Monday, January 10, 2011

The Call to Heal (and be Healed) in Relationship

Recently I've been reading a book entitled African American Folk Healing, by Stephanie Y. Mitchem. This book has been particularly meaningful to me, because the author discusses so clearly and practically the damaging impact of racism on the psyche and lives of African Americans. And it has helped me understand at a deeper level some very important dynamics in my relationship with my husband and with his family.

I need to start out by acknowledging the impact of race and racism on my relationship with my husband. I am white and my husband is black. And I'm here to tell you that you can stuff your head full of notions all you want about how "race is only skin deep," and how race doesn't (or shouldn't) matter in a relationship, and so on and so on. I will say that it simultaneously does not matter / should not matter, and it matters tremendously and tragically.

There are a good many things in my relationship with my husband, in many day-to-day life chores and in the function of being married and caring for one another, where, yes, race has negligible to no impact. But I can also say that I've come to appreciate the fact that one of the greatest challenges or struggles in our relationship has been the fact that growing up in an Anglo-American home, I was raised with a set of assumptions that I have come to realize would have been completely different if I had been raised in an African American home. And I'm not just talking about attitudes toward race. I'm talking about attitudes toward things that have a profound effect on a relationship -- such as the attitude toward conflict.

Having been raised by an Anglo-American Mormon dad and a Finnish convert to Mormonism, I can say that one of the prevailing assumptions in our home is that all conflict is extremely bad. We were very, very squeamish about any manifestation of conflict. All yelling is bad. All arguing is bad. In fact, noise of any kind is bad. And so, in the home I was raised in, if any sort of conflict ever came out into the open, it literally felt like the end of the world was going to happen. And everybody's priority was to shove all manifestations of conflict back into the evil Pandora's box it came out of.

It's not to say that we couldn't / didn't deal with conflict. But we put a premium on dealing with conflict in ways that were superficially calm, controlled, and heavily managed. We were trained to put on a calm exterior even as the emotions were boiling out of control underneath.

I remember the first time I met Göran's African American family in Memphis. One of the things that immediately struck me was how noisy family gatherings were. People shouting! Loud laughter! Very emotional expressions of everything. In this setting, some shouting is bad, yes. Some arguing is bad. But sometimes, shouting and arguing is just how you express yourself and how you deal with a problem. Get it out in the open and deal with it! And then you can move on. And with Göran's family, noise is OK. In fact, I've noticed with Göran, noise is sometimes mandatory. I can sit around for hours in the house, with everything so quiet you can hear a pin drop. You can literally hear the air stirring. And as soon as Göran walks through the door, he says, "I need NOISE!" and he'll turn on some music.

Now, I'm not saying that there can't be African American families out there who think "silence is golden," or that there aren't Anglo-American families out there who love to mix it up. But I think that if I'm talking to a white friend about the overriding assumptions that governed how I was raised, he's going to be much more likely to relate to what I grew up with than a black friend. That's just the reality. And this is important, because those assumptions contribute to our assumptions about what is "normal" and what is "good." If I don't understand the culturally contingent nature of these kinds of assumptions, I'm going to be much more likely condemn as bad some of the basic assumptions that my husband comes at me with. That's not good for a relationship. So cultural differences of any sort always add challenge to a relationship. But they also make a relationship interesting and cool!

But of course in addition to just some of the basic challenges created by cultural difference, African Americans have had to deal with the unique burden of living in a culture that has one of the most virulent, toxic forms of racism the world has ever seen. One of the things that has helped me and Göran as a couple to come to grips with this has been when we've discussed the landmark study conducted by Kenneth Clark in 1954 that showed how little black children had a preference for white dolls; they thought black dolls were "ugly" and white dolls were "beautiful." Follow the link I've provided above, and you will see that fifty years later, we still have the same problem. To me, there's no greater demonstration that racism is alive and well today; it has not been swept away or overcome. Little black kids are still growing up believing that they are less attractive and less desirable or good than white kids.

OK. So if we consider what makes for a strong, vibrant, healthy relationship, we know that healthy self-esteem, self-confidence and self-love on the part of both members of a relationship are crucial. Having a foundation of love for one's self and belief in one's self is necessary in order to love another person. "If you can't love yourself, how are you going to love anybody else?" You also need healthy humility, a healthy sense of perspective and sense of humor about oneself, and an ability to put others first, in order for a relationship to work.

