The Unspoken Truth: Slave Play, White Fragility, and the Difficulty in Talking About Race

“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.”

-Micheal Kane, Psy.D, Clinical Traumatologist

“When you are told time and time again you’re not good enough, that your opinion doesn’t matter as much; when they don’t just look past you, to them you’re not even there; when that has been your reality for so long, it’s hard not to let yourself think it’s true.”

– The Post

“What does race mean to the person of color?  Everything.  From the first breath taken in life to one’s dying day.  Race is incarceration or freedom.  Race is a door that is open or closed. Race is living life thriving or surviving. Race identifies that the space you occupy has been ‘designated’ for you and reinforces for you that others will seek to hold you there for the rest of your life.  Race is everything.”

-Micheal Kane, Psy.D., Clinical Traumatologist

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My Dear Readers,

I am currently preparing to leave for New York City to attend another Broadway play, A Soldier’s Story. It is a murder mystery set on a segregated military base located in Louisiana during WWII. When I return, I’ll share my thoughts. But as I prepare to experience another play with a strong racial interaction, I find myself reflective of the last play I saw and wrote about in the most recent blog, The Unspoken Truth: Slave Play and White Fragility.

I continue to replay the exchange at the conclusion of the play in which two white theater attendees chose to intellectualize the experience and in doing so, denied themselves the opportunity to explore their emotions. The opportunity was lost due to their inability to recognize the general space they occupy as “white spaces.”

The playwright brilliantly utilizes race, sex and trauma to demonstrate the privilege being displayed by the white characters and its impacts on the black characters.  The common theme of the black actors was that racial trauma accruing from not being listened to by their white partners resulted in sexual dysfunction.

The production has been criticized as negatively casting whites as being racist. In response, the playwright Jeremy O. Harris states:

“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.”

 

Given this, we can accept that racism is taught and feelings about race are internalized within the psychological self.  Experience has taught me that “every white man is not my enemy and every black man is not my friend.” Experience has also taught me to choose to focus on what lies in a person’s heart and in their actions.

 

One’s Heart & One’s Actions

Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad conductor, is one of my heroes.  It was her determination, courage and sense of purpose that empowered her to lead hundreds of slaves to freedom.  Harriet Tubman stated: “God don’t mean people to own people.”

As much as Harriet Tubman is deservedly revered, what is ignored is that she could not have accomplished her objective of carrying those to freedom without the assistance of whites who like her believed that “God don’t mean people to own people.”

However, when slavery ended, the good white folks, content that the objective had been accomplished, stepped away, leaving the newly freed slaves to fend for themselves and to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”  Feeling that the mission was accomplished, the good white people became silent to the lynching and screams of the new free blacks as they endured domestic terrorism from Klansmen dressed in white hoods and forced segregation via black codes and state and federal laws.

It is the same as in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. As Martin Luther King stated:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Many whites stood up to walk with him and others and in doing so, were jailed, beaten and killed as well.  When federal civil rights laws, equal rights in housing and employment laws were passed, the “good” white people stepped away once again, feeling that the objective had been accomplished away to allowed the newly franchised people to, once again, “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

However, when drugs, crime, unemployment, educational failure and high incarceration ravaged the communities of color, the good white people once again became silent. Today, the majority of the good white people remain silent.

 

What is Privilege?

It is an unearned right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular group.

In the situation shared by the “good” white people during the slavery era and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, privilege was the ability to remain silent, be content, and simply walk away while others, the only difference being color of skin, continued to suffer.

 

The Crevasse of Fragility: White Privilege.

It is difficult for white people to talk about race.

“That which is fragile must be protected and defended regardless of the traumatic impact upon others.” – Dr. Micheal Kane

A crevasse refers to a deep hole within the earth. One can say that a crevasse exists in the relationships between whites and people of color. One characteristic of this deep hole is the weight of “privilege” being held by whites and how the privilege impacts these relationships.

