Why is it difficult for a justice-seeking, well-intentioned white person (me) to dig deep and investigate the dehumanizing effects of racism (or any other ism) on myself? Or to challenge others within my own group to do the same? Why is it easier to focus on issues out there, instead of inside?
There are many possible answers, and so much complexity and nuance when addressing issues of privilege and oppression. Social problems need to be tackled from many angles, including the psychological.
Here’s one perspective: When we focus exclusively on helping the (less privileged) other, and when this external focus takes us away from addressing our own pain, we perpetuate a problem. We (inadvertently) use the role of giver or do-gooder to marginalize our own suffering and to feel better about ourselves. This can keep us in a place of feeling “better than,” a place of unconscious superiority.
Carlo (not his real name) is a white, European, educated, able-bodied cis-het male who enjoys the many privileges his social identity affords him. He works to create change and fairness in the world and pays close attention to social justice issues in his personal life and in his work as a therapist.
In a recent supervision session with me, he described a troubling dilemma that he has given me permission to share: He noticed that he behaves differently when working with male-identified clients than with female ones.
He describes two white, cisgender clients who have very different issues but something in common. Both clients experience themselves as being marginalized by the mainstream culture in which they live and work. Both have internalized the values of the culture. Both suffer from internalized oppression—they agree with the viewpoint that the critic (and the world) put forth about their shortcomings.
The man is not successful enough. The woman is too fat.
Both are unabashedly vicious and mean to themselves. Neither is equipped to defend themselves or react against the judgment from their critics and the world.
But when the woman attacks herself, Carlo becomes sad. He can feel the hurt heaped upon his client by mainstream standards of beauty. He sees that she is frozen, hurt and unable to react to her critic’s vitriol. She believes she deserves it and is matter-of-fact about the rightness of the abuse. The manner in which she talks about herself is so devastatingly cruel that Carlo himself begins to cry. This is deeply moving to his client and helps her learn that it is not ok for her critic to abuse her. It is ok—no urgent—that she react, feel, and defend herself.
Carlo does not display the same emotional agility with his male client. When his male client is blocked, frozen and unable to feel in the face of vicious, critical internal abuse, Carlo gets irritated. Even angry. He explains to the man why he should feel. He tries this intervention and that. The client freezes more. Argues back. Carlo pushes. He makes recommendations about how his client should behave. All that instead of simply crying with him, showing him how much it hurts. Modeling how to feel.
Why is that? Why the difference in reaction?
Carlo dug deep and discovered an unconscious bias. According to his inner critic (internalized oppression), a man who feels is weak (like a woman). If Carlo shows feeling with a man, if he cries rather than coming up with some intelligent argument, he risks losing status. The male client might think less of him. Whereas if he shows feeling with a woman, he gets “credit.” His status in her eyes goes up.
Carlo tells me that as a child his father laughed at him when he cried, told him he was sensitive and had to toughen up. To this day, Carlo rarely shows emotion (other than anger) with men. It’s too much of a risk.
With this insight he cries—for himself. For the loss to his own humanity.
I was moved and inspired by Carlo’s emotional bravery. It made me review some recent conversations with other white and cisgender people about our privilege. It’s hard for me to rock the boat and risk disturbing relationships with people I love. I don’t wish to be seen as complicated or trouble making.
One of the more disturbing things I’ve noticed about myself is that I tend to become judgmental and pushy with people and clients who are the most like me, but whom I deem less experienced or enlightened. Which is just another way to feel “better than.”
So I will follow Carlo’s example. I will pay attention to the ways I hurt and marginalize parts of myself. And I will try to stop. Because if I hurt myself, I can almost guarantee that if I do a good deed, think of a smart idea or contribute something worthwhile to any cause, I will feel a bit better about myself.
I don’t want to use other people’s pain to lift myself.
And yes, it’s complicated. Or course we want to use our privilege on behalf others. Of course we must continue to (or start to!) speak up when we witness injustice.
Let’s also help each other come to our own rescue… inside.