I have a part that wants to keep my mouth shut about racism, because it’s one of those land mines.
There’s so much white fragility and justifiable black rage, and I seem to trigger so many people when I bring it up, so my conflict-avoidant part just wants to smooth things over. But I have a stronger part that doesn’t feel it’s moral to keep my mouth shut when I’m in a position of power and privilege. Silence is a stand. So I will speak out in solidarity with my Black Lives Matter brothers and sisters, even if it risks activating people.
What I feel called to say right now is that I feel distressed when I hear so many people defensively claiming, “But I’m not racist.” While we may wish for this statement to be true, we are not color blind, no matter how much we might aspire to be. In this article, Van Jones said, “It’s not the racist white person who is in the Ku Klux Klan that we have to worry about. It’s the white liberal Hillary Clinton supporter walking her dog in Central Park who would tell you right now, you know, people like that, ‘I don’t see race, race is no big deal to me, I see us all as the same, I give to charities,’ but the minute she sees a black man who she does not respect or who she has a slight thought against, she weaponized race like she had been trained by the Aryan nation. A Klansmember could not have been better trained to pick up her phone and tell the police a black man, African-American man, come get him. So even the most liberal well-intentioned white person has a virus in his or her brain that can be activated at an instant. So what you’re seeing now is a curtain falling away. And those of us who have been burdened by this every minute, every second of our entire lives are fragile right now. We are fragile right now.”
Lest you think I’m pointing fingers at you, let me acknowledge that I’m talking about myself here. I’m one of those white liberal Hillary Clinton supporters who would be foolish to claim, “I’m not racist.” I’ll start by confessing my own racism. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it is something I’m aware of and actively working on.
Lissa’s Racist Parts
I live in a very isolated town surrounded by nature and populated mostly by white people. I hike by myself a lot. When I bump into a group of men in head caps with long beards on a hiking trail, my body sometimes flinches. It’s not even a racist thought; my body is instinctively scared that they will hurt me because I’m a woman, and they look Muslim. That’s racist and sexist because my body doesn’t flinch when I run into Muslim women in hijab or a group of white men.
I’ve been held up at gunpoint on Pike’s Peak by two masked gunmen who were black. I was living in Chicago at the time during my residency. After that, I had PTSD flashbacks and panic attacks when I bumped into random black men in Chicago for years until I sought treatment for my PTSD. That’s racist.
When I give my computer to a tech at the Apple Store, and he’s Asian, I feel happy for my computer because I think it’s going to get better care than if I gave it to a white woman. That’s racist and sexist.
When I lived on the north (white) side of Chicago, I didn’t protect my pocketbook very much, but when I ventured into the south (black and brown) part of Chicago, I wore my wallet on a cord inside my coat. That’s racist.
My sister is biracial but grew up in a white family and hangs out with a lot of black folks who have shared with me that they’re scared of me, that befriending or getting romantically involved with my sister is scary because she has a white family and they don’t trust us. That’s racism too. But all racism isn’t created equally. When I listen to why they’re afraid of white people, it hurts my heart.
Racism Arises From Trauma
Racism is a trauma response, an understandable one, one born from justifiable terror, but one that requires healing nonetheless. You don’t just decide to not be racist because you want to be a good person. You have to work for it. You have to feel your terror and pain and confront your own shadow. You don’t become someone who resists dehumanizing anyone based on color without a shit ton of down and dirty inner work. That’s true regardless of your color.
Just because you have brown and black friends or you work with brown and black people or you march with a Black Lives Matters sign doesn’t mean we’re not all vulnerable to racism. And if you’re brown or black, that doesn’t mean you’re immune to racism either, because it’s natural to fear and hate the people who kill your unarmed children, loot your stuff, enslave your people, rape your women, steal your land, and treat you worse than they treat animals.
Those are pretty good reasons for black and brown people to fear and hate white people. What are the white people’s excuses as to why we are racist? Certainly, it cannot be that people of color killed unarmed white children or innocent men not resisting arrest. While I may have some justification for why I fear Muslim men (9/11) or why I flinched when I saw black men after two black men shot a whole round of ammunition in a circle around my prone, face-planted body, I do not have to worry that my child will be unjustly killed during a traffic stop.
Part of the shadow of racism is that much of my power and privilege is built upon something I did not earn—my white skin and all the privileges that come with that. Many others with white skin benefit from the oppression and exploitation of people with brown and black skin. It’s been part of our white privilege, our “manifest destiny,” our justification for stealing land and murdering the indigenous people, our excuse for enslaving and abusing a whole race of people so our ancestors could make money growing cotton. White people have personally benefited—even if we’re completely unaware of how this works—from the oppression of black and brown people. Racism systematically and poisonously inflates the oppressors while deflating those who are oppressed. No one is free from these structures upon which our culture is built.
