Healing the Roots of Slavery and Prejudice

In the heartbreaking midst and aftermath of the Charleston, South Carolina massacre, many are claiming change. We can change our behavior. We can change our symbols. We can change our words. We can pass laws that seem to claim we’ve changed our attitudes or even our values. But unless we really dig deep into our feelings and heal what is at the root of racial prejudice … the changes on the surface will only be a guise of change. And they won’t last. They will only conceal what is still festering beneath the surface within us individually, and also societally. Hidden within, masked by outer changes, the roots will continue to create the painful, destructive outcomes within us and all around us. 

This is as true with racial prejudice as it is with anything else that is unresolved deep within.

I have many times thought of writing about the deep roots of prejudice, and the cruelty that people act out on each other as a result. This week as I’ve sat with the events in Charleston, I felt deeply called to write about a different root than I have in the past. I hope this will be food for your wondering. I hope you can let this inform you, intrigue you, and inspire you to look deeper into yourself – for the sake of your own healing, for the sake of those around you, for the sake of our country, and for the sake of our world.

*****

Please wonder with me …
Where do we get the idea we can own other people? And do whatever we want with them and to them, just because …? How did we ever come to believe we had the right to enslave beautiful dark skinned natives of one continent and bring them to our own to do our bidding? Or to receive our wrath if they didn’t? Even receive our murderous rage when they didn’t do what we wanted, when we wanted it, how we wanted it?

Where did this start?
How did this start?

Some might look at it historically, perhaps working backwards beginning with human trafficking today. Some might go all the way back to Ancient Egypt. And some even before that.

Here’s another way to look at it.

When a child bonds well, meaning healthily, with mother … that healthy mother – the one we call in my field the “good enough mother” – does our bidding. She is focused on us, protecting us, nourishing us, taking care of our needs, and doing so with love. No, she isn’t perfect. Not even the “good enough mother” is perfect. But when she makes a mistake she is self-responsible, acknowledging her mistake and finding a way to repair the mistake and its consequences. She does this from love and consciousness, a good heart. And as a result, she creates trust.

When we have this as a child, the attachment with mother becomes internalized and helps us feel secure. It helps us give what we received from mother to ourselves, and often to others as well. When a child has this from mother, the child feels something kindred to owning mommy. But it’s not the same thing. Because in this healthy scenario, mommy gives herself to her child. She whole-heartedly surrenders to the care of her baby … while hopefully still taking good care of herself.

But when a child does not have this healthy attachment, there is no real sense of security. There is a deep hole within and the person feels a sense of starvation for some way to get someone to focus on him, protect him, nourish him, take care of his needs … to do his bidding. There is a deep urge – whether conscious or unconscious – to find or create a way to have someone give what was missing in childhood. A craving to own someone.

From here the cycles upon cycles of damaging and destructive “owning” begin. This child grows up and finds someone to own. It might be his wife. It might be his child. It might be both. It might be his own unhealthy parent who didn’t give as he needed in childhood. His craving to own is truly insatiable – whether he’s aware of it or not, whether it shows on the outside or not. No amount of owning someone today or tomorrow can fill the emptiness of lack of attachment with mommy long ago. But as the current experience of insatiability grows and grows, at some point he moves on from enslaving those who are supposed to be his loved ones to others in his life and then to someone he can make his slave.

All along, over time the other little boys and girls who didn’t attach healthily with mother have been finding ways to own people in their lives, too. And eventually they join together to make people their slaves. To bring people home as slaves from the other side of town or the other side of the country or even the other side of the world.

Others see they can make money off of satisfying the very young craving to own somebody that lives in so many people. And these “money makers” find ways to bring many who will become slaves to the people who, at the root, are starving for mommy.

This owning and money making becomes normalized in the minds and hearts of the individuals and in the minds and hearts of people communally. And it gets passed down from generation to generation, even if not in awareness. The mothers who didn’t have a bond with mommy feel like they own their children, and treat them that way. And those children feel the same about their spouses and children. And on and on and on …

Those who suffer from being owned, don’t know what to do.
Those who suffer from owning, don’t feel consciously like they’re suffering.

Most importantly … nobody is aware that this stems from the earliest times in childhood, when a baby does need mommy to do his or her bidding.
Most importantly … few are aware of how starving we are in our world for healthy attachment from the earliest times in our lives.
Few are aware of how painful it is for a child to be without the deeply needed bonding.
Few are cognizant of the damaging consequences of lack of bonding on an individual, a family, and communally for generations to come.
Few let themselves feel what a trauma this is for all of us.
Few realize how much of what happens in our cultures and in our world is the damaging consequence of unhealthy attachment.

One of the tasks we have ahead of us as we work to end racial prejudice is the same task we have in other arenas of our lives: we need to heal our wounds from the earliest ages, even from the times when healthy attachment needed to occur, so there is healing from the inside out … and not just a guise of healing.

This is courageous, honorable, transformative work.
We all need you – and all of us – to participate in it.

© Judith Barr, 2015

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP MAKE OUR WORLD SAFE
FROM THE INSIDE OUT

None of us is immune to wounding, and even if we don’t actually “own” slaves or consciously feel entitled to “own” others, we may still be feeling the effects of wounding to our early attachment that cause us – consciously or unconsciously – to seek in people in our current lives the healthy “owning” of mommy that we missed as a child.

