Safety: My privilege, my trap, and my right

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1. Safety – my privilege

The atmosphere was rather festive as my daughters and I made banners for the women’s march. They’re not new to political activism, having been raised in a home where political dialogue is as common as mashed potatoes, but this was the first time all four of us were going to a march together and the first time we were all making our own banners. One chose a Star Wars reference and another chose Hamilton – their pop culture of choice. They dressed up and I teased them with “this is the resistance – not a fashion parade.” They retorted with “Feminism has evolved, Mom. Our generation believes we can look cute AND resist at the same time.”

On the way downtown, we picked up Saleha, a Muslim friend who’s lived in Canada for 10 years. She was excited and passionate about the march – her first political action of this kind.

The meeting place quickly filled with thousands of marchers – predominantly white women, some wearing pink pussy hats, some holding signs. As people gathered, one of the organizers announced that an Indigenous elder would be smudging whoever was interested. Saleha was eager for the opportunity, so we got in line. I stood by and watched a beautiful moment unfold – Saleha opening her hijab like a tent to let the smoke touch her face and her ears, while the elder offered gentle guidance. When Saleha turned away, the emotion on her face told me how moving it had been.

Leaning on a rail on the second floor of the meeting space, we watched the speakers and drumming group on stage. A mix of intersectional voices – Indigenous, immigrants, transgender, and women of colour – inspired us to consider ALL human rights, not just those that have been too often centred in marches like these (able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual white women).

Slowly, the crowd made its way onto the street. As soon as we stepped onto the street, I sensed something had changed in Saleha’s demeanour. I turned toward her. “Are you okay?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Suddenly I don’t feel safe anymore.”

“Would you like me to hold your hand?” I asked.

“Yes, I think I need you to,” she responded.

Holding hands, we followed the crowd. Looking around, I tried to find at least one other woman on the street in a hijab, but I could see none. Nor were there many women of colour or Indigenous women. It was mostly women who looked like me – a crowd of white feminists, probably mostly unaware of who was missing. Did all of those other, more marginalized women, avoid the march because they sensed the same feeling of insecurity that was coming up for Saleha?

More than once I turned to her and said “If it feels unsafe to be here, we can step out and leave the crowd.”

“No,” she said. “I want to do this. I’ll stay in it as long as I can.” We kept walking and the stories began to spill. “It’s illegal to protest like this where I come from,” she said. “I once witnessed a friend yanked off the street by the authorities. We didn’t see him again after that.”

“The day after the Paris attacks, I was waiting for a train in Amsterdam when a man shoved his face just inches from mine and started verbally attacking me. Nobody stepped in to stop him.”

On and on it went – the many times she had felt unsafe, just because she was a woman on the street wearing a hijab. The airport security checks when customs officers discovered her last name was the same as one of the 9-11 terrorists, the times she’s dropped her children off at school and teachers or other moms ignored her until they realized she spoke English like them, the drunk man on the street who told her to go back home in front of her children.

“I don’t know why these are all coming up right now,” she said. “Each time something happened, I stuffed it away and told myself I was okay. It was the only way I could carry on – to convince myself I was safe. But I’m not safe. Since coming to Canada, I’ve done everything I can to blend in and to convince people that I’m not a threat. I worked so hard to learn English. And now I will probably cancel my post-grad studies in the U.S. because I’ll be even less safe there.”

More than once, as we walked, she apologized for saying things that might make me, a white woman, feel badly for what people like me had done or said to her. “I don’t want to be somebody who blames white people.”

“Stop,” I said. “You don’t need to apologize. If I am your friend, I need to be able to hear the ways that you feel unsafe around people like me. Even if it makes me uncomfortable, I need to listen. You are not responsible for looking after me in this situation.”

“But I’m not used to this kind of conversation,” she said. “I am much more used to doing whatever it takes to make white women like you feel safe.”

