On Racial Battle Fatigue and Nice White People

Battle fatigue is an outdated term for the mental impact many soldiers experience after military combat. We’ve made up new terms throughout the years and now this type of “fatigue” is generally referred to as post-traumatic stress. The impact is real. Humans are not wired to thrive under extreme stress for long periods of time and when people get stuck in traumatic situations, bodies and minds are bound to suffer.

The terrorist attack/hate crime in Charleston, SC, this past week brought on yet another wave of vicarious trauma to millions of black Americans. People of color have been systematically traumatized by direct and vicarious (indirect) physical and mental violence for centuries in this country and with every new act of brutality, old racial wounds reopen. The mental impact hits not just the families and friends of those targeted, but millions of people who are reminded once again of the ongoing oppression and lack of safety in their own communities.

20150519_144125So while some are going through emotional pain and personal reactions to crimes that hit too close to home, the rest better pick up the slack and confront the racism that allows this to happen over and over again. And by “the rest”, I mean white people and people with enough energy left to fight racism in America. Racism is not relevant only to black Americans. It is a massive, insidious, systematic, social problem and each and every one of us is tangled up in it.

Talking won’t fix racism. Direct social and political action is needed and white folks must realize that this is where most of our collective energy needs to be channeled. Talking, however can challenge personal biases that contribute to the larger problem.

So here is where it gets sticky. Nice people don’t want to rock the boat. In fact, nice white people who witness other nice white people act or speak in racist ways, “let it go” all the time because they don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. As ironic as it is, research suggests that highly agreeable people are more likely than less agreeable ones to engage in behaviors that harm others – if they are expected to do so. In other words, agreeable, nice folks may be less likely to stand up for others if doing so means going against social expectations. And speaking against racism in a social setting where you are not “supposed” to be confrontational flies right in the face of social expectations.

Niceness isn’t bad in itself, but if being nice means sitting politely while people of color are being oppressed, kept in poverty, excluded from positions of power, ridiculed, assaulted, shot, and killed, then what? It’s like bullying. If you’re a bully, you cause harm. If you witness someone else being bullied and choose to do nothing, you allow harm to be caused.

Dr. Robin DiAngelo wrote a great satirical summary of the “rules of engagement” when confronting white people on their racism. These rules are a part of the unspoken social contract that states that we must not talk about uncomfortable things like racial oppression if we can possibly avoid it. This social contract makes it close to impossible to give any kind of racism feedback to a white person, without being seen as completely rude and inappropriate (check out another great article here on White Fragility). As Dr. DiAngelo pointed out, these rules rest on two basic misunderstandings:

  1. “that racists are bad people”, and
  2. “that racism is conscious dislike”.

So, if I challenge a friend on a racist remark, chances are that friend will feel highly uncomfortable, confused, and offended, as if I were suggesting that he/she is a bad person who consciously dislikes people of color. Most of the time that is not the case and we have to stop acting as if we are allergic to feedback.

An English guy in the 18th century once said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” If we are ever to get out of the racism swamp, we MUST challenge each other to do better and stop perpetuating this mess. And this means allowing our fellow humans to hold up a mirror for us so we can see our own shortcomings. It will be uncomfortable – but that’s how we grow.

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Prisons, Profit, and Dehumanization

There are a lot of people in prison in the United States. Sons, daughters, brothers, cousins, mothers, nieces, friends, loved ones… In fact, there are more jails and prisons in the U.S., than there are colleges and universities. When friends or family members are locked up, the idea of prison becomes intensely personal. For others, prison is something you see on TV.

How do we, as a society, justify capital punishment, solitary confinement, physical and emotional abuse by prison guards, and sexual violence experienced by inmates in the United States?

20150104_131719Well, some deny it. It’s hard to face that something horrific is going on every day in our society, with permission from the authorities we’ve chosen to trust.

Others know, but look away.

