A father and son go to a pharmacy to get the child vaccinated against COVID. After administering the vaccine, the pharmacy employee offers a bin of small toys and the child picks one — a tiny, squishable duck. On the way home, the child starts to complain that one of the duck’s eyes is smaller than the other. By the time they arrive home, the child has escalated to real distress, and when they walk in the door he mushrooms into a complete meltdown. The child runs to his mother, bawling that the rabbit is awful, that its eyes are uneven, that he hates it. The mother hugs the child and has to sit with him, hugging him for 20 minutes or so before he calms down.
When children have big, complicated feelings, they often choose to vent them on something unrelated to their actual cause. It is safer to melt down over a toy duck than over relationship challenges with friends, anxiety about one’s own competence, or fears about the health of your parent. The toy duck cannot fight back. The toy duck cannot make you feel worthless. The toy duck cannot abandon you.
This tendency among kids doesn’t actually change much as we grow into adults. All too often, my emotional reaction to a situation is unrelated to the real content of that situation. A conversation with my supervisor about my job can be freighted with memories of the time another boss told me that my performance was unacceptable and I would need to find a different position. A conversation with my spouse about our relationship can be weighed down by my memory of an experience with my parents when I was young.
We operate this way as groups and as societies just as we do as individuals. We fear massive societal forces and changes, but we perceive that we can do little to stop them because of the power of those who are responsible. Instead, we vent those fears on those we believe hold less power than we do, who live close to us.
We see this emotional displacement in the enormous societal changes happening around race over the past 75 years. We see it intensifying now. The white working and middle classes fear the insecurity produced by wealth inequality. But since we perceive that we can do nothing about the power of the super-rich, we vent our fears on those living in our own communities who are different from us. White, working class people believe that immigrants are coming to steal their jobs. White, working class people believe that their kids will be damaged by being forced to learn about Black history. White, middle class people want to maintain the status quo in their schools because we believe that our kids’ education will be somehow damaged if too many Black or Latinx kids are in their classes. White, middle class people want to maintain the current system of policing because we believe that our families will be less safe if people of color are policed less.
All the time, white people’s fear is based on the real danger that our children will be less safe, less healthy, less educated than we were. We worry that these dangers are produced by immigrants, by Black people, by all those who look different than we do. In reality, these real dangers are produced by massive societal underinvestment in health care, in education, in the environment, in infrastructure. And this underinvestment comes directly from the political goals of the wealthy and superwealthy to pay less taxes, to keep more of their wealth, to operate in an environment of fewer regulations.
The tantruming child who is misdirecting his fears can be soothed by his mother until he feels calm and regulated. Unfortunately, there is no ready-made equivalent for white people in our society. There is no parent who can step in to soothe our fears so that we can address our real concerns. Instead, we must be our own parental figures…we must find a way to soothe one another.
This starts with white people giving one another space to talk about our fears, without judgment. This comes from honest, real listening to one another. This comes from exploring our fears, stepping across boundaries, challenging one another from a place of care and empathy. I must listen to the honest fears of my neighbors who worry about what they will lose if the police department has less funds. Their honest fears about what will happen if their children’s classes are more integrated. Their honest fears about what will happen if multiracial history is taught to their children. And after I have listened to my neighbors, I can share my own related experiences, both those that connect with theirs and those that help expand their point of view, so that they see who is really hurting them and their families. And I must be willing to be changed by those conversations as well.
This doesn’t mean that I should allow white people to project harmful beliefs onto people of color. I must stand up and speak out for the lives and values of Black, Latinx, and Asian community members. And I can do this while also staying in relationship and communication with other white people who may need to change and grow.
I believe – I have to believe – that we can do this. It is one of the key pieces of building an actual multiracial coalition to truly address racial and wealth inequality. We don’t need every white person to join this coalition, but we need a critical mass of us to see that poor, working, and middle class Black people, Latinx people, immigrants, and others are not our enemies. They are our allies. When we understand this, like the child whose fears have been soothed, we will be able to address our fears at the root, and build the safe, secure, healthy society we all deserve together.
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