Racism, Disavowed History and White Fragility
Notes from A Public Seminar at the New School
Adrienne Harris — Introduction:
On February 1st, 2019, a powerful daylong seminar was jointly organized by the Sandor Ferenczi Center at the New School, the Austin Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Mass., and the Psychology and the Other Conference. It was the latest gathering in an ongoing seminar (to which we would invite interested participants: contact Adrienne Harris for information).
The day was an intense mix of fear, anxiety, and terrible reports of our American history. Sue Grand, actually, began with the history of Native American genocides in New York City. Over the day, we approached and fled from the inexorable flow of knowledge and information about slavery, genocide at our beginnings, and about the continuing effect of this history on the present experience for all citizens, of all races, classes and circumstances. The discussion at this seminar and Sue Grand’s courageous presentation asked us what is certainly among the most important questions for American citizens to consider: What have we done in arriving and settling in America, and how has history shaped our present, despite our denial, erasure, disavowal and fear?
What follows are the reactions of several participants who were present on that day, and some commentary by Sue Grand, the presenter.
Sue Grand gave a moving and deeply thought through presentation on the role of shame in white people, surrounding the history of Native Americans. The history has been unwritten or rewritten to extrude the genocidal actions of white settlers and place them in Native Americans as hostile and murderous. Grand mined the historical narratives which reveal that Native Americans mostly greeted settlers with generosity and saved their lives in many cases. However, settlers demonstrated abuse and genocidal behaviors covering the economic bedrock beneath the atrocities.
Grand reminded us that there is a “passive fading away” of the idea of Native Americans, which is also a lie. The mythologies promulgated by books and movies have been absorbed on a cellular level and make us further implicated in their vanishing from our consciousness.
“White wealth” has always worked to break down alliances between different social groups, making the possibility of reparative shame not possible. There is a pursuit of whiteness, of arriving into a class, race, and gender that is “safe and free”, which is the essence of privilege. We need to look at these divisions and the way we are pitted against each other, because of diminishing resources. There is also a manic defense about dependency, a murderous attack on the figure that cared for white settlers and kept them from dying. Natives helped feed the settlers and in return however they were faced by an extensive and widespread attempt to annihilate them.
Grand wants to make a space for “creative shame” that can be a precursor to reparative guilt. We live in a culture that is based on domination where we continue the colonization of the other. Creative shame is shame that leads to an intersubjective process, the opposite of splitting. Eventually, the question needs to be asked — what would it be like to give up white privilege, specifically at an economic level?
The seminar began by discussing a beautiful and evocative paper by Sue Grand entitled, The Other Within: White Shame, Native-American Genocide, on the convergence of past and present, and what it means to be a persecuted group of people, unconsciously participating in the erasure of others. Grand wrote about being in the Spanish Synagogue in Prague, looking at Jewish artifacts in museum-like cases, contemplating if these would have been the last remnants of the Jewish people had the Nazis won. In her reverie, Grand remembers being a child visiting the Natural History Museum in New York City, looking at Dioramas of Native American life, and is overcome with the links she has made between her identifications with the persecuted, and the routinized gazing at the representations of a people whose genocide has been transformed into the material basis of an exhibition. Grand writes that she is suffused with shame, and then, to herself, intones the question “on whose soil have I made my home?” With this as a point of departure, our seminar took up the question of how multifaceted shame can be, as a potential portal through which creative and empathic connection might be catalyzed. This was further thought through in her theorizing links between native peoples’ genocide in the Americas, the intractable and insidious ways whiteness (re)asserts itself, and the potential for shame to have redemptive value.
The latter part of the day centered on screening a documentary entitled, “The Work”, which recounted the process of a four-day group therapy retreat for men in which 3 civilians joined a group of inmates at Folsom Prison. Varied in their racial, ethnic, and class identifications, the participants of the workshop enacted, largely unconsciously, the sociohistorical dynamics and traumas that have happened on American soil, albeit within a holding environment that literally and figuratively could contain the emotions these men had been trained to repress. Our group processed these incredibly compelling, painful, and moving stories, and attempted to make links between Grand’s skillful theorizing and how the dynamics she wrote about are refracted through the bodies of real people, living in the real world, and which require real attention.
Although what I speak of below was only a small part of the day’s discussion, what I would like to write about is my response to the discussion concerning the “articulate” comment made by a white man in reference to a speaker of color’s presentation at the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) conference, which, as I understand it, led to an extended discussion of why the man’s comment was offensive. I see this as an example of one of many instances of reactions to “micro aggressions”, about which we hear a good deal lately; anything about using the “N-word”; much of the campus kerfuffle around safe spaces and traumatization or retraumatization caused by the verbal or written expression of certain words or ideas; the racist photo in the Virginia governor’s yearbook; etc.
Claudia Rankin’s Citizen, with its extended discussion of the prevalence of “micro aggressions”, shows how people are offended and hurt by them. I am surprised at the strength of my negative reaction to hearing about these incidents, but not about why. My problem with it is that there is far too much “macro aggression”, particularly in relation to racism, to be wasting precious time and energy battling “micro aggressions”. The time and energy that anyone can devote to fighting against any injustice or for any cause is limited. So it feels to me that all such efforts directed against “micro-aggressions” are a drain on our energy and distraction from focusing on the far more important “macro aggressions”.
To be more specific — I am chagrined about those Virginian anti-racists concerning themselves with ferreting out the governor’s latent racism (because of a photo of him in blackface), when they are living in the state which hosted one of the most egregious examples of open racism (and antisemitism), with a whole lot of macro aggression, at the ‘Unite the Right’ event in Charlottesville. According to the PBS Frontline documentary, the city and state authorities, including the Charlottesville police, the Virginia State Police, and the Virginia National Guard, all of whom were present in large numbers in Charlottesville for the entire two day event – essentially stood down and let the right wing marchers commit multiple assaults and one murder. So far, only one person (the man who killed Heather) is being prosecuted — this despite the existence of large amounts of video recordings of many acts of violence in which the perpetrators faces are clearly visible.
Adrienne Harris, Ph.D is Faculty and Supervisor at New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis and at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California. In 2009, She, Lewis Aron, and the late Jeremy Safran established the Sandor Ferenczi Center at the New School University.
Dr. Sue Grand, Ph.D. is faculty supervisor at the NYU pd program the author of The Reproduction of Evil: a clinical and cultural perspective and of The Hero in the Mirror: from Fear to Fortitude.
Jill Salberg, Ph.D. is a clinical associate professor and clinical consultant/supervisor at the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. She has co-edited two books with Sue Grand, The Wounds of History: Repair and Resilience in the Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma, and Transgenerational Trauma and the Other: Dialogues Across History and Difference, (2017).
Matthew Steinfeld, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, the Associate Director of Clinical Training at the Substance Abuse Treatment Unit of the Connecticut Mental Health Center, and a psychoanalytic candidate in the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy; Psychoanalysis.
David Lotto, Ph.D. is a Psychoanalyst in practice in Pittsfield , Massachusetts. He is the editor of the Journal of Psychohistory.