As we walked, I glanced ahead to where my daughters walked, and was suddenly hit with these two realizations:

  1. I and my daughters never once considered that we might be unsafe on the street. My safety to march is just one of the many privileges I take for granted. So is my safety to go grocery shopping, to drop my kids off at school, and to ride the bus without being verbally attacked. Although there are some places I wouldn’t feel safe, especially at night, I have access to enough privilege (ie. my own vehicle, a house in a relatively safe part of town, etc.) that I rarely have to place myself in situations where I am at risk.
  2. Although I consider myself to be as non-threatening as a person could be, my white skin and my place within the dominant culture make me unsafe for some people. In order to stay safe themselves, others often need to contort themselves in order to make me feel safe. White women like me might present a particular risk because we’re the ones that the police would probably respond to most quickly if we were feeling threatened.

2. Safety – my cage

My friend Desiree is fierce and bold. She says things on her Facebook stream that I don’t have the courage to say and she doesn’t apologize if people take offence to them. Rather than coddling people, she expects them to take responsibility for their own emotional response.

We are quite different in our communication styles and I’ve often wondered about the many factors that contribute to that difference. I chalk up my more conciliatory, sometimes timid communication style to my pacifist, Mennonite, Canadian roots, but lately I’ve considered that it may be more than that. We may have been intentionally conditioned differently by the patriarchy.

For nearly seven years now, Desiree and I have been having periodic conversations about the ways in which we’ve learned to respond to the world differently. As a Black woman living in the southern U.S., her lived experience is quite different from mine. We’re passionate about many of the same things, but we came to these issues from different directions.

After the women’s march, Desiree and I talked about what the march represented, what happened during the march, whose voices were heard, etc. One of our most profound conversations was about the images on social media that portrayed police officers wearing pink pussy hats at the marches.

“When white women show up to protest,” Desiree said, “police wear pink pussy hats. But when people of colour show up to protest, they wear riot gear.”

We went back and forth about what that meant. Did the police just assume that, because the Women’s March was predominantly white women, there would be no danger involved? Was it a purely race-related difference?

And then, something new emerged in our conversation – the possibility that the police were serving as agents of the patriarchy, keeping white women in line by appeasing them and convincing them they were there to protect THEM from outside forces rather than protecting OTHERS from them. When they show up with riot gear, they’re protecting the community from the protestors. When they put on pussy hats, they’re signalling that they’re protecting the protestors.

And that, we theorized, is one of the reasons that there is fragility among white women (and why someone like me might adopt a more timid, conciliatory communication style) – because we have been conditioned by the hierarchy to believe that our fragility keeps us safe. As long as we are fragile, the patriarchy protects us. When we are no longer fragile, the patriarchy withdraws its protection and we are at risk.

The patriarchy benefits from the fragility of white women.

Women of colour, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of being fragile. They are taught to survive at whatever cost, usually by their own means and without the help of those in authority. They don’t grow up assuming that the police will protect them if they are fragile. They grow up with images of the police protecting the community from them, not the other way around.

This is how the patriarchy keeps us both in line – by keeping us separate and at odds. It’s the same way that apartheid worked in South Africa. The white establishment created fractions between the local tribes, giving some more access to education, jobs, etc. When they were fighting amongst themselves, they did not present a threat to those in power. If you look around at the places where women are gathering to develop political actions such as the Women’s March, you’ll see the same kind of dissension. Groups with differing access to privilege, power, and protection have a hard time hearing each other’s concerns.

(I would add that those police officers in pussy hats and riot gear are also being controlled and wounded by the patriarchy, though they probably don’t recognize it. It’s a flawed system that is doing damage to us all.)

Two more realizations:

  1. Fragility in white women is real AND it’s tool of the patriarchy in order to keep us silent and weak. If I don’t challenge it in myself, I stay trapped and nothing changes.
  2. If I place too high a value on my own safety, I won’t risk stepping into conversations that make me uncomfortable and I won’t be able to build better relationships with women of colour and other groups that have been oppressed by the patriarchy.