So if you understand this, it is possible to see how toxic racism is in a relationship between a white man and a black man. If the white man is functioning with unexamined attitudes of privilege and of priority (both because he is white and because he is a man), if he assumes (because society has taught him to assume) that what he has to say or think is always valuable and important and matters, then that man may not have the requisite skills of openness, perspective, and humility that will enable him to be a good citizen in a relationship. And if a black man is functioning with unexamined beliefs in his own inferiority... Well, you get the picture.

Now, ultimately, I believe the best cure for racism is the real-life, rough and tumble of actual relationships. A white man and a black man in relationship with each other don't have to be together very long before most of whatever stereotypes they may have held about whiteness or blackness get shattered, and they begin to relate to one another as human beings. In fact, they soon get to the point where they just don't even think of each other as black or as white. It's just John and Göran. True, true, all very good and true.

But there's still an emotional and psychological foundation that doesn't get dealt with necessarily; and that can even shape and structure a lot of interactions at a sub-conscious level, in ways that have a potential at least to be very destructive. And I think there comes a point where you simply can't continue to function with a Shangri-la attitude of "let's all just hold hands and sing and everything's going to be OK." At some point, the monster of racism has to be unmasked in very self-conscious, explicit ways. It has to be dealt with.

Here's another news flash: The Past Is Not Just the Past. History -- even centuries-old history -- lingers on in the present. It influences us and affects us in the here and now. Whites don't like to acknowledge that, in many ways, the chains of slavery are still rattling in our psyche. I desperately want white folks collectively to consider what a powerful thing it would be for us collectively to do something to acknowledge it. We can say, "I personally never owned a slave. I disapprove of racism. But the culture I belong to is racist; and the founders of the country I am a citizen of held slaves; and I may have some ancestors who held slaves; and I want to take responsibility for making that right." Because God knows, our slave-holding ancestors and founders never made restoration for the wrongs that they did. And without restoration, can there truly be repentance? So maybe, just maybe, we ought to consider making restoration for what they did. Maybe, just maybe, this burden, this debt of restoration our ancestors left us is as much a part of our inheritance as all the good things they left us that we are eager to claim.

But those bigger cultural and social and political questions aside (bringing the political back to the realm of the personal)... I never understood why the way my husband takes care of his hair could be such an emotional issue. I never understood why figuring out what his name was and having the power to change his name if he wanted to was such a powerful thing. I never understood why holding on to mementos of his past is such a powerful, emotional thing for him in a way that it probably never will be for me. Why he documents every single thing in his life in photographs and scrapbooks and boxes. This book I've been reading on African American Folk Healing has helped me to understand how and why those traits of my husband may connect to deeper cultural issues related to race in America.

Which brings home to me the role that Göran and I need to play in relationship to each other as healers and healed. I am more aware than ever of the wounds that need healing. And if I am attentive, and if I pray for help from God -- the God who knows each of us better than we know ourselves, and who, I truly believe, can give us the key to overcoming racism if we really ask him for it and desire it -- perhaps I can be granted some insight, as well as the courage to follow through on the insight. I need to pray to God to give me a new vision, a different vision, a better vision of how love and relationship look restored and healed from the effects of racism and other "-isms."

Oh, yeah. Heterosexism is in the mix there too, something that complicates our relationship with each other. Heterosexism that rears its ugly head, for example, in the knee-jerk reaction I get from some people that every problem in our relationship must stem back to the fact that we are two men in a relationship (rather than two people in a relationship) and that the solution to our relationship problems, therefore, would be for us to give up on each other, to leave each other. That there is no value in the love we give each other, or in our attempts to care for one another.

As a Latter-day Saint, I take courage in the doctrine of Restoration (which is beautifully explained in Alma 40-42; and of which we see a powerful example related to the problem of race in Helaman 14). The doctrine of Restoration suggests to me that, through the Atonement, and with the Power of God, it is possible for us to envision a world without racism, without homophobia, without sexism, without all the "-ism's" that distort human relationships. We can imagine a history and a humanity without hate. And we can trust in some ultimate healing that is complete and total: human personality and human relationships healed of the pain and anguish and ugliness of sin. And some redemption of human history.

