My Personal Journey Begins . . .
“If you only work on your personal hurts without examining how you participate in the systematic oppression of groups of people and unwittingly participate in your own group’s oppression, it’s like digging yourself out of a pile of manure with a teaspoon and a big steam shovel comes and dumps another load of manure on you.”
My journey of understanding and committing to actively work to overcome racism began when I attended a workshop for teachers and leaders in Reevaluation Counseling (RC). This grassroots, international organization teaches people how to listen in a way that helps the individual release unwanted painful emotions and reevaluate an experience of a present or past event.
I had come to this workshop because I was a single parent with little income and a lot of emotional baggage from my childhood. I was looking for resources to help me confront my childhood demons. RC was inexpensive and one could arrange as many “listening sessions” as one was willing to give back.
The workshop leader (and founder of RC), Harvey Jackins, lectured on a variety of subjects, one of which was the value of addressing societal oppression. The thing that caught my attention was when he said that if one wanted to heal past hurts from our past, it was important to stop participating in societal oppressions like racism and to also stop cooperating with the oppression(s) affecting one’s own group such as sexism. He specifically said, “If you only work on your personal hurts without examining how you participate in the systematic oppression of groups of people and unwittingly participate in your own group’s oppression, it’s like digging yourself out of a pile of manure with a teaspoon and a big steam shovel comes and dumps another load of manure on you.”
Since my pile of manure was pretty high already, he had my full attention. Anything that would help me recover from my childhood trauma, I was ready to try. During that same workshop, Harvey did several demonstrations with individuals showing how we could use the counseling techniques for others as well as ourselves. One of the demonstrations was most memorable. Harvey worked with a woman of African heritage. She was a heavy set woman with a dynamic smile and presence. He asked her, “What is just great about being a woman of African heritage living in the United States?”
As she began to tell Harvey and the workshop participants what was great about being a woman of African heritage living in the United States, she began to cry. Her tears soon turned into sobs, and then a kind of howling pain. It was a kind of pain that I had never heard expressed in an adult human cry. As the question was designed to do, it gave her what RC would call a “balance of attention”. As she recalled what was great, what also floated into her consciousness were memories of suffering from discrimination because she was a woman with dark skin and prominent African features and trying to keep her son safe from all the racial hatred that they both experienced almost daily in the US.
I was taken aback by her level of suffering. I hadn’t put two and two together—that individual prejudices like those evident in my own family, if they are wide-spread throughout a society, caused massive injustice and suffering for those targeted by those prejudices. I also identified with the pain and the terror she felt. She was unprotected. The majority of society did not recognize or stop the injustices that were happening to her; just as family members did not recognize or stop the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse that I experienced as a child. Her pain touched me deeply.
At the end of Harvey’s counseling demonstration with this woman, she looked powerful and emotionally free as people often do when they do this kind of healing work. She looked out at the group and gave us a challenge. She quoted Minister Martin Niemoller who was killed by the Nazis during the Second World War in Germany:
“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
She then asked each of us to be her “ally” and to stand with her against racism, “You be there when the lynch mob comes for me and I’ll be there for you,” she said. Harvey asked us to raise our hands if we agreed to this commitment. As I raised my hand, I made the commitment in my heart as well. I never wanted anyone to suffer alone and unassisted as I had suffered as a child.
So my journey to be an ally against racism began. It has now been almost forty years since that life transforming experience. Harvey’s promise held true. As I stopped participating in societal oppression such as racism and my own internalized sexism, I began to heal my childhood hurts at a galloping pace. Along the way as I reclaimed myself, I began to teach what I was learning. I soon discovered that I had a unique way of addressing the problem of racism that helped people overcome their prejudices against “the other” and to actually fall in love with one another. Hard to believe but true.