A Word Missing from the Race Conversation

Milagros Phillips

March 6, 2019

As people go back and forth about race, racism and racist attitudes in America, we rarely hear the word healing as part of the discourse. Healing speaks of injury, abuse, and pain. It is a process that requires time, and when it comes to race, many of us are out of patience. But we are wounded and wounds require healing. This wound is our common ground.

As Americans, we seem to be stuck in the initial stages of the healing process. In order to move forward, we have to understand where we’re stuck. To get unstuck we have to take responsibility for the wound and work on healing it.

In the first stage, denial, we sense that something is wrong. We know this because every time someone broaches the topic of race, we get triggered, uncomfortable, and want to change the subject. In denial, we alter the narrative, create excuses, defend ourselves and do anything to avoid the subject. In denial, nothing changes. There’s nothing to change because there’s nothing wrong, except we get triggered every time someone mentions the word race.

At some point, something gets through. Some story, some word, some visual penetrates our well-constructed denial and we acknowledge that what we were in denial of is real. This is where we move into the next stage: awareness.

Awareness can be difficult. It makes the invisible visible. Suddenly the dysfunction is everywhere and can feel disorienting. For some awareness means being conscious of privilege or the various forms of oppression. For some, awakening becomes external. We see the dysfunction ‘out there’, in other people and other places. It’s too ugly a reality to see in ourselves. We see that ‘Uncle Bobby’ is a racist. We hear the neighbor’s racist rant, the racist taunt at the ball game, the racist joke at the party. The racism has always been there and we’ve heard people speak of it. Now, we can see it, and what we see makes us angry. However, we are angry with ‘those people over there’. We are not yet angry with ourselves.

Anger is the third stage of a nine-stage process, and the most feared. We fear our own anger and that of others. It is the natural outcome of feeling deceived, oppressed, abused and having been lied to. Anger happens when we find out we have built our lives on a lie. We can no longer hide from the truth, and look for someone to blame.

We blame the zealots, the supremacists, the white nationalists, the Black activists, Black Lives Matter, the NAACP, Kevin Kaepernick, Spike Lee, or anyone currently in the news. In the blame game, we fail to see our personal need for healing. We waste time looking out there when we need to be looking right here — ‘how have I consciously or unconsciously colluded with the dysfunction?’ ‘What we do about it?’ These are good questions for everyone living in a racialized society because we all collude with the dysfunction in one form or another.

Seeing ourselves as part of the problem is progress. If we can see ourselves as part of the problem, we can choose to be part of the solution. However, in order to be part of the solution, we need a more expansive view of the problem. Without understanding the bigger picture, we live in blame, accusation, and defense, and we stay stuck.

Today we live under a national racial caste system. Just like the Spanish Castas of old, everyone in the society is assigned membership at birth. Our position in that system determines our opportunities in life. Where we fall in the caste system is determined by the amount of melanin in our skin, facial features, and hair texture. The more we look like the people who established the system, the better our chances are in life. That doesn’t mean that if we’re dark skinned we can’t succeed, nor does it guarantee that our lack of melanin will make us a success. What it does mean is this: the less melanin, the more the odds are stacked in your favor.

Once we awaken from denial, anger surfaces regardless of where we fall in the racial caste. Those with the least amount of melanin feel angry and betrayed because they have been infantilized, treated as if they can’t handle the truth, their real history kept from them and lied to. They are confused because their hard work made their privilege invisible, and often suffer from impostor syndrome. They feel anger for being deceived, having formed a world view on misinformation. They unconsciously felt superior and disconnected from people who look different from themselves, because of what they learned about others. Now they have to reformulate and restructure their world view and view of self.

The people with melanin find themselves, at best, having to work harder to achieve the same results in life as those with less pigmentation. At worst they find earning less and working several jobs. Many live in “redline” prisons, educating their children in schools with no heat, old books, or internet. Those who make it out are punished for pointing out disparities and are used as a warning to others who want to do the same. Those who live their lives without looking back are used as the example for people of color to follow, and to shame those who can’t do the same.

So individually, what can one do? Don’t ignore anger, use it constructively. Anger means we’re no longer in denial, asleep and numb to self and others. It means that we are awake and alive. Anger is energy moving through and can be a catalyst that moves us to action.

Learn as much as possible about structural, systemic and institutionalized racism. we can’t deconstruct what we don’t understand. Learn the ways of the racial caste system, its history and how it functions, how people are assigned privilege based on melanin or lack thereof. Take personal responsibility for feelings, emotions, words, and actions. Stop the blame game. Know what words trigger you. When people of color say something is wrong, believe them. Stop being defensive. We can’t learn if we are in defense mode. Be open and curious, there’s always more to learn.

Seek diversity in personal relationships but don’t use people of color to absolve, or excuse racist attitudes, behaviors or rhetoric. Take responsibility for the training internalized under our racial caste system and the ways it affects us. It’s okay to get discouraged, but don’t stay there, there is always something you can do. You are more powerful than you think. Be self-forgiving and self-compassionate.

Remember that racism is not your fault, but changing it, and healing from it is our individual and collective responsibility.

Milagros Phillips is an Author, Speaker, Diversity Coach, and the creator of Race Demystified, a 2-day training that transforms the way participants view race.

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