(Just a heads up, my loves — I’m talking about racism and torture in today’s post, and there’s some graphic language here. Take care of you, ok?)
Good morning, good morning. It’s still raining outside my windows, though not nearly as hard as it did yesterday. I stayed home yesterday, avoiding the traffic and flooding and falling branches — I’d been feeling guilty about taking care of myself that way, thinking that I’d bailed on plans to visit my sister for no good reason (outside my window in downtown Oakland, things didn’t look so bad — some heavy rain, but isn’t that what’s supposed to happen in Northern California in the winter?), but then I saw photos of a car in standing water up to its roof on Ashby Ave in Berkeley, and I heard that downtown San Francisco had lost power, and I heard about the traffic accidents and snarls all up and down I-880, and I figured, well, maybe it wasn’t a terrible thing that I stayed inside.
Funny how, even after all these years, I second-guess myself after making a decision on behalf of my own well-being when I think someone else might be upset or disappointed by my choice. I have to find evidence to bolster up that decision: just saying, Wow, it looks like it’s going to be really bad out there, I think I’d rather stay home, isn’t enough for that voice inside always telling me that I’m selfish and thoughtless. This struggle around trusting myself is a part of my trauma legacy, part of this aftermath I live in, part of this ongoing work of recovery.
(Not really funny, after all. Just sad. A little more work to do.)
I have been grieving a lot recently, as so many of us are, and thinking about the legacies of trauma and loss. Last night I watched the Australian movie Rabbit-Proof Fence, the story of a fourteen-year-old Aboriginal girl and her two sisters who are stolen from their family and tribe, driven (in a cage) 1200 miles away to a mission run by white settlers, and who subsequently run away and begin to walk the 1200 miles to get back home. If you haven’t watched the movie, I encourage you to do so. I hadn’t seen it since I was living in Maine, when my ex and I rented it and watched it in our little log cabin out in the woods, and I wept and wept and wept. Same thing happened last night as the credits rolled.
I cry partly because this is a story about sisters in trouble, sisters who have to trust each other, sisters who get separated. These are the same tears that rise in me when I watch The Color Purple or (re)read Danzy Senna’s book Caucasia. I think about all the ways my sister and I were able to save, or at least help, each other, and all the very many ways that we couldn’t help each other, how we had to suffer and survive alone, and how difficult that has made our relationship in the aftermath, and how stupid and terrible it is that we had to go through all of that horror in the first place.
But some of those tears last night were tears of grief and shame and sorrow that the people I am from could (and continue) to perpetrate crimes like this on the lives and bodies and families and lands of other peoples.
These days, in America, we are talking about the crimes that majority white police officers commit against and in communities of color. And, now, threaded into this conversation, we have a conversation about the uses of torture. About when and where torture is acceptable. About what forms of torture is acceptable.
This is the kind of cultural conversation we are capable of having in this country: is it ok to kill an unarmed 18-year-old boy for stealing some cigars from a convenience store? is it ok to kill a man for selling cigarettes on a street corner? Is it ok to waterboard someone in order to force them to reveal information they might be holding? What about throwing them against a wall? Or keeping them awake for 7 days, with their hands chained over their heads?
We are able — even expected — to be able to discuss these things calmly, rationally. What kind of dehumanization is required, what kind of profound disconnect from our empathy and human feeling, is required to not be filled with rage and sorrow upon hearing any of these news stories? How armored do we have to be to debate something like the value of torture?
With the addition of this language of “torture report,” I find listening to the news too triggering these days. I shut off the radio. I know about torture. I know about sleep deprivation. I know about brainwashing and terror — my stepfather claimed to have learned the techniques he used from the CIA.
(I just can’t understand how newscasters all over America aren’t breaking into tears every time they sit down to do their jobs. Why aren’t our newscasts filled with sobs, smeared mascara, red-rimmed eyes? How do they keep from wailing in grief and disappointment and horror?)
What’s got me caught this morning is the grief that these are the people I come from: I mean, from white people, white “culture,” white ancestry. I come from people who homesteaded in the midwest (which means they got stolen land and claimed it as their own), from people who kept other people as property, from people who have developed, over thousands of years, the ability to so profoundly dehumanize other humans that they can treat them like animals (as though even animals were worth treating the way my people have treated other humans).
This horror is a part of my legacy, a part of what’s at my back. As white folks — especially liberal white folks — we like to distance ourselves from what has come before, and from people who actively act out in racist ways. We say, Oh, but I’m not like them! I’m not that kind of white person. I have taken comfort in that way of thinking myself. I’ve thought, Well, yes, white folks enslaved folks from Africa, but I didn’t do that. My mom and dad, they didn’t do that. It’s not our fault.
What do I want to say about this today? Mostly that I am filled with sorrow and grief at having ancestors who did these things, at coming from a people able to develop institutions that have wrought devastation across the world, like the Catholic Church, the Mormon church, the Atlantic slave trade, the Anglican church — that I come from a people who believed that the highest aim of a person’s life ought to be to distance themselves as much as possible from their human body, and yet could treat women’s and children’s bodies, the bodies of folks who looked different from them, as things without value.
I am from the people who could even conceive of, not to mention design and implement, the American Indian Boarding Schools, the Magdalene Laundries, the Salem witch trials, from men with the capacity to perform the cognitively-dissonant gymnastics necessary in order to declare “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” while also owning other human beings as slaves.
Here is where folks often like to jump up and remind a speaker that there were Africans who kept slaves, participated in and profited from the slave trade. Yes, there are folks from other cultures who have done damage to their own and other communities. I’m not talking about those folks right now. I’m talking about the folks I’m from. My people.
We talk about the the intergenerational legacy of trauma. We talk about post-traumatic slave syndrome. I come from the rapists and slave owners, from sociopaths and torturers. In order to undo racism (starting with my own), I have to reckon with that. How do I hold this truth? How do I move with it?
Victor, a participant in a conversation among men of all races captured on film for the extraordinary and powerful movie The Color of Fear by Lee Mun Wah, at one point reminds the (white) man he’s talking to that in order to become white, folks have to shed their ethnicities — we have to walk away from that which makes us Irish or Hungarian or Italian or Norwegian or French or even English if we want to be white. We have to forget our ancestry. There is no white culture, because there is no such thing as a “white” race (as so many have said so often before me) — instead, we who choose or sublimate ourselves to whiteness have to capitulate to the demand that we not be of a particular ethnic culture. We have to forgo our people’s foods, clothes, ways of speaking, ways of caring for each other, ways of tending the land (and then, of course, feeling that terrible void in the absence of the who and what and where we are from, we steal the culture of others in an attempt to fill ourselves back up again).
And, too, we demand that those we force to submit to our control to give up their culture as well (the Africans and Indigenous peoples forced to relinquish their languages, food, religions).
Some of the work we did in unlearning racism trainings I participated in back in the day invited white folks to acknowledge and name their ethnic ancestries, and share something of that culture with the room: a song, a dance, a recipe, a story. What of ourselves and our humanities have we relinquished in order to call ourselves white?
I don’t have answers today. Today I am grateful for the rain. I am grateful for the capacity to recognize and feel grief, to mourn what has been done in my name, what terror white supremacy has wrought all over the planet. I remember change happens one person, one connection, one generation at a time. I remember that it is my job as a white-skinned person to continue to speak out, recognize and name privileges I am given, to stand back and listen and share and honor the voices in communities of color sharing their reality and sorrow and truth.
And I remember that the child of a rapist is not doomed to become a rapist. We can make different choices from those of our ancestors. We can hold what is true about the path while going about the difficult and necessary work of creating a wholly new future.