” who now, due to diversity concerns, had been denied a promising career.

A new and ongoing situation is occurring, and I and I feel I can no longer take the abuse. I have clinical rounds every Tuesday morning and I usually arrive an hour early to study in a large lounge area scattered with multiple tables and chairs.  As I stated the room is quite sizable yet people walking by have the “tendency” to step over my feet and disturb my concentration while I am reading.

To resolve this problem, I placed two chairs around me creating a short detour and granting me space. While others have taken the hint and walked around, one person has taken it upon himself to challenge the boundary that I have created.

On several occasions, he has intentionally moved the chairs and walked through my crossed off area. I know what he is doing.  He is a white male who works in the lower levels of the facility.  He is asserting his white privilege.

As he walks past me, he gives me a sidelong glance, challenging me to confront him.  He only does this when I am sitting alone without the benefit of witnesses.

My friends suggest that I do what I feel and beat his ass and let him know who he is messing with, but I know that would only bring momentary satisfaction and endanger my career, so I hold it in.

When I get up in the morning, brush my teeth and stare at my reflection in the mirror, I don’t like what I see. I see a weak, wannabe male who is absolutely powerless and it bothers me. It angers me. I feel like I have reached my limit. I feel I must respond for my own dignity, my own integrity.  This abuse can go no further. I can no longer accept this disrespect.

Last week, I couldn’t sleep.  I got up early and went to the lounge and arranged a larger barrier of four chairs and a table as my border then sat there and waited for him… He never came.

My feelings have left me confused.  I was raised in the church.  I am a man of faith.  My pastor even told me to “turn the other cheek” but why should I, so he can spit on that cheek too? I want to beat him down so bad that I can taste it. Part of me feels I may have done it that day had he shown.  I know I would be arrested but part of me doesn’t care.

I am confused.  I don’t like feeling this way.  I have thoughts of hurting myself.  Can you help me?

Holding On By A String, Midwest, USA

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My Dear Young Man,

First, I want to thank you for taking the time to write.  Second, I want to congratulate you on your extensive and exhaustive journey to achieving your academic and professional goals.

In responding to your words, it is for you to decide your direction as to what path you will take. It is also for you to understand that as you walk the landscape, you will be walking alone.

Let’s look at some of the real problems:

Bruised ego

The ego is the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for testing reality and providing a sense of personal identity.  Yes, you have been challenged and now you are allowing the insult to be invasive and cause you to question your personal identity.

Question: Ask yourself, what is different now? After all these years of enduring insults, yet having the clarity of vision to keep forging toward your goals, what about this incident has you now questioning your personal identity?

 

Transference

Transference is the redirection of feelings and desires and especially those unconsciously retained from childhood and adolescence towards a new object. As a child and adolescent, you develop values, goals and objectives that are focused on educational achievement.  Your peer group did not value these objectives and as a result you suffered repeated rejection.

Question: Ask yourself, after all these years of peer rejection, what is going on in your life that even after reaching your educational goals, you return to bringing up and holding on to the wounded memories of your childhood?

 

Projection

Projection is the attribution of one’s own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people.  It is the externalization of blame, guilt, or responsibility as a defense against anxiety.

The white man that you are directing your feelings towards is insignificant.  He has no meaning in your life.  Although you “want to beat him down,” he doesn’t know your name.   You have the awareness that he is exerting his white privilege. This insignificant person is exerting what little power he has.

Question: Ask yourself, what do you see in him that is reflective of you?  Does his insignificance mirror your feelings of inadequacy and anxiety as you prepare to graduate from your medical residency and take your rightfully deserved place in the medical profession?

 

What are the alternatives?

  •  Lie in wait for your tormentor. He will return at some point to “assert his privilege”.  Provide him with a good ass whipping. Give him what he really wants, which is the designation as a victim of your uncontrolled violence and the opportunity to ruin your promising career.
  • Stop giving your tormentor power. Cease focusing on the “flea” by granting him power and control in your life.
  • Empower yourself. Make the issues about you and not about your tormentor.
  • Examine the issues that hold you in conflict. Seek to resolve the following questions:
    • What am I really reacting or responding to?
    • What unresolved issues of the past are impacting my present and could be sabotaging my future.
    • What is occurring within me, knowing the hard work I have done to reach this point, that I am now willing to throw it all away?

Disregard the stereotypical views in which the dominant group seeks to entrap you. Don’t become the ABC (Angry Black and Out of Control) person that the tormentor and others seek to drive you to be. Don’t become the mule aimlessly following the carrot and pulling his master’s plow. Instead, focus on the Self Protocol.

 

SELF Protocol (Self-Empowerment & Leaping Forward)

Become the person you want to be. Living the optimistic ABCs of Advocacy, Balance & Calmness requires you to be willing to process the repressed pain and to work towards healing your wounds.

Begin by utilizing the Five Rs of RELIEF:

  1. Respite: Take a breath. Psychologically step away from the incident creating distress.
  1. Reaction: Take a moment to embrace your emotions. Give yourself permission to feel what you feel. Your anger, frustrations, disappointment and so on.
  1. Reflection: Reach into the depth of your emotional and mental processes. Analyze what that reaction means to you and how you felt. Begin to shape and balance your thoughts and feelings.
  1. Response: Identify and separate your response into one that remains within self and one that is shared with those in the external environment.
  1. Reevaluation: Be patient with yourself. Have the willingness to explore, examine and review the steps as needed.

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Concluding Words 

“Thank you for coming to the event tonight Dr. Kane; you represented well.”

– Remark of white guest attending a formal event

My Dear Readers,

Although I have never met this young man, I know him well. His distress can be found in the lives of many African Americans.  The constant micro-aggressions (psychological and emotional) and macro-aggressions (physical violence) that can impact this group daily can become, at times, burdensome and lead to negative outcomes.

It may be that this young man, through the burdens carried from his past and the pressures he faces as he enters the professional world, has simply come to understand his reality:

  • He will never be fully valued or validated by the dominant group,
  • He will constantly be “turning the other cheek” regarding actions or comments made by others,
  • He will constantly be knocking on closed doors; doors that are easily opened to others, but he must be determined to keep knocking and,
  • He will be free to practice his profession yet be treated as a stranger in a strange land.

However, I hope the young man will hold to what is true; that within his ongoing journey of self-discovery, he has gained empowerment and unlike power, his empowerment can never be taken away from him.

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”I am an invisible man…. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

-Ralph Ellison, Author

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Invisibility

When you look at me, can you see my invisibility?

Or is it all just in my mind, and is it me, myself, that keeps me blind?

Or is it that my feelings are so unjust,

or is it really the color of my skin that you don’t trust?

So tell me what it is that I need to do,

to prove to society that I am just like you?

To prove that I can walk the same.

And to prove that I too have a name.

But is it really me that you choose not to see,

Or is it the lack of everything you want to be?

Tell me now who keeps you blind,

Or is it all just in your mind?

Or is it all just in your hate,

the hate that you continue to generate.

 I will tell you now what it is you see,

it’s a reflection of your own invisibility.

-Unknown

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Until We Speak Again…I am…The Visible Man.