GUEST WRITER: ANGELA OMULEPU
My old friend Angela sent me this paper last week and I am posting it here because I think it gets at a point I have been thinking about, and many, many others have been thinking about, for a long time. She writes about the paradox of the white man: his anger, his resentment, his guilty conscience. I know it is on one level hopeless to write about a category as broad as ‘the white man’. But recent (and ongoing) events, Trump’s election, mass shootings, the opioid craze, the Black Lives Matter movement spurred by continued police shootings of black men, the backlash against workplace sexual assault, and the general pathologies surrounding race, class and sexuality in America, require that we think about this entity, the white man. Angela’s perspective is that as painful as it is white men have been traumatized by their own ideology of racial and gender dominance, that the violence of slavery is endemic, and that the mass shooter, symbol of the white man’s resentment, is a terrorist. The paper is rooted in the work of Arthur Mindell, who advocates healing through listening and empathy. Angela’s background is vital to this. Angela grew up in New York City. She is African American, bisexual and the daughter of immigrants. She is also a Reiki practitioner, poet, artist and has worked organizing (mostly white, blue collar) health care workers in the rural northwest. As such she brings multiple perspectives and life experiences to her understanding of what the problem is and why there is hope that at this historical moment white men can change.
Mindell, Terrorism, and the Paradox of the White Man
California Institute of Integral Studies
“…permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriæ of the other.” (Jefferson, 1787, p. 158)
On the night of October 1st, 2017 Stephen Paddock stood in the window on the 32nd floor of his luxury Las Vegas hotel room and rained down bullets onto a crowd of unsuspecting concert goers at a county music festival. With 58 dead and over 500 wounded, Paddock is now credited with committing the worse mass shooting in modern American history (Grinberg, 2017). Why did he do it? Why did this educated, affluent white man commit such a heinous act? In fact, why do any of them do it? Data shows that white men are responsible for 54 percent of the mass shootings committed since 1982 (Follman, Aronsen, & Pan, 2017; Haltiwanger, 2017). Whether it be Dylan Roof, the mass murderer who first prayed with a congregation of Black church goers before shooting and killing them, the infamous batman movie theatre shooter, or high-rolling Stephen Paddock, there is something to unpack here. Could these acts tell a story that can be read perhaps as a warning sign, a symptom, a clue?
Exploring terrorism, as defined by Arnold Mindell (1995), and examining the white man as an archetype within the context of American history/American racism, this paper hopes to offer perspective on healing the white man’s psyche which has been deeply wounded by the racism, slavery, and colonialism they and their ancestors have perpetuated. While there is universal acceptance that racism is a plague on people of color (POC)—substantiated by reams of data on health care outcomes, wealth inequality, mortality rates, and so on—collectively we fail to grasp that racism is a plague on all of society, even on those who seemingly benefit from it (Sue, 2005). As Bowser & Hunt (1996) note, “Seldom recognized in popular thinking, even largely ignored by social science research, the cost of racism for white Americans is significant” (p. x). Thomas Jefferson himself knew in his heart that the whole enterprise of slavery would corrupt, would make twisted the psyche of both its perpetuators, its victims, and perhaps even the nation, when he said:
The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and the degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it… From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do… The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves…and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. (Jefferson, 1787, p. 158)
Jefferson understood that what they were doing was wrong, but I wonder if he grasped the depths of its depravity and the impact it would have on the future psyches of this nation’s and the world’s citizens. I believe that the lessons white men learned from slavery still influence their psyches today and have created, for them, a deep internal conflict that has gone unaddressed to the detriment of all humanity. An additional complicating factor is the engrained practice of dehumanizing those deemed as inferior, which has resulted in a lack of empathy, often a precursor to violence (Haslam, 2006; Tettegah, 2016). To be clear, I am not arguing for the healing of the white man over healing of POC and those considered other. (I make the distinction between POC and those considered other so as to include women, LGBTQ, and people with disabilities in the conversation.) Instead I am arguing that the healing of the white man is critical because, to me, he is a serious obstacle to our collective healing and evolution, particularly because he holds the majority of this world’s material wealth and political power. In many cases white men are blind to the roots of their suffering. It seems to me that in his perched position, he, more often than not, casts his gaze outwards assessing the problems of the world, rarely looking inward to reflect. In his confusion and despair, he blames and sows the seeds of resentment; to the utter dismay of POC and those considered other, he feels victimized, disempowered, and discriminated against (Graham, 2017; Kimmel, 2013). These conflicting emotional states seem to have white men consumed with the fire of rage and a thirst for revenge (Kimmel, 2013), which, according to Arnold Mindell (1995), are preludes to committing acts of terrorism.
