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When Christmas is Trauma
It is well-known that risks in mental health and substance use/abuse increase during this time of year. We know the different areas of stress and misery, but do we SEE them for what they are?
In the case of the estranged parent or child, it is the excruciating reminder of love lost. For those under pressure to gift the newest thing we’ve been convinced is a “must” it is a money pit. In general, it is the reminder that in order to fully participate in this annual ritual, one must BUY or feel shame. We talk a lot about how commercial the whole thing is, but the expense to consider for this moment is the relationship element. How expensive is it to be lonely? How expensive is it to feel empty? How expensive is it to crave dinner with the teen or adult child who has embedded the custom of pleasing the parent who has the most money to spend? How long does that person control that most expensive penalty for not getting their way?
I remember being told about a family in which the rule about gift giving a Christmas is that any gift MUST cost a minimum of $35. And one had to leave the tag in the package to prove it. Since this was many years ago, I suppose that number would be much larger today, because of inflation and so on. What is the purpose of setting such a rule? Why, even in moderate income families can it be shaming to reveal one shopped at a discount store? Why will someone pick up an additional job to have the money to spend on Christmas but would not do the same thing to create a retirement fund or donate to charity?
There are many bits of advice for setting boundaries, for feeling able to ask for the acknowledgement that can’t be purchased. In the end, when it’s known that folks spend too much shopping, that the uncle who molested multiple children still is invited to the family gathering or that where someone will drink too much and may create a row over old wounds, the best thing is to stand still for one moment to ask oneself, “What would happen if I withdraw?” “What would happen if I tell the person who needs to hear it that I don’t feel seen?” If the answer is some kind of fear, find out what that is based on. The answer might not be simple.
In my view, dysfunctional marriages and babies that are here of obligation, started as the guilt ball was rolling. (I SHOULD be married/partnered by now. I SHOULD be a parent by now. Staying in a bad marriage/partnership becomes NOW THAT I HAVE CREATED THIS BED, I HAVE TO LIE IN IT.) And by the way, if your self-esteem remains in tact, it’s easier to figure out how to run into the right partner, easier to have a baby or admit that being a parent is of no interest. Is that “should be born child” going to be an extension of someone’s ego, which then becomes the perfect battle ground when divorce comes? In my view, it’s partly what creates the situation where the bad relationship ends on a super-sour note and it’s time to use the kids as a (sometimes unconscious) point of manipulation. In this family that should never have been, it might be that grandpa’s money is the reason anyone tries to stay in his good graces-good presents at Christmas and more . It might be that it’s better to live a double life instead of letting everyone know one is gay. Christmas isn’t so merry when one isn’t comfortable in one’s own skin.
Don’t get drunk or high instead of relating to people, nor let that emptiness become what we call the process addictions, either: shopping, gambling, porn, internet-instead of true human interaction. That habit of “getting away” usually creates another set of problems that no one really “chooses.”
Instead? Stop talking. Someone has to eventually ask what happened. Leave the ball in their court and stay busy while you wait. Again, stay busy. And maybe it’s time to take yourself to therapy every week til after New Years Day, where we are supposed to have someone to kiss at midnight.
Find the other people who are lonely. Spend on experiences instead of things. From a behavioral standpoint, once a person changes, the rest must adapt. The beginning might be hell. But how will you know how far the rejection will go or what chance there is that the situation can change if you choose to stay in your own jail?
Again, get professional help if that’s what it takes. Don’t hurt yourself in any way. Buy yourself some emotional freedom. Find happiness in peace and quiet. Create a “chosen family.” Make happiness.
With the intention of raising crucial concerns and explaining visceral reactions to changing community it’s important to identify that the impressions of any one person is colored by their formative experiences, relative to gender, race, class and culture. The effort to identify issues that are subjective, but based in an inequitable historical context raises difficult questions. There is always more than one view. Like the blind men and the elephant fable, where each man describes the entire elephant from the “view” of the part he’s touching (i.e trunk versus ear) we have to admit to more than one perspective, then work to make that perspective congruent with all parts. This is an effort to describe the tail, I think-the part that is the hardest to grab, without having to dodge the feet that can crush you or the “shower” that no one wants to be subjected to!
Christian Lander (a white man) has written two books that spoof on (especially well-to-do) white liberals. The most recent is called WHITER SHADES OF PALE. The one I've read was on the NY Times Best Seller lists, called, THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO WHAT WHITE PEOPLE LIKE: THE UNIQUE TASTE OF MILLIONS. It was snarky and hilarious. And sad.
"White people love ethnic diversity, but only as it relates to restaurants...they send their kids to school with other rich white kids...If you run an ethnic restaurant you can be guaranteed repeat business and huge tips if you act like your white customers are adventurous and cultured for eating food that is not sandwiches or pasta."
