On white saviourism, cannibal sickness, and dramatic irony

Sometimes images and metaphors can help us shift from a left-brain, cognitive conceptualization of something to a more right-brain, intuitive grasp of it. The sketches above depict in simplified form what it can look like when privilege mistakes itself for merit, when an aspect of the self is projected onto another, and what it looks like when an offer of help comes out of deep unconsciousness. All of these are aspects of white supremacy as it functions collectively and has informed the structures of our society.

As white people, when we begin to wake up to the ongoing impact of white supremacy, we often feel pressured to act. The difficulty is that taking action when our perceptions are distorted tends to make things worse, and whiteness is a nexus for perceptual distortion because so much of it remains unconscious. Most white people still don’t know we are white, and reading the right books is not necessarily going to shift us to a place of experientially grasping that truth and its implications. If we as white people are going to contribute to a global shift in consciousness, then we need to be willing to tolerate the discomfort of allowing the unconscious to become conscious, and allowing ourselves to grasp intuitively how we are participating in white supremacy moment-to-moment.

The shift that is called for will not align with the distorted mirror of Eurocentric history and popular culture in which white people are always the heroes and victims, and others hold our projected shadows for us out of our view. It will involve facing the reality of how much white supremacy costs us in terms of separation from what is real, and how blinded and fragile and dangerous we really are. The problem is this truer version of ourselves is likely to appear at least initially like an uncanny doppelganger from our nightmares; an amalgam of what we have collectively disowned the most heartily about ourselves (how we missed the elephant in every room and were not the good guys after all). The truer version of us will be the character we are least likely to identify with in a movie, like Katherine Keener making tea in her lovely house in the movie Get Out while she sends her victim to the “Sunken Place.”

The privileged do not need to change the world for the sake of the oppressed; we need to save the “saviours” – the missionaries and billionaires and well-meaning white liberals who have sold the world our own sickness and then demanded a thank you.

We need to be able to look at the sketches at the head of this post and see ourselves in the speaking figures. We need to know, also, that it is the speaking figures in these boxes who have been granted the power to tell the official histories we have all been taught, and we need to imagine and work on what it will take for the truth to break through those histories and break through to us.

Einstein, discussing the threat of nuclear apocalypse, said some variation of the words “you can’t change a problem using the same kind of thinking that created it.” We cannot bring world peace through an arms race; the prospect of nuclear war has made winning the global competition for power a zero-sum game. But we also cannot understand the alternative – cooperation – through the lens of competition, just as we cannot grasp quantum reality using Newtonian physics. We cannot perceive what is right in front of us because our eyes and hearts have been trained by collective delusion. While the negative impact of capitalism on humans, non-human persons, and the planet are not hard to see, seeing the harm is itself not enough to reorient us. Our point of view is the site of the disease that needs to be addressed.

One useful framework for understanding this disease of perception and relating is that of narcissism. In their article “Whiteness as Pathological Narcissism,” Arianne Miller and Lawrence Josephs argue that the shame and guilt white people feel due to our benefitting from inequality motivates our ongoing defenses against seeing ourselves and our complicity accurately. They write that

“White, liberal, educated, upwardly mobile people are often thought to have transcended racism. Consequently, they may not think of themselves as white, as possessing any particular white privilege, or as having any sense of superiority about their whiteness. To confront someone about one’s repudiated white privilege is analogous to confronting the person about their defensive grandiosity; the person feels attacked and responds with denial and counterattack.”

This denial and counterattack, or “white fragility” (as it is most famously described by Robin DiAngelo in her book of that name) is the most common response to having whiteness-in-action pointed out. Any one of us who has been in close relationship with a narcissist actually has a useful lens into the experience of BIPOC trying to speak the truth and be heard within white-dominated institutions. This experience has obvious material consequences, but must also be understood in terms of the psychological consequence of annihilation, or the complete lack of recognition and the destruction of the self. Recognition means being seen as another subject; a being with an interior life. When we seek recognition from a narcissist, we are only given back a distorted image of our self as an object. We “exist” for the narcissist only as a function of their own perceptions and needs and not in our own right; our self and subjectivity are annihilated. White supremacy is founded on physical and psychological annihilation and has baked this annihilation into every institution in our society. If we are to address this, we must be able to identify and exit – if only briefly at first – the way of seeing that has made so many subjects into objects and beings into things.

