On my way to a Nonviolent Communication (NVC) training, i started to read the book (well, the first 100 pages of it or so). I am finding it a quick read, though i ended up putting it down before landing because i could not read any more about lynching. I actually cried on the plane (okay, it was just a few tears coming down but still i usually don’t cry, especially not in public). It is absolutely incredibly infuriating how little i know about slavery and the aftermath: 20-30 million people were displaced – half (!) of them died on the way from Africa to the US. The USAmerican slavery was the most brutal of any slavery there ever was (for example slaves couldn’t buy themselves out of slavery in the US, whereas in Greece or Rome they could). Rape was used as a terrorist weapon. And then after slavery officially ended, Whites tried everything to ensure that Blacks couldn’t get anywhere. And the lynching – OMD! Horrible, horrible! Yes, i knew they hung people off trees, which is horrible enough, but they often cut off pieces of their bodies before they died! And after death, they’d use body parts as trophies. (That’s when i had to stop reading: I needed some time to mourn these atrocities, the dehumanization). And nobody freaking talks about this!!!! As DeGruy Leary writes (73):
Studying history in American schools we learn about the excesses of the Roman Empire, the viciousness of Stalin’s Soviet Union and the brutality of the Nazis. We learn about the barbarity of the Mongols and the cruelty of the Huns. You can easily add to this list the Japanese during World War II, the Viet Cong and the Huutu Nation. More recently we have had Milosevic’s Serbia, Hussein’s Iraq, the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden, to name but a few.
Certainly all of those listed above are responsible for their fair share of atrocities. But missing from this list is one society that is responsible for some of the most gruesome crimes against humanity in history – The United States of America. While the powers that be in America are happy to talk about others’ crimes, they seem to be reluctant to truly confront their own. With respect to the genocide of Native Americans, and the enslavement and later oppression of those of African descent, the history we in this land learn has been greatly sanitized.
After i had closed the book and was sitting there in shock, horror, and empathic pain for the suffering of millions, the question kept coming up: Why? Why do people do this? And why do we keep on denying it, sanitizing history? According to NVC, all actions, including atrocities, are attempts to meet needs. What needs could people have possibly been attempting to meet by cutting another human being apart alive?!? DeGruy touches on this somewhat by pointing out that Whites dissolved the cognitive dissonance they felt between their beliefs (all humans deserve to be treated with dignity and respect) and their actions by dehumanizing Blacks. Blacks weren’t quite human (in fact, the US Congress agreed they were 3/5th human, so that the Southern states didn’t have to give them full rights but could count them to increasing their White male representation in Congress). But why did they do that? What needs could they meet with that? (Power & wealth are not needs!) The only answer i keep coming up with is to avoid the pain of realizing what they were, what we are, doing! Safety. Comfort. It reminded me of the difficulty of an abuser to face up to his abusive behavior. He would have to admit that he hurt someone else – and that can be very difficult, very shameful.
I have been exploring the connection between shame and stereotypes arguing that stereotypes are used to shame people into believing they are not good enough because they don’t live up to a social norm, such as being a White male. In that context, shame is not a useful moral emotion: It is destructive and holds up the status quo. But what about the shame that Whites feel about being white? I am hesitant to call this a useful moral emotion because shame tends to turn us inward, away from reconciliation. And clearly that is what we need to move toward: We need to face the atrocities committed, how they still benefit us, and work toward true reconciliation. DeGruy points out that the first step toward healing is knowing the history – so, let’s start by no longer sanitizing US history. Let’s become familiar with the Black Holocaust instead of denying it or downplaying it. And let’s learn what went on after slavery was officially abolished, how it really continued in other ways. And let’s admit that we are not in a post-racist era, that racism is very much still a reality in everyday live of all colored people, especially African-Americans.