Protests are emerging all across the country in response to the chronic injustice that has impacted black members of our society that has largely gone by without any meaningful acknowledgement and change. The American rebellion that is emerging is an ongoing effort to awaken American society to the continued injustice faced within the black community by systemic racism.
And so the response by some white citizens usually starts with something like: “I agree that the death is sad but why do they (black Americans) got to be so angry?”
Commonly in these contexts, white people will make no mention to the reason why there is a rebellion to begin with but instead clench their jaws at the sight of groups of people protesting in the street.
This reflexive reaction has many component parts that we need to unpack. Hidden within these responses is the white socialization that contributes to the larger social ills for which these protests are attempting to illuminate and dismantle.
We all need to recognize with absolute clarity that there is an invisible defense system by which white folks may use to respond to people of color’s suffering at the hands of white supremacy. It’s aim is to help the white person return to a state of comfort.
The defense system is a social-psychological protective belt that prohibits the acknowledgment that racism is central to the present suffering and pain as well as undermines the productive movement toward racial justice and equity. It’s the comfort blanket that is clutched at the very insinuation, for example, that racism is at the heart of George Floyd’s death as well as others.
The first levee in the white defense system is denial and repression — pushing out the pain of black citizens and to return to a more comfortable state of being. In order to do this effectively, a person has to employ any number of rationalizations to return to the comfort of the status quo including:
- denying the pain is tied to racism
- claiming that these particular cops were a case of bad apples
- the system is fair so George Floyd must have done something to deserve the outcome
When this defensive structure is employed, white people gain comfort by ignoring the pain and suffering of communities of color, get to ignore systemic racism, and go about their lives ignoring the glaring pattern of injustice. This perpetuates what activist and scholar john a. powell describes as “the myth of white innocence.”
The second levee to the white defense system is suppression — to try and control the available responses to racial injustice by people of color. Here there is at least a glimmer of recognition of harm but the protective belt is employed to police the reaction to injustice.
But here’s the catch: black members of our society are being policed in all spheres of their lives including how they react to chronic injustices. And this is the way its been for over 400 years.
Each time a white person responds to protests stating that they don’t agree with the method, they are effectively communicating that they want things to stay in an orderly and controlled atmosphere — which is exactly how George Floyd died — in an orderly and highly controlled manner.
Activist Kazu Haga, in his book Healing Resistance, states that there is often confusion between what we call non-violence versus nonviolence. Non-violence is effectively disengagement. It is the bystander who sees the harm but has no intent to get involved. And this produces a kind of peace that is often described as negative peace — a peace achieved through complacency and passivity. It is noteworthy that this form of peace is only afforded to those who have the privilege to not be bothered.
This is exactly opposite of Dr. Martin Luther King’s strategy of nonviolence, which is about action and engagement. It is about facing oppression and injustice head on.
Engagement is exactly why this suppression is mobilized. This particular part of the defense system is explicitly designed to manage the prospect of responsibility and accountability on the part of white citizens. It means that white people can return to the comfort of their status quo because they acknowledged ‘it was an awful thing to have happened’ but not have to do anything about it. In other words, they have successfully achieved negative peace and reinhabited a space of comfort.
Perhaps the most insidious quality of this defensive structure is that it attempts to silence adaptive and productive anger and outrage in black Americans. It communicates loudly, ‘There is no space for your anger.’ Or it gaslights the black community by insinuating that their reactions are over-reactions.
Because white socialization emphasizes the need to fear the power of black anger.
We have to step back for a moment and understand the nature of anger and why it comes about in our lives. Anger is a normal and natural human emotion. So far as a person has a fully intact limbic system, we have the capacity to feel anger. And for good reason.
Anger can be an adaptive emotion that is provoked when our boundaries are violated and our needs blocked or frustrated. In these contexts, anger arouses an outwardly energetic engagement with others that is centered on communicating our boundaries and our needs. Thus, anger is a crucial social emotion that helps communicate important messages to each other. Can anger by problematic? Absolutely. But, as we see in the case of non-violence, it can also be problematic to not adaptively activate into anger when being the target of abuse.
With this context in mind, then, how is it even remotely possible to look out at the current situation and not think that black citizens expressing anger is at least one of several reasonable and adaptive emotional responses to the situation?
Anger is being expressed to communicate hurt, impatience, unrest, loss, grief, invalidation, and thwarted needs.
The question to white Americans is simple, “Do we have the courage to listen and receive?”
It takes courage to dismantle the white defense system and to receive pain, suffering, loss, grief, outrage, and anger productively. Yet, this is at the very heart of transformation both individually and socially.
To accept and make contact with a force that unravels the status quo is a powerful experience to behold. But nature tells us this comes with gifts.
Sometimes the fields have to burn to provoke new growth.
It is through this metaphor of tending to fields that we can find a space of true nonviolence — the willingness and courage to face this moment in all of its difficulties. To face this moment without the need to suppress or repress makes you more available for others. It communicates that you are receptive to those who are in pain.
Most importantly, when white folk are able to open our heart to the present circumstances we also communicate that we are okay with not being in absolute control over what is happening.
This gets me to the last defensive structure: white-centric engagement. Many white Americans want to join in the protests or other forms of advocacy but can do so in such a way that their actions have direct and negative consequences for black Americans. What contributes to this problem most of the time is how white protesters center the rebellion on them. This is crowding into the space and silencing black voices.
There is a tactical strategy within white supremacist groups to distract the public’s eye away from the protests with visages of societal collapse. We are seeing right now strong evidence that the escalation of violence is often provoked from extremist groups infiltrating the protest. So it’s important to see that there are many groups who want no more than to capitalize on this moment for their own destructive goals.
But it is not only white supremacists that are consuming space within the protests. When white protesters are the prominent agitators of violence and destruction there is a vicious irony that cannot be overlooked. White protesters behaving in this way are acting from a space of entitlement and privilege that they know do not bare the same consequences as it does for the black community.
White folks need to be involved in the process of societal transformation — in fact it is our responsibility to engage. But white citizens need to be very mindful of how we engage so that it does not center on what white people feel and need.
Repression, suppression, and white-centric engagement all effectively do the same thing: they create distance and separation from the needs of black citizens. It de-centers the experience of those who have been the targets of injustice.
White citizens need to to be open and responsive to the suffering of black citizens— to be able to validate their pain and their anger while being engaged and responsive to the changes that need to happen. The conversation needs to center on the experience of black lives in America. We achieve nonviolence only when we, White folk, face this directly without the need to distract away, control, or center the conversation on us.