In recent weeks, I have been writing about various characteristics of white supremacy culture in order to help white folks understand what white supremacy culture is and how we are harmed by it. My hope in writing these posts is to motivate white people to start doing the work of uprooting white supremacy culture from our own hearts and minds. This week’s post is about white supremacy culture and defensiveness and denial.
When you love someone, it can be so saddening to see them in pain. But when you can see how their pain is self-caused, or how their reaction to their pain is only making things worse, the sadness is often covered over by frustration and helplessness. If you have ever tried to help a loved one see the error of their ways, it probably only added to your exasperation when they denied the truth and got defensive on top of it. “I’m just trying to help you!!” That’s what this characteristic of white supremacy culture feels like from the outside, but what if I told you that all of us are also trapped in our own webs of defensiveness and denial just by living in a traumatized culture.
It’s no secret that people generally try to avoid pain. As animals, it’s a basic part of our survival strategy, and in general it works pretty well. As exceptionally intelligent animals, however, this tendency to avoid pain also extends into the avoidance of painful subjects, because ideas themselves can be painful. This kind of denial requires that we find some way to convince ourselves that the pain doesn’t exist, or that the painful idea isn’t true. Many of us use avoidance strategies, which all boil down to some form of addictive attachment, whether it be to a substance, a behavior, or another person. I myself have made use of unhealthy attachments to food, drugs, entertainment, and relationships, all in the service of avoiding pain that stems from ancestral trauma, my parents’ divorce, and the disconnection and conflict that characterizes my family relationships, among other sources.
The most immediate problem with denial, of course, is that while we may be able to fool ourselves, it isn’t so easy to fool the people who know and love us. That’s where defensiveness comes in. Anytime someone tries to make us look at what we have been avoiding, we find ways to make that process painful for them. We argue, we get mad, we turn it around on them, sometimes we get physically violent or lash out in other destructive ways. We defend ourselves from reality like our lives depend on it, and in a way they do. Our lives as we have currently constructed them could not continue if we faced the truth.
So how does this relate to white supremacy culture? White identity is steeped in denial. Denial about our past (enslavement of Africans, genocide of native Americans), and therefore denial about our present (what the current social order says about people from different groups). And since the people who know and love us, and therefore would be in a position to try to help us look at reality, are often other white people (because of the legacy of segregation, housing discrimination, and white flight) and therefore are also subject to the same denial, we rarely have to feel the discomfort that we are working so hard to avoid. This is the idea behind white fragility. The phrase is not meant to be pejorative, but rather descriptive. White people can be notoriously defensive and argumentative when basic facts of US history and racial inequality are raised. This defensiveness should alert us to the presence of a monumental reservoir of pain lying below our collective level of consciousness as white people.
But what is the source of this pain? It isn’t just one thing, but here are a few likely candidates:
- Horror at the recognition of the harmful impact our ancestors have had on the world and its inhabitants, and of the various ways in which our current lifestyles depend on that legacy of injustice. Our avoidance of this horror also stems from either/or thinking, which causes us to think that we are bad if we have any connection to a harmful legacy.
- Ancestral trauma going back generations that initially prompted our ancestors to trade in their humanity for the “psychological wage of whiteness.”
- The various ways in which our modern lifestyles disconnect us from our basic needs: nutrition, movement, nature, spirituality, community, etc.
So where does this leave us? At the start of this article I said that we are all trapped in a web of defensiveness and denial. No matter our race, if we were raised anywhere near western culture, we have learned the habit of unconsciously turning away from sources of pain, to our own detriment. Even if you are a white person who is well-educated about our nation’s racial history, I encourage you to look more closely at your life and ask yourself what painful realities you have been avoiding, and the cost of that avoidance:
- Is your way of making a living in alignment with your values?
- Are you able to be your full self in all of your important relationships?
- Are you taking care of your mental, physical, and emotional health in the best way that you can?
- When you sit quietly with yourself, are you able to feel at peace?
Growing up half white and half Iranian and attending Berkeley public schools as a kid gave me a much more robust racial consciousness than most white people in our culture, but when 2020 hit, I wasn’t much more prepared than my fellow whites to change my life in the ways it needed to be changed for me to be a part of the change that our world needs. In short, despite the many years of work I had already put into my own healing, I realized that I had a lot more work to do and it was mostly in the areas that I had avoided looking at for most of my life.
If we are going to have any hope of making a positive difference in the world, overcoming our denial and defensiveness about external realities is only part of our work. Our personal and collective effectiveness will rise or fall with our ability to look deeply into ourselves at what we have been guarding and take values-driven action to become the change we want to see in the world.
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Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California (LMFT#123099; licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Jon Reynolds) and a coach for HELPAs (Healers, Educators, Leaders, Parents, Activists & Artists) wanting to build a life of sustainable selfless service. To work with Nauser, send an email to nauserbeartherapy at gmail dot com, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.
Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.