Confronting the Cost of My Nostalgic Past in Black Suffering: An Unravelling of White Innocence

I don’t know about all of you, but for me the events of the past month have been almost too much to bear. The murder of George Floyd tore at the fabric of my heart and conscience like no other police killing has. I have not been able to rest since. It’s not that we haven’t seen equally horrific and infuriating acts of violence before this one, but somehow, coming as it did on the heels of the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery…in the midst of an already devastating pandemic that would seem to call for us all to be kinder, gentler and more compassionate with each other, his death hit me especially hard.

I am married to a Black woman and I fear for her life. I can see more clearly than ever that the laws, policies, structures and systems of our nation are racist — purposefully designed to oppress, devalue and kill her and people who look like her, and to uplift, value and empower me and people who look like me. This knowledge hurts. It gnaws constantly at the edges of my conscience and my sense of justice and morality. I have joined Black Lives Matter protesting in the streets. I have begun a searching inventory of the ways in which white supremacy lives in me. I have tried to be ever more honest about myself, my racial conditioning, privilege, whiteness and learned racism. I have cried out to God to show me what I personally am meant to do because I can’t not do anything. Anguish is an energy that must find purpose. My sense of responsibility needs direction if I am to avoid sinking into paralyzing guilt and shame.

So it is this context that I was shocked … even horrified to learn about an act of violent oppression much closer to home — on Malaga Island.

Malaga Island is a small island in Casco Bay that was once inhabited by Black and interracial fishing families living in peace until 1911, when the State of Maine decided that it wanted to build a summer resort, evicted the Malaga families, exhumed and relocated their dead, and burned down their houses. D.F. Jester describes this decision as driven by “the growth of [eugenics], an increase in sentiment of racism within the state, along with a fear that the black faces of Malaga would interfere with tourists’ vision of the picturesque Maine ideal [emphasis added].”

55 years later, I grew up going every summer to another island not far from Malaga Island in Casco Bay. My family owns a cottage there and this island too is idyllic and picturesque — and entirely white.

I was born into this privilege and had no idea about the historical factors that allowed me to grow up in such easy exclusivity and freedom. Whiteness is the water that privilege swims in, so I could not see it.

Unfortunately, I don’t know the particular history of Cliff Island, but I do know that, when I first invited my wife to visit it with me, my experience of it changed dramatically and irrevocably. For the first time, my innocent, childlike view of the island was disrupted by her embodied, visceral sense of terror in the face of its blinding whiteness and unarticulated suspicion and racism. Beneath the quiet natural splendor of the island that had always seemed to me so innocent and carefree, I began to see the sinister, painful roots of racist exclusion, elitism and privilege, sinister because it was blind to itself and utterly taken for granted. I had never considered that what made this idyllic refuge far from the mainland possible for me and my family was the same white supremacist system that caused my wife and generations of other Black folks so much pain, devaluation and deep suffering. Racism and white supremacy are specifically designed to keep us white folks living the lie of our superiority.

When my wife and I went on that first visit to Cliff Island, I was still waking up to my whiteness and it was extremely difficult to hear her pain. Truthfully, I didn’t want to hear it. I just wanted to enjoy my trip down memory lane and I was therefore invested in maintaining my white innocence and my own narrative about the island and its “accidental” whiteness.

After many years of honest, vulnerable, painful, humbling, and life-changing dialogues with my wife, I have come to trust that she can see things that, being adorned with white privilege, I am unable to see. She could see that, just like with Malaga Island, the fact that Cliff Island was all white was anything but accidental. This is true of all exclusively white settings (schools, neighborhoods, churches, governmental bodies, professional organizations, country clubs, etc.). The “fear that Black faces would interfere” with the Vacationland ideal was alive and well there too and this fear was projected onto my wife.

Today even I can (usually) see the white fear of Blackness projected onto the woman I love. I’ve become attuned to the ways white folks do a quick double-take when we see a Black person, as if we’re not seeing clearly the first time, how our faces close up to hide our discomfort and we put on a mask of polite over-friendliness.

Before I have even introduced my wife, my white friends/family have withdrawn and disappeared behind this protective facade.

We white folks have many sophisticated and subtle ways of rendering invisible and dismissing Black folks. The one that hurts me the most when I am in public with my wife is this loss of authentic meeting. I know my wife and I love her. And I want others to see and value her as I do.

But we white folks are so frightened by our own secret racism and racial conditioning; by the inherited stories and sterotypes about Black folks that we project onto them; by how jarringly Black folks threaten our idyllic image of purity, innocence and moral superiority (which we often hide behind our sense of ourselves as good, well-meaning people); by our fantasy of colorblindness and our myth of sameness — that we can not see that the Black person in front of us is indeed a person, a human being who is both different from and equal to us. In effect, our racism, distorted thinking and privilege dehumanize both them and us. We become murderous.

On Malaga Island: we evict them, dig up their dead kin, destroy their homes and communities.

On the city streets: we kneel on their necks until they die, shoot them in the back, break down the doors to their homes while they are sleeping and kill them.

In our neighborhoods: we stand on our front lawns pointing guns at them while they march by in protest for basic civil rights and equal citizenship, we call the police when we see them watching birds in the park, we call the Black Lives Matter movement that asks that they be treated with dignity and worth a “symbol of hate.” And then we cling to our innocence, we become indignant and we blame them— Black man or woman. We say it’s not about race; you are the ones who keep bringing up race at every juncture. We cling to our fantasy that we’re not racist.

But it is about race and we are racist. This is not a theoretical proposition or an opinion. It is a painful reality that we must begin to embrace if we are to move forward as a nation. For me, that means looking underneath the nostalgic surfaces of my own past and asking difficult questions:

What racist structural factors afforded me the privilege of spending summers on a tiny island in Maine, isolated from Black people, the noise, dirt and heat of the city?

Were lives on Cliff Island (as on Malaga Island) disrupted or destroyed so that my family and I could enjoy our exclusively white, peaceful summers there?

What did I learn about the value of being around Black folks when we left our integrated neighborhood in St. Louis every summer to drive up to our vacation cottage in Maine, where everyone was white?

How does the fear and devaluing of Black people and their presence in my life continue to live in me?

What do I gain and what do I lose when I am in all-white settings?

As a mental health professional in a field where decisions are made and theories created almost entirely by white folks while Black folks are suffering disproportionately from the intergenerational transmission of trauma fed by the unhealed scars of slavery and continuing oppressive effects of systemic racism, what voices, experiences and contributions am I missing?

How can we even begin to heal when only white voices are being heard and only white experiences are shaping our understanding of what it means to be human?

The status-quo of our structurally racist society is killing Black folks and I am not ok with this. For me, self-examination is a beginning. Educating myself about our histories is important. Reading Black writers and listening to Black folks’ experiences is crucial. Humility is essential.

When I am not actively anti-racist, I default to what I have learned, which is complicity and silence.

In the face of such suffering, complicity is for me an immoral choice.

Organizations to Learn More:

Books to Learn More:

Certified Imago Relationship Therapist & Interracial Dialogue Facilitator yael.bat-shimon@post.harvard.edu

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