* Note to Reader from Part I: This is a rather long read I’ll warn you, and one that is organized more by the neurons in my belly than the ones in my head, but I audaciously, earnestly and genuinely hope that by the time you reach the end you will have discovered something new that will facilitate a greater empathy, awareness & passion for engaging in the life stories of different peoples. It started out as one post which I decided to break apart knowing the attention span of the average industrialized human being.
Part 1 will deal primarily with defining intimacy and with a bit of U.S. racial history, Parts 2 and 3 with my experience and observations. I would also like to make it clear that I DO NOT believe the relationship(s) between Black & White culture/people to be the only one(s) of relevance, importance or impact; it is simply the relationship(s) I will reference here because it is where my personal experience comes from and I practice not trying to speak others truths. Also, this is intended to be neither scholarly nor academic. It is what I believe today based on my experiences of yester days.
Disclaiming is done.]
– Part II –
I’d like you to do a small exercise here. Just take a moment and think of a situation in which you wanted to share something deeply meaningful or impactful with someone important in your life and they just didn’t care, wouldn’t even pretend to be engaged or interested, might even attack you for having shared it. They might be important because you care deeply for them, because of their position in your life or because of the ways in which they can influence your life; what matters is that they had impact. How close do you feel to this person now? How safe? Do you feel you can trust them with your feelings, your emotions, your inner world? Now imagine this scenario playing out anywhere from 1 – 15+ times a day when what you have to tell them involves race. Yeah, it’s like that.
I can still remember the numb anger that settled in me when we got around to reading Toni Morisson’s Beloved in high school. Many of my white peers complained about it, they didn´t understand why it was important to read this book, they did not understand the relevance of the lives of these rural black women in the South in their privileged city lives in the West. What hurt most about this was not the fundamental lack of understanding, that was merely frustrating, it was that they didn´t want to understand. I felt invisible; even if they couldn´t see the relevance to their own lives they had to be able to at least comprehend that there was a connection to mine and that that made it important… right? After all, it’s only fair that after going through a full handful of courses in U.S. history that at least one story out of the whole narrative be heard from somebody that wasn’t an old white man. More importantly, by not being open to the stories from my racial tradition they were not open to me; it was an unspoken rejection of my reality via encouragement to leave that part of myself on the bus when I came to school.
Intimacy is not possible without interest (remember) & they just weren’t that into me. We all know what that feels like, it’s awful when you actually care. That was the key the article gave me to unlocking the connections of my personal experience with that of a greater dynamic, the fundamentally abusive relationship between black & white at the group level. For white to be okay the reality of black has to be denied, something black isn’t too keen on; for black to be okay white has to listen to how white has hurt black, something white isn’t very excited about. Both have to be vulnerable & open to hearing & sharing things about themselves which they’ve been hiding their lives, having all the frank appeal of wet shoes in winter to all involved. And yet, I think it to be easily understood that this is the only way to truly heal, to get past the denial and get to the listening, to be both vulnerable and trusting, and for both parties to be truly committed to the process. If you can do that, you can have intimacy.
To be very, very (very) clear: I am NOT making any form of claim nor do I believe that every white person is an abuser, nor that every black person is abused, or vice-versa; nor that all instances of interaction between people who are either self- or externally identified with these two ways of categorizing human beings are abusive. What I am claiming is that there is an abusive RELATIONSHIP between the two realities and that over time the abusive element of the macro-relationship will manifest itself in the micro-relationships and have a poisonous effect on them. Period. I am also claiming that we have the power to change this poison into water and restore the flow of love between people; and that it takes consciousness, intention and more than anything the development of a healthy relationship between the two, which requires this intimacy I’m talking about.
Now, the real the kicker, and the other barrier to intimacy, was that I did have an appreciation of why the lives of these women were so crucial to being an informed human being. I also knew why my classmates weren’t interested in learning more. It was uncomfortable. They were manifesting the group level relationship in our interpersonal interactions. All their lives they had been groomed for comfort and this knowledge, this information, this reality, was uncomfortable. I was groomed for this discomfort and had held it so long I could no longer feel it. It is a part of the rearing of every black person I have ever known to have heard some version of the “so there’s this thing called racism and in it you always lose, and losing is not fun” speech. It is openly discussed and at a certain age we all learned to laugh over the pain of its truth; it’s cultural, a survival technique.
At least I had some idea of the cause of my suffering. My classmates were suffering even if they didn’t know it because this avoidance of discomfort meant that there were countless roads left untraveled, and Robert Frost is right: our roads make all the difference. There were lots of questions asked, but only the most superficial, and generally offensive, ones. I’m not exactly sure when but at some point I noticed that if a peer were to ask me about my culture it would either be a question about rap, hair or slang. I wondered if I was putting more on it than was there and asked other black students if they’d had similar experiences. I heard the same thing, unless they were already friends with the person, those 3 categories represented the entire spectrum of interest.
Intimacy is not a one-way street and it is our relationships that nurture our development, the consequence of not doing so being internal stagnation based in a lack of diversity; we cannot eat only carrots & survive. It is common scientific knowledge that diversity is one of the not so secret keys to life; biological communities that do not contain diversity die because they cease to evolve. Take a look around you, do you see anything that can functionally exist on in a vacuum (that microwave needs electricity, that pillow needs a floor or a chair to be useful, your blankets need a body to cover to function fully & your cat won’t make it either, sorry) Evolution is the process of adapting to change and when there is no change, or difference, there is no adaptation. And again, as our interpersonal relationships can teach us, what happens in a relationship that is one-sided or lacking in intimacy? It dies.
The women of Beloved are my great-aunts, grandmothers and kin; the architects of my existence, the dreamers who made my life possible. This was also true of my white classmates; these women were & are the backbone of everyone’s existence in this country; it was their hands that held babies & their breasts that fed them, their backs that bent to pick cotton and scrub floors while those founders sat around thinking up theories on equality & businessmen made the deals that formed many of the big companies still in existence today. They were content to leave those women nameless and without personal human experience or empathetic consideration because it was uncomfortable. It meant they’d have to start asking questions that affected every aspect of their lives, and they, like I, were human and not interested in inviting discomfort into their lives. So they shut down their emotions and essentially left me & the other black students abandoned in a sea of stories, stories that told some painful truths that only we would hear because no one else would listen.
The desire to be comfortable became racism because they had the power to deny and ignore- sometimes supported by adults, de facto supported the culture at large- whereas I did not. This power differential, so ironically relevant in Beloved itself, was then used as a tool to intimidate, silence and dehumanize me and other students of color into not disclosing the parts of us that were related to these women because it made the white students too uncomfortable for them to engage with. My peers who became my friends asked me uncomfortable questions about race, they cared about how it affected my life, family & community, allowing for true connection. Interracial Intimacy- Part III