Mindell & Terrorism
From my perspective, much of Mindell’s (1995) work and prescription for organizational, societal, and personal transformation is about truth-telling and unearthing that which is buried. Mindell (1995) defines worldwork as a new paradigm in conflict resolution that “creates rapid political and psychological change based on how people actually relate to one another” (p. 19), as opposed to how they are supposed to or should relate to each other. Offered in Mindell’s (1995) new paradigm is a heightened awareness to the invisible aspects of this world and a process with which to tap into the realm of sensing and feeling—what Mindell (1995) calls the groups’ atmosphere and/or the “dreambody” (Mindell, 1992, p. 19; Mindell, 1995, p. 23). For Mindell, worldwork requires entering into “unconscious, dream-like” spaces to reveal the sentiments that are not being articulated explicitly. He says: “We must pay attention to what people say, but if that’s all we notice, if we do not approach the spirits of groups—the spirit of love, jealousy, hostility or hope—stalemates and repetitions of world history result. To achieve sustainable peace, we need to break through to a new level of communication” (Mindell, 1995, p. 23). Indeed, the evidence of a universal stuckness, and history repeating itself cannot be avoided. It shows up everywhere: the dominant group oppresses the others, the others struggle against oppression; in some cases, when the oppressed are victorious in achieving liberation, they simply switch roles becoming the new oppressor, the new dominate group, or as Mindell (1995) calls it, the mainstream. On and on it goes. “You hurt me and now I’m going to hurt you” seems to be this world’s tragic mantra. When will this cycle end? How can we get unstuck, heal the past and make way for the future?
Mindell’s discussion on terrorism is both fascinating and timely given the role terrorism plays across the globe, from Boko Haram in Nigeria to white supremists terrorizing the people of Charlottesville, VA. Since 9/11, terrorism is front and center in the good ole USA and around the world. Mindell (1995) says: “Terrorism is a spirit of the times when there is a need of cultural change but it is blocked. The terrorist becomes a ghost role. We don’t yet consciously notice terrorism, but we feel it and create institutions to keep it down. Our efforts at repressing revenge have made the terrorist an unhappy ghost lurking behind the scenes in our everyday life” (p. 90). Mindell’s observation that terrorism occurs in response to an urgent need for transformation resonates with me, and sets the stage to consider the terrorist as a freedom fighter. As Mindell asserts, “The terrorist fights for freedom and justice against another role, the roles of social power and collective domination. Thus, the terrorist is a potential ghost role in any group, anywhere, at any time” (p. 89). The notion of the terrorist as freedom fighter, for me, conjures revolutionary images from the 60s and groups like the Weather Underground who sought to “destroy US imperialism” and “disrupt the empire” (Ayers, Dohrn, & Sojourn, 1974, p. 2). They believed that “the duty of a revolutionary is to make the revolution” (n.p.). However, in recent years terrorism has become affixed to the notion of radical Islam stemming from 9/11, the attack on the World Trade Center, the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that led to the birth of the notorious ISIS. Mindell believes that terrorism can only be committed by those individuals who are not of the mainstream, those in disempowered positions who are so fed up and enraged by their plight that they are driven to exact revenge on their oppressors. Indeed, our mainstream media affirms this position as mass murders/mass shootings are not considered acts of terrorism, but instead are depicted as the deranged act of a madman, a lone wolf. However, communities that face mass shootings are certainly terrorized by these acts. This disconnect begs the question, what is the relationship between white men, mass shootings, and terrorism?
