Whiteness and Me

In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine Section, Emily Bazelon argues that “White people are noticing something new: their own Whiteness.” “The Trump era,” she says, “has compelled an unprecedented acknowledgement of whiteness as a real and alarming force.”  For over a century, Black Americans like WEB Dubois, James Weldon, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, have been alerting us to this ‘force.’  At the risk of great over simplification, let me summarize their argument:  Racism has not only damaged people of color; it has also served the purpose for White Americans of externalizing and disguising our own racial self-loathing.

As far as anyone can tell, I am a White Man, a member of the dominant group in our society.  In that “role” I have participated in and, therefore, perpetuated an oppressive and racist society.  Yet I am equally clear that I don’t identify as a White Man. Where, then, do I stand and what is my responsibility?  And what is yours?

These are hard and possibly harsh questions, and you may ask: Why now?  Why would a 76 year old man be asking them?  Haven’t I done what I can do in the political world?  Haven’t I come to terms with my legion of failures and insufficiencies?

Here’s why: I think that old age is a time of reckoning, a time to put my life into perspective—including a moral perspective—in order to live peacefully, to get right with myself for this last phase.

For me, few aspects of life remain painfully up in the air and demanding of intense scrutiny.  I ask myself, for instance, “Have I been a decent and trustworthy person?  Have I been kind and generous enough?  Have I been a good enough husband and father?”  While I readily acknowledge that  I am deeply flawed and I could spend hours enumerate my shortcomings, I have mostly come to terms with them. I can say, in a way that is internally comfortable: “I have limitations, but I have been good enough.”

There are areas where I am less certain but still not tormented.  For instance, in the age of Me Too, I need to determine whether I’ve been respectful and loving enough to women and girls—my wife, my daughter, my daughter-in-law, my friends, my students, my patients. I think I have but I know that I have also fallen down along the way.  My conclusion?  I have done as well as I could, but thankfully I am still learning.  I can change.  I think this experience of learning saves me from coming up against an implacable moral wall.  As a result, I am generally comfortable with the incompleteness.

Political engagement is an arena in which I have come up short.  I think right, talk right, but act too little.  I don’t see myself changing much.  My reckoning in this arena has required me to find ways to forgive myself for my limitations.

Now back to race and racism.  The first premise of Whiteness Studies that Bazelon features seems to be the inescapability of our skin color.  I get this idea and I partly yield to it.  But I also object in much the same way that people of color object.  They have been grouped as Black by others — by Whites — despite the great variety of origins, cultures, personalities, and, yes, skin colors.  What could be worse than other people defining who you are, no less defining you as lesser beings?  Whites have been able to do this because of their economic and cultural dominance.  As the dominant group, they see themselves as the norm and as the arbiter of what is normal and good.  White people suffer far, far less by being defined by others but I still object to both “White” (“Critical Studies” theorists) and “Black” people telling me I am White, with all the dark connotations that Whiteness now implies.

Yes, I have been ‘privileged’ because my skin color lets me pass as a member of the dominant race. As a result, I have gone to good schools and found professional success; all along, I have believed that my success was purely my own, without a cultural boost.  As an adult, I have lived in prosperous communities with excellent schools that virtually guaranteed that my children would find success, and they have.  Though I am aware of their privilege, too, I couldn’t help believe that they succeeded on their merits.

I have never believed that people of color have equal opportunity, and I have voted for every politician and every policy that seeks to change the social and economic status quo.  In that limited sense, I have given voice to these values, but I have neither refused the fruits of Whiteness nor devoted enough of my life to fighting inequality and racism.  In that sense, I have participated in and therefore supported, an unjust and racist society.

This support has been particularly hard to swallow because the values of equality and diversity were at the center of my upbringing.  I was raised to fight them in myself and others.  When my parents described people, they would begin by noting that they were either “Left” or “Right,” long before they would get to whether they were kind or interesting or good looking.  Left was good and emphasized diversity.  Many of the books I read and records I listened to as a child were little more than sermons about the virtues of diversity.  Paul Robeson’s Ballad for Americans still brings me to tears when it insists that all people, Black and White, Italian, Irish, and Jewish, must gather in common cause.  There is hardly a personal or political theme that moves me like this one does.

