When Things Falling Apart is a Very Good Thing

I am mid-manuscript on what began as a memoir based book, that morphed into part-memoir/part-commentary on the criminalization of mental health, then shifting into a concept book on prison reform and jails as de facto mental hospitals and back to memoir. In my research, I’ve been told everything from “Stay in your lane,” to “Please don’t stop,” for including commentary on race in America, over-policing, mental health impacts of racism and the disproportionate numbers of black and brown bodies behind bars.

At some point I’ll be publishing a book of observations, tales and learnings as a white, lesbian, first generation American and full-time, traveling psychotherapist.

During my travels I met former three-term Mayor and City Council Member for the City of San Marcos, Texas Daniel Guerrero when we were both in Chile. I asked him,

“Do you have faith in the system?”

He responded,
“No, but I faith in the power of the collective.”

The collective. A reminder that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Delving into the publishing world I have learned much. I asked my agent T, an Australian expat living in Germany if there were any agents of color I could work with through my process.

Silence.

T says it’s a “small sample size” and there is “one Spanish gal” but, no, everyone is white and I can’t work with anyone else because I’ve already been assigned to him.

For me, it’s disturbing when everyone is white. It’s like Marin in Northern California. Things do not feel right.

White as in colorless, or the non-yolk part of an egg.

It’s important to note that white people decide who is white. People of European descent were not white. Only in the colonies did we become white, as though Europeans were all one happy gang when, in reality, it was the English v. Irish, Northern Italians v. Southern Italians and the Germans hated everyone.

Whiteness was created to divide and conquer.

The collective gave people power, if they were a part of the white team. Even if they had no resources, at least they had what W. E. B. Du Bois calls, “the psychological wage of whiteness.”

Whiteness is a false narrative.

I am of Ukrainian and Polish descent. As such, I have been largely devoid of fear and xenophobic outrage throughout my global travels. This is an unearned advantage. I have had a full life, complete with engagements with law enforcement and have been behind bars a few times. While I cannot prove that because I am of European descent I am still alive, I believe this in my core.

I have shifted away from using the word privilege to describe these experiences. These are unearned advantages. For example, the advantage that I had when, after stopping short at a red light in the middle of a crosswalk, I backed my vehicle up; right into a police officer’s motorcycle.

He laughed it off and smiled.

I was not shot dead. There are too many examples of ways I would not be here if I didn’t look like what I look like.

Photo credit: Amogh Manjunath @therealamogh

I attended a graduate school in the San Francisco Bay Area billed as one of the most progressive in the country. In my three year curriculum, I had one multicultural class. In that class I heard the word colored used and a violent slur was dropped by a white body.

In my journey to choosing the field of therapy as a course of study, I’ve had many jobs, one of which was costuming actors on Broadway shows. Standing post-show on the NYC streets with leading black men as we parted ways saying goodnight, laughter emerged when I naively asked if they were going to hail a cab.

“You can’t hail a cab as a Black man. No one will pick you up.”

This was before the times of ride sharing.

From starring on stage to walking home in the dark.

In my work as a psychotherapist I sit with my clients as they process the impacts of racism. My training included encouraging clients to find a safe internal space, whether real or imagined, to rest in during times of disregulation. I was taught to invite clients to investigate whether their fears were rational. But when paranoia has more than just a kernal of truth, it can feel unsafe to even breathe; the body and mind constantly in a state of hypervigilance. Black anxiety deserves validation, not shrinking.

“The gravest danger we see is that unscrupulous people may use psychotherapy as a means of social control, to persuade the [Black] patient to be satisfied with [their] lot.” — Grier, Black Rage, xiii

Artists unknown. Photo by A. Psiuk: Valencia, Spain

“You hang around the barber shop long enough you’re going to get a haircut.” — Unknown

While the quote above speaks to what can happen when we are persistent, it also speaks to what can happen when we unconsciously allowing ourselves to be manipulated. We are all subject to the sea of racial inequity America swims in, and it takes conscious effort to not get a racist haircut.

As white folks, we must undo the belief that racism cannot be subtle. And that which is subtle is easily absorbed. It’s akin to carbon monoxide poisoning. The lie is everywhere. It gets in your lungs. That’s how lies works. It’s no longer out there. It’s internalized, hiding in the nooks and crannies.

Please watch Dr. Cheryl Tawede Grills in her TEDx Culver City where she speaks to the “carbon monoxide filled lie of black minority.”

I write from a place of wanting to get healthy and free from what white supremacy has done to me and what I do to hold those structures in place.

There is a cost of racism to white people and that is that we take on beliefs as we are indoctrinated into a system; a system that brings us out of relationship with others. The more I learn, the less I know but I hope what follows may be healing for others whether that’s through new information or ways of looking at what we’ve been told about how the world is. If my facts are wrong, please let me know. Call me in/out.

