Starving the Tree of Racism: How Seemingly Benign Values and Beliefs Feed Racism

Strange Tree

Dear fellow white men, but I hope others stick around as a Greek chorus.

An honest recognition of this culture’s history of treachery, kidnapping, torture, and murder is needed to read this. This is my fundamental starting point. So I’m essentially only speaking to those white men who recognize this and want it to end.

I’m arguing that if this is really our passion, then we can’t solely focus on stopping overt racists, or eliminating the racism and sexism baked into our institutions. These are necessary goals of course. But ultimately we won’t be very helpful if we don’t simultaneously (and primarily) work to expose the subtlest roots of racism in ourselves. And if we dig deeply enough we discover that we’re contributing to this violence through our identification with many of this society’s seemingly benign (but in fact toxic) values.

Magnification, Not Abstraction

I feel that poisonous minerals of racism seep into our bones microscopically through values that often appear innocuous and beneficial. But it might not seem practical or relevant to talk about these subtleties at first, because this can feel like an escape into abstractions from more pressing racial problems. But these are magnified examinations of the subtle roots of racism, not abstractions.

Nevertheless, it feels like I’m asking readers to pause for a moment in rescuing the drowning people downstream. But I don’t feel anything can be resolved downstream. I think we need to discover the deepest source of the problem, which remains hidden in us.

Overt Versus Covert Racism

To investigate this hidden problem, we have to distinguish between overt and covert forms of racism. Without this distinction, we won’t discover how we remain carriers of this violence even while attempting to work for justice.

I’m defining covert racism as the poisonous and criminal momentum of the culture into which we were born.

At the covert roots, there is neither personal innocence nor guilt, but only unconsciousness. We have to learn to see our privileges, which are unconscious until then.

Individual guilt accrues the moment we become conscious enough to deny or justify this poisonous privilege.

This is a more intentional form of unconsciousness, better called callousness. And it’s this deadening movement of denial and justification that also draws poisonous values into ever more concentrated or violent forms.

So this covert absorption isn’t letting us off the hook. This isn’t innocence. This is simply one part of the transmission process of racism. It begins unconsciously, infecting the child.

And the poisons that get absorbed by the individual unconsciously at the covert level accumulate through conscious denial and justification, feeding a vast canopy of overt racism.

The Tree of Racism

If denial and justification continue unchecked, they harden into the callous wood of hatred and the many branches of violence.

But if we turn our attention to the unconscious absorption process we may discover a way to starve the racist tree at its roots. Because we’re still acting as subtle channels for the distribution of racist nutrients without always realizing it.

Honesty about ourselves (rather than about others) would seem to be the only medicine that can penetrate the callous wood of this self-deceptive tree and kill the process in us. Otherwise we remain contagious.

The Poison of Literalism

Honesty is an endless onion. That’s because we can’t know what is wholly real. We have to rely on stories. And stories are deceptive if they’re conflated with reality itself.

And this subtle conflation or Literalism makes us dishonest by accident. Because then we confuse our thoughts and images (our judgments) with reality itself, and hold tighter to our conclusions than we should. Thus we end up consciously denying or justifying our prejudices, but unconsciously driven to do this by a philosophy of Literalism we don’t even realize we hold.

This is one of the invisible poisons of racism – the unconsciously absorbed doctrine which values conclusive certainty.

And conclusions put an end to learning. And racism is what happens when learning stops. A conclusion about someone can only be sustained by denying or justifying these errors in judgement. The belief that our conclusions are reality itself (literally true), and not merely stories we tell ourselves, is an ignorance that most of us share (and spread), and which serves racism well.

A Momentum that takes the Shape of Me

Covert racism might also be seen as the poisoned soil in which we grow. In this soil, the values, moralities, ideals – everything through which I recognize my Self – are also poisoned. The work ethic, for instance.

I love to work hard if I have something specific to do; and I admire others who are capable of hard work. But there’s something pathological in the way our lives are driven by the timeclock; and how we judge one another through this cutthroat game of musical chairs, which is privilege-seeking or careerism. And there’s a sociopathic element in our often unconscious duty to the lifeless organization that employs us. We work for it; it doesn’t work for us.

This excess duty to work is the moral momentum that valued slavery. That’s why there are so many jobs, and it’s only the lucky few who find a trade that leads to craft, or a calling that leads to art. The corporate economy grew out of perhaps the most brutal slave economy in history (meaning colonial slavery as a whole). The patterns have hardly changed.

At the root we discover that almost all the values that define us as are implanted. We discover our inauthenticity.

That’s why I like the metaphor of an inorganic being who has parasitized the energy of human intelligence on a covert level, secreting its own poisonous values, which we mistake for our own. And waking up to this parasitic possession is frightening: Who am I if I’m stripped of the values and beliefs that define me?

Consider also the indoctrinated values of patriotism, the drive to compete, eating factory farmed meat, joining armies. You may believe that these are beneficial personal values. But they’re also implantations of a doctrine of supremacy – over other nations, over other people, over animals, over the earth itself.

The Supremacy of the Self

The primary value that nourishes racism, however, might be the supremacy of the false Self.

It’s not so much an implanted value as a wound, a severed consciousness, for there is another movement beyond the covert momentum of indoctrination, which has been largely cut out of us, which is that shared sense of Being.