When a person of color enters a room full of whites, that person is immediately scrutinized, held in suspicion, or seen as a curiosity.  Whites do not do the same to each other because, they are not raised to see other whites in terms of their race. White is the normal; all others merit curiosity at best, suspicion at worst.

Without recognizing they hold the privilege of whiteness, they have created the “innocence of spacing.”   This innocence creates the ability of white people to walk among people of color without recognizing general spaces as “white spaces”. It may be via this innocence that white people engage in actions and behaviors that are not intended to be racist and yet, are traumatically impactful to the person of color.

Let’s explore the following three examples, using these descriptive terms: (WP) white person and (POC) person of color, and (TI) looking at the possible traumatic impact.

 

Example #1: Get Out of My House 

POC and WP have a close friendship for many years.  While enjoying an activity at WP house, they get into a verbal tiff, the first over their many years of friendship. However, to POC’s surprise, WP orders POC to leave his residence.  POC pleads with WP about this action, but WP stands his ground.  POC leaves.  Several weeks later, WP invites POC to return to his home.

  • Question: Was WP being racist for ordering POC out of his home?

Answer: No.  It was WP’s home.  WP has the right to determine who can be in his home.

Traumatic Impact– POC viewed the ejection as a flashback of past experiences of being rejected from “white premises.”

  • Question: Will POC accept WP’s invitation to return to his residence?

Answer– Being that people of color have a repeated history of being rejected by whites, the POC assumed that, a history of friendship, that WP’s residence was a “safe place” and as a result of being ejected, that assumption was shaken.

Traumatic Impact -POC may now have conflicts, perhaps not about the friendship but about putting themselves at risk of being further traumatized by being ejected from the house again.

 

Example #2: The Status of being a N.O.T. (Novelty, Oddity and Token)

 POC is invited to a formal luncheon in a prestigious forum in which POC is the only non-white person in attendance. Following the event, as the guests are leaving, WP sitting next to him turns to POC and with a warm friendly smile, and says, “Thank you for coming, you represented well.”  POC is stunned, accepts the “compliment,” and smiles graciously while receiving another invitation for another formal engagement.

  • Question: Was WP’s compliment racist?

Answer: Yes. WP did not turn to the other five table guests and thank them for coming.  Nor did he tell the five white guests that they “represented well.”

Traumatic Impact: POC may be responding to the trauma of invisibility.  This occurs when one’s talents and abilities are not recognized.  He realized that he was being stereotyped as extraordinary and as “one of the good ones.”

  • Question: Will POC attend the formal engagement to which he was so “graciously” invited?

Answer: No.  Having been stunned by the truth as to his value as a N.O.T., the POC could find himself suddenly “unavailable” to attend the engagement.

Traumatic Impact: POC realizes that being observed and scrutinized and being “on show” is emotionally draining and psychologically overwhelming.

 

Example #3: The Anger Man

POC is engaging in a dialogue via email with WP with the intention of going on a date to further explore the relationship.  In the dialogue, the POC’s communications style is direct and the POC refers to something that WP said that was racially insensitive as being hurtful and triggered past experiences of racial trauma.  WP responds with an apology for “insulting” POC. Several days later WP emails POC stating the date is canceled due to the email encounter being intense and angry.

  • Question: Was WP being offensive to POC by assuming that POC was insulted by the racially insensitive remark?

Answer: No.  POC stated he was triggered and hurt.  He never indicated he was insulted. The POC sought to provide understanding so WP could be aware. The POC knew that hurting or triggering them was not the WP intent.

Traumatic Impact: POC was triggered by words and in seeking to advocate for himself is once again being viewed as the angry black man.  Communication on both sides will terminate due to the fear of perception and labeling.

  • Question: Is there a right or wrong in this situation?

Answer: No, it is the fear of being misperceived and mislabeled.  The reality is both parties are being misunderstood.

Traumatic Impact: Unfortunate, because of fear on both sides, what could had been, will never be.

 

Common Themes in the Examples 

  • There was no intention of WP to create traumatic impact.
  • The actions of WP triggered memories of unresolved trauma within POC.
  • POC may respond in a manner that is psychologically restrictive.