Bo-Kaap neighborhood: Artist unknown. Cape Town, South Africa

One way to begin to undoctrinate yourself from systems of oppression is by taking the back seat. This means listening more and speaking less.

As a white person, your friends of color might not want to play with you during these times. This may need to be as each group does their own collective work. Sometimes this might mean not being welcomed into Black community, an inevitable result of a group of people traumatizing another. As humans we avoid pain and seek pleasure. As folks of European descent, our ancestral colonizers planted the seeds of trees they did not see.

We are those trees.

Colonization is a part of all our our stories.

The racial status quo is comfortable (for white people) and we will not move forward if we remain comfortable. The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. Take care of yourself however, do watch the impulse to defend, hide, dodge or freeze around this process. Fragility holds racism in place.

There is individual and systemic work to be done. Someone explained individual racism versus systemic racism as the following:

“A person of color may refuse to wait on me if I enter a shop but a person of color cannot pass legislation that prohibits me and everyone like me from buying a home in a certain neighborhood.” — R.D.A.

If we change the current paradigm to an awareness that racism hurts all of us, including white people, we can change behavior in places where change is not already occurring. When we know better we do better but, we often don’t know how. We can begin by investigating the ways we are all in some way unwittingly complicit in institutional oppression. We are all in some way complicit by the very nature of being alive in this moment in time. There is no way around that. But we can have,

“Awareness so that we don’t do the same stupid awful things again.” — Joseph M. Marshall III, teacher, historian, writer, storyteller and Lakota craftsman

A church I attend speaks to the practice of sankofa; the importance of looking back to understand. We must address our racist history. What follows is not an exhaustive list of systemic racism and lingering inequities but, a start.

Shokopress.com
  1. Her name is not Lucy.

I landed back in the States at the end of February after spending a month in South Africa, the birthplace of humanity. In 1974, several thousand kilometers north at Hadar, a site in the Awash Valley in Ethiopia the bones of Dinkquinesh were discovered. The National Museum of Ethiopia houses a replica of the skull and estimates place this skull at 3.5 million years old. While Ethiopians called her Dinkquinesh, you probably know her by another name, Lucy.

I learned of this from Dr. Joy DeGruy and Sihle Khumalo’s “Dark Continent My Black Arse.”

Iziko Museums: Cape Town, South Africa

European standards have manipulated stories and stripped names. Slaves were referred to not by their names but rather named based on what month they arrived. The trickle down effects being generations of Americans stripped of their identities and unable to connect with their lineage.

“Is Dinkquinesh hard to say?

It’s pronounced phonetically.” — Dr. Joy DeGruy

When we ignore the obvious (that internal voice that asks, ‘Was she really named Lucy?’) we refuse to give visibility to the truth. May we remain curious when things do not make sense and challenge oblivion always.

White bodies are a deviation of the original human. As humans moved further from the equator, our skin needed to absorb more sunlight and we became melanin-deficient.

May we never forget we were not here first. At all. A shirt I came across in Cape Town reminded me, “We were here before Columbus.” As a white person, I am late to the human party.

For white folks planning travel to Africa:

The Western perception of African and Caribbean countries is through a patriarchal, imperial, infantilizing, neocolonial lens. We are taught to see these places as dangerous, lawless, uncivilized and many white tourists behave as such when visiting — don’t bother going if you’re going to buy a package deal from a white-owned company, overtly display distrust for the local people and take photos with the local children for your Tinder profile.” — Cicely Blain

2. The United States apologized for slavery and Jim Crow once. In 2008.

We can celebrate its anniversary of this apology on July 29th. According to Sam McKenzie Jr. the apology compressed 246 years of slavery, 102 years of segregation and the present realities into 747 words. He states,

“I noticed the apology references ‘slavery’ 35 times.
The apology mentions ‘Jim Crow’ 18 times.
I saw words related to ‘racism’ 8 times in the text.

The words ‘apology’ or ‘remorse’ appear 5 times.
The word ‘acknowledge’ appears 4 times.
The apology mentions ‘reconciliation’ 3 times.
And, the words ‘justice’ and ‘rectify’ appear once each.” — Sam McKenzie, Jr.

No issue has more scarred our country nor had more long-term effects than slavery. We know that Thomas Jefferson found scientists to confirm his beliefs to justify slavery and created race science which led to race math which led to the peculiar system that emerged; the electoral college. Racial justice includes ending the Electoral College, a system that impacts all Americans.