So I regret not doing more to further the cause, and I won’t feel right with myself unless or until I have come to terms with my position on racism and, of course slavery —  the worst offense ever perpetuated by this country.  As a country, we have never come close to making amends for it.  And I don’t know how we could fully come to terms.

I have tried, on my own, in a number of ways.  The first and most consistent is to reject my assignment to both the historical, and current, category of The Oppressor.  I do not identify as White, and in fact, I never have.  I have always felt myself an outsider to mainstream American culture.  Bazelon dismisses this way of thinking, saying that people like me prefer to identify ethnically, as Irish, Italian, or Jewish.  But Jewish is not the same.  We have long been a despised tribe.  From earliest memory, I have identified more with people of color than I do with White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs), or the newly romanticized working class Whites of West Virginia.  Jews, even atheistic Jews like me, are always at least a little on edge, waiting for the next pogrom, the next murderous attacks, literal or figural.  I have great White friends but, when I hear the word White to describe a people, I do not think of friends.

At 15, I tried to organize my community to charter a bus to Washington, DC to march for Civil Rights.  Not a single person joined me and many simply accused me of being a Communist, which, during their youth, my parents had been.  It was still the McCarthy period.  Red baiting was alive. I was isolated.  So I traveled with the Hempstead kids, on an all Black bus (except for me). I was nervous and exhilarated.  I did not belong but I was in the right place.

It’s not so easy to describe what made that the right place, but let me try.  I stayed true to my values.  It felt risky.  I was learning.  I was appreciated and teased, which felt both good—like I belonged—and bad—like I was an outsider.  Of course, I was both.  I was mostly pleased to be in that complicated place.

During college and graduate school, I continued as an outsider at Harvard, protesting,  sometimes speaking out, but often receding into the background and feeling mostly like I didn’t belong to a culture that still contained about 45% prep school students wearing their perfect tweed jackets, chinos, blue shirts, and rep ties.

In my early 30s, I realized that I was neither an insider nor an outsider.  Yes, I was a White professional, making a decent living, an intellectual, who still played basketball and avidly followed the Celtics and the Red Sox.  But I was also a divorced father and living in a commune with my four year old daughter. I still held political views to the Left of most of the people I knew. I was neither far out nor way in. I was a marginal man.  This realization upset me at first.  The term sounded Kafkaesque.  Then I realized that virtually all of my friends were marginal in similar ways.  And I relaxed. I had found a home.

That realization saved me from a life of discomfort.  I didn’t have to change dramatically.  I didn’t have to torment myself.  Marginality wasn’t the absence of place in our society.  It was a definite place, a place populated by like-minded people, Black, White, and Tan, and a place I wanted to be.  I still do.

In 2006, at the age of 64, I started the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership (INML).  Its mission is to train nonprofit managers to be effective leaders in the service of diversity and social justice.  The majority of its students and faculty are people of color. For the last 10 years of my work life I had the privilege of constantly speaking the language of diversity and justice and urging them into existence.  I was inside the cause, not pushing from the outside.  It felt better than all my successful years of being a psychotherapist and organizational consultant.  At the end of that period, I passed on the INML’s leadership to an immensely talented woman of color and stepped back.

I know how to belittle my work at the INML.  Wasn’t it patronizing, my leading an effort to expand diversity among nonprofit senior staff?  Wasn’t my success rooted in layers of White privilege, including my Harvard pedigree? Although I believe deeply that my colleagues and my students experienced my commitment to them and to this issue as authentic and deeply felt, sometimes I was nudged, slightly, lovingly away from the center of the action. I was called an “ally,” that is, “for” but not entirely “of” the cause.

At the height of my involvement with what is now called the Institute for Nonprofit Practice, I struggled just a little with my self-doubts (“do I belong here?”) and the muted doubts of others—almost all White people.  But by the time I left, I had accepted my status as an ally, my marginality, even within an organization I had founded and built. It told me that I was acceptable, even appreciated, as a marginal man.  Which I am.

