Watching While White: Healing Rifts That Define Us

The healing rift is the secret of benevolence.

                                                 — Heidegger “Das Wort” (GA 74)

The only thing we all have in common is that we’re all different.  Most of the differences make no great difference when it comes to our shared humanity, but some make a great difference.  They tear us in two.  Torn apart, we are like Humpty Dumpty fallen from his wall:  We shall never be put back together again.  It is, as it has always been and ever will be, high time for us to learn to live with one another torn in two—to cleave together cloven.

The features section of The Denver Post for this past Sunday, December 1, 2013, contains a thoughtful, thought-provoking article by Post film critic Lisa Kennedy called “Watching While Black:  an open letter to a reader.”  In it Ms. Kennedy writes about the impact of being black herself and watching, even with her trained critic’s eye, this year’s films by black directors about the African-American experience.  She wrote her piece as an open response to an email letter she had received from one of her readers toward the end of October.  That reader’s email was itself in response to Ms. Kennedy’s own earlier review of British black director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, after she first saw it at the Telluride Film Festival in September.

Her correspondent wrote to express irritation at her review and the film itself.  Both together struck the letter-writer as yet another pounding of an already long-dead horse, namely, that of slavery.  “Really?” he wrote sarcastically.  “We need more of the slavery issue now?”

The gist of Ms. Kennedy’s response was to affirm, against her reader’s supercilious distain for McQueen’s film (and her own positive review of it), the universality of the claim for emotional identification that such films make upon their viewers, regardless of those viewers’ own ethnic or other non-universal community memberships.  She writes that the experience of viewing such films can remind us of what she calls our “desires for something shared, something transcendent.”  Then she concludes her open letter to her disgruntled reader with this remark:  “Watching while—you fill in the blank—is always a journey toward watching while human.”

Reading the article, especially that last line, took me personally back to my own experience just eight days earlier, when my wife and I happened to see the film at issue, 12 Years a Slave.  As it also happens, I do not belong to the same part of “us” that Lisa Kennedy does.  That is, I am not black, as she is.  I am white.  Yet my experience of the film was no less colored by my color than hers was, if I may be permitted that not very colorful wordplay.  My wife and I, both white, were sitting between a white couple on our right, and a black family of three on our left, all seven of us in the new, plush, electric-powered reclining chairs that are becoming de rigueur in movie-theatres today.  While the film was unfolding on the screen in front of us in the darkened theatre, I was very aware of “watching while white,” even if that way of putting it did not strike me till I read Lisa Kennedy’s piece a few days later.

The film, in fact, made me ashamed of my very whiteness.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Even before I read Lisa Kennedy’s open letter to her reader, I had already begun what I thought might become a blog post on my experience of the film.  I was going to call the post “Shame, Shameless, Shaming.”  Here is as far as I had gotten in writing it before reading last Sunday’s paper brought me to a stop, and then to the present restart:

Shame is not to blame.  Our shameless shaming is.  For a long time now, shame has taken a bum rap.  But it’s we, not shame, who should be ashamed.  We should be especially ashamed of our shameless lack of knowing how properly to shame.  We just do not know how to shame as we ought.  For shame!

It is for the sake of humility that shame is given to us.  Shame tests our humility, to strengthen it.  Like all good gifts, we should pass the shame given to us on to others.  We do that, not by wagging a finger of blame at others, trying to shame them in turn.  Rather, we pass shame on by practicing the very humility shame is sent to test in us, as fire tests iron.

It is not uncommon to draw a distinction between guilt and shame by noting that guilt is the sense of doing something wrong, whereas shame is the sense of being something wrong.  That distinction itself is not wrong.  However, we should be careful not to incur guilt by drawing it wrongly.  We draw it wrongly when we use it to cast shame upon shame, rather than using it to heighten our own awareness of guilt and our own shame at being the origin of that guilt.

After all, if our sense of guilt is not pathological, but arises from actual wrong-doing, then that entails that it is indeed we ourselves who are in some significant way at the origin of the wrong that has been done—that we ourselves are somehow responsible in the face of it, and cannot just pass the blame on to others, whether those others be our spouses, our parents, our government, our epoch, or our stars.  If responsibility for the wrong that has been done is finally to be passed on to one or another of those others, and does not come to rest on ourselves, then we really are not the guilty party, regardless of how guilty we may “feel.”

So if we are guilty, which means if we are ourselves to be held responsible for somehow being the origin of a wrong, then we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for being that very origin of that very wrong.

Thus, drawn properly and not shamelessly, the distinction between guilt and shame differentiates sharply between the two while at the same time identifying each with the other, emphasizing strongly their inseparability—how intimately they are bound together:  what Heidegger would call their “identity,” their being the same without being at all alike.

*     *     *     *     *     *

 That we be guilty, in the sense I’m working with in my self-citation above—that is, that we be in some important sense the origin of a wrong—does not require that we ourselves be the doers of the wrong as such.  Along just those lines, what I had more or less in mind to go on to write, had I continued writing my planned post “Shame, Shameless, Shaming,” was something such as this:

Those of us who live in Colorado, where I live, are all too familiar with the case of Austin Sigg, who only months ago abducted, molested, murdered, and dismembered 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway.  It was Sigg’s own mother, Mindy, who called the police to turn her son in, right after he confessed his brutal acts to her.  By no means have I been fixated on the case, but one can hardly live here in Colorado without being aware of it, and how things have unfolded since Sigg’s confession to his mother.

