I’ll lead with this – I’m a white, English-speaking, Christian, straight, middle-aged, middle-class, professional, average height, average weight male with no visible disabilities. I’m about as privileged as they come. I’m in a second marriage (the first one ended decades ago and I often think of it as a “starter kit” marriage – met at 17, married at 21,divorced by 26…I was still a child! But, no trauma, no abuse, it just didn’t work out) with a fantastic spouse and stepson. I grew up in a loving home, not a hint of abuse. Strong male and female role models were available through my childhood. I’d have to reach to find any way in which I have been disadvantaged. Okay, I can, on occasion, speak really fast and my Maritime accent leaks out, making it difficult for people to understand what I am saying. Not so much a speech impediment, but rather a regional dialect that is difficult to discern among those “from away (i.e. those not from the Maritimes)!
And do I believe that I have been afforded certain and considerable “passes” because of my appearance, sexual orientation, language, professional identity, etc.? Of course I do – one would have to be rather ignorant of reality to believe that someone with my background is not in a position of privilege.
I still had to work hard, no question. But not once did I feel in any way that the work I had to do had to be complicated by how others perceived me due to my skin color, sexual orientation, or religion.
My first real awareness of the history of racism in the States (and to be sure, I became aware of the Canadian challenges with racism, specifically around those of a First Nations background, but that awareness came much later) was, like many of my generation, watching the miniseries Roots, based on Alex Hailey’s lengthy novel of the same name. It was hard to see this only somewhat fictionalized perspective as being in any way reality – after all, the abhorrent behaviour on display was not consistent with anything in my young experience. Later, I read the book. I learned more about the treatment of the First Nations people’s experiences in the residential schools. Having also learned about the atrocities in Nazi Germany and other countries in Europe, I could not help but feel encroaching personal guilt and shame. The common factor, it seemed, was the fact that it was men who looked like me, with similar backgrounds to my own, were the ones initiating and committing the horrific actions I was reading about. How could I, as a distant descendent of people like these, not help but feel partially responsible, even though I did nothing myself? Or…had I done something?
To the best of my knowledge, my family, on both sides, were largely farming and ship-building people. No history of slavery or menacing First Nation populations. But – have I, and many like me – benefited economically from our collective history of building a nation on the backs of others? Probably…there is no clear line, but I will say that I have benefitted from opportunities made available to me perhaps more readily than to those who do not share my pigmentation, my sexual orientation, my status as a person with no visible disabilities, and so on.
So, what’s the psychological angle here? This is, after all, a psychology blog…where’s the strategy or insight into what to do? And what’s the issue? Am I just sharing my guilt for the sake of shaking out the dust of my own shame?
It’s this: the psychological analogy is that as a person in a position of power (broadly, as a white middle class male) or specifically (as a psychologist – and yes, there is a power dynamic in psychologist-client relationships – the famed psychotherapist Irvin Yalom, among many others, discusses this power differential extensively in his work), I have an obligation to work toward reducing the power differential while also being respectful of the culture and society in which we all exist. And sometimes, this work is essentially a series of micro changes – not huge paradigm shifts (although it seems we are witnessing such shifts now in relation both to the #MeToo and #BLM movements).
By way of moving forward, I am dedicated to the following actions, and encourage my clients and others who may read this post to perhaps do their own variations on each of these approaches to change:
- Reflecting on life experience that may be construed as having provided certain advantages that others may not have had – and actively work to reduce these discrepancies.
- Simply listen to some of the experiences of others. I truly value hearing from my clients when they share their stories of challenges that they have worked through that had nothing to do with their psychological profile – for instance, the gay male client who felt frustration that he could not truly share his identity with his family; many other examples exist and I often have nothing to say to these clients outside of actively listening and trying to empathize)
- Learning is something we, as a human collective are designed to do on an ongoing basis. The old dog/ new tricks saying is a lie. We can learn, we should learn and I would argue that it is part of our social and biological contract with our communities and the world around us to engage in active learning. Jane Elliot’s brilliant simulation of racism designed when she was a grade 3 teacher the day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassination, is well-know and ridiculously effective. She simply divided her kids (and, in later variations in workshops, adults) based on an arbitrary physical feature – not skin color, but eye color. She then proceeded to treat the blue-eyed students as being superior to the brown eyed students, who she and the blue-eyed kids treated as being “less than.” If you ever wonder if people can learn about racism, watch one of Elliot’s videos on YouTube. If you ever ask, “I’m only one person, how can I make a difference,” listen to Elliot’s response: “Did I make a difference in how you think? How many people am I?”
- Listening and learning are helpful, but ultimately meaningless without engagement. Do something – anything! Have a discussion with someone who may have different views. Challenge those who may benefit from learning. Do so, however, in a non-judgemental way. A lot of the challenges we are facing as a society right now, particularly in the US following the murder of George Floyd, is based on people and groups challenging one another, but with a genuine desire to listen or learn. Both sides become deeply entrenched (in psychology, we refer to this as a result of the Confirmation Bias – we seek out evidence that proves our perspective to be right and that of others to be wrong; ultimately, it is a self-defeating approach to societal change).
As we observe people becoming entrenched in their territorial mindsets, I’m reminded of a specific comic strip. Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom Country was a favourite of mine, and in one strip, the characters were setting their boundaries. One group yelled at another while placing a line down on the ground in front of the others. “This is OUR country, stay out!” The next panel had the ones in their own country subdivide further “This is MY state!” Another line. “This is MY city!” Another line. This continued until there were two characters left, one of whom drew a line saying, “This is MY room” while the other one said, “You’re in my personal space!” (okay, it translates poorly when not in comic form, but you get the idea!). The more we become entrenched in our own thinking as being right, the less room we have for the collective good.
So maybe we reflect, listen, learn, and engage – not bad ideas across the board, but perhaps particularly relevant now!