In his book Columbus and Other Cannibals, Jack Forbes tells the history of colonization from an indigenous perspective, and in this way speaks from outside the narcissistic vacuum I have been describing above. Forbes describes what white people would call civilization as the result of a kind of “cannibal psychosis” or wétiko disease: “the disease of aggression against other living things and, more precisely, the disease of the consuming of other creatures’ lives and possessions.” Forbes argues that to a

“considerable degree the development of the wétiko disease corresponds to the rise of what Europeans choose to call civilization. This is no mere coincidence [….] they regard a wétiko-dominated society as being ‘civilized’ and a non-wétiko society as being ‘barbaric,’ ‘primitive’ or ‘backward.’ Why? Because many European historians, anthropologists, cultural evolutionists, statesmen, and so on, are first of all materialists. (It does not matter if they profess to believe in God or if they are a priest or a pope, they still are usually materialistic in that what they spuriously consider to be ‘things spiritual’ are only manifested in material forms or are only valued when they are reflected by impressive material monuments). Thus, a society is only highly esteemed by them when it produces high monuments, impressive public works, accumulates great surplus wealth, and has a ‘leisure’ class. The creation of such material products or their accumulation is, of course, closely associated with imperialism and stratified social systems. Therefore, the European thinker tends also to greatly admire empires and authoritarian societies. It is precisely these kinds of societies which are wétiko. They are the ones where exploitation of others is accepted, at least by the rulers, as a proper or at least necessary way of life.”

Forbes identifies the point of view that is the site of the sickness of white supremacy, and the kind of thinking that cannot be used to solve the problems it has created. He speaks from the site of annihilation – both physical genocide and psychological obliteration. He also gives voice to the many (human) beings onto which white supremacy has projected its barbarism and savagery, and he demands that we take back these projections and face the violence inside us. We are the savages, the “cannibals,” the destroyers and consumers of lives, and our collective defenses against this reality have been all but impenetrable. We are the white police officers who have shot countless unarmed Black men in the back while claiming we “feared for our lives.” We are the ones building the monuments to Confederacy and holding the nooses, torches, and guns. This is harder to see from the comfort of our living rooms on stolen land and our collective delusion of being the centre of every story, which is precisely why and how white supremacy remains in place.

Just as we cannot solve a problem with the kind of thinking that created it, we cannot accurately perceive or be in right relation to another being once we reduce them to an object. The narcissism and cannibal sickness of white supremacy has remade much of the world in its image, rendering beings into objects and projecting the violence of that act onto the beings themselves. How can offers to “help” solve these problems by white people not land as unbearably ironic? How can the insistence that this reality be reflected back in just the right tone to the ones doing harm not elicit despair and rage?

Dramatic irony is a literary technique originating in Greek tragedy, in which the full significance of a character’s own situation or actions are known more fully to the audience than to the character. One example is the plight of Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother precisely as he did everything he possibly could to avoid fulfilling the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Part of the experience of watching a tragedy with dramatic irony is thus holding the knowledge that the central character does not have, and most needs, to avert disaster.

In some ways the history of the Americas as we have been taught it is written from the point of view of the people most in the dark about what is really happening. Consider the dramatic irony of the missionaries: these “servants of God” were convinced they were bringing salvation as they brought the genocidal traumas of Europe to the Americas. In creating the Residential Schools for indigenous children that would later be used as models for concentration camps in Germany, our settler ancestors were the first white saviours, rescuing indigenous peoples from barbarism. Is it possible to imagine a deeper unconsciousness or a more violent sickness than stealing children from their families and languages in the name of God? This is our history as white people. And our frantic offers of help in 2020 are not adequate to address it until we really see that it is happening NOW. White people remain instrumental in our own demise just as we believe we are doing what is best. And, like tragically blind characters, we remain deaf to what we most need to hear.

At this stage in my lifelong work, I understand that my primary task in dismantling my whiteness is not to do anything “for” BIPOC; I need to get good and grown and strong and humble enough to face my own narcissism, obliviousness and the genocidal underbelly of my privilege. I need to become fortified enough to face the justified rage of the people who have held mine and my ancestors’ shadows for us at great cost. I need to be able to own my own cannibal nature and know that I am not only hero and victim but also perpetrator, beneficiary, and consumer. Ironically, this brings me so much closer to reality than privilege ever could. It is rending, and disorienting, and requires so many repetitions. It is only via a plummet from the tower of privilege that I come, finally, to ground and to belonging on this planet.

While we remain only partially conscious of what white supremacy costs, all white people are in some ways like the young, successful white man, Evan, in the TV series Pose. In one scene, sitting in a diner booth across from Angel (the Black trans femme he is pursuing), Evan says to them,

“I’m no one. I want what I’m supposed to want, I wear what I’m supposed to wear, and I work where I’m supposed to work. I stand for nothing. I’ve never fought in a war and I probably won’t ever have to because the next one’s gonna kill us all. I can buy things I can’t afford which means they’re never really mine. I don’t live, I don’t believe; I accumulate. I’m a brand. A middle-class white guy.”

To the extent that my constant practice brings me in touch with what my narcissism and the collective delusions of white supremacy have blocked from my view, I will catch glimpses of the much vaster web of being and connection that Evan is unconsciously seeking. In his poem “Call Me By My True Names,” Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh depicts what it might mean for those of us who are able to own instead of flee our cannibal deeds

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow— even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving to be a bud on a Spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, to fear and to hope. The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive.

I am a mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river. And I am the bird that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am a frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond. And I am the grass-snake that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am also the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands. And I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth. My pain is like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up and the door of my heart could be left open, the door of compassion.

As much as I might like it to be, the compassion Thich Nhat Hanh describes here is not truly available to me if I try to bypass seeing that I am also that pirate.