The 13th Amedment abolished slavery in 1865 however just 6 years later, in 1871, the Virgina Supreme Court declared prisoners ‘slaves of the state.’ (Ruffin v. Commonwealth 62 Va. 1024 (1871)

“Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment. Both still define our criminal justice system.”- Bryan Stevenson

Don John in his TED talk explains we live in a world where black people are, “37 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. A world where black people are three times more likely to be arrested. Three times more likely to be unemployed. We seem to be between the mad and the bad. Or both.”

Did you know that private prison stocks soared when Trump was elected? It is all related. It is all connected.

A 2019 CDC report explains African- American men live seven years less than white counterparts. This is not due to one factor but rather an intersection of racist policy decisions, environment, education, access to care, food and stress.

Khayelitsha, Cape Flats, South Africa

The wage gap for Black Americans held steady at 59 cents on the white dollar from 1968 to 1978 when, during the peak of the Civil Rights movement, the gap was narrowed.

Black women currently make 61 cents to every $1 their white, male counterparts earn.

May our future be dedicated to understanding, in the words of Angela Davis,

“What black people have gone through, what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”

We can go back to the 1981 campaign where Lee Atwater was caught on tape explaining the Southern Strategy. “You say, ‘Forced bussing, states rights.’ You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these economic things and the by-product is blacks get hurt more than whites.”

We can go back to the dumping of crack in poor neighborhoods when drug addiction and dependency morphed from a mental health concern to a crime.

The term gaslighting refers to psychological manipulation where a person or a group, covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, making them question their own experience. In a similar vein, covertly dropping drugs to use the money to fund wars while destroying vulnerable communities seems like the crack version of gaslighting. This reads like a conspiracy theory, and sometimes theories can ring painfully true.

A 2014 study in the Journal of Political Economy found that 9% of the black-white gap in prison sentencing could not be accounted for. The elimination of unexplained sentencing disparities would reduce “the level of black men in federal prison by 8,000–11,000 [out of black male prison population of 95,000] and save $230–$320 million per year in direct costs.”

3. The School to Prison Pipeline

A retired Black psychologist friend was reflecting on her work in the public school system. She shared stories of being called in to observe Black students after teachers expressed concern over disturbances in behavior. What my friend observed in the classroom were white students exhibiting signs of boundary violations. After calling this behavior into question she was met by the teacher adamantly describing this behavior as merely eccentric whereas it was pathologized in the Black students.

“There is a growing body of evidence indicating that when compared to non-Hispanic white youth, some ethnic and racial minority youth are more likely to receive a diagnosis of a disruptive behavior disorder and are less likely to receive a diagnosis of ADHD.”

Black youth who struggle are more likely to be referred to the juvenile system than to primary care, leading to an over-representation of minority youth in the system.

4. The Race Card: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

If black people are told they pull the race card that dismisses and silences people from talking about what most likely is actually happening.

If you have lighter skin and notice something feels off, or if you get a whiff of differential treatment, it’s okay to say something if you see something. Yes, it’s embarrassing to be wrong but, it’s okay to be embarrassed and you might not be 100% off. We might get it wrong but we cannot miss the opportunity to get it right. Your life or job might not depend on it but, someone else’s does.

It’s okay to name confusion when something just doesn’t feel right. Stop the meeting when you see someone of color be cut off, dismissed or outright ignored. Stop the meeting when you notice colleagues of color are being treated differently. Explore what is going on. Ideally with curiosity. Go back to the calling in v calling out link.

These tiny paper cuts add up. You might not be bleeding but, someone else is.

Remember, it is often subtle and quick. Be quicker.

You may question yourself but remember, “A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth.”- Lennon. If you find yourself questioning, that is reason enough.

Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by author.

5. Implicit bias is taught.

The media terrorizes us with shows like Cops. Terrorism, in the words of Yuval Noah Harari, “works by pressing the fear button deep in our minds and hijaking the private imaginations of millions of individuals.”

Do not latch on to the catastrophes you are told.

Ask yourself, how has your own private imagination about others been hijacked?

Thoughts are electrical currents that can provide us with a comedy, drama, horror, or thriller depending on what is being projected.

It doesn’t take much to condition thoughts into the mind. For example, we can have a few bad nights of sleep and boom, we’ve lost our sense that we can control or have agency over our sleep.

When we are taught to fear others this lays down a neural network where the unknown = fear = stress. Thoughts, when repeated, tell the brain this is important for survival.

The primal part of our brain, the amygdala, signals the hypothalamus to fire up and when the brain and endocrine system come together in this way, the adrenals trigger cortisol, a stress hormone. Stress makes us dumb. Don’t be dumb.

Racism is stressful. For everyone.

Researchfeatures.com

I love to get massages. While traveling, I once laid down on a bed that felt really prickly but I just went with it. The massage was strong and served as a distraction for what actually was happening which was microparticles being embedded into my upper arm.

