Why White People Will Never Fully Understand Racism.
“On this same soil, trauma also followed another, earlier path: one that spread from the bodies of European colonists to the bodies of Native people and through many generations of their descendants. An estimated eighteen million Native people were custodians of the North American continent when European colonists arrived. They and their ancestors had lived here for an estimated 14,000 years.” ~ Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies
As the quote reflects, 14,000 years of history were almost wiped out in a matter of a few hundred years. In the case of my own ancestors, the Trail of Tears (genocide) has been handed down to me epigenetically, in the form of inherited trauma held in my body. But I also suffer something else less tangible but no less inherited (or at least consistent with this history).
Along the Trail of Tears between what is now Mississippi and Oklahoma (okla humma, red people, or in other translations, honorable nation, a brave people, courageous nation), the very old and the very young died. With the elders went the stories and traditions, the cultural legacy and wisdom of an entire nation.
I feel this loss acutely as a pattern that repeated in my own life. My father died when I was 22 and my mother (who was raised in a Native household by her Choctaw grandmother) was murdered when I was 24. Before I knew how important this heritage would be, my aunt, who had very close ties to the Choctaw Nation, died of breast cancer. I was in my mid-thirties.
I carry all of these truths in my blood, in my bones.
But still I do not fully understand racism as it applies to people of color because my skin is white and because my mother chose to virtually disown our Choctaw heritage. I have white privilege in this society and I was raised in the heart of that privilege.
These are all things I am coming to terms with little by little. They are relevant here because I cannot come to this subject as fully a White woman or as fully Native. What great sorrow rests in my heart knowing what I do not know! What great sorrow resides within these inner divisions!
I need you to hear and to receive this sorrow before we continue, so that you know this bereft corner of my heart. There is also a much grander space filled with the promise and the prayers of my ancestors. But we will leave that for another day.
The reason I need you to know a bit of my heart has to do with the subject matter of this article. It touches on the very foundations of who we are as human beings and how our sense of ourselves and our understanding of the world are formed as a matter of science. It can be jarring to look at this material because it goes to the heart of our human experience and to the heart of what it means to be human.
As I sit down to write, the streets of the United States and the world are full of people shouting two things: “I can’t breathe!” and “Black lives matter!”
These events need no further explanation. They carry within them a sad legacy of racism and genocide that has dogged the United States from its inception.
The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism — the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft. ~ Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States
For all but the willfully blind among us, this is a settled reality, and it is this reality that brought Derek Chauvin’s knee down on George Floyd’s neck some days ago. Having witnessed this event as a nation, White, Black, Brown, and Indigenous people are all outraged.
Our shared outrage leads many white-skinned people to believe that we now have a shared basis for understanding racism.
In very fundamental ways, this is absolutely wrong.
Let’s begin with the very basic ideas we hold about emotion. We commonly believe that emotion is something innate that is triggered within us by external events. To best understand what I mean, I offer a simple example. In Western culture, a rainbow is thought to have six colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. In Russia, people see seven colors, including an intermediate shade of blue.
These color concepts become wired into their brains, and so they perceive seven stripes.
“Words represent concepts, and concepts are tools of culture. We pass them down from parent to child, from one generation to the next…” ~ Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain
This very simple example hopefully makes the term concept clear to you as something constructed within us, something that is foundational to the understanding that our brains also construct emotion based on these kinds of concepts.
“This brings us to one of the most challenging ideas in this book: you ‘need’ an emotion concept in order to experience or perceive the associated emotion. It’s a requirement. Without a concept for “Fear,” you cannot experience fear.” ~ Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain
So, pay close attention here: under this theory of constructed emotion, concepts are socially constructed, and you cannot have an emotion without the corresponding, socially constructed concept. Concepts are also how our brains predict and create reality, not as something external to us, but as something emanating from us.
Please! This is not my way of saying racism is not real. Actually, racism is a huge part of what forms the inner emotional concepts that in turn form predictions, which, in turn, create and perpetuate our sense of reality. Concepts are socially constructed. The social environment and shared understanding of racism give rise to emotional concepts, not the other way around.
We could spend forever on this idea. It is endlessly fascinating. But the takeaway doesn’t require that much detail.
Essentially, a White person’s experience of watching the police murder Black people is not the same on an emotional level as a Black person’s experience. It does not inspire the same experience of fear, even if we have a shared understanding of what fear is generally speaking. It does not generate the same predictions of the same social reality. It cannot!
We do not have the emotional concepts coded into our brains in the same way a Black person does, even if, like me, we carry trauma in our bodies and souls.
Emotionally speaking, White people and Black people live in vastly different worlds in terms of how we experience racially motivated, extra-judicial murder by police. Ditto every facet of racism. We can empathize, but we do not have the wiring in our brains to fully understand the emotional experience or the reality that flows from it.
Likewise, we cannot, and do not, respond the same way physically to this trauma because our brains do not predict (via concepts) the same likely outcomes. One function of emotion concepts has to do with body budget. Essentially, body budget refers to how we allocate inner resources in the face of unfolding events.
Do we release the hormones of survival (high body budget allocated to the concept of fear) or have a more modest physical reaction?
Literally, our bodies live in different worlds in terms of how our energy gets used in the presence of racism (and the corresponding potential for police brutality) because the presence of police and racially motivated state violence cause different predictions.
Might this difference account for why Black people react to the police with fight-or-flight (thereby increasing the danger to them unintentionally)? Even if that response is artfully suppressed in an attempt to comply? And isn’t it actually unrealistic for us to expect anything else?
This theory of constructed emotion dovetails with another scientific reality: neural pruning.
