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

************************************

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

 

*********************************

“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

*******************************

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

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