Deep emotions and the racist bones

In 2019, when Joe Biden, a powerful, wealthy, White man who will preside over a country built on the backs of enslaved people, said “There’s not a racist bone in my body,” I thought so much about the strangely dislocated and disembodied nature of racism here in the United States. Of course, he’s not the only person to use this phrase; we hear it everywhere.

Black and white photo of the shadow of a manSo much so that I’ve come to see racism as a haunted, unwanted, and unclaimed entity that has no home and can never rest.

Very few “good” White people would ever admit to being racist, and the people who actually are racist, such as skinheads or the KKK, well, if you ask them, they’re not racist either. They’re defending their culture against multiculturalism. 

Lawmakers who craft and uphold racist policies aren’t racist. Police who clearly and absolutely racially profile, arrest, injure, and murder people of color aren’t racist. Politicians who create racist statutes, defend racism and racist leaders, and make racist speeches aren’t racist. 

So racism and White supremacy are everywhere and nowhere — they’re like chaotic, hungry ghosts that no one can capture, but everyone can be captured by.

By mistake!

Because I’m not racist!

If there are no racists, then how can we dismantle racism?

I understand this refusal to accept something that we’ve been convinced is awful and horrifying. But we cannot change what we cannot claim, and to my eye, the problem is entirely emotional. Which means it’s entirely within our power to address, heal, and change.

Talking about or confronting racism and inequality can bring up powerful emotions like shame, rage, panic, grief, and despair. And since most of us don’t know how to work with even one of these emotions, it’s not surprising that this emotional cascade can flood out our ability to face racism, inequality, and oppression.

We cannot change what we cannot claim; we cannot transform what we refuse to own.

But this does not need to happen! Emotions are not our enemy; instead, they are a vital part of everything we are: every relationship; every dream; every failure; every triumph; every act of violence; and every act of love.

When we know how to work with the astonishing genius inside our deep emotions, we can face and heal the most pressing problems in our waiting world, and join with others to build a more just and loving community.

Racism is not an uncontrollable monstrosity; it’s a system of thought, legislation, and action that we can choose to support (consciously or through ignorance) or intentionally dismantle.

If we do not claim these ghosts and put them to rest, they will only get hungrier and more dangerous, and our emotions will only get louder and more insistent.

If we don’t learn how to claim and confront the racism that is a bedrock of our country, the chaotic ghosts of racism will continue to haunt us and give us nightmares about imaginary dangers in the bodies of children like Tamir or Trayvon or Andy, and more innocent ones will be injured and killed.

And yet, no matter how many Sandras and Erics and Philandos and Oscars and Heathers and Georges and Breonnas are murdered, and no matter how many panicky, enraged, and emotionally incompetent White people try to assert their tragic, lethal dominance, as they did at the Capitol, the hungry ghosts of racism will leap easily into other bodies.

But never into White people’s bones, apparently. Racism is a slippery, dangerous, murderous ghost.

Claiming your place in the trouble is necessary

Unclaimed, unmourned, and unburied ghosts are dangerous, and I’m realizing that even though I did not choose to be a part of this White supremacist tribe, I’m in it. It’s in my bones and my lineage and my skin color. These ghosts look like me, and they sound like me; they’re kin.

My British and European ancestors on both sides were here before the United States was even a country, and though they did not own enslaved people, they all benefited from slavery and the endless racist structures that have been built and rebuilt a hundred times since slavery allegedly ended.

As an unwitting racist, I am fortunate to be able to understand and claim my racism. I didn’t mean to become racist, but of course I’m racist, because I was raised in a racist country, educated in racist institutions and by racist media, protected by racist regulations, financial systems, mortgage lending, zoning rules, medical care, policing, laws, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the legal system. Of course I’m racist.

And I can work to be antiracist — but only by understanding the extent to which I’ve been surrounded by racist ideas, practices, folkways, media, statutes, regulations, and laws. There is a healing path forward from here. It takes work and dedication, but it’s necessary work that will heal all of us.

I did not choose to be a part of this racist tribe, but I can damn well choose who I will become in it. I can claim this racist marrow that lives in my bones, and I can claim these ghosts — and I can face and embody the powerful emotions that arise in response.

And then I can use use the astonishing genius inside those emotions to transform racism into antiracism.

Claiming the bones

I will stand in my White body and do the work that my ancestors were not able to do. 

