Five days ago the NFL released a breakneck-paced montage video of black men throughout recent history set to the poem “Reality vs. Perception” by Seattle Seahawks veteran Tyler Lockett, spoken by him and a handful of other black NFL players confronting the camera. It’s a message of pride, hope, and solidarity. And it’s a challenge, a line in the sand.
It intimidated me. For all its poise and poignancy, its demand “But what do you see, America?... A gangbanger? A criminal?” hit me painfully.
I am a white male. I recently declared myself an anti-racist upon watching the documentary “XIII” and living through my society’s response to George Floyd’s murder. Up until now, I’ve tried to be a non-racist, but that stance isn’t good enough anymore. It feels insufficient.
Still, seeing these strong black men demand to know what I see when I look at them and the culture they represent, I felt scared. Defensive. Weak, like a potential victim praying the bully doesn’t notice me.
Lockett’s next lines rang more bells in my head. “Why not a son? Why not a father?” And I pictured myself on a street corner beside a chain link fence, and leaning on it a tall, muscular, tattooed black man with a bandana under his hat looking down at me. I felt a familiar fear and wondered how I could convincingly engage him as some woman’s son or some child’s father when my body warns me that I am his prey, and he is a threat to my life—before he even speaks or moves.
I’ve never been assaulted by a person of color. I was bullied as a child, yes, but only by white children. Apart from media and entertainment feeding my imagination of what a “gangbanger” looks like, and what he might do to me just for my disrespect of making eye contact, I have no experience with violent black men.
Why do I so harshly judge this imagined man’s intentions, motives, or character based on clothing and posture? His culture likely finds different significance in them from what mine does. His neighborhood and friend group likely hold different expectations for public conduct than mine. So how can I, in clean conscience, judge him a threat?
I expanded my scope beyond our street corner. I realized I judge a white man in a nice suit on the sidewalk harshly too. He speaks the language of money and with it power—two things completely foreign to me—and I feel ugly and inconsequential just passing him by. I judge my college professors harshly, particularly those in disciplines unfamiliar to me; I feel intimidated and at times bullied by them. I feel intimidated by sophisticated, beautiful women. I’ve dated them, and even married such a woman, but only because they’re also sensitive, quirky, and artistic and I speak those languages comfortably.
What’s the underlying problem here? Is it simply that “unfamiliar” threatens me? Why can’t I just accept individuals as human beings and quit evaluating them as objects of threat or desire?
Something came to my mind that my friend Jeff Harry, a corporate play consultant and societal instigator recently featured in a revelatory NY Times article, mentioned in our podcast interview the other day. “My friend describes them as ‘White Women Problems’,” he laughed, citing perfectionism as a dominant factor in white culture.
I followed the rabbit trail. At the recent Global Innovators Summit online conference Jeff and I attended together, one of the coordinators Leon Wang of Firebird Design Lab shared a publication from dismantlingracism.org called “white supremacy culture” (a title I believe they intentionally kept lower-case), a list of fifteen attributes emergent in organizations under America's dominant cultural influence. First on the list: perfectionism.
My experience with perfectionism runs far deeper than my encounters with hostile black men. It has dictated my actions since I can earliest remember with an abusive whip disguised as a parental voice, a forked tongue lashing the inside of my brain. When I was an artistic child I would crumple and discard any piece of artwork I created that fell short of my inner ideal. As an adult I stopped attending an college English class because after gaining a 100% grade on my first paper, I earned a 99% on my second. I received an F for the class, which I knew I deserved because that 99% fell so far short of my expectations.
Perfectionism isn’t about being perfect. It’s about meeting my own expectations. My expectations happen to be, “exceed everyone else’s expectations for me.” If I’m a beginner at something, I don’t expect to defeat a master in my first try. I do expect, however, to outstrip my classmates’ attempts and advance seniority more rapidly than anyone else ever has, defying my teachers’ predictions. When I find I’m “on track”, I feel disheartened. I expect myself to be “ahead of the curve.”