When babies are born, they have massive numbers of neurons. Their brains are, in this sense, like blank slates. They respond to just about everything, and their ability to predict and allocate body budget is not very sharp. They make lots of prediction errors until they start to acquire concepts.
We could also plumb the depths of this subject. But we don’t need to. The following quote sums up all I need to say in order to make my next point:
“As we grow, the intricate web of unnecessary connections between neurons simultaneously proliferates and is pruned down, so that it can more easily be navigated. We grow a tremendous number of neurons, with many possible connections, then get rid of those neurons and synaptic connections that are used the least… Essentially we go from a cluttered brain to an elegant brain that is optimized for our particular environment, according to our individual learning, biology and circumstances.” ~ Dr. Julia Shaw, The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory
Did you catch that? Optimized “for our particular environment, according to our individual learning, biology, and circumstances.”
A White person’s brain does not form the same neural pathways (retain the same synaptic connections) as a Black person’s (or person of color) with regards to the police and the reality of racism in the United States.
Literally, our brains form synaptic connections for different racial environments even if we live in the same community, even if we live in the same family, and even if, like me, we carry Native blood within us.
White emotion concepts and White synaptic connections are formed around racial privilege, the sense of security and even superiority that goes with it.
This means that racial privilege is not simply an idea. It is a concept, that carries with it the capacity to generate reality based upon it. Likewise, it has the capacity to exclude from our worldview, naturally and automatically, anything for which we do not have the emotion concepts and neural, synaptic connections.
Do you think I have overstated this? Have I gone a step too far in essentially saying that different racial environments formed our brains and emotional lives differently and that we, therefore, live in and create different realities?
“All sensory information is a massive, constantly changing puzzle for your brain to solve. The objects you see, the sounds you hear, the odors you smell, the touches you feel, the flavors you taste, and the interoceptive sensations you experience as aches and pains… they all involve continuous sensory signals that are highly variable and ambiguous as they reach your brain. Your brain’s job is to predict them before they arrive, fill in missing details, and find regularities where possible, so that you experience the world of objects, people, music, events, not the blooming, buzzing, confusion that is really out there. To achieve this magnificent feat, your brain employs concepts to make sensory signals meaningful, creating an explanation for where they came from, what they refer to in the world, and how to act on them. Your perceptions are so vivid and immediate that they compel you to believe that you experience the world as it is, when you actually experience a world of your own construction. Much of what you experience in the outside world begins inside your head. When you categorize using concepts, you go beyond the information available…” ~ Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain
If we accept this as true, it has tremendous implications for healing the divides of racism, which is a sick, sadistic, dehumanizing systemic ill for everyone from privileged white-skinned people to oppressed people of color. No matter the position we occupy in this dualistic system, we cannot ever be fully human because to be fully human, as Spirit designed us, is to honor fully the humanity in all people.
Each side holds a piece of the puzzle for deconstructing the racist environment and systemic structures we have created. Only together can we hold both pieces of the puzzle together. Once we put those pieces together, a complete picture of our true suffering and dehumanization comes together along with a picture of the possibilities that await us if we tear down the inner and outer realities of racism.
I witness this coming together in my mind’s eye like the Wonder Twins activating their superpowers. Suddenly a new world is illuminated, a world in which we stand together for the full development of our human potential.
But it isn’t time to sing hopeful campfire songs together just yet!
We cannot come together without true reconciliation. This means that White people must stop and hold people of color and Indigenous people in a special place for healing. White people must right the wrongs that constructed within Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) a reality of ceaseless danger and subjugation by creating true safety.
To do that, those of us with racial privilege must admit that we cannot truly understand the impact this system has had on Indigenous people and people of color. White and white-presenting people can empathize with this terrifying reality. But we cannot be inside the lived reality that forms for a Black man when the police approach.
Likewise, a White person with no Indigenous blood cannot understand my loss of culture and the continuing harm I experience from the erasure of Native people as an act of genocide. It is impossible for such a person to understand that my white skin hides the complete loss of context for my life.
By way of example, I have experienced two instances in the past couple of months when White women literally sought to erase what I was saying as a Native woman. They refused to accept the harm I have borne. This is continuing harm to me as a Native woman, and it is at the core or what is continually done to Native people, even if we have white skin.
So now, after admitting what I do not know, I will admit what I do know and include myself again within the definition of BIPOC.
Harm has been done! It must be undone, beginning with White people’s willingness to bear the pain of knowing just how much they do not know. It must be undone with the humility it takes to really listen and to give up the seat of authority on matters being described by those who have been affected by things like slavery, genocide, police brutality.
In the absence of this safety and this undoing of harm, why would BIPOC ever bring our puzzle pieces to the table so that a new reality can be activated? Why would we ever trust that our truths would be accepted, received, and digested by you?
Finally, beyond the implications above for understanding just how much we do not know, if the scientific explanations of how emotions and reality are formed stand as true, they open up a whole new avenue of healing. What was constructed within us can be deconstructed from both sides and every place in between. A new reality can be constructed within us and all around us.
I have hope. Hope as old as fire! It is the hope of red people taking shelter in new lands, and of a brave people constructing an honorable nation at the end of a trail made of their own devastated tears — theirs, mine, ours. It is the hope of deliverance cast into prayers by my ancestors along the Trail of Tears and by my elders still today.
“Draw in the breath of peace. What you face will be resolved. What you need will be supplied. What you hope revealed. Faith is your strength. Do not worry or waver. Peace in heart and mind, body and soul, enfold you. Peace, deep peace, surround you. Breathe in as if you were God’s first creation. Breathe in life and breathe in healing. No matter where you walk, you walk in peace unfailing.” ~ Steven Charleston, Choctaw elder, Zen practitioner, and retired Bishop of Alaska, Hope as Old as Fire
And so it is, and so it shall be in us.