I think that in the eternal scale of things, there will have to be some restoration made for slavery. Our ancestors didn't make it. If we don't take responsibility to make it now, ourselves, I believe there will come a time when God will require it of us. Better to do it now, when we have a chance to do it of our own free will. To do so now would make better people of us than to wait until we have no choice.

I do approach the problem of healing with this fundamental hope. With this knowledge that we can and will be healed, if we put our heart, might, and mind to it, and if we ask God for help.


(Thanks to our exchange student, Farzad, for the pretty picture, his image of our love!)


El Genio said...

As someone who has confronted this issue on a very personal level, thank you for sharing this.

J G-W said...

El Genio -- I'm gradually realizing that some of this stuff comes up and bites you without you ever seeing it coming. Conflict can surface in the relationship that doesn't seem to have anything to do with race or racial issues... But if you have a deeper understanding, you begin to realize what the source is. For me, that's helpful. It helps me be a bit more constructive and patient in trying to work through a particular problem, when you realize that the issues that are coming up are not anybody's fault, they're just a natural part of dealing with our upbringing and culture and also some of the wounds that we've suffered as a result of the culture around us.

MoHoHawaii said...

I'm in a biracial relationship which is also binational. It's been wonderful for me to experience the world through another set of eyes. I think cultural differences can bring something very positive to a relationship. There are the occasional cultural misunderstandings, but with good communication it's possible to get past these. Overall, my experience has been a delight.

Great post!

Super cute illustration, too!!

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - Don't know if you noticed, but we're actually wearing kimonos in this picture... It was taken at the Japanese lantern lighting festival held every August at the Como Conservatory in St. Paul, where there is a traditional Japanese garden.

If you and Tobi are ever in the Twin Cities, we'll have to take you two over there!

alan said...

Mormon leaders for a long time suggested that people marry within their race because cultural issues could be too disruptive to the marriage. I'm not sure if they still say this, but I have never seen Mormon literature that features biracial or multiracial couples. If they show people of color (which the literature often does these days due to a globalized church) it'll be two people of the same color.

Personally, race comes up all the time in my relationship with my partner who is Filipino (and an immigrant). Queer Asian men (and Asians in general) often get stereotyped as emasculated, which can lead to gender-based problems in a relationship on top of other cultural issues.

The other week my bf came home upset about what he saw at a club, the way white and Asian men related with one another, where Asian guys would basically present themselves as "objects" of white desire and white men would treat them that way. He assured me that I'm not like those white men, lol, but the discussion got into past relationships and why we chose to date the people we did -- how much race consciously or unconsciously played a role.

My bf and I actually tend to racialize a lot and play off stereotypes out there for the sake of humor. When serious situations arise, we then are able to discuss or intervene without it being so difficult a topic. I imagine, though, that a lot of white people would consider the humor as "racist" and then sweep serious issues under the rug. But if you're in a biracial relationship there is no rug to sweep under. The dirt is just there in plain sight.

J G-W said...

Alan - Of course I remember a time in the Church when marrying an African American meant that your children would be denied the possibility of holding the priesthood -- so that alone was incentive to avoid marriage to someone of African descent. (Of course, the Church didn't place similar restrictions on east Asians, south Asians, Native Americans, Middle Easterners, Polynesians, or Hispanics who were not of African descent...) Make of that what you will. I don't think a General Authority would dare to make a public statement against interracial marriage nowadays. I guarantee if one ever does, the bad press will be something to behold.

I grew up in an inter-cultural family... My mom is a Finnish immigrant and my Dad is an Anglo-American 4th generation Mormon. There are some significant cultural differences, especially around body image, acceptance of nudity, etc. I guess it's an interesting question what is considered "too much" cultural difference to make a relationship work. I guess that depends on the individuals involved.

There's still lots of discussion in the African American community about interracial relationships... It's probably a bigger issue among African Americans than whites nowadays (at least that's my perception).

For gay men, it seems less of an issue if only because one of the big issues that always comes up is "How are you going to raise the kids?"