Right now there’s a narrative sweeping the activist psyche: white people as a segment of society are oppressive and if we are not directly abusive or oppressive ourselves, our ignorance and silence means we are enablers of abuse and oppression.
As a white woman and a mother, I along with many others, have resisted such a narrative. Not only because to be defined as abusive and oppressive in our society–unless you are at the very highest echelons of society and privilege–means you are an object of disgust destined for a loveless path to hell, but also because it was either not our intention or we felt that we had no other choice. We need love to survive and it’s difficult to assume responsibility for something where the choice felt ‘forced’ and unwelcome, or which was as my small son says, ‘on accident’.
The Difference Between Harm and Abuse is Power
Most of us conflate ‘being abusive or oppressive’ with ‘consciously and intentionally inflicting harm’. That–most of us can reassure ourselves–we are not doing. However this is only one type of abusive and/or oppressive behaviour. You can harm both intentionally and unintentionally, both consciously and unconsciously. At a personal level you may be in a relationship where you unintentionally hurt one another because you have different (non-oppressive) value systems or different trauma triggers, but objectively speaking it may not be an abusive one (although it may be an unhealthy one). But that same unintentional behaviour can also be abusive. How so?
It is the balance of power which determines whether an action crosses the line from hurtful to abusive. When the power dynamic is out of balance and the person with the power inflicts harm on the person with less–even when it is unconscious–it reinforces their position of power and becomes abusive.
For example, my mother had an abusive upbringing, and paid it forward unconsciously (because she was not aware of what constituted abuse) but often intentionally under the beliefs which were instilled in her. As the parent and the adult, she held the power legally, financially, structurally and emotionally. As a child, I had very little power and she often used hers to overwrite my reality. She disempowered me. Those who saw it and did nothing had no bad intentions but still served to validate her actions. In this way abuse can be seen to be both active and passive where one reinforces the other.
Many recognise the need for great responsibility in situations of great power. For those people like the 45th president who have been conferred with great power but remain willfully ignorant as to what responsibility is or what it entails, abuse of power is a horrific but tragically inevitable consequence. When that power is enshrined into the laws and systems of our countries to benefit some folk above others, the system is abusive and oppressive, whilst the folk who benefit are by default on the side of the oppressors unless they speak out. Inaction is action.
When White Folks Avoid Responsibility
Seen from this perspective, it is obvious that if white people–who are the ones with more systemic power in our society–are silent in situations of injustice, they are complicit in oppression, whatever the reason for their silence. But a simple deconstruction of large and complex problems often hinders humanity’s attempts to solve them, because there are many reasons, legitimate reasons for silence and inaction which we can understand even if we cannot condone them. Reasons which we might all choose given the same situation. So I believe that the solutions which might encourage people to speak up are also multi-stranded.
Inequality stems from a multitude of sources, but I believe that our own human insecurity and consequent struggle for power lies at the center of most of them. The simple ‘speak out or be complicit in oppression’ truism does nothing to resolve this because it supplies no other remedy to assuage that insecurity. In this life, we are provided with few tools to overcome our insecurity, and many, many more mechanisms which reinforce it. In a litigious society we are taught that others are to blame for our problems and the law supports us in doing so. A patriarchal society schools both men and women to avoid responsibility and disguise our insecurity by any means possible. Men are taught that insecurity is a weakness and this teaching facilitates and encourages denial. The same structure encourages women to absolve their responsibility–and depend on a man–which only disempowers them.
As with any discipline instilled and embedded relentlessly and incessantly, our minds bend towards what seems to be the best survival solution. Avoid the stick and achieve the carrot. Avoid the perceived pain of responsibility and blame others for our own shortcomings. It is an uncomfortable truth because white folk individually may not have done anything to create the oppressive system, yet they are the ones who benefit from it. They are the ones who can remain in comfortable ignorance. If we believe we are not actively responsible, it is all too easy to throw up our hands and say we are blameless.
Those who have worked in business might recognise this psychological phenomenon as classic groupthink where the desire for harmony and conformity prevents critical evaluation and provides fertile ground for dehumanising actions from the ‘ingroup’ towards the ‘outgroup’. The dangers of groupthink have been widely documented and the evidence for it as a tool used to perpetuate white supremacy is overwhelming.
Radical Self Love and Self Responsibility
I live in Berlin. Every day I cross what was once known as the death strip, that portion of land between the inner and outer wall which used to divide the capital. I consider myself lucky to remind myself daily as I cross this strip, of how one man’s pathological insecurity and powerful rhetoric tapped into his nation’s deeply felt need to make their country great again. He presented a simple solution which blamed a certain minorities for Germany’s problems and paved the way for the rise of the Nazi party. Tapping into our human desire for simple solutions which negated people’s own responsibility was genius. The way to make the country great again said Hitler, was by eliminating large swathes of ‘faulty’ people who were to blame. In a desperate attempt to protect themselves against the ‘faulty’ label, many ran away, others tried to fit in, some hid. Only a few spoke out or fought and most of those who did were deprived of their livelihood, directly or indirectly. Given the consequence of speaking out, I understand why many stayed silent. Freezing, or inaction is one of our basic survival mechanisms. But as understandable as those choices might be, it was complicity then and it is complicity now.
Then there are more personal reasons. Through extensive gaslighting, as a consequence of being a white woman violently moulded to fit a predefined box and an adoptee with deep rooted fears of abandonment, I am often silent in conversation. In confrontational situations I become triggered and mute (known as selective mutism). Luckily for me, I am able to express my voice in another form. I am silent in speech, but loud in writing. Many more like me do not have that ability. Nothing in my upbringing or theirs allowed for a discussion about power dynamics, nor for an incremental mastery of responsibility for my power–what little I had at least. At seventeen and on my own, I was told that I was responsible for my life without any idea of what that meant and unsurprisingly I became involved in several consecutive, abusive relationships.
How can we overcome this problem then, when speaking out against the all powerful institutions so often risks our survival whilst other conditioned responses have literally been embedded in our neural pathways?
My own sense of power and responsibility has been slowly and painfully self-taught as an adult. It has come as a mixture of self-compassion and consciousness. Without compassion for myself for my misuse of power and lack of responsibility, for the mistakes I made in my younger years and still now, I would have remained in insecure denial and would never have been able to become conscious.
It needs to be our job, white people to cultivate the path to truth for each other but lace it with compassion–or as this magazine The Body Is Not An Apology describes it, radical self-love. To my mind this is not coddling, it is simply accepting the way the human mind works. We all need love if we are to survive.
It is with compassion therefore that I am reaching out to you, as one white person to another. The people with the most power, us, can choose to speak out in response to injustice. We can take responsibility for our choice of actions. We can educate ourselves enough so that we feel true outrage at the oppression that surrounds us and that by staying silent we enable, or we can choose to remain in ignorance, laugh it off and dismiss it. But in doing so we have chosen to align with the oppressors. We have chosen to be passive abusers.
I cannot believe that what we want in our hearts is to enable abuse. I believe that you like me would prefer consciousness over ignorance. Justice and equality over oppression and abuse. Our awareness increases through education and our ability to speak out is fostered by supporting one another in compassionate consciousness. It is how I changed and I believe it to be possible for many more.
Finding like-minded people is how we can make those first steps to find the courage and motivation to act in the face of oppression. It is how we can show others by example, to do likewise.
Compassionate consciousness, pass it on. Encourage honesty and constructive criticism. Call out your friends and your neighbours whilst you still can. Because there is no doubt that if you remain silent, our history is on the verge of repeating itself.