This is maybe a provocative title, but I guess it’s my conclusion on a quite long “healing journey” – I should start paying the people who are actually contributing to my sanity.
I think that’s the conclusion because the longer I live, the more I realise that almost none of the problems that have sent me to shrinks in the past are in the least individual. Or personal. Just a few – the part that I could have dealt with with one hand behind my back and my eyes closed. (Sounds arrogant and is ableist, but yes.) … what I probably mean is, they wouldn’t have driven me to see a shrink.
The stuff that did, turned out over the years, was related to 1) the way the society I grew up in treats AFAB and queer folks (and it’s by far not the worst way, though unfortunately worsening currently); 2) the fact nobody understands neurodivergence, specifically autism, but also other aspects like high sensitivity / giftedness, and differing sensory profiles; as well as differing minds and bodies in general; these two took me long enough to figure out, and helped, but then just recently I’ve started getting number 3).
Number 3) was what I thought were my private, personal emigration dramas and traumas, weirdly shaped and weirdly amplified (probably by 1 and 2, also) but … when I started digging into antiracism resources, mostly because I felt obliged to (also as a white European) in the wake of BLM, I started discovering … so many lost pieces of myself.
I did think that as someone who’s an immigrant, but European (and blonde!), this would perhaps help me learn about politics, history, and the life world of other persons, somehow, abstractly. But I didn’t expect that it would give me the first coherent framework ever to think and feel about the still unresolved parts of my own biography and identity, the parts that torment me in practical ways every day and make my life sort of weirdly impossible, and that yeah – did drive me the last time I sought out a therapist 🙂
So if you allow a self-focussed post on the matter – a white person peddling personal antiracism work to white readers, probably, for selfish reasons. Because at this point I’ve also realised that my drive to educate myself in that regard (also earlier, but in far clumsier ways – well at least I hope it improved) was never “altruistic”, it was probably part of the same impulse of self-preservation and self-healing that drove me towards (queer)feminism when I was very young (and I actually think being driven selfishly is good because it’s robust?).
In order to position myself, which I don’t think I’ve done on this blog or elsewhere on semi-public forums before: I was born in a Polish village, largely agrarian, during the communist era. I remember that kind of community life. I remember how everyone (incl. all the “aunts” and “uncles” that weren’t blood relatives) slept on pull-out couches in the same room, and how in shops you could buy single gummy bears by the piece. How parties consisted of playing the guitar, singing, getting drunk, and how I fell asleep among all that. I remember the totalitarian kindergarten regime. I don’t remember that much more, because I was very young.
I don’t know if I was / we were “white” then – it was just an extended family and village community that survived through mutual aid and informal (sometimes illegal under plan economy) networks of economic gifting / exchange.
At some point in my childhood, mostly due to the unavailability of housing – I guess my parents were tired of sleeping on pull-out couches that filled up the entire room at my grandmas’ (my kid self apparently enjoyed co-sleeping with my various grandmothers and cousins), tho I gotta ask for more details on what motivated them – my parents decided to borrow $200 from a relative who worked on a ship (in a port city) and could organise that kind of thing (also need to verify – might be inaccurate info), pack two plastic bags (the classic striped “Dutch” bags Polish, Ukrainians, Russians used to bring to junk markets – and to wherever – throughout the 90s) to go to a fictional wedding, in reality to see if the German bureaucracy would let them in based on some historical paperwork.
I think that’s the point at which on some levels I stopped being white (tho on other levels, I’ll stay that as long as racism exists). And then, a few years later, I started becoming white – passing as white – learning to pass myself off as someone I wasn’t. Surrounded by far “richer”, Western German middle-class people who … sort of lived on their own planet. On some level I learned to pretend to be them. That’s what cost me my soul, in some ways – it cost me the emotional coherence of my life story, the emotional connection to where I came from, and to some degree the ability to feel at all – because heck, as a child this was just too confusing … the grief of loss … of landscape and people, unsaid, never discussed as my parents were busy securing welfare, later illegal work, later substandard jobs and coping with their own bitter disappointments – the weird demands, subliminal at times, at times explicit, to learn a new language, to be the same (I understood, or gathered from the atmosphere, that anything else was deadly), but to not really be the same: because these people I’m supposed to forcibly and totally assimilate to have no idea (about the “real” world, or the world that was emotionally real to me, among other things: at least that’s what my parents emanated at the same time).
I both learnt to pass, and totally refused passing. I looked white – as long as nobody saw my last name, it wasn’t clear that I came “from somewhere” – I felt total panic at loss of my home and the gradual loss / forgetting of my language (which I fought so effectively that nobody in Poland notices I ever emigrated) / forgetting of home, getting out of touch with my cousins, with how the country suddenly totally change upside down in the 90s, with what it was about. With who I was about.
I lived through this differently to many people I know – now I assume it’s because of a neurodivergence / sensitivity / “giftedness” combination that made me especially sensitive and attached to nature, landscape, language, intrinsic inclination towards values that favour communal ways of living. A certain emotional warmth, passion and outgoingness. (Which I buried deeply as part of my passing – no space for spontaneity.)