There are many others in Landers' list that relate to this topic. I related to the culture ones most. All of them seem to relate to what's happening in my area. And as with most things of this complexity, here it's necessary to paint a broad brush in some ways, in order to make basic points. That’s to focus on something more than the exceptions to the rule, something that often hangs up teachable moments. There usually is an exception. But let’s focus on the global issues that most identify our places for social development, recognizing that one probably will come up with an example of something that might seem to refute almost any point.
It is not intended to toss every white person in the same basket, but to highlight the range of issues with a certain segment of white society that seem to be getting in the way of some of the progress we need to make. And it is the segment that is mislabeled, in my view. It tends to be the group that is highlighted when there is progress to be identified. It also can be the group that is invisible to discussions of the various nuances regarding racism. It tends to be the group that is considered exonerated from participation in privilege and racism. It is the group that is often far ahead of the norm, with regard to cross cultural relationships and positive political involvement.
There is a developmental process to becoming the best white ally. Everyone starts in their unique place, but that stepping forward is the virtual peeling of the onion. It’s a stop and go process. It’s a process that some people don’t know that they are on because they think they don’t have any more work to do. Certain segments of the communities of color hold some of them up as shining examples of how far things have gone. Some of them are married to people of color or have trans-racially adopted. Some segments of the communities of color don’t realize they exist at all.
This is the group for whom this essay was written.
Sometimes getting where one wants to go is tearful and sometimes no fun at all. Is it possible to go to that tough place, then move through without completely dismissing what feels quite painful? Can there be a grain of useful truth in that messiness, held til its proper place is revealed? I ask for self-reflection and patience with that fragile place.
I live in a neighborhood that is gentrifying. Other areas of my city have gone through this same process. And many other places in the U.S. have gone through this. But for me it is the first time to see it happening from the "inside." I don't like it. For the white gentrifiers, we people of color appear to be no more than so much colorful wallpaper, the backdrop for their privileged lives, so conveniently separated from the “true bigots,” the “unenlightened” who overtly hate people of color.
So What’s Gentrification?
gen·tri·fi·ca·tion noun \ˌjen-trə-fə-ˈkā-shən\ Definition of GENTRIFICATION : the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.
But is where you live some version of a political badge of honor with other white people?
The interesting part of what's happening in my area is that it's not just the poorer homes going away, replaced by more elegance. It's so obvious that the culture is being replaced by a group of people who appear to have no investment in what is already present. My life partner did, but I actually did not grow up around here myself. But my first arrival was years before most of these changes took hold. And I have been culturally connected for all my life to the people who’ve been here for generations. But I didn’t notice anything unusual when things first started to change. There has to be something to that.
In a university-level Multiculturalism in the U.S. class I was teaching, a student argued that gentrification is good because it adds things to communities where there isn't anything valuable. Not quite. But theoretically, other liberal white people move to neighborhoods that have been historically home to the communities of color in part, because they want the “more interesting and vibrant scene”, plus the convenience of the city. In my area there still is a political perspective that is generally liberal. It is still Democratic Party-dominant.
Who are the “new neighbors?” What ambiance do they bring to us? What constitutes an “up and coming” neighborhood?
Generalities, here: When there is a public event focused at the traditional community, white people are generally not present. Go in the newer establishments and there are generally very few people of color as patrons. (Look in the kitchen, though.) They are generally packed with customers within the first few days of being open. The prices are higher. The menu has "Americanized" versions of ethnic food or none at all. People are most often wearing plain muted colors, flip flops and sandals and those brands of athletic wear that “tell” on the price tag. They have designer dogs. They have a couple of smaller kids and super expensive strollers. They don't go in the couple of POC-owned operations that are left.
Businesses that remain and are people of color owned are doing okay if they are of a certain sort. Seems that they most fit into the categories that Lander has in his list, like “good” coffee and "ethnic" food. So many businesses have left with the brown neighbors. Some new business owners are of color but seem so imbedded in what I call the "new neighbor value system” that they are, well, just new neighbors.
School district fights involve whether charter schools serve the community as a whole or not. It doesn’t seem to be an accident that charters open as fast as local schools close. The closing of local schools seem to hit families of color hardest. It doesn’t seem to be an accident that the populations of the public schools appear to be getting browner, not representing the “new neighbor” influx.
A funny one: In my area, new businesses are named after the neighborhood that is actually on the OTHER side of the main strip. They don't know the difference? Don't care. Even though this particular example was about a neighborhood close by, it makes the point. At a community event I once heard a local standup comic say, “That’s not West Highlands! It’s just the other side of Federal [Boulevard.]” It is to say, “You folks came here and formalized/renamed/reconfigured things, but WE know what it IS!” So if this class of white people move to our neighborhoods but don't want much to do with us, bringing in all of "their own stuff", then we ARE just so many decorations, nice wall paper and paintings, the backdrop for the enjoyment of all that money that shifted under the last couple of Presidential administrations? But I think there are also white people moving in, thinking "the diversity" is one of the things they actually want. But what does that mean?