What you can do:

Commit to explore within yourself if and when you feel entitled to “own” others. You can start by exploring what you feel when someone in your life says “no” to something you’ve asked of them. Do you have strong feelings anytime someone says “no” to you? Do you only have strong feelings when the “no” comes in response to something you feel is really important to you? Do you only have strong feelings if the “no” is a response to something critical to your health and wellbeing? Do you feel scared? Hurt? Angry? Vengeful? Do you feel indignant that they are not “doing your bidding”?

Now ask yourself: “Is my response a here and now response or a young response from long ago that is still alive inside me today? Or is it a combination of the two?” To find out, trace those feelings back, as far back in your life as you can. Maybe you felt this same way – with good reason – when you were a child or even an infant, when mommy withheld the care she should have given you … care you deserved and were truly entitled to. Keep tracing these feelings back as far as you can. And, if the wounding at the root of these feelings calls you to seek help, commit to finding a good, integritous, caring therapist to help you truly heal these feelings to the root.

What else can you do?

After you have explored your craving to own someone, you can also explore the other side of this coin. Perhaps your experience was not only the absence of mommy giving herself whole-heartedly to you in a healthy attached relationship. Perhaps you also experienced her trying to own you. As a result, in addition to your trying to own people in your current life, you might also transfer mommy trying to own you onto other people in your life today.

You might think people want to own you when they really don’t.You might feel people want you to focus only on them when that isn’t the case at all. You might accuse people of wanting you to do their bidding, when that isn’t true. Those transferred feelings may be so strong that your insistence on and defense against the other person trying to own you may in itself enslave you, the other person, and your relationship in a scenario that isn’t here and now and isn’t the truth. This often happens between people in all kinds of combinations, including people of different races.

If this is the case, you can also trace those feelings back, as far back in your life as you can. Maybe you felt this same way – with good reason – when you were a child and mommy tried to own you, enslave you, trap you … instead of take good care of you. Keep tracing these feelings back as far as you can. And, if the wounding at the root of these feelings calls you to seek help, again … commit to finding a good, integritous, caring therapist to help you truly heal these feelings to the root.

Whatever our skin color, gender, nationality, creed or affiliation, we all need to do this inner healing work, before we can even hope to help our world heal from prejudice and the tragedy it often brings. Imagine what our world would be like if we all committed today to do just that!

WHY DO WE HAVE TO DO THIS OVER AND OVER?: Exploring The Roots of Prejudice

Whether we know it or not . . . whether we want to know it or not . . . we all have currents of prejudice within our psyches. Although many think of their prejudices as simply “the truth,” others realize that there are some major roots to our prejudice . . . roots that need to be named, known, and worked with.

One of the roots of our prejudices is . . . we are taught to be prejudiced by the active teachings of those with whom we grow up, and also by their modeling. This is poignantly expressed in the song “Carefully Taught” from the Broadway show and the movie, “South Pacific.”

“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught”*

A less well known and understood root of prejudice is . . . most people are afraid of the dark. The literal dark in the outer world of night and winter – so easily seen by the number of lights we keep on 24 hours a day 365 days a year. But not just the literal dark or the dark in the outer world.  We are afraid of the dark in our inner worlds – the dark unknown within where we are afraid we’ll discover terrible dark things about ourselves. And the dark in our inner worlds that we have come to symbolize as “evil.” This fear of the dark has caused all sorts of problems in our world, including transferring our fear and our symbolic meaning onto people with dark skin.

If we would only heal our fear of the darkness, particularly the darkness within, we could work through and heal our feelings about our own darkness and the destructive aspects of our own personalities, and clearly see people with dark skin as unique people rather than symbolic expressions of our own inner “darkness.”

And the root of prejudice of which people seem to be the least aware is based on the most primal experiences from our childhoods. Those experiences in our earliest years when we are hurt or frightened by ‘the other,’ meaning, in essence, anyone who is not us. Those first fears of ‘the other’ later get transferred onto many other people and things. So, for example, fear of  mother or father can later be transferred onto someone of a different race, religion, sex, nationality . . .  without our having any awareness whatsoever of that occurring.

There’s a wonderful line in the 2009 book, The Help, a book about “black maids” working for white women in Mississippi. It’s actually a line dear to the author, Kathryn Stockett, and one that speaks to the heart of the issue:  “Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, we are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.”**

These are three of the deep roots of prejudice in our psyches and our world.
We will be prejudiced, whether consciously or unconsciously, and somehow, whether ever-so-subtly or absolutely blatantly, we will act on our prejudices . . . until we each commit to explore and heal the prejudices that live within us.
We will do this over and over until each of us does our own individual inner work with prejudice.
Where does your fear of those who are different from you come from?
It is a deep choice:  Are you willing to explore and heal your fear of “the other” and in doing so, help to heal prejudice in yourself and our world?

(c) Judith Barr, 2011

* © Oscar Hammerstein II, 1949
http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/southpacific/youvegottobecarefullytaught.htm
** Kathryn Stockett, The Help, 2009, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, pp 418 and 451.