Updated: Mar 23, 2021
June 2020 Soul Notes
Anyone who knows me, knows I am terrified of heights. Any height above my own. Clambering up a tree is no longer possible. Walking up steep hills tests me. Standing in front of a plate glass window 30 floors up sends me rocking. This is something I struggle with. I don’t like being scared, stopped in my tracks, by something so simple and yet my body refuses to move when I test myself.
A few years ago I took my daughter up to the Lake District for a week’s adventure holiday with a group of families. We went ghyll scrambling (sliding down the mountain rivers to make your way down); kayaking on the lakes; we built rafts; we walked and I loved it all.
Then one day we signed up to climb the Via Ferrata (the iron way), which is a series of exposed scrambles across the mountainside of Honister Slate Mine linked by metal ladders. I had told myself that if my daughter, who was then 9 years old could do it, then so could I. One by one, the group descended over a steep ledge, down a metal ladder onto the exposed rocks. I moved to go. My legs wouldn’t move. I inched along to the edge. Now nothing would move. So I took a deep breath and sent my daughter over, thinking that, as a responsible mother, I couldn’t possibly let her go without me – believing with my whole heart that that would be the impetus for me to follow. Off she went. Eventually, she was a little red dot in the distance manoevering her way deftly with the ropes and the footholds. Meanwhile, my body froze. Nothing and nobody was getting me onto that mountainside. I was a breathless immovable heap. I admitted defeat and wandered alongside the route, accompanied by a deflated guide who had been hoping for the glorious rush of hanging off the rocks.
I’m reminded of this experience now as I write this piece. I’m having similar sensations in my body. A real wanting to do something, and a real refusal within me to head over the ledge and onto the iron way, which right now, is this territory of being a white woman.
“when you are struggling”, it usually means that you are at odds with yourself.
“when you are struggling”, you are torn between what you believe the world wants from you and who you feel yourself to be.
“when you are struggling”, you are longing for the solid shore of a “known” certainty.
“when you are struggling”, you are human.
A lot of us are struggling right now. As a white person, many of us are struggling with seeing and naming, often for the first time, our whiteness, our privilege, our power, our ignorance, our passivity in a world that has been constructed by us and for us.
The short poem above by nayirrah waheed describes the dilemma I’ve been wrestling with for several weeks. I have struggled to write or speak freely about that in which I am both complicit, and witnessing, in the world right now. I feel the importance of using my voice to speak up for what is right, running right up against the habit of expressing myself “nicely” and sensitively so as not to offend. However, this self censorship takes on a different hue when put into context. As Reni Eddo-Lodge writes in her now bestselling book “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”
“Amid every conversation about Nice White People feeling silenced by conversations about race, there is a sort of ironic and glaring lack of understanding or empathy for those of us who have been visibly marked out as different for our entire lives, and live the consequences. It’s truly a lifetime of self censorship that people of colour have to live. The options are: speak your truth and face the reprisal, or bite your tongue and get ahead in life.”
I’ve been listening to Resmaa Menakem, a black trauma therapist, whose work helps me realise the importance of acknowledging that the colour of our bodies determines the particular form of embodied racialised trauma that we experience. In his interview with Krista Tippett in theOnBeing podcast, he says:
“Bodies of culture are uncomfortable every day. White people have the luxury of not being so. And what I’m saying is that…..this idea of being able to land the race question in a way where white people are comfortable is a fallacy. It’s performance art.”
One of the challenges we have is that we haven't even considered that we live in white bodies until now. However, unless I and we are willing to acknowledge this and to be uncomfortable; unless we are willing to risk offending, then we will struggle to move beyond this concept of “whiteness” that has colonized the world and us for many hundreds of years.
Where Menakem writes of race as an embodied experience (“white body supremacy” rather than white supremacy), novelist Toni Morrison unlocked my understanding even further (as literature often does). She writes of these experiences as hauntings. In her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Beloved, the main character, Sethe, is haunted by her murdered baby girl. It was Sethe who killed her, in order that she would not have to experience the atrocities of the slave life that she herself had suffered. The ultimate act of mothering. She reminds us that the past is not in the past. We know this. We experience it every day in our relationships – repeating patterns, memories of the early relational experiences in the here and now. The same is true of the systemic hauntings. I may not want to believe I am racist but for as long as I live in a white body, the memories and the imprints of our ancestors will live in me. For every black woman who was enslaved, ritually raped and abused by her white slave owner, there was a white woman turning the other cheek. As long as I do not know this, or acknowledge this, or understand how this history shows up in me; in us; or even how I avoid them showing up (for example by NOT writing this; by not heading over the ledge), then we are frozen in a time where none of us are fully free to be ourselves. We will repeat the patterns until they and we are healed. And healing is often a painful process. One we may prefer to avoid as we seek comfort in the familiar instead.
Mindful, compassionate accompanying of ourselves and others in this discovery is much needed. I’m fortunate enough to be a member of The Relational School, a therapeutic community, dedicated to broadening our understanding of the dynamics of the therapeutic relationship, and deeply engaged in the social and political questions that infuse our work, including race. I am so grateful to this community, and to my supervision group, for the collective space to open up difficult conversations, sharing resources, risking offending each other so that we may unlearn together. Melanie Suchet writes in her essay: “Unraveling Whiteness”
"“It is only through surrendering the brittle defensiveness of whiteness that a space for mutual recognition can be created.” The pain breeds resistance: to change, to awareness, to the vulnerability that whiteness so expertly smooths over. "
She asks: “Are we always the unwilling beneficiaries of whiteness or are we more willing than we care to acknowledge?” Suchet is well aware of how much we would like to avoid the reckoning our whiteness both demands and resists. Like any good therapist, she knows the only way out is through: “Bear with me in this struggle. I want to offer you a solution, yet I also know there is none, only a continual process of opening up.””
I know not everyone has such spaces to flounder in. So some work may be needed to find the space; to create the space; to not have a safety harness on before going over the edge, but at least to know you’re in the company of people willing to walk the edge with you. There are so many resources out there that it can be baffling and blinding. I’ve included some of the voices that currently influence and educate me below. I notice I want to gobble them all up and in so doing, I risk not letting any of them land. So, observing the sage advice of my supervisor, I notice the clamour inside of me, the discomfort, the longing to know and I breathe. I choose one thing to listen to, or to read or to watch and I give it real space for me to absorb its impact on an embodied, as well as an intellectual level. And then I begin talking about it with others. Gingerly. Nervously. Whitely. And in the conversation, new understanding and feeling arises. As Menakem reminds us, we can’t think or strategize our way out of this, much as we would like to. We have to feel our way into it.
As usual my daughter is ahead of me. Just as she was clambering fearlessly on the mountainside. She took me to my first protest in my life and I was overcome to stand, and to kneel, beside her and her friends at a BLM protest. I feel hopeful that this generation embodies something that we do not and still there is work to be done. Learning and unlearning. I feel grateful that in this community, there are many good people. Many “nice” people. We want to do the right thing. So let’s get uncomfortable together.