So yes, it’s true that racism goes both ways, but it’s not equal—and we can’t pretend that it is. Yes, it’s true that all lives matter, but I don’t need to protest with a sign that my life matters because everything in the culture supports the value of my life or my child’s life, so I support calling out specifically that black lives DO matter—as much as white lives. Until it’s true that all lives matter equally in our country, protesting that all lives matter is insulting and diminishing to those who need to call out the injustice of how we value life in this country.
All Racism Is Not Created Equal
In response to something I wrote on Facebook about this, one woman wrote, “To cite reverse racism when people of color are afraid of you is a cop-out. Do you not think that they may also have PTSD in addition to deeply ingrained generational trauma due to systemic racism? You cannot acknowledge white privilege and cry reverse racism when black people are afraid to get too close to your white family. They are not racist for it. They have legitimate fears, when not long ago their grandparents weren’t even allowed to sit in the same section on a bus with someone like you or attend the same school. They have legitimate fears when even today, they might be murdered at random by some racist cop just for being black. They don’t need to be called out for racism against white people who are the privileged default in this country built on the backs of slaves and the genocide of Native Indigenous People. Please don’t see this as an attack. I must too acknowledge my privilege even as a person of color, because I know that my black friends and family are targeted more than a lighter skinned person of mixed indigenous and Latino ancestry. Black Lives Matter.”
Yes. I do think black people have PTSD from the horrific traumas white people have inflicted upon them. As I said, racism is a trauma response. Children aren’t born with it. It doesn’t just come out of nowhere. I’m not saying black people shouldn’t be scared of me because of legitimate fears, any more than I’m saying I shouldn’t be scared of black men after being a victim of a violent criminal assault at their hands in a National Park of all places. Their fear is legitimate, as is mine. But they have much more reason to be afraid than I do.
Racism is about trauma, and trauma is treatable, and treating our PTSD can help us do what’s right. But the oppressors (white people) need to take more of the burden to do our work—because we did the most damage, and all racism isn’t created equal. What I hear from her valid point of view is that now is not the time for calling out the racism of black people against white people (reverse racism). Now is the time for us white people to drop to our knees and say, “I’m so so sorry. How can we make this right?”
Racism Is White People’s Responsibility
We must be humble in the face of our ignorance around racism, especially those of us in white bodies. If you’re white and you’re saying, “But I’m not racist,” just know that racism is simultaneously nobody’s fault but everybody’s responsibility. We white folks bear more of that responsibility than those we’ve hurt with our slavery, our genocide, our unjust “criminal justice” system, our police brutality, our dehumanizing behaviors. Yes, brown and black folks may be racist too, but we can’t use that excuse to justify inaction or shirk our responsibility to make things right and stop unjust violence. White people need to do more work on racism than black and brown people do. It’s our responsibility to do a LOT before they even need to think of stepping up and doing their own work. Our ancestors created this mess, so it’s our legacy burden to start making things right.
We can start by becoming intimate with our racist parts. Then get trauma healing and Self-lead those parts, so they don’t hijack us and drive our behaviors unconsciously. It’s one thing to have a racist part that flinches when I see men in turbans. It would be another thing altogether if I took ACTION intended to harm, shame, dehumanize, or diminish those men based on my body’s post-9/11 fear.
Until we become intimate with these shadow parts in ourselves that are practically downloaded into our psyches without our consent by a sick culture built on slavery and genocide of the indigenous people, we cannot claim “I’m not racist” with much honesty. None of us are born racist; we are taught it. It is almost impossible to grow as a white person in the US and not be racist.
As Nelson Mandela said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Few people are raised without racial bias—in the family or the culture or both. Rather than saying “I’m not racist,” it would be more honest to confess our racist parts to ourselves and each other—to lay our shadows bare on the table and have a dialogue about it and to make apologies and make amends where possible.
Some racism is unapologetically on the surface for some people, but for a lot of others, it’s buried beneath a self-image of goodness or purity or innocence. When we bring light to our shadow racism—and when we’re brave enough to share it with others—we have a chance to heal ourselves and each other—together, in solidarity.
On her Facebook Live feed last night black Whole Health Medicine Institute graduate Dr. Carol Penn asked these penetrating questions. “Where do you have a knee in your neck? Where are you putting your knee on someone else’s neck?” Also, “Where is it that you can’t breathe? Where is it that you aren’t letting somebody else breathe?”
When we start asking ourselves questions like this, we break down the polarization and tendency to dehumanize another, dropping down into our shared vulnerability, our shared humanity, and our shared perpetration of racism.
Racism Is A Public Health Issue
I am relieved to see that my physician colleagues at the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American College of Physicians have all made public statements claiming racism as a public health issue.
Racism is a personal and collective trauma—and the data is clear. Trauma predisposes us to illness and makes it difficult for us to recover when we do get sick. Unhealed trauma leads to chronic repetitive stress responses in the nervous system, which disables the body’s ability to fend off infectious diseases like Covid-19, heal the cancers we make every day, and be resilient to chronic illness. All trauma is a health risk.
