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Our Big, Fat, White Dysfunctional Family

A Way of Understanding Our Role in U.S. Racism

Photo by Nicole Michalou from Pexels

A relationship family, a group, or an organization functions well roughly proportionate to its capacity to deal with hard truths. When a grouping of humans of any size, including a country, doesn’t metabolize a hard truth well, its members tend to play predictable roles in the aftermath.

Basically, it’s like a dysfunctional family. In a dysfunctional family, a lie or series of lies prompts predictable roles and behaviors to conceal the lie, and keep up the pretense. Here’s an example: Dad’s an alcoholic, but no one’s allowed to talk about it, or even acknowledge it. That’s pretty intense for a family system to bear, and the children feel it the worst. So the youngest boy, Brandon, 16, develops a drug problem. Now the whole family focuses its efforts on Brandon, who becomes the “identified patient.” Instead of discussing Dad’s alcoholism, his related behaviors, and the effects on the family, the entire family focuses their attention on “helping” Brandon resolve “his” problem. But Brandon is really expressing the untold truths of the broken system, indirectly.

Finally, Cassandra, 18, can’t stand it anymore, and on her first summer home from college, confronts Dad directly. Mom rushes in to defend Dad, and shouts Cassandra out of the house. Having named the truth, Cassandra is no longer welcome. Brandon’s not sure what to do, but he doesn’t challenge anything that’s happening. He continues using drugs.

So now we have this scenario: the unconfronted truth, the originator of the secret truth, the mythology-that-replaces-the-truth required of the members of the group, the defenders of the mythology, the indirect expresser of the truth, the direct expresser of the truth, and the consequences for expressing the truth.

In the dysfunctional family, here’s the legend:
The unconfronted, unhealed, harmful truth: Dad’s an alcoholic, and the whole family organizes itself around his alcoholism

The originator of the truth: Dad

The mythology required of members of the group: We’re a model family. We have no major issues. Everything is fine.

The defenders of the mythology: Mom, and for a while, her daughter Cassie.

The indirect expresser of the truth: Brandon, the youngest child. He is also the “identified patient,” whom everyone focuses their “fix it” energy on instead of the source of the truth, in this case, Dad.

The consequences for expressing the truth: Getting ousted from the family

Themes: Fluctuating loyalties. Examples: Cassie took a while to take her stand for the truth. Brandon continued to waver between listening to his sister, and dismissing her reality.

A nation is not a family. These categories do not map exactly onto what we’re up to in the United States of America. However, I see a number of salient similarities.

In the United States, we have created a painful, damaging, and too often fatal system of white supremacy. Only recently have we begun to utter the phrases like “systemic racism,” “white supremacy myth,” and even “white supremacy” to mean everyday activities, beliefs, and practices that confer advantage to light-skinned people of European descent, and not just the overtly white supremacist expressions of people in white hoods that white liberals often point to as “the problem.”

Many people of all ethnicities defend the white supremacy mythology, because of the apparent rewards that accrue to those who do. Or because of unconscious identification with the power-drunk ruling class. Like the smaller dysfunctional nuclear family, white people need to face the hard truths of our past and present, reckon with them, and choose new truth-based ways of moving forward. Our clear heads and our Black and Brown siblings’ safety depend on it.



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Jill Nagle

Jill Nagle

Seeking representation for book on how white people benefit from dismantling white supremacy. Catalyzing at