Whatever happened – probably much more than what I’ve just described – it landed me with a massive trauma response that puzzled even me. I left Germany as soon as I could live independently, and developed a really strong trigger response to the language (suffocation, irritation/aggression, general feeling of losing ground and dissociation). The fact of leaving early and cutting off from my parents’ direct support made my young adult life chaotic – also considering I’m on the autism spectrum and possibly have ADHD, whatever you want to call it: I’m extremely sensitive to everything, and “banal” practical stuff is very hard for me (whereas intellectual / academic stuff isn’t – that’s why I lived off scholarships while being unable to shop and cook for myself, looking eccentric, etc.) – trying to solo-emigrate before having developed the practical skills and the social skills, well, did land me in a decade of confusion stress on many levels (and yeah, that’s what brought me to seek therapists in my mid 20s).
And no, therapy didn’t save me – mostly generous people, who were sometimes much better off, sometimes worse off than me, mostly queers and neurodivergents (who didn’t realise they were) saved my ass so many times that I could finally land in a halfway safe place in my mid 30s. Solidarity and generosity – enough to get me through, though not enough to really provide predictable sustenance.
After a decade and a half of living in 7 different countries or so (following either scholarships or people who could house me), unfortunately, or fortunately (who knows? know the Turkish tale?), my source of predictable sustenance was found in the international queer bubble of … Berlin. At least eastern, post-communist Germany (I do sense the clear difference), but still – Germany. Which means facing a daily trauma response (to the language) that paralyses me on all practical levels. Since I didn’t have another viable option regarding where to live (couldn’t keep squatting alone due to anxiety levels), I did choose that safety.
On a side note, I have only found a similar trauma response to a language in one person: an Iraqi colleague who got into an Iranian refugee camp as a child (I learnt about it because she would pretend not to understand our Iranian flatmate when he spoke Farsi, even though she did). Then I heard of one indirectly: an old German woman who freaks out from the sound of any Slavonic language, because she was expelled from Silesia (then Germany, now Poland) by the Red Army in 1945. I did feel embarrassment and confusion because these stories are obviously far more dramatic than anything I ever went through – now I think what explains my extreme trauma response is probably my neurodivergence.
Well yeah, and I’m still stuck with that problem – essentially unable to engage with the place I have the only economically secure base in currently (though I only spend part of the year here).
So, what does any of this have to do with antiracism?
I’m sure there’s more, but so far I’ve figured out two threads:
- I used to think this is somehow my personal, unique, secret, unusual, rare story. I’m the weird one. People don’t go through that. Anyways, not normal people … Well, wrong. Reading various first-hand accounts of how locals experienced colonisation, as well as just classics such as Frantz Fanon and others on racial identity, struck it home that hey – huge parts of the human population worldwide went and/or are going through massive cultural loss, the imposition of having to learn another (colonial) language and mask if not pass, with the concomitant loyalty, belonging and identity dilemmas, shame and confusion about origins, family conflicts – not in the same way, but these are just pieces I recognise, and I never remotely recognised in writing by white enough persons. Self-evidently I’m not saying my emigration experience and the experience of eastern European transformation is the same as colonisation (if it was, I probably wouldn’t be alive?). I’m saying that I stopped feeling “special” in any way. I stopped having shame about it. Seeing myself in the mirror of others – even in other and externally far more extreme circumstances – I realised this is a human experience. Maybe it’s actually the human experience of modern times: how many people are uprooted? How many are forced to forget their language and their ways? How many pass and cover – in racial and ethnic and other ways – and pay with inner conflicts and shame that compromise other areas of their lives? How many lose their family (to distance) and alienate from their roots? And that’s of course only the “soft”, “psychological” part (the hard part is, for example, economics). … so I learnt, the answer is MANY. We’re just tuned out of mainstream media (or portrayed in exoticising or oversimplified ways).
And while that’s again pretty self-focused, being just psychologically healing in a way no therapy could, making me feel more connected than alienated, the upshot is also that hopefully I’m going to go forward far more informed, skilful and with more understanding around other people’s experiences, especially those that do go far beyond my own – and that are invisible to mainstream culture, invisible unless you spend literally months or years digging, only to realise they are by far not marginal in terms of numbers, in terms of what most people in the world actually experience on a daily basis.
In short, for me it’s healing because it puts the partial experiences I had as part of emigration into a broader context that has been analysed and described – mostly by people of colour. I also do find that my diffuse – subjectively shattering, because of my particular ND make-up – experience of loss around landscapes and more communal ways of life as part of a partly very brutal and irresponsible “modernisation” or “development” (that’s trying to thoughtlessly / inappropriately copy the US, basically, sorry) shows up again and again, of course, in indigenous histories, in totally gut-wrenching ways. Where I’m from was very far from indigenous, and it’s my personal thing of how I connected to local nature and saw certain things (innocently / idealistically), but also how I probably tend to “get” the reverberations of more distant pasts. So again, I’m not making the point that this is in the remotest way equivalent: for example, there was no genocide here (well, there was one – the Holocaust – but my blood relatives didn’t die in it … whole other story). I’m again making the point that I finally got that I’m not “special” – rather, I experience (in my extra-intense way) something that is part of a collective reality of at least the last couple of centuries. Which is ecological / habitat destruction (yes, of my particular habitat too) and the fragmenting, undermining and pruning of communities – a broad and long historical process I’m still seeking to grasp fully.
