“To be alive is to be guilty.” When I recently heard this observation by Bert Hellinger, the German Jesuit originator of Family Constellations, I viscerally bristled at it. My conscious identity is that I am a good person: I’m socially conscious, a friend of equality and a resistor of isms. I came of age in the late sixties in Texas and took pride in single-handedly manipulating the principal of my all-white, 3,000-student high school into installing an American flag and singing the national anthem, alongside the only flag and anthem used up until then — the Confederate flag and “Dixie.”
The discussions that I took part in back then were about whether or not someone was racist; my concerns were whether or not I was a racist. We had plenty of images in the news media of people who definitely were racist — George Wallace, Little Rock parents, Selma police — and that consolidated my certainty that I was not a racist. A few years later, when the black students of my small liberal arts college occupied the administrative offices to demand changes in admissions and financial aid practices, I was nervous and basically doubled down on “I am not a racist.”
In 2013, when I first heard “Black Lives Matter,” I had a self-congratulatory, self-insulating inner reflex of “All Lives Matter.” I didn’t speak this out loud, but inwardly I wrapped myself in a sense of high-minded tolerance and inclusivity, and concluded those street chants were meant for the other people, the recalcitrant still-racist Americans who needed to wake up into an enlightened multi-racial society, where we could “all get along.”
But something different is happening for me in 2020. Finally. As I’ve practiced couples therapy for 35 years, I’ve seen how impeding it is when one person brings their pain into the conversation and the other person is so preoccupied in defending their good intentions, their innocence and justifications, that they cannot absorb that message of hurt and suffering. Both sides are frustrated and limited in this state of disconnection.
I’m seeing this now in America. When people say “Black Lives Matter” it is the opening line of a deep truth-telling about a 400-year saga of violence and oppression that is also a saga of how wealth has been built and accumulated in our nation. “Black Lives Matter” is also a corrective addressing the injustice that is still happening right now. If I answer in my mind “All Lives Matter” I’m asserting that I’m a good white person and therefore I don’t have to listen. I remove myself. And that is an exercise of my privilege. I can believe, comfortably, that the protests have nothing to do with me. But in my unexamined exercise of white privilege I perpetuate the systemic racism in America’s DNA.
Who’s a racist and who’s not is a very small question and a very big dodge. The larger point is that some white, European immigrants to America gained enormous wealth based on enslaving people from Africa. American wealth was built on slavery, and white supremacy is the mental trick that made (and makes) such profound dehumanization possible. As a whole country, we have not faced this reality. And as a person, I continue to not face it when I wrap myself up in the question of whether or not I’m racist, or when I take a nosedive into guilt and self-blame.
There are contrasts to America’s story. South Africa was riven by apartheid, but then began a national project of uncovering and speaking the truth of it. Nazism took over Germany and was defeated in war, but has also been confronted and addressed with reparations and memorialization. After a brutal genocide, Rwanda pursued justice and reconciliation through facing and naming the truths of what happened. None of these projects are perfect or complete, but the foundation of each has been bringing the truth to light and remembering it as part of restoration for society. But when America might have acknowledged truth and set a path toward reconciliation after the Civil War, instead we repackaged and doubled down on white supremacy. When the economics and racism of enslavement might have been confronted and dismantled, instead white supremacy was repackaged into Jim Crow and segregation, and then leveraged into political capital. And these practices continue today, because they are in America’s DNA. No quick fix changes this, it only rearranges things, leaving the undergirding racism to emerge in different ways, with varying justifications and obfuscations. We need to seek big truths and listen to hear the truths spoken from all angles, by all people. Right now, when I say Black Lives Matter, I am saying we need to hear the truths from Black voices, as the beginning of a long listening and long learning.
The walls separating people with skin privilege and everyone else are strongest in the mind, where people, especially white people, can’t see them. As a white woman, I live inside my privilege and for a long time I’ve been satisfied with my own goodness and absence of malice or prejudice. Once that box is checked, my inquiry ends. I live feeling secure that I am entitled to justice under the law and protection by the police. I note how outraged I feel when a policeman seems arrogant as he writes me a speeding ticket or when the legal system awards my ex-husband more than what I believe he should in our divorce settlement. The degree of my indignation indicates the depth of my engrained assumption that I will be treated rightly in life, under the law and in the everyday world. I am on the inside of the wall of privilege, where life works on my behalf. The rules hold for me and I may fume that they don’t work for other people, but still I don’t actually see the wall that separates two realities in America.
But there is a wall. On the other side of the wall is a reality where law and American ideals are veneers that quickly give way in the service of oppression and maintaining a two-track system. Until we can turn and look honestly at the harm that has never stopped and has never fully been named and owned, we must keep obscuring that truth with this wall of privilege. On my side of the wall, every time I pose the small question of “Am I racist?” or “Is my organization diverse enough?” I am settling for a small question that eclipses my view of the barricade of systemic racism that runs through our society and each of us.
When we see the video of George Floyd’s murder, we see that wall in action. Gravely, we see Mr. Floyd die because he is not allowed even to breathe. Systemic racism has a knee on the necks of all Americans of color, most fundamentally descendants of those who were enslaved, so that the essentials of life are choked off: building economic security, counting on personal safety, creating opportunities for children, relying on protection under the law, experiencing respect.
And as we watch Officer Chauvin’s demeanor in this crime, we see the damage white supremacy has done to people on the inside of the privilege fort. Where is his humanity? To be a human so void of empathy and responsiveness, so seemingly inflated by self-importance, even omnipotence, is a tragedy. What pitifully reduced state of mind and emotions does he live in as he serves, in Trevor Noah’s words, as a “valet of American racism”?
But now, seeing this brutal enactment of systemic racism, I see myself in Officer Chauvin’s casual tolerance of inflicting mortal harm. I am waking up to the truth that my privilege is wholly embedded in white supremacy. I see Chauvin’s nonchalance, and the way he doesn’t even seem to perceive the human tragedy happening under his knee. Likewise, in my life I haven’t really gazed back to see the genocide and land theft that created wealth for the Oklahoma half of my lineage, or the enslavement that undergirded economic success for the Tennessee half. Systemic racism, that wall in the mind, insulates me from feeling the thousand cries of “I can’t breathe” when one human vainly pleaded to another human, during all the suffering that is part of my heritage of privilege. For one family to thrive, another family’s desperation was swept aside and excised from the story. Many of my people were Officer Chauvin; he is in my DNA.
Systemic racism dehumanizes everyone. There is no way through it if we simply build another wall, this one with good people on one side and bad people on the other; that is the same process. Truly we are all in this together. Remember Rodney King’s plea in 1992: “Can we all get along?” To get along with each other, we need to get along with all the parts of our national and personal story. To go forward toward truly deconstructing systemic racism, I believe we also have to go back in history and keep bringing the more complete truth into focus — naming the pain, owning the crimes and violations, paying respect. This is about holistic understanding, not about blame and guilt. As a person of many kinds of privilege, I have become ferocious about challenging myself to recognize my own spasms of guilt for what they are: another way to stay preoccupied within my insular privilege and remain blind to the larger, complex truths. Instead I redirect my emotions of sorrow and outrage into listening, learning, thinking, inquiry, truth-speaking. I seek the largest, most true and most accurate story. And now I come back to Hellinger’s observation and find that it is a relieving, expansive place to start from: “To be alive is to be guilty.” I will keep doing my part in discovering and telling a big story together.