The Paradox of the White Man
Apparently, Stephen Paddock had it all, money, property, a girlfriend. He lived a life of luxury as a high roller: gambling as much as a million dollars in a night at one-hundred dollars a hand, and staying in the swankiest executive suites for free—such is the life in the world of high stakes poker. According to his distraught brother’s media account, Stephen was a good guy, well off, kind and generous to himself and their mother (Grinberg, 2017). Stephen had it all, worked hard, played hard, was law abiding, so what happened? What went wrong? Why would a person who seemed to have it all—white man (check), wealthy (check)—commit such a vicious and meticulously orchestrated attack? I call this conundrum the paradox of the white man.
In our polarized world the white man as an archetypal figure is worth exploring. A complex character of extremes, the white man is both hero and villain. In the mythos of Western thought, the white man is the tamer of the wild, the creator of civilization, and the bringer of rationality, culture, and science. He is the great father, in fact, God as we know him, is portrayed in his image. I will call this side of the archetypal coin, the Classical White Man and its opposite, could be called the White Devil. For many POC, the white man symbolizes evil, oppression, colonialism, patriarchy and more. He is seen as a greedy usurper, a taker of land, a raper of women, a breaker of treaties, the bringer of war and disease. To many considered the other, the white man, and his institutions, represent the ultimate obstacle to a life of abundance. Those in this subjugated position, so overwhelmed by the disparities they face, cannot help but feel rage against the system, and privileges white men have when it comes to policing, economic opportunity, housing, and so on. In this way, white men are perceived as the embodiment of evil and the tyrannical wielders of absolute power. However, and quiet ironically, despite being portrayed/viewed as the kings of the world, and creators/protectors of civilization as we know it, actual white men feel persecuted, isolated, demonized, and discriminated against (Kimmel, 2013). It seems he feels as if he is under attack. To him the concept of white privilege seems farfetched, maybe even delusional. The white man feels unjustly put upon. He feels others are taking away his opportunities. He feels at a disadvantage, that the tables have been turned against him to an unfair extreme. He now claims reverse discrimination and feeling victimized, he wants revenge. A recent poll found that “more than half of whites — 55 percent — surveyed say that, generally speaking, they believe there is discrimination against white people in America today” (Gonyea, 2017, para. 3). In his work exploring white male rage, sociologist Michael Kimmel (2013) explains, “White men’s anger is “real” –that is, it is experienced deeply and sincerely. But it is not “true” –that is it doesn’t provide an accurate analysis of their situation. The “enemies” of white American men are not really women and men of color” (p. 9). The question is who is their true enemy? Could it be our economic system, skewed by the shadows of racism, that favors big business while throwing the American worker under the bus?
The paradox of the white man is that he lives in a confused state of both privilege and what he perceives as oppression; he is filled with rage, but he is not conscious of the source of his rage or even what he is raging against. Additionally, the notion of aggrieved entitlement, the sense that what one is entitled to is being taken away by those less deserving, (Kimmel, 2013) cannot be overlooked when contextualizing white man rage. One thing is certain, he too is a prisoner in a system of racial hierarchy built to maintain the economic system of capitalism. What is the adage? It’s lonely at the top?
In a way, from my perspective, the white man is estranged from the whole of humanity; he sits outside the sacred circle of community, yet longs to belong, but has forgotten how to play well with others, so to speak. He is isolated in is belief of his superiority. He also, I imagine, feels the rage and resentment emanating from others toward him that he might interpret as discrimination. In some cases, perhaps for wealthy white men in power, the more isolated they become, the more they need and cling to material things, to wealth and status symbols to reaffirm their superiority, to maintain power. Indeed, here I’m reminded of President Donald J. Trump, who despite all his wealth and power, presents as an insecure narcissist bloated with rage, jealousy, and resentment.