But again, here I’m hoping it’s gonna help me understand – through contextualising and really honestly getting inside my own painful micro-experience – what this shit is about. What other people fight for (sometimes but not always in distant countries), people who I previously didn’t feel or sense as related, who I didn’t even know existed, defending things which I didn’t even know mattered – also to me, tentacles of the same “octopus” (not to offend octopuses at all) swallowing things up. And their defence is the defence of my ancestors, my ancestors’ failings are like their failings.
Essentially, my personal complexities are a very mundane, ordinary grain in a worldwide history – a history white people never learnt, and even the ones excluded from whiteness mostly don’t learn, as far as I know, except presumably through direct family memory (the way my parents learnt Soviet-censored WW2 history).
My broader point is, I suspect any white person who’ll start studying these things from a good source (I give the last random things I read below, as an obvious beginner) might find stuff like that. Basically, inner conflicts, parts of your identity that you’ve buried, puzzling and diffuse griefs and depressions, aspects you hid and never connected to anything that do make total sense and find their easy articulation from the perspective of this other history and sociology and understanding of the current state of the world that we never learnt. (Why? I’d guess simply because it’s not a history glorifying or justifying current and previous elites.)
It does have to do with not really being fully separate. In a weird way. Even if we’re white. It’s a bit like learning feminism from a good source can help men who learnt to mistreat certain aspects of themselves that get labeled as feminine … to stop mistreating them. While hopefully – in this interlinked way – seeing women differently. The man might have had no idea that there is even such a part, and that it would benefit from healing; and that healing it could have any benefits to others. (Btw. this can also go vice-versa, even thought the external situation is asymmetrical.)
So since I’m holding mostly marginalised identities, apart from being white, this has been a new journey for me. Realising how much this is actually not only about “others” with different skin colours. How much it’s not about banal “don’t do stereotypes” things, but rather how much it is about getting closer to understanding how the world (also at a global scale) actually works, and also about realising how these workings are internalised into all of us – in my personal case in complex ways, the psychological mess of both the uber-dog and the underdog. I’m a beginner with this, but my shot would be that we all contain both of these at least in homeopathic quantities (might be in big ones :p). And for the more privileged (like myself) the point of seeing / internally experiencing that is healing at the level of retrieving parts and connections we didn’t know we’d lost, but also a strong impulse over time to value, live and relate differently (how? still figuring out, but the old way itches and scratches. Haha one thing is in the title – paying the right people for my sanity.).
… Ok, so since point 1 got so rambling, I think no screen power left to do point 2. Plus by now I seem to have forgotten what it was … …
Out of practice with writing, mostly because I’ve been discovering lots of new perspectives recently (like this one), via various avenues including having landed in el Andalus this winter (unrelated but related) and spoken too many languages at once.
I do hope this doesn’t come off too weird – was written on the impulse of yet another instance where I thought, I’m paying the wrong people for my healing. In the last years, the largest improvements in my sanity (in a non-ableist sense … I guess I mean feeling whole as I am and more clear-headed) came from resources written, partly sort of with blood (given what some of these people must have gone through just to write books, for example), by various POC, partly of indigenous origins (some alive, some long deceased). I’m still not sure what they did exactly – tell the truth? Giving a white immigrant like me a new baseline for what the ordinary human condition is – that some parts I thought were “hard” and “weird” are totally ordinary, and in fact it’s the dominant narrative that is narrow, and really – rare, minority? And robs us all of mirrors for possibly our most meaningful human dilemmas, questions, voids and silences, experiences (even if difficult, still humanising) – leaving a huge void and silence that we didn’t even realise was suffocating.
Apologies for any weirdnesses as I’m starting to figure this out.
(internalised whiteness training and other good stuff; feminist and Buddhist influences)
Via them, two good articles:
Next good thing I remember before that:
The book Covering by the lawyer/poet Kenji Yoshino – on gayness, race, and making a similar point on how the particular is universal and how also people who don’t share a specific identity (for example, gayness) can find a lot of valuable mirrors for their individual human condition on the inside of various “minority” narratives. Philosophically bridging identity groups vs. individuality vs. human condition. He has some interesting talks online (tho if you are into this you might know this stuff).
Oh and I always peddle this one:
The book Care Work by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha – autistic disabled femme of color writing about disability justice. I saw this recommended, and, as stated above, I thought since I’m white this would be educational reading about “other” people. It’s not – it’s actually turned my perception of my life, society, and specific other peoples’ (that I know, not abstract “others”) life upside down. As well as existential stuff, like human value, perceptions of possibility, spirituality, ancestry (my own family), what skill and ability are, meaning of life stuff. That’s probably why it’s taking me I think half a year or more to read it – I need to savour, reflect, connect the many dots after each essay. I don’t want it / to finish / it. 🙂