A list to consider for people of color who are moving into gentrifying areas, some of which would require the assistance of a culturally competent and self-aware therapist to tease apart:
(Maybe I see you, the “only chip on the cookie”, strolling with the “new neighbors”, on the way to the newest digs on “Main Street.”)
1) Were you raised by a family that taught you to strive toward acceptance by white people and/or to devalue your birth culture? That proximity to white people is a mark of advancement?
2) Were you raised by a parent of color who overtly avoided their birth culture?
3) Are you maintaining relationships with white people based on feeling okay about having token status? Are you so used to it that you don’t realize you are one in the lives of your friends or family? Is there a bit of pride in being told, overtly or covertly, “You’re not like the rest of them?”
4) Is the way you were raised train you to “not see” the ways that you protect your white friends/partners/spouses, to the detriment of your own dignity? For example, do you avoid situations that they will be uncomfortable in, but do not ask the same from them? Do you turn a deaf ear to racial, homophobic or sexist jokes or uninformed political opinions about minorities you do not belong to?
5) Is your identity one born outside of the U.S?
6) Are you transracially adopted?
7) Were you raised by a white mother who removed herself from your father of color’s culture?
8) Are there things about U.S. history and/or your own culture that you do not have a full perspective on? Were your ancestors subjected to huge institutional injustices like The Trail of Tears, Trans-continental Slavery or the Japanese Internment? Their views on how to navigate the white world are completely imbedded in those events.
9) If you are lucky to have enlightened friends, can you take care of yourself when they slip up?
10) Have you learned the terms “internalized oppression” or “colonized mind” and know how those concepts do and don’t apply to you and your family of origin?
11) Do you come from an extremely dysfunctional family of origin? If the elements/people who “saved you” were based in white culture/community, you may have absorbed the myth that most of your culture is problematic and best avoided. It is crucial for kids of color to see functional versions of themselves in adults, but especially peers.
If any of these are true, it isn’t your fault. Our families gave us what they knew, in their effort to teach us how to overcome the glass ceilings and carefully disguised barriers in our professional and social worlds. Our U.S. schools, for the most part, are supplied with history curriculums that are both full of myth and/or have avoided crucial topics."Until the lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter", says an oft-quoted African proverb. But what does it have to do with where things are for us now? We have to unlearn the myths, just as much as white people do.
However, it IS your fault if you allow it to continue. Why should we enable what precisely keeps us in our place and prevents our less fortunate brothers and sisters from rising above their impediments?
It could be that you are one of the things white people in your life are using, albeit unknowingly, to protect themselves from responsibility for deeper growth along these lines. Do you really want to be a part of that?
So, what’s the core issue?
Again, a feature of white privilege is in not having to worry about such matters. And the immediate consequences of such a housing decision can easily go completely unseen or unfelt. It's the fish-in-water phenomenon: Why should you be able to see what is literally in the air you breathe? But if you truly care about evolving as a member of our multiracial society, you MUST look. Where is that oxygen mask?
Progressive white ally Joe Zemek encapsulated this issue well: “…I think the first critical & unmeasureable ingredient is the number of people moving into a neighborhood who value multiculturalism & are geared toward full neighborhood participation & transcultural interaction. Knowledge/availability of resources is key...Where are the places in a neighborhood where we ALL interact--the places that aren't cultural cocoons… What fosters the initial positive neighbor interaction that sparks discussion & following shared multicultural activities that recreate the neighborhood's ‘quilt?’…”
What to do about it
Giving some white people the benefit of the doubt, I can point to some issues to start with. (It's been pointed out to me by white allies that gentrifiers are not good at being honest about their racial/ethnic attitudes. Let's pretend for a moment that's not always true):
1) When you look at a house for purchase OR rent, don't just research the crime rate and the "conveniences." Spend some time looking into the history of the neighborhood: its "original" settlers; who most recently has had the largest presence; the Native tribe that might still have a presence; the cultural celebrations that may not be what you will find in the mainstream entertainment guides and newspapers;
2) Drive around the neighborhood, searching for what might be locally-owned businesses. Go in. Buy something. Even if it's a pack of gum. Strike up a general conversation with the clerk about their history with the neighborhood. Listen more than talk;
3) Be honest about what you are afraid of and then spend some time talking with liberal allies about their origin, and what is real and not real about those things;
4) If you have friends of color, think about how much they are (or are not) attached to their birth cultures. Then ask yourself if you are only comfortable with people of color who mirror yourself. If that's true, then asking them what they think will not give you additional insight and you need to think about how else to get clarity about the related issues. See the earlier list focused on people of color for some clues about why that might be;
5) Compare where you grew up to the new neighborhood and be honest with yourself about what's behind why you care (or don't) about inclusiveness in your intimate life;
6) Spend money at local businesses. Every month. Stay in touch with community organizations and attend their events. Especially the non-profit organizations could use your financial support and volunteer hours;
7) Where are the concerts, museums and cultural offerings where people of color congregate? Can you be a minority in a group without (however silently) panicking?