In the case of low-income white men, the confusion seems even more acute. They toil day in and day out, live pay check to pay check, like their Black/Brown counterpoints, but somehow hold on to the false narrative of the American Dream, white superiority, and the promise of an affluent life (Kimmel, 2013). When the narratives do not add up, resentment brews and the white men of low rank (Mindell, 1995) turn their gaze to the others accusing them of taking what is rightfully theirs. According to recent polling data from “the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health… Lower- and moderate-income white Americans were more likely to say that whites are discriminated against — and to say they have felt it, either when applying for a job, raise or promotion or in the college-admissions process” (Gonyea, 2017, para. 2). Perhaps their feelings of alienation and frustration are indicated by the uptick in morbidity and mortality rates driven by the opiate crisis and high suicide rates in rural America (Case & Deaton, 2015; Stein, Gennuso, Ugboaja, & Remington, 2017). While there is no data supporting the notion that POC and those considered other have advantage over their white counterpoints, what people feel, and sense are real to them. I doubt any ordinary attempt at either dissuasion or persuasion would be effective in shifting minds at this point.
An in-depth discussion on economics is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is import to note that when it comes to wealth according to Kimmel (2013), “in the United States, white men get the lion’s share of that wealth. Between 1993 and 2009, the top 5 percent of Americans took home nearly 82 percent of all the wealth gain; the bottom three-fifths actually lost 7.5 percent of their income, according to the Economic Policy Institute” (p. 8). However, despite the racial wealth gap, economic factors are legitimate concerns as “real income has fallen since the 1990 from white middle-class men, and it’s been pretty flat since the early 1970s. The median household income for a family of four (in today’s dollars) in 1971 was $56,329. Exactly forty years later, in 2011, it was $50, 054…the median income has declined by about $6,000” (Kimmel, 2013, p. 10). Surely, stagnant wages, the loss of manufacturing and union jobs, outsourcing, the rise of the service economy, among many other factors have spelled disaster for all working and middle-class Americans, and disproportionately impacts women and POC (Kimmel, 2013). White men are not unique when it comes to managing the stress of this nation’s unjust economic system.
Dehumanization & Empathy
What makes this untenable situation with white man rage, even more volatile is the engrained ability to dehumanize others. Dehumanization can be defined as “a method by which individuals and social groups are targeted for cruelty, social degradation, and state-sanctioned violence” (Goff, Eberhardt, Williams, & Jackson, 2008, p. 305). I believe that the practices of dehumanization, that were implemented to justify and perpetuate slavery, still inform the psyches of white men today, and predisposes them to violent behavior. As Haslam (2006) explains dehumanization is “an important precondition or consequence of violence” (p. 255). Here in America, chattel slavery was particularly vicious. Africans, not considered human, were tortured in unspeakable ways. As a Black woman born of immigrant parents, I understand the legacy of slavery and colonialism for POC, but I can only imagine what slavery did to the neural pathways in the brains of slave owners, their kin, their ancestors. Communities of color often speak of ancestral wounds. Indeed, I suspect this ability, to dehumanize and torture, which has been handed down from generation to generation, is the white man’s ancestral wound.
Certainly, throughout history white terror has been used as a tool for repression and oppression—from slavery days, to Jim Crow, to the epidemic of racial profiling and the police killings of unarmed Black and Brown men. But, now white terror, white rage is spilling over, and is not limited to POC or those considered other. With the emergence of mass shootings as a white man’s crime, their ability to kill anyone, even other whites, is striking. Often dismissed as an anomaly, the racial identity of mass shooters “remains largely invisible” (Mingus & Zopf, 2010, p. 63) much like whiteness and white privilege itself. In their analysis of race and mass shootings in the case of the Columbine shooting, Mingus and Zopf (2010) note “by denying race a role in the explanation for the unanticipated violence by two white boys, the hegemony of whiteness is reinforced, given a position of normalcy, and made invisible” (pp. 65-66). I wonder is the white mass shooter acting out in order to be seen, to shed the perennial cloak of white invisibility?