So where does this leave me in my moral reckoning on race and racism?  To be honest, I’m not sure.  In a way, I may have returned to that 1956 bus ride to Washington, where I felt equal measures of uneasiness and exhilaration.  I was and am still learning.  I’m OK with my limitations and my status as an Ally. I won’t be excluded.  And I’ll live well enough with the uneasiness that remains.

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Wisdom and Me

I have always wanted to be wise.  So far, I’ve not reached wisdom’s shores but, on occasion, I’ve come close enough to make some reasonable guesses about the terrain.  Since my understanding keeps changing, decade by decade, let me begin by trying to articulate my current view.  Wisdom is the ability to make sense of experience and to make sound judgments based on that understanding.  It is the attainment of a peaceful inner life, far removed from petty concerns and injuries.  And it is the feeling of being connected with all living things and calmed by the loss of a bounded individual self.

As a boy I wanted to be wise because it meant that people might take me seriously, even ask my opinion about important matters.  At age eleven I wandered into a synagogue, not sure what I was after but drawn by the sound and feel of the chanting and the serious ways of the men.  I found moments of peace but none of the deeper meaning and spiritual rewards I had sought.

As a teenager, I began to think of wisdom as a way to rise above the fray.  Those were years of great sensitivity.  I was easily hurt, and finding a refuge from emotional injury had great appeal.  At Harvard, I came upon William Butler Yeats poem, Lapis Lazuli, which described three wise men upon a mountain top “whose ancient, glittering eyes were gay.” This was a metaphor that carried me for some time.  It was secular enough to allay my dislike of religion and romantic enough to soothe my adolescent soul.

I had grown up idealizing the life of left wing intellectuals, preferably those who wore  berets, lived on the New York West Side, published in the Paris Review, and argued passionately with close friends late into the night.  I now recognize the imagery for what it was: the dream of being a learned man, a secular version of the life led by my many rabbinic ancestors.  And, throughout my life, I’ve never strayed very far from this idea.  I earned my badge with a Harvard PhD in intellectual history and continue to read books on history and philosophy.  Maybe this was to be my path.

Before I completed my PhD, though, my mother’s voice began to demand more room in my mind.  Hers was the voice of action.  To continue the Jewish theme, she was suspicious of mere thinkers and believed in justice, tikun olam, for which you must change the world.  So I left graduate school to work at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, helping to write legislation and organize politicians in support of criminal and housing justice.  These were holy grounds, an expression of wisdom, I could believe in.

Then crises struck, one after another. The year was 1971. My father, with whom I had been deeply identified, died suddenly from pancreatic cancer.  My wife and I divorced.  I had a baby to care for, mostly by myself, since my now ex-wife wasn’t so inclined.  I fled the halls of academe, which then seemed self-indulgent and shallow.  My mind entered a state of painful chaos.  I craved any kind of action that would release me from my bleak and obsessive thinking.  I was lost, heart and mind thrown open in search of answers.

If ever I was ready for salvation and a guru to lead me there, this was the time.  But even in the midst of crisis, that was not my way.  Instead, I entered the spiritual pathways as an interested but skeptical onlooker.  I met people who were determinedly marching on the path towards enlightenment.  With them, I read Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki on Zen, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche on Tibetan Buddhism, and the wonderful Carlos Castaneda series about the mysterious Southwestern teacher, Don Juan.  I heard Baba Ram Das hold forth and attended three-day retreats at Sufi camps.

The secular commune that I founded, much to my surprise and chagrin, was rapidly transformed by my then girlfriend, Barbara-turned-Saphira–into a Sufi community.  We filled up with young and wide-eyed devotees.  Saphira thrived and I began to drown in their sincerity.  We were often visited by the international leader of the sect, Pir Vilyat Inayit Khan, who would spend the night.  I liked him and I believed that he had things to teach me but, as was my wont, I held back from devotion.  I could not dance myself into the frenzy of Sufi wisdom.

