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Race in America

I recently watched a program on a daytime talk show, Dr. Phil, called “Deconstructing Privilege,” an emotionally loaded though very important topic regarding race in America. On it, he had a panel of distinguished guests and included audience members. There was a white professor from Wellsley who coined the term “white privilege,” a black professor of sociology from Georgetown, a black civil rights attorney, a white police officer, and a Latina professor of law.

Phil had a young man perform an exercise where college students were given a set of 35 questions, and were instructed to either step forward or backward on the stage, depending on whether or not they had experienced first-hand racism.

The show was quite fascinating, and a critical subject for nationwide dialogue. Questions ranged from whether one was ever stopped by police, either on foot or by car for no apparent reason, were followed upon entering a retail store, or surprised a white person by being well-spoken and articulate, etc.

I can say with absolute certainty that many of these aggressions are outside of my everyday experience, as a Caucasian woman. I often pay close attention and observe scenes when I am in public, bearing witness to how people of color are treated.

There was a white woman whose job was to make sure street vendors had or applied for a license to sell their wares. Some bystander accused her of racism and posted what she was doing on a social media site. That woman lost her job. She was there with her attorney. No one on the panel seemed to empathize with her, so Dr. Phil commented on it. The sociology professor then pointed out that this was typical: a white person defending another white person.

At one point, there were two audience members who were both Caucasian, and who stated that they did not believe they were recipients of “white privilege,” that they had both worked hard to achieve the life they had.

One or two of the black panelists, in responding to these two audience members, appeared very heated. One of the panelists called the audience member defensive. But she behaved defensively as well. She raised her voice and stressed, “LISTEN!” Yet she wasn’t listening to them.

I find the phrase “white privilege” offensive. I literally bristle when I hear it. The term makes enormous assumptions about white people. If the goal is to get Caucasian people to understand the obstacles and experiences of people of color, it does not help to use an expression that makes them feel blamed or guilty. This will only shut people down.

Additionally, it doesn’t seem a good idea to me to compare whose group has suffered the worst atrocity. For blacks it’s slavery, for Jews, it’s the Holocaust, for Irish, it’s the Famine. Many whites struggle with poverty and class discrimination.

It is thorny to start a dialogue when one group claims their victimhood is more damaging than another’s. However, I think it is extremely important to listen to each other. And I think it is equally important that people need to be able to disagree without being shouted down.

I will never know what it is like to be a black man or woman in America. And we’ve seen case after case on the news of white people calling the police, such as when a black man went into Starbuck’s waiting for his friends and the manager made him leave. This is outrageous. It happens far too often. As a deeply caring individual, I want to know what that feels like. But I don’t want my own experience of being female and invisible as a 67-year-old to be dismissed.

We all want to be listened to, and deeply understood. And it behooves all of us to listen.

On the current political atmosphere

As a therapist, I am both curious and disturbed by national politics, as well as how it has impacted my psychotherapy practice. The past two years have had clients reeling from all the high drama coming from the White House. I include myself in that group.

This blog is not meant to persuade or criticize those on the right or left. Nor is it meant to judge. This is to be a place where there is no vitriol, no attacks.

Ever since the 2016 election, many of my clients have been deeply troubled by the political ethos. In fact, the day after the election, my office felt like a morgue. People were left shocked, scared, and rendered helpless, similar to how a person feels after a traumatic incident, where the memory feels frozen in time.

Nowhere is this truer than for the Me Too Movement. After the Kavanaugh hearings in the Senate, many women were again activated. Seeing Christine Blasey Ford appear in front of the judiciary committee, with a look of what I would describe as terror, and based on the committee’s actions not believed, brought into sharp focus what women live with all the time. She came forward because she believed she had to, and the Senate voted that they believed she had been assaulted, but not by Kavanaugh. In fact, Susan Collins remarked that she KNEW it wasn’t Kavanaugh who assaulted her. That astounded me.

A client recently asserted that we as women have been rendered powerless. I don’t believe that. What I see is male bastions being challenged, and in their effort to do so, clamping down on a movement that simply will not be thwarted. In fact, I see many of these folks as quite weak and scared beneath the loud bravado. They feel deeply threatened. But there will be no going back.

But how do we take care of ourselves? I admit that I get caught up reading and listening to the press, and then being anxious and upset. I have had friends and colleagues suggest taking a break from the news. I think we need to find ways to take special care of ourselves. This can include massages, time with good friends, meditation, and exercise. It can also include becoming an active citizen.

We are living in a psychological state of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is defined as the mental discomfort experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a belief of a person clashes with new evidence perceived by that person. For example, Ms. Blasey Ford’s testimony was believed by the Republican members of the judiciary committee, yet they chose to forward Kavanaugh’s nomination anyway.

This is a time when truth is not held by the culture as a high value. And it is deeply troubling. There aren’t “alternative facts.” But what people choose to believe seems to hold sway over what really ARE facts. How it is that Trump concluded that Kavanaugh was rendered innocent is baffling. Nothing was proven; no effort was made to get at the truth. Not based on what he or she said, but on a thorough investigation.

I can understand why Republicans were angry that the Democrats wanted a public forum for Christine Blasey Ford, as opposed to a private meeting. I can also understand why the Democrats wanted this to be a public display, feeling rendered powerless when the Republicans refused to hold hearings for Merrick Garland.

What I want to see in our public officials is civil discourse, accountability, and of course, lose the sanctimony.