Racism: the Legacy of Slavery
I wanted to learn about the beginning of racism in this country. In August I visited the Whitney Plantation Slavery Museum near Wallace, Louisiana. It resides on the banks of the Mississippi River, nestled between active sugar plantations. The heat and humidity index was 105 degrees in the shade. I went because I wanted to understand the legacy of slavery and ponder what that means to be a white person in a healing profession.
Reading the names of Louisiana’s 107,000 enslaved Africans and their countries of origin on the memorial Wall of Honor allowed me to imagine real people from real places with their own languages, families, culture, and history. I read: “Agata, gender: female. Birthplace: Congo. Baba, gender: male. Birthplace: Bamana. Cocoro, gender: male. Birthplace: Guinea/Guinea Coast. Pirance, gender: female. Birthplace: Wolof.
I held back tears when I visited the Field of Angels, a memorial dedicated to the 2200 slave children who died in the vicinity and whose names are unknown to us. I walked through spartan slave cabins and smelled the wood; I burned in the metal punishment cage. When I touched the huge iron vats in which sugarcane juice was boiled into molasses, I tried to imagine the infernos in that sweltering climate.
Walking through the Whitney big house where the owners of the plantation lived, it was easy to feel the comfort they enjoyed. The owners, the Haydel family, were German immigrants. My great great-grandparents were also German immigrants, a century later. I tried to feel an ancestral connection.
I have lived all of my life with the advantages of being white. My Dad is a WWII vet whose veteran benefits enabled him to attend college on a GI bill and get an FHA loan to buy a house. Black vets weren’t entitled to the same benefits so my family entered the middle class because of laws and entitlements privileged white families like mine. I was schooled with an uncritical view of history. In other words, I didn’t learn about how the Founding Fathers of the United States constructed race prejudice to justify enslavement and then rationalized a political economic system based on slavery. I’m learning these lessons as an adult when I visit museums like the Whitney Plantation.
What does this mean to me as a white psychotherapist in 2016?
I’ve learned how my culture, my values, my prejudices and my fears are deeply embedded in my perspectives of current events and interpersonal relationships. When my values reside outside of my awareness, I unconsciously act from them, recreating the superiority of whiteness without questioning why.
My work as a psychotherapist is to help people lift unconscious assumptions that inform points of view, that fuel fears and prejudices, into a space where we can examine them together. Sometimes the values are transmitted from our families and sometimes they flow from our life experiences. Together, we examine what is uncomfortable and what is traumatic. Our deeper understanding enables us to express emotions – anger, fear, shame, or compassion – associated with experiences of racial and other societal injustices. Our deeper understanding can be mobilized to repair the damage.
The legacy of racism affects all people – people of color and white, oppressed and privileged. As a white psychotherapist, I have the
responsibility and the psychological tools to help people examine the impact of racial injustice on their lives and to begin to confront social structures where the residue of slavery thrives.