Dehumanization is not just reserved for people of color or those of differing ethnic identities, but is also commonly “discussed in feminist writings” (Haslam, 2006, p. 253) regarding pornography and the objectification of women. It is not surprising then that, according to National Public Radio (NPR), “A large portion of the mass shootings in the U.S. in recent years have roots in domestic violence against partners and family members. Depending on how you count, it could be upwards of 50 percent” (Fulton, 2017). Researchers Goff et al. (2008) noted the emergence of neurological evidence regarding dehumanization, explaining:
When participants viewed targets from highly stigmatized social groups… who elicit disgust, the region of the brain typically recruited for social perception (the medial prefrontal cortex) was not recruited. Those who are the least valued in the culture were not deemed worthy of social consideration on a neurological level. (p. 294)
I suspect the skill of dehumanizing is transferable—the practice of dehumanizing one group makes it easier to dehumanize another. Further, it seems this practice has effectively lessened the white man’s capacity for empathy across race and ethnicity (Tettegah, 2016). Regarding empathy Tettegah (2016) asserts, “Most social scientists would agree that the ability to experience empathy for the plight of our fellow human beings is one of the most fundamental skills in the repertoire of human social behavior” (p. 175). The work of researchers Forgiarini, Gallucci, and Maravita (2011) reinforce the notion that racism and racial bias diminishes one’s capacity to empathize with others across racial lines. Forgiarini et. al (2011) noted that “Caucasian observers reacted to pain suffered by African people significantly less than to pain of Caucasian people. The reduced reaction to the pain of African individuals was also correlated with the observers’ individual implicit race bias” (p. 1).
At its most fundamental, our historical underpinnings inform our today—whether expressed through ghost roles, timespirits or through blatant terrorism (Mindell, 1992, 1995). Scholars Omi and Winant (1994) illustrate this point saying, [on the] “parable of America’s unsolved racial dilemma: …the racial legacies of the past—slavery and bigotry—continue to shape the present…It demonstrates how deeply Americans both as individuals and as a civilization are shaped, and indeed haunted, by race” (p. 54). It is no wonder then that we are stuck in a racial, economic impasse given the fact that white men overwhelmingly hold power and wealth on a materialistic, superficial level. However, it seems to me that their estrangement from community and, thereby, the spiritual world, feeds their internalized sense of disempowerment, alienation, frustration and rage.
Thoughts & Reflections
At the crux of it, Mindell’s work and process for deep democracy is spiritual work. It is the process of going inward, gazing upon, and reclaiming the disavowed parts of ourselves (Mindell, 1995). This is messy work that requires attuning to the dreambody and/or the underlying emotions and subtle energies both within ourselves, and the world around us. As Mindell asserts, “if the world is a mixture of containing our objective and subjective experiences, then worldwork must deal with outer reality by beginning with our inner experiences of it” (1992, p. 6). In the West, America in particular, we have been taught to believe many fallacies. We are taught to prize rugged individuality at the expense of community and fellowship. We are taught to hide our emotions and to prioritize the rational over what we feel and sense. Our institutions and politicians speak in coded language. They decry neo-Nazis in one breath, yet perpetuate profound violence against low-income and communities of color through their policies, economics, and legislative agendas. Our electeds attest to govern for the people by the people, but instead are beholden to corporations and international oligarchs. Our politicians claim inclusivity through the vote, yet work to undermine voting rights through gerrymandering and draconian laws that disenfranchise voters of color. At the heart of things, what we say and do are at odds; we pretend and pretend some more. Surely our denials have only worsened and codified our collective psychic scars.
Reflecting on the paradox of the white man, mass shootings and mass murder, I cannot help but sense that these violent eruptions are an expression of a deep frustration and uncontainable urge to burst out of the confinement—the limitations of our world, and how we have structured it. Also, these acts could be construed as desperate attempts to reclaim a lost sense of power in a world of disempowered people. The disempowerment of which I speak can be felt across race and gender. It is the feeling you get during automated phone calls, or at the airlines’ check-in counter when your flight has been delayed or cancelled. It is the pervasive disempowerment in the face of faceless bureaucracies and corporate loopholes geared at controlling the masses and limiting accountability. Yes, the conundrum of the white man is complex and nuanced, but is one that must be understood lest we find ourselves forever stuck in this racial/socioeconomic quagmire.