By all the evidence I am aware of, Mindy Sigg has been no less horrified than the rest of us by what her son did.  Indeed, if anything she seems more horrified, precisely because it was her own son who was the agent of Jessica’s torture and murder.  Mindy Sigg, from everything I have gathered about the matter, is herself wracked by a sense of guilt and shame for what her son did, even though it is clear (to me, at least) that she herself did nothing wrong—certainly nothing on the order of the horror her son perpetrated.

Of course, we feel special compassion for Jessica’s family and friends, for the trauma of their terrible loss and unimaginable bereavement.  But surely we should also feel compassion for Mindy Sigg, the murderer’s mother.  That compassion, however, in no way signifies that Mindy Sigg is wrong to feel guilt and shame in the face of what her son has done, even though she herself had no direct hand in the doing.  In fact, our very compassion toward her is largely for the burden of guilt and shame her own son has made her bear.

She is not wrong to feel such guilt and shame.  Her own sense of guilt and shame about something not she herself but her son did, is not pathological.  Rather, if she were not to feel such guilt and shame, that would be pathological.  She is, after all, Austin Sigg’s mother.  They are members of one and the same family.  She should feel guilt and shame, at least in that sense:  If she didn’t, we would hold it against her.  And for that, we in turn would not be wrong.

In just the same way, anyone white watching 12 Years a Slave should feel guilt and shame for what we white people did to Solomon Northup and his people, black people, even though none of us who watch the film while white ever enslaved any black people, or may ever even have had any direct ancestors who were slaveholders.  It is still we who did that to them, not they to us.  We who are white are white whether we like it or not, and we inherit white guilt along with white privilege, whether we like that or not either.  Since we whites were the origin of the horrendous wrong that was slavery, a wrong we whites did to blacks, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, when we see what we have done graphically depicted before us in the film.   Not to be ashamed of ourselves, when we watch such a film while white, would be shameless.

*     *     *     *     *     *

     Last Monday, December 2, the very day after Lisa Kennedy’s open letter responding to her shameless reader’s complaint appeared in the Denver Post, the same paper carried a front-page article about U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ty Carter, a 33-year-old Medal of Honor recipient for his heroism under fire while serving in Afghanistan.  The subtitle for the article is what first caught my eye, especially the last six words of it:  “Medal of Honor recipient helps others live with trauma that will never go away.”

To be sure, that is the very nature of trauma:  It never goes away!  And that, according to his own words, is the message Staff Sgt. Tyler has set himself to carry to others, especially other military veterans.  As he puts it in the words quoted at the very end of the article:  “I’m just trying to use my experience to help others by reliving the worst day of my life over and over again.”

“Oh, really?”  some of us non-vets may be tempted to ask.  “Do we really need to keep hearing about all the sacrifices that Sgt. Tyler and other vets have made in service to their country?  After all, we already give them a whole day a year in honor of their service, Veterans’ Day.  That comes every November 11—which, we might pertinently recall, was originally celebrated as ‘Armistice Day’ to honor veterans of World War I (because on that day in 1918 the guns first set firing in August 1914 stopped firing), but then was quite reasonably extended to become a day to honor all vets (since, after all, there’s really no need to keep on refighting World War I over and over again every November).  Can’t you and your people, Sgt. Tyler, just get over it, already?  Must the rest of us continue to listen to you and all the other wounded vets tell us about your wounding over and over and over again forever?  Really?”

The answer to that question is, “Yes!  That’s exactly what we must do.  At least that’s what we must do if there is ever to be any real healing, not only for such vets as Staff Sgt. Tyler, but also for the nation in whose service he and other vets have made so many sacrifices and suffered such traumas.”

What traumatized vets (a perhaps redundant expression) need to do to heal, as Staff Sgt. Tyler attests so well, is precisely to keep telling and retelling the story of what happened to them.  And what the rest of us need to do is just to listen, not only out of respect for such vets, but also because there is no other way for us, the “rest” ourselves, to heal either—no other way than by continuing to practice humbly listening to traumatized vets tell and retell the story of their trauma over and over and over again, without end.  There is, after all, never an end to trauma.  Therefore, there is also never an end to the need for us to listen to the tale of it, and to help heal, in such listening, those who must continue to tell that tale, to continue to live.  Hearing their tale may shame us, but not to hear it would be shameless of us.

As Staff Sgt. Tyler knows, to heal from trauma is not to close the wound.  It is to learn how to live with it open.  That, in turn, is because it is the open wound itself that heals, just as in the Christian Gospel account it is by accepting the invitation to place his hand in the open wound in the resurrected Christ’s side that the disciple Thomas, who goes down in Christian tradition as “Doubting Thomas,” is finally healed of his doubt—literally, his double-mindedness.

That is not only true for individual members of a community.  It is also true for the community as a whole.  The guilt and shame that watching such a film as 12 Years a Slave while white brings upon some of us, if we are not altogether shameless in denying our own guilt, invites us to practice the humility of continuing, again and again and again and again, without end, to listen patiently and attentively to the rest of us, as they tell us of what we have done to them.

Healing for our community as a whole is not a matter of closing the rifts that separate us.  It is a matter of honoring those rifts, and thereby letting them heal us.  Only such healing rifts can ever define an “us” that includes all of us.

Who but the utterly shameless would want to be one of any other us?

Published in: on December 5, 2013 at 10:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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