At the same event where Jeff and I met Leon and visionary event founder Monica Kang, I ran into one of their colleagues Jeannie Chang, LMHC who described Asian-Americans pushing against the “model minority” designation. “White people tell black people, ‘Why can’t you be more like Asians? They never cause trouble.’ That’s still racism.” When I mentioned Jeff’s friend describing perfectionism as a “white women problem” Jeannie claimed perfectionism as one of her own cultural challenges. I acknowledge limiting perfectionism to white women is too narrow, but white supremacy culture in the United States appears to favor individuals and cultures who embody its values, whether out of tradition or conformity.
This perfectionism dehumanizes me. My several therapists (yes, I need more than one) have separately confirmed I ricochet between delusions of perfection and worthlessness, with no room for middle ground between them. “You’re either on a pedestal or in the shit bucket,” Dr. Anne told me. I asked her what lay in between those two, because frankly I couldn’t imagine what it might be. She responded candidly.
Between the most worthless, offensive, base example of life among our species and its absolute paragon of achievement, character, and status lies another category, which I’m only now attempting to acknowledge and explore. To be less-than-perfect is to be, in a word, human.
Honestly, I’ve never really let myself dwell in the “human” category before. As a child my church taught me to “be perfect like Christ is perfect,” an artificial (and, as it turns out, unbiblical) standard somewhat beyond my ability to reach consistently. I developed complicated emotional relationships with my parents and grandmothers, employers and professors, and as an adult I manically flopped between grossly inflated egotism and suicidal self-despising ideations.
It turns out this is actually a symptom of narcissism. “The grandiose self” describes Dr. Nancy McWilliams in her 1990 essay Narcissistic Pathology Of Everyday Life: The Denial of Remorse and Gratitude, involves “being without need and without sin.” She credits previous authors before and since Freud uncovering childhood narcissism as “fantasies of omnipotence” which, unchecked by adulthood reality, can grow into subtly camouflaged social monsters masquerading as “ostensibly healthy people.”
The more I share these ideas, the fewer surprises I find when listeners express familiarity. “Oh man, I feel that too,” says my white friend. And my other white friend. Okay, most of my white friends feel this way. And it leads me to wonder, are white people (and the minorities approved by white supremacist culture for their aligned values) overwhelmingly narcissistic, trapped in a relentless cycle of propping their grandiose selves on white pedestals and medicating their shit-bucket dysrealities when they fall?
That could go a long way toward the perpetuation of systemic racism. How can I possibly expect myself to empathetically engage with another person’s humanity—particularly a human who doesn’t share my values or image—when I actively, chronically reject my own humanity in favor of this grandiose self? When I routinely practice a cycle of bludgeoning/medicating/worshiping myself to avoid suicide or, worst of all, hard conversations with my therapist, how can I as an insecure white male look at a physically dominant black man leaning on a fence with gentleness and equality?
Until I can hold myself with compassion, or allow someone else to compassionately hold me, in the space between my shit bucket and my pedestal, I cannot experience love. Not for myself, not for my romantic partner, not for my kids, and certainly not for my neighbor who neither looks like me nor participationally reinforces my own dysfunctional belief system.
There is a process for being held compassionately in that space. Probably several, but the one I’m most familiar with stems from Attachment Theory, a branch of psychology describing how adults and children make sense of their world based on the connection they build with whomever they most trust. If that connection is empathetic, soothing, and playful, they grow into flourishing, secure adults. If that connection is absent, antagonistic, or abusive, their world shatters leaving them grasping at coping mechanisms to stay alive. This work happens in the body’s nervous system, subconsciously, from birth throughout our life. Major interruptions to a secure attachment can damage the nervous system’s ability to function; sustained relational interventions can repair a broken one.
When I experience the calm security of a well-regulated nervous system, even as a scrawny white male I can approach that tall, muscular black man on the corner and engage him in friendly conversation, sensitive to any signals of discomfort, vulnerably reducing my own transmissions of threat my social status infers. I can honor him as someone’s son, as someone’s father, as a human, and accept anything he gives me with compassion.
I’ve got a lot of work to do before I get there, personally. As have most of my friends. But I see on the news suffering black people raising their fists or kneeling in solidarity beside white people and individuals of all ethnicities, and I think we stand a chance at changing our perception and embracing a new reality together.