3. Safety – my right

A few days ago, I was part of a text conversation of another kind. My friend Jo shared that she had been verbally abused in a conversation on social media. She’d been invited into a conversation about whether or not patriarchy is real, and though she intuitively felt unsafe as the only women surrounded by opinionated men, trying to explain something that they had all benefited from, she took the risk because she cared about the person who invited her. She stated her discomfort, but that discomfort was used as a weapon against her to make her feel shame for wanting a “safe space”.

Jo’s story reminded me of the times when I too have felt unsafe, trying to explain sexism or discrimination to those who had more power than me. Several years ago, I wrote a letter addressing some sexist behaviour on the board of an organization I was part of and I sent it to the three men I thought needed to be aware of it. My letter was ignored by one, dismissed by another, and responded to only with a back-handed comment by the third. I was left feeling small and ashamed for “over-reacting” and unsafe to raise any such concerns again in the future.

I know, from listening to my friends who are Indigenous and people of colour, that they feel similarly when white people ask them to explain racism, or when they need to challenge racism in their workplace. It is unfair to expect the people who’ve been oppressed to explain to those who’ve benefited from the oppression. It puts them in a dangerous position where they are often targeted with more abuse for “over-reacting”, “being too sensitive”, etc. Some people even lose their jobs for daring to challenge the system.

Though I have to recognize safety as my privilege and my trap, I also believe that it is a human right. Those who dismiss my safety as irrelevant or who tell me I’m over-reacting and need to calm down are attempting to gaslight me – making me think that I’m crazy or weak for needing safety. That’s how oppressors win.

As I mentioned in my last post, trauma further complicates this issue. Unhealed trauma convinces us that we are unsafe even when we aren’t. And much of that trauma is hard to pinpoint because we may have inherited it or it may have been caused before we were old enough to know what was going on. The fear that comes up when a trauma memory is triggered is as real as the fear we felt when the trauma happened.

Two more realizations:

  1. Next to air, water, and food, safety is our most basic need. We will do almost anything to find safety, including contorting ourselves in the presence of those who make us feel unsafe. Those who’ve been oppressed are usually masterful at contortion, and if they’re not, they are at greater risk.
  2. When we have experienced trauma, our need for safety is easily triggered and our bodies respond with fight, flight, or freeze. Often we don’t recognize that we are being triggered and then it’s easy to feel shame for over-reacting. Those with more power usually don’t recognize (or choose to ignore) that they are triggering our fear and our shame because their lived experience is very different.

Note: All three of the friends mentioned in this post gave permission for their stories to be shared.

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Serving the world as wounded healers

“In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others.” – Brennan Manning

On Sunday I sat in a circle of wounded healers. These were the openhearted people who had gathered for our second Race to Peace conversation.

It started with Rosanna Deerchild, the first to offer healing out of her own wounds. In the Maclean’s article that named our city the most racist in Canada, Rosanna shared how she has faced racism on a weekly basis. “Someone honks at me, or yells out ‘How much’ from a car window, or calls me a stupid squaw, or tells me to go back to the rez. Every time, it still feels like getting punched in the face.”

When Rosanna’s face appeared, without her blessing, on the front cover of Maclean’s, and she was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the “face of racism”, she made a courageous choice. Instead of responding with outrage, she decided to reach out with healing. She offered to host dinner and a conversation with people in the city about race relations, and out of that willingness, Race to Peace was born.

Rosanna’s choice inspired others to make similar choices. In the circle that gathered on Sunday, there were many who had been wounded and are now willing to extend healing.

There was the man who’d gotten a girl pregnant at 13, joined a gang, landed in jail, and was now studying to be a social worker so that he could help other young men stay out of gangs and jail and make a positive impact on the world.

There was the woman who’d immigrated from the Philippines and had experienced racism in trying to find a job in Canada and wanted to support other job-seekers with similar stories.

There was the man who’d experienced conflict in El Salvador who is now passionate about peace in his adopted country.