 

Possible Lessons Beneficial for White People 

  • Focus on the impact of the actions rather than your own intentions.
  • Direct and open communication between WP can be viewed as advocacy and assertiveness, not something negative. Allow and expect the same between POC and WP.
  • Novelties, oddities and tokens are to be observed in zoos, not at the dining table.

 

Concluding Remarks: Transforming White Fragility to Empowerment

The examples reflect microaggressions that happen daily to people of color.  Microaggressions are brief, common, and daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities. Whether intentional or unintentional, they communicate hostile, derogatory, negative or prejudicial slights and insults towards any group, particularly culturally, racially or ethnically marginalized people.

I recall a comment made to me by a well-respected white male professor 35 years ago who questioned a high grade I’d received on scholarly paper I had written.  He asked, “There is a rumor going around among the faculty that the female students are writing your research papers in exchange for sex.  Is it true?”

I was dumbfounded.  I was expecting praise and accolades for excellence and instead I was being insulted and questioned, as the only black male in the class, if I was sexually gratifying my fellow white female graduate students.

I bled that day; the traumatic wound was raw during my two years of graduate study.  Did this highly respected scholar intend to wound me?  No, but I was wounded, nonetheless. To me, by stating that there was a rumor going around the faculty about me, he caused me to question what exactly the faculty thought about me.

If questioned today, I am sure that faculty member and others who may have shared his opinions would deny their racism or the intent to harm.  However, the comment was racist and more importantly, regardless of the intention, the outcome and impact of the comment on me was never considered.

Harriet Tubman, in achieving her freedom standing at the line separating the slave state from the free state, remarked:

“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.”

I feel Harriet Tubman’s words stirring in my blood and spirit.  Harriet Tubman, the Black Moses of the enslaved, led the terrorized, traumatized and inhumanly mistreated to the “Promise Land” of freedom.  Amen!

However, she could not have accomplished her objectives without the help of white people and freed blacks that supported her cause.  I too have benefited from relationships with well-meaning and caring white people. The depth of my gratitude is countless, ranging from:

  • The female cafeteria worker who quietly fed free lunches to me, a scrawny colored kid in an all-white school, risking her employment.
  • The teacher’s aide who understood the importance of education and assisted me in obtaining my general education diploma before being discharged from the military.
  • The Associate Dean of the School of Social Work, Dr. Ted Teather, who patiently tolerated my immature student militancy and,
  • A fellow student, colleague and good friend who stood by me following the death of my beloved spouse

All of these individuals contributed to my success and life’s journey without asking for anything in return.

Although privilege is an unmerited right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular group, it comes as a responsibility that becomes a burden when the weight is balanced.

No longer can the privileged hide behind:

  • I pulled myself up by hard work
  • I did it on my own! No one ever gave me a damn thing
  • I sweated and earned my piece of the rock!
  • My ancestors didn’t own slaves!

 

What can White People do about White Privilege?

When instances of white privilege are clearly apparent, the ABC’s of Empowerment can bring relief to the physical, psychological and emotional self.

  • Advocacy-Speak to yourself, acknowledge your white privilege.
  • Balance-Psychologically step away and embrace your white privilege while weighing what you are thinking and feeling.
  • Calmness-While holding your psychological space, allow yourself to be centered and reflecting on ways to assist in the empowerment of others who do not hold the privilege.

“Just try new things. Don’t be afraid. Step out of your comfort zones and soar.”

-Michelle Obama

To those who choose to respond to white privilege and white fragility I say, it’s okay to be afraid.  Rather than be in fear, walk your landscape and in doing so, walk with your fear instead of living in it.

 

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Yesterday has passed, today is fading and the future has not been written.

Stay in the moment.

Experience the fullness of what life offers

today, letting go of today as you prepare for tomorrow.

-Dr. Micheal Kane

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You only are free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.

-Maya Angelou

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Standing Alone…. The Unspoken Truth

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