Over the next decades, I continued to read in the fields of mysticism, Buddhism, general spirituality, and transformational psychology, but I never found a particular teacher to follow.  Each time I’d come close, my independent or, some would say, my counter-dependent spirit would rear up.  But it didn’t stop my pursuit of wisdom.  I have continued to meditate for over forty years now—even though the meditation often becomes routine, neither inspiring nor even particularly calming.  I have continued my search for the perspective that brings calm.

The only vessel that has been carried me consistently towards wisdom’s shores has been my journal, which I have pursued more or less continuously for almost fifty years.     It’s a stream-of-consciousness process that, in itself, makes me very calm.

The thoughts, themselves, have been far less important to me than the calm and the process of discovery that the writing brings to my life. It feels like magic.  All I have to do is keep my writing hand moving until I lose an awareness of time and place.  Self consciousness flees.  I am still.  Then ideas, images, and solutions to problems begin to flow.  There are no auras or revelations that visit me.  But at the moment when I am still, I do feel like more than just myself.

As I age, Buddhism’s emphasis on the present has become more and more compelling.  For much of my life, the future was balm to my pain and anxiety.  If things weren’t good now, I could make them better in the future.  The future is quickly disappearing for me.  At any moment, I could become sick or infirm—or I could die.  Placing a bet on the future seems a bad decision.  Trying to suck the marrow of the present for all it’s worth is clearly the better choice.  My long term interest in Buddhism as a trustworthy guide to wisdom is finally the right idea at the right time.

At this point in my life, there are two seemingly conflicting ideas that are most compelling to me.  The first begins with Buddhism’s down to earth emphasis on what is right in front of you – real things, real issues, real people, real injuries and challenges, and real joy.  There is suffering throughout life, says the Buddha.  We know that there is a great deal of suffering in old age—aches and pains and, eventually, the diminishment of self.  These are real.  Running from them only makes things worse.  Facing them contains them.  The pain is just the pain and not symbolic of more and terrible experience.  By containing suffering to what it is, you leave room for other feelings, like pleasure, calm, curiosity, and joy.

The second idea concerns the impermanence of the self.  Here’s how this idea comes to me.  I might be walking, meditating, writing in my journal.  My mind is wandering.  Ideas, images, and experiences from my past come into view.  They are vivid but I know they are not exactly as they were when I first lived them.  They are just images and feelings now, not concrete experiences.  They have changed over the years with forgetfulness and with new experience.  They enter my mind also shaped by my current thoughts and needs—and by future expectations.   My mind has now stretched out from my beginnings into an indistinct future.  It has become timeless.  As I experience this timelessness, I enter a zone that feels vast, oceanic.  In that ocean, I am suddenly unattached and floating.  The sea of imagery grows quiet.  In that serene space, there is no self.  I feel conscious – so conscious — but not self-conscious.

I have no idea if this expanded sense of awareness is wisdom or just a pleasurable sensation but I’ll take it whenever it arises.

 

 

Seeking Inner Peace in the Land of Trump

I have been tormented by Donald Trump’s presidency.  He represents almost everything I despise: greed, selfishness, pretension, ostentation, and ignorance about important matters that affect the lives of real people.  There is nothing abstract about my feelings and I struggle to distance myself from them.  It’s as though I am responsible, that I could have done something to avoid this catastrophe.  Am I alone in this?  Do you also feel strangely, shamefully responsible for his offenses, for allowing America to come to this?

In an effort to free myself from the torment, I have been casting about in my past to understand why it is so personal, and I’d like to share some of what I have found, hoping that you will also explore and also find ways to free yourselves.

The obvious place to go is my parents and their attitude towards politics.  After all, research has shown that most of us don’t wander very far from our parental trees.  My parents took politics very personally.  Political discussion virtually crowded food from our dinner table.  Whenever their friends came for an evening, politics were front and center.  Everybody had an opinion, everybody was passionate.  Being cool, having perspective had no currency in our home.  Politicians, good and bad, friends and enemies, were the protagonists of almost every story.   From earliest childhood, it was vital that my parents’ three children understand political issues and take stands on them.  It was a measure of your citizenship and your value as a person.  It has always been personal.

