There is an implicit privilege that most Caucasians take for granted; so try to imagine living daily without the presumption of peace and of acceptance.
By Greg Sazima, Special to CalMatters
Dr. Greg Sazima is a Sacramento-area psychiatrist, educator and writer, firstname.lastname@example.org. He teaches at the Stanford/O’Connor Family Medicine Residency Program in the Bay Area.
An old friend wisely commented on this latest ripening of America’s centuries-old stain of racism: “If you feel uncomfortable, sit with it. Discomfort is the mother of change, and change is what is needed.”
There is an implicit privilege that most Caucasians take for granted: a basic sense of mattering, of belonging. That this is a privilege and not an unconditional expectation for all people may surprise many whites, and make us uncomfortable. Whites may not recognize it as a privilege because it is assumed, baked in from our first breath.
It starts not as a privilege, but as a truth. Every newborn, regardless of skin tone, gains a ticket of admission by the unique drama of emerging into this world. No mother or father would place a condition on that little one’s right to be, to possess value just by being.
There’s a well-worn trope I sometimes use in working with my psychotherapy patients who struggle with their own basic self-regard. I ask them to place themselves at the moment of their own births, or perhaps of their children, and re-experience in memory or imagination the sense of basic love and value of their newborn selves or kids.
We explore the quality and conditions of that experience – a belonging and regard that just is, and not contingent on whether the munchkin has already aced the SAT, or cleaned up the birthing room.
In most white families that unconditional belonging persists and grows, and it becomes a default expectation for the world outside the microcosm of family – of course, with limits and careful introduction. We take our first stroller roll, our initial trip to the park, zoo and restaurant, and on to the peer settings of pre-school, kindergarten and onward.
Here is where white privilege begins to make itself known: not by a presence but by an absence.
There is an absence of the felt tension of a parent who is not sure whether a stroller walk down the street will be safe from a chance encounter with law enforcement and a subsequent, potential disaster. There is the absence of worry that one’s motives in being somewhere, anywhere, will be questioned rather than accepted without scrutiny. There is the absence of a default attitude of “otherness,” of being less than, of not belonging, even of being a threat, just by being there.
Per James Baldwin, in 1965: “It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.”
It’s an absence: of a place of acceptance, of belonging without condition.
Unhindered by these devaluing “presences,” these entrenched conditions that Black and Brown people face as a matter of course, whites don’t easily grasp their inborn, ever-present entitlement. Whites don’t easily imagine the challenge of this basic, societally-conditioned lack of belonging, even as it is acknowledged in wrestling with other impacts of deep conditioning: gender and economic inequality, sexual preference and identity.
There’s a meditation practice in the Buddhist Vajrayana tradition of “sitting with impermanence.” Meditating on losing anything, and everything, is a way of examining attachment to worldly items and aspects of our lives. It operates to adapt to grief, intensify what’s important and develop compassion for others with less. It’s not an easy exercise, imagining the loss of a loved one, a relationship, a treasured item, even one’s own life.
While I’ve never practiced this in my early meditation training, “sitting with” the absence of an expectation of belonging, of value, of one’s very mattering not being questioned as a default state of society, is the practice of the moment for me.
It attends to that blind spot: about an entitled expectation of safety and worth, and how to imagine the absence of that expectation. That’s the lived experience of most Black and Brown citizens. Imagining living daily without that presumption of peace, of acceptance in the day-to-day of American life, well, that’s uncomfortable. And absolutely necessary.