The AMA said, “Recognizing that many who serve in law enforcement are committed to justice, the violence inflicted by police in news headlines today must be understood in relation to larger social and economic arrangements that put individuals and populations in harm’s way leading to premature illness and death. Police violence is a striking reflection of our American legacy of racism—a system that assigns value and structures opportunity while unfairly advantaging some and disadvantaging others based on their skin color…The trauma of violence in a person’s life course is associated with chronic stress, higher rates of comorbidities, and lower life expectancy, all of which bear extensive care and economic burden on our healthcare system while sapping the strength of affected families and communities. The United States has a track record of historically and systemically disadvantaging certain racial groups—in addition to ethnic, religious, and other minoritized groups—across the country.”
The good news is that trauma can be healed, and collective trauma can be made right—with solidarity and a willingness to get messy, be vulnerable, listen with our hearts, and make sacrifices and make amends when necessary in order to restore social justice. We must do better. If we care about coming together and loving each other and living in a country willing to correct its grave, abusive, unjust, genocidal mistakes, we must do better. For the sake of all people of all colors in the United States—and for the sake of public health—we must figure out how to heal racism.
Become Aware Of Your Biases
I won’t claim to have the solution to white privilege and racism. Many others are writing more eloquently about how to be white allies in a racism crisis, so I’ll defer to them. But what I will say is that it’s necessary to find whatever model works for you to become aware of your racial biases and begin to work with and treat your tendencies—without shaming, blaming, judging, or hating yourself in the process. What kind of thought processes do you use to become aware of bias? How your body responds when you see a person of a different race who scares you? How do you interrupt your reactive tendencies and neurologically rewire your thought patterns? If you have PTSD because of past trauma at the hands of someone of a certain race, what are you doing to seek treatment for your trauma responses? Consider also the legacy burdens and collective traumas you had passed down to you without your consent from your family of origin or community growing up. How are you healing those too?
I use Internal Family Systems (IFS), which is very gentle and self-compassionate but also very effective as a trauma healing tool and is being actively used to treat racism.
I’m hesitant to say any more, since black friends and my black sister have told me various iterations of “Don’t even hope to understand what racism means. You can’t. And if you ever even make the slightest indication that we are somehow on a level playing field or that I am also racist to some degree, I will kick your sorry white ass to you know where.” If I’ve unwittingly done so here, please forgive my bumbling awkwardness.
So with a deep bow to my own ignorance—and honoring the parts of me that want to try to take a stand, even if it’s messy and awkward and I don’t get it quite right, I stand for Black Lives Matter and everyone who is doing their best to finally get heard. Yes, all lives matter, but I don’t need someone to protest on behalf of my life. We need to do better than this. We can no longer tolerate behavior like what happened with all the unjustified police killings this year (and for so many years before that). This unjust behavior against our black and brown brothers and sisters must stop, even if we have to be uncomfortable in the presence of all this rage, destruction, and turmoil, tender as we are in the post-traumatic aftermath of a pandemic. I know it must be hard to be a good cop these days, so I am not anti-cop in any way. But we need to do better. Something must change.
What’s Happening Inside For You?
Are any of you comfortable revealing how your racist parts show up in you? Can we promise not to attack or shame each other with our confessions, please? It’s vulnerable to face these parts in ourselves with the intention to heal, and it’s tender to let others see these parts as we become aware of them. If this triggers you, can you please explain why rather than just reflexively getting defensive or unfollowing me? I’d love to have a conscious dialogue about topics like this.
If you’re looking for a safe place to discuss sensitive, sometimes polarizing issues like racism, the Healing Soul Tribe is designed to be exactly that—a sacred space where all points of view are welcome but where respectful, non-polarizing dialogue is expected. It’s okay to have differing points of view, but if we don’t feel safe to speak our truth, our truth festers inside. The Healing Soul Tribe is available for a free 30-day trial right now—and we’ll be doing a pandemic prevention Whole Health Green Juice Cleanse together soon. Get your free month here.
*A note about white privilege: One thing I’m looking at and inviting you all to dialogue with me about is where my white privilege might show up blindly in what I write. Feel free to challenge me—gently if you can (I know, white fragility!) I know there can be hidden biases and assumptions built-in because of our subtle or not so subtle racism, so if you see that in things I write, please help me make apologies and make amends where I can.
* A note about writing about “politics.” A faithful reader on Facebook very respectfully expressed to me that she wished I’d only write about health, and she doesn’t care about my politics. I responded with, “For me, this is not a political issue; it’s a moral one. And as I said, staying silent is taking a stand, and I want to make it known which side of this issue I stand on as a show of solidarity to people of color who have been so brutally traumatized by people of my color. Thank you for being so kind and respectful in the way you shared how you feel about this. But with all due respect, for me, only writing about health without writing about the collective traumas that harm our physical and mental health would be downright irresponsible. Racism is a disease, and the health of any individual requires a healthy culture we do not have in the US. From my point of view, as a doctor, racism is as much a health issue as cancer or Covid-19.” To me, Whole Health includes living in a culture where black lives are treated with the same respect white lives are granted.
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