Systemic Racism and Inner Work: A Personal InventoryJul 06, 2020
It is now 6 weeks since the senseless killing of George Floyd.
Like many white people, I have been deeply impacted at the identity level by recent events and have struggled to know how to participate in the invigorated dialogue on racial justice. But I was inspired by W. Kamau Bell's interview with Conan, in which he encouraged white people to accept as a given that we will make mistakes. Better to act clumsily than not at all.
This article is a by-no-means-complete exploration of my inner relationship with systemic racism using the Enneagram as a lens for my own self-awareness. I hope it also serves as a compelling statement on the role of Inner Work in dismantling systemic racism.
Before we get into it, I’d like to share why I’m publishing this.
First, a note on centering — a term describing how when white people feel bad about systemic racism, they make the conversation about their feelings and how to resolve them, drawing focus away from the issue and into their own solipsistic vortex. This is both an expression and a reinforcement of their privilege, and I get that it’s a problem. I still choose to share my self-reflections because I don’t think this is the same. My readership is, at the moment, mostly white, and I’m saying that privileged white people like me need to get radically honest about their naivety and the inner mechanisms that have prevented them from waking up to the reality of white supremacy. We need to clean up our own house. This is me doing that.
Second, a note on performative allyship — a term describing how white people can, for instance, post “#BlackLivesMatter” on instagram in order to feel good about themselves without taking more substantive action. Performative allyship can take many forms. In her Guardian Article, Confronting Racism is not about the needs and feelings of White People, Ijeoma Oluo writes:
Every time I stand in front of an audience to address racial oppression in America, I know that I am facing a lot of white people who are in the room to feel less bad about racial discrimination and violence in the news, to score points, to let everyone know that they are not like the others, to make black friends. I know that I am speaking to a lot of white people who are certain they are not the problem because they are there.
White people like me need to be rigorously honest with ourselves about what motivates our public displays of allyship and how substantive we mean for our efforts to be. I hope to make progress in dismantling my own performative allyship by first admitting that I have been guilty of it in the manner described above, then by going further to identify the precise ways in which I have resisted deeper engagement with activism.
Third, I want to express that true “inner work” — the process of shining a light into the shadows of your inner world and confronting what you see — while not a flattering undertaking, is a necessary part of the solution to systemic racism. The deconstruction of white supremacy in my sphere of influence is not complete until I can see and dismantle how it lives in me. I now take this to be my duty. It is not my only duty, but it is certainly one of them.
Finally, I’d like to acknowledge that this is a clumsy effort. It is the nature of ignorance not to know itself. I am sure that this post reveals my continued ignorance in many more ways than I can see at the moment. I welcome any feedback.
With all that said, here we go:
I am a 33-year-old, white, Jewish, cisgendered, able-bodied man from the suburbs of Houston, TX, and I am embarrassed to admit that despite…
- Having gotten a liberal arts education;
- Having read literature in which race is a central theme;
- Having listened to music by black artists my whole life, and even having played it for a living;
- Having dated black women;
- Having heard black friends describe their personal struggles with racism; and
- Having watched the resurgence of white nationalism with horror
… I did not see the immensity of systemic racism and white supremacy until the last few weeks.
I understand that this sort of admission is infuriating to people of color. I can see why.
I also understand that lists such as the above are often submitted by white people as evidence that they are “not racist,” which is itself a kind of performative allyship. I’m submitting it as evidence to the contrary — that even though I had been exposed to the idea of systemic racism through various sources, I still didn’t get it. For my part, I am deeply disturbed that it took me so long. It is humbling to realize how we simply do not see what we do not see, even when it is shown to us directly and repeatedly.
I’m passionate about inner work, which means I have an arguably masochistic compulsion to hold myself to an extremely high standard of honest self-reflection. My goal is to understand the inner mechanisms that blocked me from waking up until now, so they don’t put me back to sleep.
Through journaling and reflecting, I’ve uncovered some of the ways in which I have unconsciously resisted waking up to systemic racism. I’ve listed them below and put numbers in parentheses representing the Enneagram types to which I ascribe them. For context if you know the Enneagram, I identify as a type 3 with a 4 wing.
