Okay, I’m done. Like—DONE done. I’m done talking. I’m done trying to make people—even people who look great on paper and are, for all intents and purposes, folks who have nothing but the best intentions—feel better about themselves when they are in error—particularly with regard to socioeconomic issues. I’m done handing people the cheat sheet for propriety—what to say, what not to say. We live in a post-Gutenberg Press world, man. There is a virtual mushroom cloud over the planet thanks to the Internet, and it is absolutely LOUSY with information and resources. If you don’t know the answer, look it up. Like I tell my students, “Let’s not guess. Let’s know.”
Over the past couple of years, there has been a straight-up rash of Anglo men and women coming to me for advice about how to create safe spaces in their communities for people who have been marginalized and oppressed. I wrote an op-ed you can read here, about why they feel comfortable coming to me. But what I’ve been reminded of over the past year amidst a turbulent transition to a new town and job and socioeconomic culture is that making people feel comfortable throughout their own discomfort with change is akin to helping a snake out of its skin.
In my research for this Medusa project, I have come to learn a lot about snakes. The snake was one of Athena’s totems, in fact—Athena even used Medusa’s head to adorn her shield after Perseus beheaded her. Thanks to the lore and probably in part to a long legacy of ritual masks used during ceremonies to ward off malevolent entities, the Gorgoneion icon is used to this day to indicate danger or denote safe spaces. Warriors used them on their armor. Women wore pendants around their necks to pray. The name “Medusa,” in fact, means “Protectress.” Perseus’s story continued after Medusa’s as he flew over the Libyan desert, the venomous blood creating more serpents in its wake, and as he flew over the ocean to rescue Andromeda, coral reefs were created. Even the ancients knew that you can’t have creation without destruction. An old way has to go before a new one can enter.
Tangentially related, when a snake is ready to shed, because it’s grown an entirely new skin beneath the old, it can grow irritable. Its eyes become cloudy, it can’t really move at its regular pace, therefore it can’t feed itself. Isolated from a previously familiar environment, it finds a rough patch—the bark on a tree or the surface of a boulder to create friction in order to free itself from a condition of its own devising. If it didn’t endure this period, the snake would never grow. I saw a video recently of a captive snake that had somehow trapped itself in its own skin, and moved for hours in a circle trying to maneuver its way free. The videographers and owners did not free the snake. You know why? Because by intervening, they would cripple the snake’s ability to realize it could free ITSELF. And you know what? Eventually it did.
There are three layers of the brain that come with being human. We have the top layer—the neocortex, good for problem solving and analysis and recognizing patterns. The limbic system stores our thoughts, emotions, and memories. And the center layer of the brain—the one that controls our breath and blood? It’s called the reptilian brain or R-complex. It’s responsible for dominance, aggression, procreation, acquiring food—essentially survival. The other two layers evolved around it in order to become more efficient at providing the R-complex what it needs to survive. Just because we live in a white collar world, doesn’t mean what’s running the show is any less interested in protecting one’s own neck. The paradox here is that just as much as the R-complex is going to try and censor us from uncomfortable scenarios that seem to threaten our peace of mind and consistent worldview, as we evolve, it is also responsible for creating space for us to challenge what it already knows. Rough patches like uncomfortable interactions with people who are nothing like us in order to teach ourselves that we have outgrown a formerly useful paradigm and we need to grow up.
To return to my original statement, as the paradigm shift currently upon us continues to develop, the internalized dominance that Robin DiAngelo speaks of in this essay, "White Fragility" (required reading in all of my classes btw), can manifest in people you know shutting down, crying, accusing, and basically throwing often very well-articulated temper tantrums about being confronted with the fact that they aren’t in control. Heads up—if you pushed that button, Other or not, be prepared to bear the brunt of their retaliation. You and no one else in their lives now represent their own secret fear of disempowerment—I won’t get into the Lacanian theory behind that phenomenon at the moment, but yeah. Don’t be surprised when that happens.
There is a subtler form of this I am becoming increasingly familiar with—the quiet storm tantrum of the lukewarm liberal who is “just trying to help” and “doing the best that I can.” Usually this is a person who may be very woke on one level and aware of socioeconomic discrepancies in their culture, and they may even be highly active in their communities. They may protest, dig in with the Other to fight the power, etc., but for whatever reason, they decide to go rogue. I have encountered more kickback from liberals who are supposedly on my side, because y’know—they be knowin’. They have multiracial/multi-gendered friends or colleagues or mentors or compatriots. They feel they have a front row seat to the struggle. They can point to resistance to change everywhere but in themselves.
The problem with these people is they think they don’t have any more work to do on themselves. They vote appropriately. They post to social media their outrage about systemic oppression. They march. They protest. They go to bed at night their noggins throbbing with all that is left to do. And then they contact me to get me to cosign on something they said or did or didn’t say or didn’t do. They got so eager to provide a voice for the voiceless because the oppressed aren’t moving fast enough for them, they forget to ask what the voiceless want to even say. And if the voiceless don't ask/want them to say anything—heh. Good luck keeping that trap shut. Or maybe it's because this person has their own struggles to keep the lights on, they feel they’re a good person and just want an Other to validate that their heart is still in the right place even if they don't say or do anything to educate themselves further. In either case, this is a problem—you know why? Because essentially, these people are asking me to assist them out of an old skin. They think that knowledge and being woke has a finish line. The only finish line to life is a coffin, okay? I have no use for people who don’t think they have any more room to learn and defend their actions or inactions or just a simple inability to listen because they suppose they’ve heard it all.
How’s that working out for you? Because if you were coming to this activist/liberal lifestyle with humility as opposed to wanting someone to validate your participation in someone else’s struggle because you don’t have an authentic one of your own, you wouldn’t be bothered when someone chin-checks your approach. If you had no guilt and no ego attached to speaking out of turn or not educating yourself when you sense an imbalance of power, you wouldn’t be offended when I don’t endorse your behavior or your thought process. I’ve enabled far too many well-meaning people at this point to stay stagnant because they think they can call on me when they need a morale boost. If you truly feel that you’ve done all you can, then stop talking about it and just go live your life, man. I don’t know what else to tell you other than to go read Thich Nhat Hanh’s How to Love as many times as it takes for it to stick, where he talks about organic love, self-acceptance, equanimity, compassionate listening, and most pertinent to my own stance at the moment, is saying “no,” to others when continuing to say “yes” creates suffering within yourself. Can’t do it anymore. Won't do it anymore.
One of the most important points he makes is that if you want to love your neighbor, ask them how so we avoid wounding them. You wanna know how to love me, Neighbor? Then understand this. I love you too much to cripple your evolution anymore. Change and growth is messy and uncomfortable, especially when it's an outdated version of yourself. But you'll be thankful with this new perspective, I swear. Just don’t come expecting me to ease your discomfort as you attempt to break out of the confines of your own skin.