There was my husband, who dropped out of school in junior high because of his own anxiety and insecurity, found the courage to go to university as a 40 year old father, and now teaches in a jail.

And there was me… once raped by an indigenous man and determined not to let that make me bitter toward people of his race or gender.

The term “wounded healer” comes out of the work of psychologist Carl Jung, who believed that analysts are compelled to treat patients because the analysts themselves are wounded. My friend Jo, who is also a psychologist, says that most of the people she studied with ended up in psychology for that very reason. According to some research by Alison Barr, “73.9% of counselors and psychotherapists have experienced one or more wounding experiences leading to their career choice.”

This is not unique to psychologists. Caregivers of all kinds (nurses, hospice workers, coaches, social workers, grief counselors, etc.) are often in the line of work they’re in because they first experienced their own wounds. (Of note: Henri Nouwen has written a book related to the topic, called Wounded Healer.)

“As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal somebody else.” – Maya Angelou

We are always given a choice what to do with our wounds. We can use them as an excuse to go out and wound other people (which is at the root of most of the pain in the world), or we can do the hard work of healing and then use that healing as a gift to help in other’s healing. The wounded healer emerges in all of us who make the right choice.

I first stepped into my coaching vocation in a hospital room.

I’d landed there in the middle of my third pregnancy after my cervix had suddenly become incompetent and medical intervention had failed to correct the situation. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have been in that situation if it hadn’t been for a series of doctors’ errors.

Lying on my back in a hospital room, fearing for my son’s life, I realized I had a choice to make. I could be bitter and resentful and blame the doctors for what had happened, or I could accept the situation and forgive the doctors. I chose the second.

Once I made that choice, I was at peace. Though it was stressful not knowing what would happen to the baby and not being in control of my own life while I waited, I was surprisingly calm. Since I could do nothing else, I began to turn my hospital room into a little spiritual retreat centre, with gentle music playing, cards and pictures from my kids on the wall, and fresh fruit and flowers on the windowsill.

People began to notice how peaceful my room was, and unexpected visitors started showing up. Other patients, cleaning staff, doctors, friends, and even other people’s visitors – all of them showed up there at one time or another and all remarked at the peacefulness of the room. Some of the nurses on the floor started dropping in during their breaks because my room was more relaxing than their coffee room. A cancer patient from across the hall became a regular visitor because her visits made her feel less anxious.

While they were there, people began to share things with me – personal things that they were working through in their own lives. There was the nurse who was struggling with parenting decisions, another nurse who’d moved from Africa and was finding it difficult to adjust to a new culture, the cancer patient who was afraid to die, and a friend who was trying to make a difficult decision about whether to step into leadership.

Without intending to, I became confidante and coach to those people. Long before I knew the term “holding space” I was doing it in that hospital room for anyone who needed it. I had plenty of time on my hands and I was willing to be of service and that willingness drew people to me. It was both humbling and eye-opening.

There I was, confined to my hospital room, serving as a wounded healer to friends and strangers alike. Because of my own fear, I could hold theirs without judgement. Because I’d walked through injustice and anger and came through to forgiveness, they saw something in me that they could trust. Because I made the effort to create a peaceful space in a tumultuous situation and environment, they sought me out as friend and healer.

That experience changed my life and led me to the work that I now do. None of it could have happened, though, if I hadn’t first been wounded. If that pregnancy had been easy and had resulted in a living child (instead of my stillborn son, Matthew), I might have carried on in my relatively successful corporate job. I might never have discovered my ability to hold space for other people and might never have contributed to the healing of their wounds.

The same can be said for that long ago rape. If I hadn’t been changed by that circumstance, healed the wound the rapist left me with, and come through determined not to perpetuate a cycle of oppression and wounding, I might never have stepped forward when Rosanna spoke of her desire to hold conversations about race relations.

Each of us has a choice – stay wounded and let the wounds fester, or seek healing and offer that healing to others.

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