From its very beginning as a British colony, the United States has been afflicted with a disease. At its core, the disease is fear. As a response to that fear, greed emerged. The subconscious thought process that fuels greed is something like, “If I can amass enough [money, power, land, etc.], I won’t feel vulnerable, needy, or alone.” Controlled by this greed (fear), our founders acquired wealth by stealing other humans’ lives and putting them to work as slaves. Although overt slavery has ended in the U.S., the underlying disease is still here. If we’re willing to look at it, we all stand to benefit.
I often educate people on what holistic medicine means and how it differs from what could be called “reductive” medicine. The term holistic is derived from the Greek word holos, meaning whole. A holistic medical practitioner (regardless of what form of medicine they use) is one who endeavors to see and treat the whole person. They take into account the “big picture” of this being and the environment they live in. In contrast, someone practicing in a reductive way tends to see a person as a collection of separate parts and addresses themselves to correcting malfunctions of these parts without concern for the influence of, or impact on, the rest of the being.
Sometimes reductive medicine works just fine. You have a headache – who knows why? – so you take an aspirin without concern for balancing your whole being, and a few hours later it’s all better. Score one for reductive medicine.
Other times it fails. You have a headache, you try aspirin, and the headache’s still there. “What’s wrong with my head?” you think. Maybe you consider a stronger painkiller. Without broadening your view, you may never get to the root of it.
In the case of our history of oppression of Blacks, while we’ve taken many big steps in the right direction, our nation’s healing process hasn’t been adequately holistic. There were enough Americans who were sufficiently pained by the existence of slavery to bring about its abolition, but they never got to the root of it.
The prevailing attitude among White people was that despite the fact that Blacks were ripped from their homeland; that their families were torn apart; that they were deprived of rights, recognition, education, good nutrition and healthcare, and a sense of equality and potential – all would be better when the race that perpetrated this invited them to step up and enter society. It wasn’t and it still isn’t.
Greed didn’t fix that underlying fear, and the enslavement and dehumanization of Blacks created its own gaping wound. The recent visibility of police brutality against Blacks shows what can happen when we choose the path of reductive medicine. The problem originated in Whites, well before they saw the enslavement of Black people – and then the freeing of Black people – as their aspirin. But true, deep, holistic healing is often a hard, slow, uncomfortable process. That makes it a hard sell for a population that likes things easy, fast, and comfortable.
Throughout our years of slavery, the following years of segregation, and the most recent generation of supposed equality, it’s simply harder to live to one’s potential as a Black American than a White one. A popular graphic by Tony Ruth does a decent job of explaining the differences between equality, equity, and justice.
In the first panel, we see an apple tree that leans to one side. There’s a man under the low side (where most of the apples are) and another man under the high side (where there are few apples). Neither can reach the branches, but an apple falls into the hands of the man under the bountiful side. The caption is “Inequality: unequal access to opportunities.”
In the next panel, the two men are given equal sized ladders. This allows the man on the low side to reach plenty of apples, but the other man still can’t reach the tree. We may look on such a scenario as being equal for both men – one just happens to be on the better side of the tree – but in our country, the tree of opportunity nearly always leans toward the White person and away from the Black person.
If you’ve never had to worry about being denied a job or loan because of the color of your skin, you’ve benefited from White privilege. If you’ve felt generally safer in the presence of cops, you’ve benefited from White privilege. We could just as well say, “If you’ve ever wondered if you didn’t get the job or loan because of the color of your skin, you’ve been hurt by Black disadvantage.” But Whites have always known about the disadvantages of being Black and done little to rectify it. By framing the disparity as White privilege, it’s clearer for White people to see that the onus is upon them to do something to correct it.
The next panel of the graphic depicts equity – the man on the high side of the tree is given a taller ladder so he, too, can reach the apples. Whereas the previous panel assumes both men are fundamentally equal, with equal resources, they don’t have truly equal chances of succeeding. In an equitable scenario, we attempt to level the playing field by giving the disadvantaged person the resources they need to close the gap between the two. It can be helpful, but it’s an imperfect solution. A real world example is ignoring the systemic racism (the leaning of the tree) that causes the inequality in the first place and attempting to overcome it at the time of college admission or job application by giving extra points to the disadvantaged applicant.
The final panel of the graphic shows the tree being straightened by a set of boards and ropes and is captioned “Justice”. Here there’s no need for affirmative action because the two men finally have equal chances of success. Overall, I like the graphic. However, by depicting unequal opportunity as something as natural as a bent tree, one could say there’s an implication that we got here by chance. We didn’t.
As Scott Woods writes, “Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of Whites at other people’s expense, whether Whites know/like it or not. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a White person who likes Black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you.”
Another questionable implication of the graphic is that the tree can be bent to fix the problem. As we all know, an old tree can only bend so far before it snaps. Can we really keep the old structure and simply rectify it to correct centuries of damage? We must dive deep into the holistic path of healing to find out, but my hunch is that tree-bending is reductive.
So, what do we do? The old fear remains and as White people come to terms with the persistent consequences of treating humans as property, it takes new forms: the fear that healing this will be painful; the fear that fixing the system will mean a loss for those currently in a position of privilege; the fear that Blacks are cooler, stronger, faster, or more powerful than Whites and that their rise to equality will threaten White dominance; the fear that truly desegregating ourselves will amount to a dilution of Whiteness, etc. Thus we encounter many attempts to derail the conversation, like, “Don’t all lives matter?” and “If I’m so privileged because I’m White, how come I’m [poor, sick, disabled, struggling, etc.]?”
I don’t think I need to point this out, but acknowledging the advantages of being White doesn’t mean blaming White people for their whiteness. White privilege shouldn’t be conflated with White guilt. And whiteness alone doesn’t guarantee someone a good life. Life is, after all, what we make it.
I’m not an expert on racism, so I’m sharing this amazing list of resources (mostly for White people) – books, podcasts, videos, and articles by people who have made this their life’s work. Learn what they have to teach and amplify their voices.
What I do know is holistic healing and by applying these principles to our disease, I believe we truly shall overcome.
- Be humble. Resist the impulse to believe you already know, and listen to others’ experiences.
- Dedicate yourself to learning the truth. Go to multiple sources – not just the first one that confirms what you already believed.
- Broaden your perspective. Let your vision include as many factors as you can hold space for. This means also acknowledging what’s been kept hidden in the shadows, and the parts of yourself that you’ve denied.
- Forgive. Forgiveness is healing. I’m not saying your feelings are wrong. I’m not saying you aren’t entitled to feel angry, sad, victimized or anything else. I’m not putting a timeline on it. I’m only saying that at some point, a complete healing process – and true freedom – entails releasing our grievances.
- Keep your heart open. It’s natural – but not helpful – to close our hearts in the presence of pain. Open it, open it, and open it some more. Be willing to feel what’s arising. Feel without resistance. Notice what happens.
- See the connections. As Yogi Bhajan said, “Remember, the other person is you.” The great divisiveness and brutality of this chapter in human history is made possible through the illusion of separation. We are one. And as long as one person is oppressed, none of us can be completely free.
- Be willing to get uncomfortable. You simply can’t heal if you aren’t willing to be uncomfortable in the process. Trust that the discomfort will give way to greater freedom.
- Don’t settle for less than the ROOT. We’ve band-aided the hell out of this thing. Go deep. Ask for clarity and guidance and they’ll be given to you.
Please share about your experience. We all learn from this conversation.