8) Look into what you might be taking for granted, like the specific ways you benefit from white privilege. Or how culturally imbedded norms about work behavior or how to raise children are.
And if you are thinking, “Why should I have to do any of that?” or “That’s sounds like too much trouble” or “That makes me mad,” then there is much work to do on yourself.
9) If you are under age 30, it's pretty common to believe that this is an "old people's problem." I'm suggesting that you accept that the problem is actually NOT solved. The issues unresolved by the generation before you has created several issues that I don't see infrastructure or much language for. Please look at how you can examine this differently.
1) Mislead yourself about affordability of a home being the primary issue. It is a key feature of white privilege not to have to think about the global consequences of the choices you make, so even if this isn’t the first time for your consideration of these issues, then a fuller examination of your liberal-ness is due. If the larger house and/or more convenience are more important than how diverse your intimate world is, it is material possessions that hold more value for you, not being a full participant in an egalitarian multicultural world. People DO forego certain “conveniences” in order to deepen their relational connection to that “better” world or protect their children. You absolutely do have a choice, but be honest with yourself about what it’s really based on.
2) Limit your interest to “everything but the burden”, when it comes to people of color. Regardless of recent pronouncements, this is not a “post racial” society. And please don’t dismiss this as “one more example of people-of-color-bitching, when [we] actually have had it pretty good in recent years.” The existence of the 2003 book Everything But the Burden: What White People are Taking from Black Culture by Greg Tate and the 1957 essay by Norman MailerThe White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster prove that the issues related to what I’m describing are hardly new. Those two reading assignments might be places to start on your way to deeper examination about where you are coming from as opposed to where you THINK you’ve been coming from.
3) Examine what you’ve accepted as “acting cool.” Be careful of how you use the black vernacular. The supposedly benign use of the “N” word is an obvious one. The clunky mimicking of the improvisation you’ve seen Latinos do when dancing salsa can be another. It’s annoying for us to hear/see parodies of ourselves. There’s a difference between respectful cultural interest and what looks like shoddy, careless stealing.
An “I wonder” moment
On the street, during a sunny day, I heard that heart-shaking, thumping bass that makes one wonder if the people in the car can hear themselves think. I turned to see a sleek blue vintage convertible carrying what appeared to be four white guys in conservative grey and blue business suits, crisp white shirts and dark ties. And they, in gleeful unison, were belting out the lyrics to the rap song that was shaking the doors. I couldn’t help but smile. And my next thought was, “Do they have black friends?” I wonder what points of view have proliferated since these men have become fans of gangsta rap? Research suggests that there are positive and negative outcomes from non-blacks’ constant exposure. In my view, one of those negatives is that white people learn reinforced stereotypes at the same time they think they are being enlightened. That results in the mindless choices and behaviors among us that have direct and indirect impact on our relationships with you in our neighborhoods and workplaces. A section of the following article from the Journal of Broadcasting and Electric Media (March 2009) speaks to this:
So, don’t be a part of perpetuating a problem that, for many years, has been getting in the way of honest and egalitarian cross-cultural relationships. I’m guessing that most of us people of color really would like to be more than your colorful wallpaper.
4) Participate in “Columbusing”, the superficial cultural appropriation that comes with things like white-led sweat lodges, yoga classes that avoid the spiritual roots, Western (white) Buddhist sanghas, poorly choreographed and executed Zumba classes and that Blues that is really white rock and roll;
5) Assume that your international travel or study, missionary work or service in the Peace Corps is a guaranteed substitute for intentional involvement in the communities of color in the U.S. One possible element in your role as an “American” abroad is preferential treatment, based on being the world citizen that many worship. The infrastructures of some organizations are not built around addressing topics like colorism and classism the in their staff training. And as a tourist, depending on how you plan your vacation, you may not actually be getting much more than a “browner,” U.S. version of life in that country, a setting designed not to disturb your “American” entitlement.
6) Let white guilt immobilize you. Find a therapist who knows these issues and has a clean bill of cross-cultural health. (That means they have processed for themselves, this list of issues);
7) Shoot the messenger.
And it’s going to help us all if we have patience with ourselves and each other as we struggle to coexist.
(C) 2013 Sherryl N Weston MA, MSW, LCSW
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