The intensity of my emotional and intellectual engagement and the sense of responsibility for political outcomes has held firmly over so many years despite the fact that I’ve rarely been involved in electoral politics.  I read the newspaper avidly and give some money to campaigns.  I speak passionately about issues when asked and often, much to some people’s consternation, when I’m not.  But I don’t join grassroots organizing efforts.  My districts vote the ‘right’ way without my help.  Until recently, I haven’t written about politics.  Why? Paradoxically, it may be that my powerful sense of responsibility has kept me at a distance for fear that I could never make enough of a difference.

The next stop in this exploration takes me to 1945, the year that my father was drafted and sent off to basic training in South Carolina.  Alone and pregnant with my brother, my mother began to call me “my little man.”  That wasn’t the normal tone she would set as a mother.  Throughout the years, she seemed determined to balance my father’s ambitions for me with enough criticism to keep my ego in check.  But, drawing on that long ago time, I have always thought that I should be able to take care of every problem.  This, I imagine, was my first training as a psychotherapist.

Next stop, 1960.  I am preparing to leave home for college.  I have a premonition that the family will fall apart when I leave.  There was no evidence, no concrete events, nothing whispered in my ears to support the feeling.  Even now, I can’t figure out why I was so upset that I got sick.  The doctor came to our house—yes, they still did in 1960—and gave me some medicine.  It would be thirty years before my mother told me that he had given me a placebo, a sugar pill.  It worked well enough for me to recover and to leave.  But, in fact, my family did deteriorate badly when I went off, and my sense of importance was confirmed.  No doubt, my feeling represented a child’s grandiosity, but it is through events like this that our relationship to the world is built.

A year later, as I approached Eliot House, my Harvard dorm, there was my father waiting for me.  He was unannounced and unexpected.  Without preamble, my father, normally a sober, contained, and soft-spoken man, his face distorted by pain, cried out that I needed to help him.  I needed to come home and to convince my mother, who had accused him of wrecking their marriage, that she was wrong.  He would never do such a thing.  She was being crazy, he said.  He seemed crazy to me.  I was upset but not as upset as you might imagine a nineteen year old to be.  For reasons I have never fully fathomed, it seemed natural that he—and my mother—would call on me to rescue their marriage. I left school that day and, for a week, scheduled talks with my mother, my father, their friends, my mother’s therapist—anyone who might help me understand the  family crisis.

I failed to help, though eventually the conflict was shunted to the side and their marriage continued.  But my failure did not persuade me that I shouldn’t have tried.  Nor did it even dent my sense of responsibility for things near and far.  In fact, the experience simply reinforced my need to take care of those I loved and, I think, to feel responsible for almost everybody.

Yet it has been the guidepost for much of my life.  I spent my entire career trying to help individuals, couples, families, organizations, and communities.  I still mentor many young people, thrilling to their development and worrying about their challenges.  There’s no denying: I have positioned myself in this world to be of help.  Success and failure in these endeavors has only been one measure of my participation.  I have tried very hard to actually and concretely help.  Looking back, I’d have to acknowledge that the pull to this responsibility has been stronger than any rational assessment of situations.

I know that I can’t do much, if anything, to save us from Donald Trump.  If he harms the environment, diminishes our health care, trashes the dignity of the American presidency, brings us to war, he’ll do so and I am helpless to stop him.  I despise that the end of my life may be filled with discouragement and alarm because of him.

In the spirit of knowledge, particularly self-knowledge, paving the way to freedom, I will bend every effort now to distance myself from his evil pull and from my own tendency to overreach.  I will pay less attention, read the newspapers and internet sites less, and initiate fewer political conversations.  I will try to turn away when faced with situations where I know that my efforts will be futile.  Maybe I’ll be able ignore that almost primordial impulse without feeling that I have betrayed my parents’ dream of a better world and for a son who will make that happen—maybe I can let go just enough to find some peace in my days.