Despite the many signals from my environment, I did not fully absorb the truth of systemic racism because subconsciously I was afraid that…
- …it would mean that I have been more ignorant than I realized… which would painfully destroy my self-concept that I’m a “good guy,” the kind of person of whom black people would say, “He’s cool, he gets it, he’s not part of the problem.” (3)
- …it would mean that my “activism” to date has been largely or entirely performative, to get a pat on the back, and not from a place of real awareness, emotional resonance, or desire to enact change (3)
- …it would mean that I have a responsibility to rise to that is utterly outside of personal ambition; that I would have to start doing something, which means syphoning time from what I’m doing now, which is already tiring (3, 9)
- …it would mean that as a life-long beneficiary of systemic privilege, whatever inner struggles may have held me back pale in comparison to those of my black friends who battle extra, external headwinds — a humiliating blow to the part of me that feels entitled to my own feelings of pain and suffering (3, 4)
- …it would mean that I have been hiding in vagueness and non-engagement, not wanting to look deeper or take a stand because I didn’t want to disturb myself with the uncomfortable truth, the very fact of which is evidence of my privilege and rightful cause for others to be outraged with me (9)
- …it would mean that neutrality is not possible, that I am part of the problem, that I have, by sheer obliviousness and passivity, been complicit in propagating a social structure that has benefited me and hurt people I love and countless others (9)
I’ve also noticed a sneaky inner critic backlash against waking up at this particular moment, which has delayed my writing this:
- Since you’re waking up to the immensity of systemic racism when everyone else is, you’re not undergoing an authentic personal journey, which means you haven’t earned the right to take a stand. By shouting “no justice no peace” at the protest, you’re just being a follower, a lemming, an indistinct member of a social herd. (And here’s the kicker:) You deserve to sit with this shame, and you should only take action once you’ve fully processed it. (4)
There is of course much more to allyship than admitting the ways in which you haven't been one. But the point of revealing these inner critic messages is not to lash myself or to invent a new form of hyper-vulnerable performative allyship for which I hope to be praised, but to release myself from the grip of inner demons and to move forward into substantive action, including writing this post and inviting other privileged white people to undertake a similar inner inventory (which doesn’t have to be public) on their way to sincere allyship. I also hope for it to serve as a microcosm of the kind of reckoning-with-self that might be possible at a macrocosmic level for white America as we work to face our complicated history, make appropriate amends, and ultimately heal our collective psyche.
Two other points:
1. For any inner inquiry, I find the Enneagram to be a useful lens. I’ve seen a lot of instagram content on each Enneagram type’s gifts in standing up to racism. Some of it is substantive, some is cotton candy, and some is misleading… but most of it is incomplete. The Enneagram is a tool for awakening, and its power is that it shows you the gifts and the shadows of your type.
Some friends have encouraged me to write about how each Enneagram Type might respond to waking up to their complicity in systemic racism. I can imagine that such a resource would be valuable, but I have decided not to write it because at this point it would just be speculative.
2. I know there has been a lot of resource sharing on systemic racism. Here are some that have impacted me:
- Dave Chappelle’s Statement on George Floyd & Systemic Racism (27min)
- Conan O’Brien’s conversation with Van Jones (30min)
- Neil DeGrass Tyson's Experience as an Aspiring Black Scientist (4min)
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (book)
- The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates (article)
- Facilitated “White Affinity Group” Video Call (90m)
(This may seem odd. It was a deliberately homogenous white discussion group in which we considered questions like “What is your experience of whiteness in your body, heart, and soul?” and “How has anti-blackness impacted your life and/or community?” I felt weird attending, but it was so powerful that it probably deserves its own blog post. Many white people who are sincere in becoming better allies have never considered these questions in a deep way and are frozen at the moment because they do not want to cause more pain for people of color by processing their feelings aloud. The all-white container provided space in which people could express themselves freely, ask ignorant questions, and discuss hard truths without further harming people who are already traumatized by a lifetime of racial oppression).
Thank you for reading. I would love to hear from you.