While I understand Mindell’s assertion that no person of the mainstream can be a terrorist, on some level, however, I diverge. Yes, white men by and large uphold and benefit from the sinister bedfellows of racial stratification and unregulated free market capitalism. But, it appears to me that the mainstream is splintering due to several reasons: the widening wealth gap; our failing democracy which is filled with elected officials from all parties who have turned their backs on their constituency in exchange for wealth and power; unregulated capitalism and corporate chaos—all of which have implications on our education system, the food we eat, our health, our media, the way we perceive ourselves/each other, on and on it goes. We are truly in a contorted state of confusion, dis-ease, and suffering. On top of everything else our collective religiosity sows the seeds of judgement and hatred between faiths. The face of the mainstream is morphing. We know that white men primarily hold power, but more and more white men of lower ranks will be left behind in a state of neither-here-nor-there-ness, in a type of limbo seeing themselves as great, but feeling less than, all the while being fed the lies that keep the status quo in place. The consequence of which is a multitude of isolated and confused angry white men vulnerable to radicalization and capable of committing despicable acts of violence. This where we are today. In a recent interview, Congressman Keith Ellison (D, WI) echoes this reality explaining that our representative democracy is being (has been, insertion mine) transformed into a “hereditary aristocracy… where we will one day see a very tiny group of very, very, very rich elite people in an ocean of desperate people just trying to hang on and make it every single day” (Goodman, 2017, para. 10). I am sad to say that this day is already upon us. The aggrieved entitlement of white men on one hand, wedded to an energetic field of repression and popular disempowerment beneath it is surely a recipe for destruction.
To me Mindell’s process work offers a powerful modality for healing. I agree that “if we repress one part of ourselves, it will eventually overthrow our personal lives. No one can permanently repress the messages coming from sudden thoughts or body experiences without becoming ill” (1992, p. 7). The depths of our societal illness cannot be understated; it has reached new lows of malignancy. Since writing this paper there have been more mass shootings, a notable one happened in a small Texas church claiming 26 lives. Congress has passed a most vicious bill overhauling our tax system that siphons money away from safety nets and working people, instead giving handouts to corporations and the (already) rich. The #MeToo movement has exposed the depths of our rape culture and predatory sexual behaviors by men in power. President Trump has publicly endorsed a child molester for Congress, and continues to fan the flames of racial/religious bigotry on Twitter.
We can and must peel back the layers of lies and misinformation to unearth new clarity, critical thinking, and heighten empathy across communities. We can and must tap into processes that bring awareness to our inner/outer worlds and realign with that which connects us. We can, and we must grieve and cry together at the state of our precious earth and our wounded communities. As Mindell astutely asserts, “people yell when no one is listening” (p. 162). The yells and cries of the oppressed often fall on deaf ears, while the oppressors carry on with their self-serving agendas, but we have seemingly reached a new pinnacle where the comforts of white privilege may no longer be enough to hide behind in a world of increasing disparities. For so long the denials about racism and oppression in America have haunted the psyches and lives of POC. Racial issues have been portrayed as a “black problem” implying “that the issue resides solely with African Americans” (Bowser & Hunt, 1996, p. ix) for example, but the truth is racism is the very affliction that must be resolved for all humanity’s evolution. This is our task, to heal and this is the work that all people of conscious must engage in now. White men in particular, and men in general, must be brought along to take their seat in the sacred circle of humanity. POC too, and all communities, marginalized or not, must do the spiritual work of going inward to identify and reclaim our disavowed parts, to burn the wood of resentment and past hurts. Mindell’s worldwork and process for deep democracy is a potent and necessary approach that might offer a path forward for us all. In closing, I agree with Mindell’s (1996) reflection that:
Healing ourselves and our communities requires a healing hall, a community center, a wailing wall. The Western world, especially, needs such multicultural forums where feelings can be expressed, people can weep, people can rage, and where we can be channels for each other. If one person changes because of a deeply felt experience, everyone benefits. (p. 165)
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