One itchy, painful week later, shards of what I would later learn to be caterpillar were being pushed out of my skin through the natural, cellular process. It was incredibly uncomfortable.

I use this story as a physical metaphor for pulling out racial bias in our systems.

Now, I was quick to blame the table but, I remembered I actually did notice something. But, I let myself get distracted and didn’t do anything about it. In regards to racial bias in my own system, my massage lesson is:

I take personal responsibility for what I didn’t notice and am compassionate with myself. I do not shame myself as stupid or slow but, own that I can only know what I know when I know it.

Maya Angelou’s words apply here as we work to make the unconscious, conscious:

“Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.”

6. Question everything.

The work of a human is,

“..to develop fully- to find an identity, a sense of worth, to relate to others, to love, to work and to create. Black rage is the result of our failure, after 300 years, to make these human values possible.” — Grier xvi

When generations have been enslaved, how is this possible when we are out swimming in the sea of the original systems of operation

.Did you know a black man was once put on display in the Bronx Zoo?

Based on our history, it is all too easy for Black bodies to be put in whatever role white America wants. We have seen Lebron, the first Black man to appear on the cover of VOGUE, in the role of an ape carrying a white woman away.

“..when there is a general acknowledgement that racism is unacceptable and the majority of individuals aspire to being fair minded, just and inclusive, racism still very significantly affects most black people’s lives and their position in society.” — Premila Trivedi

7. Racism is a threat to public health and impacts all.

In my research I met Leslie Gregory who pointed out that racism meets all four criteria for being declared a threat to public health. Ms. Gregory explains the evidence that racism meets the below criteria:

  1. It’s a burden on the culture, ie economic.

2. It’s disproportionately shrared by a section of the population, ie female, gay, pregnant.

3. Current measures are not enough, ie the problem is continuing despite best efforts.

4. There is evidence that upstream change will affect that problem, ie institutionality.

If racism were declared a threat to public health we could then follow protocol similar to other health problems. Racism is, as she notes, a

“..ubiquitous, inescapable stress. It needs to be definitively and publicly announced, that way people can speak about racism in lieu of code words like economic disparity. We can save healthcare, incarceration rates, because the underlying causes will be mitigated.” — Leslie Gregory

8. Systems, institutions and norms steal our ability to think freely: Decentralize the white experience.

The racial status quo is comfortable (for white people) and we won’t move forward if we remain comfortable. The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort.

When you are accustomed to unearned advantages, equality can feel like oppression. As Kendi puts it, if we already believe equality of opportunity exists, we can mistakingly “reframe equal opportunity as an assault against [us] and [our] livelihood.”

In doing online research I found myself distracted by a Netflix ad in the corner of an article I was reading. I catch the line “White privilege” and at first the ad is small. It gets larger and larger and larger, finally taking up half of the screen as I’m trying to read and stay focused on an article on the Black experience.

I notice the ad is for a white woman’s comedy show. It is alive and hungry for my attention.

We must remain vigilant against the sweaty, old grip to keep the white experience central and dominant.

Sometimes this looks like a taco night that superficially celebrates a culture while ignoring the ways in which that culture is marginalized. Or books marketed, “How to do Therapy With ___ People,” as though a culture is a monolith.

There is more diversity within groups than between groups. You can sniff out when the white experience is held as central if you are made to feel as though you are the Sun, with all else orbiting. Notice if you catch yourself comparing a groups’ differences to a supposed norm.

That norm is a false narrative.

Dismantle that norm.

Watch when Black experiences attempt to be upstaged.

And “Don’t let the lion tell the giraffe’s story.” — Nigerian proverb

Photo on Unsplash: @rocknwool

As we stand on the brink of global revolution, let us heed guidance from Victor E. Frankl who, in Man’s Search for Meaning explains,

“So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.”

Live so that we can have a growing awareness of what we should be. Each individual hosts their own beautiful personal responsibility to make this a reality.

May we deeply investigate the ways we are all, in some way, unwittingly complicit in institutional oppression. It will not be pretty but, “ Music, to create harmony, must investigate discord.” — Plutarch

Trust the process.

“The more you share power the more it grows.” — Brene Brown

Photo credit : Nathan Dumlao, @nate_dumlao

The wisdom traditions teach us that anything we hold on to exactly as it is, will only create more suffering for us. Whether it is a job that we hold, a place that we live, the appearance of our body, even our sense of who we are. If we cling to the idea it has to be one way or we fear that it might change, this inevitably creates suffering.

The desire to keep things as they are or that they need to be one way is one of the major sources of human suffering. Life provides enough suffering. Do not add to it.

May we remain optimistic; the most radical political act.

Psychotherapist | Author of the upcoming book Breakdown: A Therapist’s Journey of Losing It and Finding It

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