We are able to do this by dehumanizing prisoners. After all, they wouldn’t be in prison if they weren’t deviant and evil… Right? By creating a separation between us and them we can comfortably ignore the harsh realities faced by millions of people on the other side of tall, concrete prison walls.

Recently, a women’s rights group called for an investigation into accounts of systemic sexual harassment and rape of multiple women held at a Texas immigration detention center for families (see here and here). To clarify, the women detained there are not Norwegian exchange students who have overstayed on their visa. They are poor women of color who have been imprisoned along with their families for having arrived without documentation to the Land of the Free, looking for opportunities to create a decent life. They are also women who for the most part go without the legal support, financial resources, and connections necessary to make their voices heard.

This parallels numerous other accounts of inhumane treatment, abuse, and harassment experienced by prisoners throughout the United States. Jessica S. Henry, Professor at the Department of Justice Studies at Montclair State University, cited disturbing examples from 2010 and 2012 of cruel abuse of two male prisoners in Florida who died at the hands of their prison guards. Both men had been imprisoned for non-violent crimes.

I want to clarify that I am not stating that prison guards are worse people than others. However, the authoritarian and militaristic culture of the prison system is extremely effective at dehumanizing prisoners and shaping the attitudes and behaviors of guards and other people in authority. When someone has been dehumanized, they are no longer seen as a person with rights and dignity. Not surprisingly, this can result in horrific abuses of power.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a famous example of how the prison mentality works. In short, a group of healthy, middle class, male Stanford University students took part in a study in 1971 on the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard. The students were randomly divided into a group of “prisoners” and “prison guards” and instructed to simulate prison life, where guards had the role of overseeing prisoners and carry out coercive practices commonly found in U.S. prisons (see this website for an excellent description of the study). Long story short, on the fifth day of the experiment about a third of the guards had become “hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation”, “appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded”, and were “behaving sadistically”. By that time, the prisoners were already “withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways” and the study was prematurely ended on the sixth day for “moral reasons”.

The prison industry in the U.S. exists in a political, economic, and cultural context. It is not a coincidence that new prisons are being built all over the country and that owners of private “correction facilities” make more money than ever. Angela Davis has written extensively about the context of mass incarceration in the U.S. and she has pointed out the clear link between poverty, racism, and the ever-growing power of the prison system:

“Our criminal justice system sends increasing numbers of people to prison by first robbing them of housing, health care, education, and welfare, and then punishing them when they participate in underground economies. What should we think about a system that will, on the one hand, sacrifice social services, human compassion, housing and decent schools, mental health care and jobs, while on the other hand developing an ever larger and ever more profitable prison system that subjects ever larger numbers of people to daily regimes of coercion and abuse?”

When crimes are committed, race and class play a big role in determining who gets punished and how (click here if you are not familiar with this).

20150131_145135Race and class also play a big role in determining who gets “groomed” for prison in childhood. Children going to schools in predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods are less likely to experience school as a punitive, prison-like place, than children who attend seriously underfunded schools in predominantly black or Latino areas. Schools for kids living in poverty tend to lack proper funding. Schools for kids of color living in poverty tend to have even greater lack of funding. When this is the case, school stops being a place where you come to learn and develop your potential. Instead, it becomes a place where you are not attended to or stimulated mentally; where your strengths are not highlighted; where you don’t get access to healthy extracurricular activities and expressive art programs; where there are guards who place you in handcuffs when you misbehave; where you are sent to “detention” – instead of counseling – when you act out emotional problems; where there are too few staff on the ground to intervene when someone is bullied. It becomes a place you dread going to and a place you can’t wait to get away from at the end of the day. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t thrive in a place like that.

So what do we do with all this? Can we work together to see the humanity in each other?

Can we create a society where people are held accountable for their actions, without being unfairly targeted, abused, or killed by authority?

Can we dismantle a prison industry that bases its profits on human breakdown and militarism?

I want to believe we can.