And my deep emotions — instead of stopping me — will show me the way.

Excellent antiracist reading

How to Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem

The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts

White Rage by Carol Anderson

Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow

The Making of Asian America by Erica Lee

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Reel Bad Arabs by Jack Shaheen

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

For more ideas: How to Support Antiracism in Yourself and the World

6 Responses

  1. Latoya Williams
    | Reply

    I appreciate this post so much!!! ♥️ Based on your book post recommendation on Facebook, my friend and I read “So You Want to Talk about Race” together. And, then met for a lunch discussion. First time that I’ve ever had a “planned” discussion about race.

    And, this morning, I initiated a conversation about life and racism with my brother. He shared that throughout his life, he’s seen The “N” word written on the walls in most men’s public restrooms.? What?! I’ve never seen that word written on the wall of a women’s public restroom.

    I knew that I wasn’t aware of the extent that racism in this country has impacted my brother’s life as a Black man, which is the reason I wanted to have the conversation.

    I’ve already read two books on the suggested reading list in this article. Next stop: “How to be an Anti-Racist.”

    Thank you, Karla! ?

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Latoya and thanks for your comment! I edited the N-word because it’s such a painful word for so many people.

      I saw Ibram Kendi in San Francisco earlier this month in conversation with Alicia Garza, and it was so marvelous. He flew up to Seattle and had a conversation with Ijeoma a few days later, and I was so envious of everyone who got to be there! I hope you enjoy his book; he’s a bright light in this world, and a strong voice.

  2. Danielle Snodgrass
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,

    I’ve been thinking about this dilemma for a long time. It seems clear to me that the emotions making up “racism” (including fear/resentment/hatred of the those who threaten the stability and coherence of ones identity group, panic and rage about losing status and resources, enjoyment at feeling attached and secure, and guilt at the ways ones accumulation of power might lead to punishment) are experienced by white people in particular as racism because of their position in a racist society.

    A lot of training for reducing racism seems to focus on ways that white people can admit to their racism while repressing emotional displays of anger or guilt. However, through my life my feelings have been useful reflections on some aspects of a situation my body is noticing. It’s like I know the “racist” part of me is helpful on some level, for protecting and caring for me, but then it becomes complicated because behaviors stemming from the feelings can hurt other people and because it is taboo to admit to feeling such feelings in the first place. I don’t think I could ever completely root out these feelings, but I wonder if there was some way to transform some of them into a less harmful form. Since your blog discusses how feelings carry both gifts and dangers, I’m wondering if you have any words of guidance.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Danielle,

      I felt strongly that a grief ritual was necessary for white people, because so much of our racist society is grievously unjust, but we’ve mostly been kept from seeing the full truth of it. I see that when people awaken to any situation of injustice in which they are complicit (intentionally or unintentionally), they experience an emotional tsunami that is necessary.

      But since most people barely have skills for everyday emotions, this intense situation of multiple emotions usually goes unaddressed, and it festers. I see our white nationalism and our worldwide swing into rigidity, populism, and blame-mongering as a consequence of this festering.

      The emotional care and regulation I have seen in many social justice trainings has been not only bad but counter-productive. It’s a mess. These emotions have something to say, and they need a sacred space and a ritual to help people identify, listen to, and work with them.

      It’s something I’ve been studying for many years, and the grief ritual we did earlier this year was a foray into the troubling situation. It was valuable, but I’d do things differently if I do it again.

  3. danielle dumais
    | Reply

    Today, Karla, should also be the day we talk about the emotion of relief. Relief that the safeguards of democracy have stood against a forceful attempt at autocracy. Four years ago, I heard your federation of states give out an outcry of dismay. For four years, we Canadians, have kept a watchful eye on US foreign politics, trying to do the best of a bad situation. Today, I cried watching Mrs Obama hug Mrs Harris on the steps of the Capitol. Today I heard a magnificent woman, Amanda Gorman, poet laureate, speak from her heart to the hearts of all Americans. Hoping for better days ahead.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Thank you Danielle,

      I too hope for better days ahead, yet we have a subset of extremist evangelicals and people trapped in the QAnon panic who have only become more destabilized by Trump’s loss. He did such an astounding amount of damage, and it’s going to take us quite a while to address it.

      But thank goodness we have functional adults and professionals working on the problems now. It’s still neoliberalism, but it’s better than full-scale authoritarian cruelty, paranoia, and hysteria.

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