It’s often said that everything is connected. But that’s too mechanical. Empathy is only possible because everything on earth has grown from a primordial seed and has only taken different shapes. It’s a shared Being. (And I’m sure this isn’t limited to earth).

But this isn’t a disembodied Being. Our identities aren’t annihilated by seeing things from this broader perspective. They simply become more honest, quicker to shift with context.

In fact, it’s the other way around. As Native poet John Trudell points out, the narrower Human part of the Human Being – the resume, the career, the status – has lost contact with the common ground of Being. (Being doesn’t lose contact with identity; but identity has lost contact with Being). So our lives center on battling one another for privileged perches, even while rightly criticizing privilege. There’s an unconsciousness in this contradiction. We try to stay on the high horse of achievement — refusing honesty’s demand that we fall more often than not into the common mud — because we take our Selves too seriously, too literally.

We were born into a momentum that devalued a way of being that wasn’t constantly concerned with itself. The indoctrination lured an intelligence by carrots of conditional love to seek supremacy for Me and My tribe. I had no value for this culture until I could make my Self stand out in this way. And this battle strengthened a Literal and defensive identity, which is the foundation of racism.

So I didn’t invent supremacist thoughts; they invented an inauthentic me.

We’re mostly unconscious of this traumatic severance from others, from the earth, even from ourselves. It’s as if the soil out of which we grow is a deep duff layer of inter-generational trauma, using Gabor Mate’s phrase.  The white male cultural heritage is alienated in a way other cultures never were. We don’t see this easily because we can’t see what is lost.

But every being is no more graspable than the wind.  We can no more cage ourselves or one another in images or stereotypes than we can cage the wind. But now imagine if the wind believed that the billowing pants and shirts on the clothesline was its one true nature. The wind thinks it is clothing, and has forgotten how far it can range and shape-shift. Just as our Being has gotten tangled up in deceptive values and images; and believes that if this inauthentic identity ended, there’d be nothing. This fear of annihilation leads to “fragility” and the narcissistic rage of racism.

I don’t mean this (necessarily) mystically. I’m saying that my own intelligence gets trapped in deceptive values and images. And if I see this negative fact (that I’m not who I imagine), it creates a more honest identity that can learn without defensiveness or blame. So Being doesn’t represent a disembodiment or destruction of identity, but merely its grounding in a wider world.

A Peculiar Momentum

I’m suggesting that the movement to “become someone”, which powers supremacy, may be a common poison, but there’s something extreme in the white male cultural momentum of supremacy: Science and concentration camps are very different, but until very recently they have both tended to share a supremacy over the earth and anyone entering its objectifying gaze. Our culture became a vector for this alienated approach to life, which has infected almost the entire globe via colonialism.

John Trudell:

“Whatever happened to the Indians here, trust me, it happened to the tribes of Europe. You know, it started happening to them 3,000 years before it happened to us…. The purpose … was to alter the perceptional reality of the descendants of the tribes of Europe…. [And…] that perceptional reality of being a human being, and what it really meant, had been erased from descendants of the tribes of Europe, by the time they got here.”

This disease raised on a pedestal the indoctrinated human image and suppressed that shared Being. This created a moral character out of the supposedly savage child. And this child could no longer trust themselves, they feared an evil in their very Being, and so they doubted their own intelligence. So the trainable human was all that mattered, and placed in schools that conquered the unruly Being, tying it to a post of unbendable truths to keep it on the straight and narrow. It was a knife to the soul, and now everyone under this culture’s spell bleeds a perpetual self-centric narrative of denial and justification, which pours from this severed consciousness.

React or Respond?

Our severed Self is a veritable delivery system of values and beliefs that feed overt racism.

And our conscious reactions of denial, blame, and justification are the capillary actions that keep the poison flowing.

When we realize how deeply entangled in this racist tree we’ve become, guilt and shame explode like air bags – necessary negative realizations that stop us in our tracks. Call this the real white man’s burden – facing this shame and guilt without regressing into denial and self-defense.

But we also have to distinguish this effective form of guilt and shame from another poisonous value, which is to remain too long with guilt and shame. Because sustained guilt or shame is fake empathy. A sacrificial image of Me is beaten up to demonstrate repentance. Self-flagellation is another old value of the indoctrination. And there’s dishonesty in this, because sustained shame is more concerned with image–purification than love, although we may be unconscious of this deception at first.

But we can’t love if we hate ourselves. Others have a right to blame us until they see a difference. But as long as we’re seeing through our own self-deceptions on the covert level before they have a chance to root, then there’s no need to feel shame or guilt. And if we interpret this to mean that this makes us innocent, then we’re being dishonest again. Honesty and innocence are only as good as this moment. They aren’t conclusive states.

But we can’t attack our own dishonesties like an opposing force. There’s no one to fight in us. It’s only the imagination severing itself from an image it dislikes. And this is not honest or empathetic, but more of the same brutality. The only thing that kills dishonesty is honesty, not self-punishment.

Then we stop reacting solely as white males and begin responding as un-severed human beings.

Of course we remain privileged white men until the canopy has withered and died. But it can only do so if we are killing the roots. Then our response to overt forms of racism will be more effective, less contagious.

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