I was sent an image on Twitter recently from a white working-class woman apparently in her 50s. The image showed two naked figures, a white woman and a black man (who actually had a cooking apron on). They were both in a garden, and the black man was working a barbecue, and nearby there was a table with rolls and sausages upon it. The caption read ‘Barbara always liked tucking into Patrick’s sausage.’
One of the most famous of James Baldwin’s quotes states that ‘to be a negro in this country (the USA) and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all of the time,’ (Baldwin et al., 1961, p. 205). My initial response to this picture and statement was one of discomfort. I remember sitting with it, staying with the feeling, wondering if what I was enduring was actually a micro-aggression (Cousins & Diamond, 2021). I found myself splitting, my mind breaking apart, the polls being ‘no it was only a joke’, versus ‘hang on, listen to your gut here, this is wrong.’ I stayed with this for 15 minutes, before sending back a message saying that I was offended and that the message was racist.
This blog, this month, talks about just how difficult it is to remain ‘Woke’. How hard it is to recognise the impact of the hatred meted out against us as persons of colour, and as persons of difference. Simultaneously, this blog offers one of the many routes in understanding just why narratives offered by the subject that anyone of difference is too sensitive etc, are a major part of the problems in resisting the painful experiences of hatred which so many of us endure.
Her: There’s other pictures in this collection, all with characters from different backgrounds. But because there is a black man in that one, it is racist? There’s a vicar and a ginger man in others. Is that bad against gingers? For the record, I’m not racist, never have been, surprisingly as my dad was. I just never thought it was funny. So, however you take it, it was never intended to offend you. See, I’m thick skinned. I can take a joke around sexism, agism or anything really. I can take any joke about me. Fat jokes, age jokes, I’m not arsed. I learnt to survive, some manage that and others don’t. I happen to be a survivor.
Trauma plays a major role in the experiences of the racialised other. The European propensity to title experiences like these as ‘micro’ has always been problematic to myself, and I have written extensively about the deep well-spring of existential death that hatred creates within the psyche, in comparison. Personally, I oftentimes find myself exhausted from doing presentations around race and difference. When I write these blogs they are either borne out of the midnights where I cant sleep, my ire at an experience of hatred keeping me awake, or where I need to rest post the creative expression of something difficult like this piece here. When, perpetrators offer their hatred, unconscious or otherwise, they fail to recognize that these experiences, like this message sent to me via twitter, are massively attacking, and actually quite traumatic to deal with for those on the receiving end, in their objectification, their projection and projective identification, and their failure to apologise for said experience.
We all experience trauma, as current research dictates (van der Kolk, 2015). The trauma of childhood, the trauma of abuse, or any trauma, hardens us. It separates us from our fellow human being, as well as from the world around us. We split out from our bodily self, rejecting our physicality out of a fear of what difficult repressed memories may be hiding within us. We can take up some very cruel means of distancing ourselves from the external and/or internal other, be they conscious hatred, to the abuses of substances of our actual body through sex or obsessive exercise, for example. Because of trauma we then lack more than just compassion for the other, we lack empathy. We fail to understand or recognise the pain we cause those closest to us, those who are acquaintances, and the world we reside within. It is trauma which makes us easier to manipulate also. It keeps us simple and creates a Stockholm Syndrome type of systemic oppression within us all, creating an unconscious alliance with our tormentors as well as making tormentors out of us all.
A child develops a thick skin to survive beating, be it at boarding school or at home in minority households. Ones ability to endure the slings and arrows, the slippers and chains, marks us out as having been trained, having developed the thicker skin this woman spoke of. We learn to put up with, the slope shoulders, to let the sexism, homophobia, the racism slide off us like the proverbial water off a ducks back. Our early, socially constructed years, teach us not to feel the pain of, the injustice of, the impact of, our many (mis)treatments. In fact, one of the ways we are taught to survive the subtle onslaught of hatred is by remaining asleep, denying that the malaise we feel, in our body, our mind, how we act out around our family or friends, is in any way to do with the hatred of systemic oppression.
Me: Please don’t ever use that argument about gingers in a comparison about racism. And a comparison about who can handle racism and prejudice is unfair, as it wouldn’t impact you in the same way. And lastly, what in the world do you think I write about? Difference, racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism etc. This is my arena. This is never just a joke!
One of the easiest arguments I hear from some people is that they have compassion for the other, and their struggle. For me this is the wrong emotion, and it says so much about the lack of action in the movements to create equity. My reasoning here is that compassion for the other is often done from a distance. It sees the suffering of another group, but the subject does not identify with it. The subject, this woman, in another message spoke of having compassion for those who have suffered, and I don’t doubt that she this is right. Compassion is therefore objective.
Yet, this is not enough. What is lacking for me is empathy. With empathy, we feel the pain of the other. We let the pain move us, to impact upon us, to hit us deeply. In those moments of empathy, the pain of the racialised other becomes our pain, their rage is our rage, their story leads and its deep felt impact becomes yellow brick road of our own psychological growth. It is a signpost along the highway of psychological individuation out of the deep dark woods of internalised systemic oppression. Empathy is relational.
Conversely, wokeness involves a rediscovery of our inbuilt empathy for the other. It involves feeling so much more of the world, including all its injustices and frailties. It makes us feel the pain and anger of our own oppression, together with the guilt and shame at the pain we have caused others. It allows us to utilise there Four Horsemen of Transformation on the path of our own Individuation.
Baldwin, J., Capouya, E., Hansberry, L., Hentoff, N., Hughes, L., & Kazin, A. (1961). The Negro in American culture. Cross Currents, 11(3), 205–225.
Cousins, S., & Diamond, B. (2021). Making sense of microaggressions. Open Voices.
van der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps The Score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma (1st ed.). Penguin Books Limited.