Content Warning: References to domestic violence and police brutality.
My counselor asks the textbook question: “How could you tell if you were in a healthy relationship?” I’ve been spinning. Parenting a teenager who is sick of online school and sick of me hassling him. Working full time at home under the increasing prospect of furloughs or salary cuts. 116,000 people dead in the US from a virus that the nation seems to be increasingly willing to let burn through the population so we can go to the beach. Tear gas and rubber bullets and cops smashing the heads of people standing up for an end to white supremacy. My body, still struggling to breathe. My partner, living here in this two-bedroom pressure cooker for nearly three months.
On the video chat with my therapist, we have made it as far as the last item: How to have a healthy relationship. “You mean, what would be the concrete things?” I ask.
“Yes. How would you know if the relationship was healthy?”
Without pausing, I voice the first thoughts that pop into my mind. One, we’d be going on small adventures. Two, we’d send each other lovey texts. Three, we would engage in fun and creative activities during our lockdown evenings. And four, we would appreciate each other frequently and out loud.
His textbook question leads to its textbook observation. “You could do every one of those things right now.”
It’s so familiar to notice what’s broken, what’s stuck and not working. He’s reminding me that fixating on the brokenness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s positive psychology 101: Orient towards the aspiration instead of what’s getting in the way.
Later, when the call is over, I will send a lovey text. I will ask my partner to help come up with some weekend plans, and I will offer him details of what I appreciate about all he does for this family. I will ask him to appreciate me, and he will. In the blink of an eye, our relationship will become sweeter, happier, healthier.
But I’m not there yet. The video chat is still live. My counselor suggests that I might carry this orientation out into other aspects of my world. Even as I try to work to end racism, he says, I can identify what it would look like to live in a world that values justice, equity, and compassion. Then I can act those things into existence.
The notion is tempting. If it’s possible for us to live our happy relationship into existence, why can’t we also bring to life a more loving world? Imagine a world without white supremacy, and beautiful things jump to mind. Everyone having a say in the decisions that affect their lives. Everyone living and loving creating not just in safety but also from a place of shared abundance.
The counselor is suggesting that we perform a reality in which racism doesn’t divide us, where it doesn’t limit opportunity or fracture communities. We can live an equitable and healthy democracy by getting active on the school board, signing up to register voters, calling our representatives. We can move through the world treating all people with respect.
The envision-and-live-it prescription is comforting. Its sweet simplicity is part of what fuels the proclamations, “I don’t see color” and “All lives matter.” Many of us long to live out a fantasy atomized self whose choices can be made inside an ideal world of individual action forming a straight line to measurable consequence.
It doesn’t work. We find, with great frustration, that our thoughtful attempts to act as a good non-racist citizen fail to yield the intended results. In fact, they might do the opposite. We learn of neighbors deported after an ICE raid no one mentioned during our school board meetings. Volunteering at the polls, we have to turn away voters — many poor, black, and brown — who brought picture IDs that don’t conform to the new standards. We learn that cops have killed people in their custody in our very own zip code, and our representatives, bowing to police unions, have approved more money for the militarization of the local force.
When we try to share our beautiful vision, how we “don’t see color,” the people with whom we believe ourselves “the same” come at us with sharp rebukes, suggesting we are dangerously ignorant of our white privilege. Here we are, people of good intention, trying to live our vision of what we can create on the other side of all this strife. Why isn’t it working here?
Because the starting point determines almost everything.
Back in the video session, my counselor’s question invited me to list the attributes of a healthy relationship. It turns out that my list didn’t include what is already humming along quite well. The relationship with my partner is fine in a way I expect all relationships to be fine. The foundation of functionality is a given. We are respectful and kind to each other. He gets up earlier than me to clean the kitchen and tidy the house. Then I get up and walk the dog and make the bed. My partner treats my son with respect, and hangs with the boy when I have to work late or have an evening church meeting. We give each other room to talk, to vent, to have quiet time. He pays the Verizon bill for all of us, and I try to make sure we all start dinnertime with a candle and words of thanks.
Just about every intimate relationship I’ve had in my life, including the parental model that shaped my world, has been mostly just fine. Of course, just as my parents get stuck in patterns, my current relationship is far from perfect. We are both quick to offend and quick to react to perceived offense. Neither of us likes being told how to manage ourselves, and we snap when we feel too crowded. Sometimes we fixate on these issues. Sometimes we forget how very okay we really are.
The counselor’s question is designed to draw upon strengths instead of amplifying problems. It aims to improve a good relationship.
It doesn’t occur to me to name what would be needed to survive a dysfunctional, abusive one because my starting point is one of reliable okay-ness.
For too many white people, a healthy society is like this healthy relationship. It resembles what we have right now but with fewer corporate bailouts and a better teacher-student ratio. The democratic institutions that serve those of us at the center are functioning mostly fine for us. We trust that once we’ve rooted out the corrupt influences, the system will work. From this place of strength, it makes sense to assume we can create the society we want for everyone by amplifying the good stuff.
But the starting point is not the same for everyone. Imagine the counselor isn’t talking to me anymore. He’s talking to your sister, the one who married the man who acted so nobly at the beginning but has grown increasingly brutal and violent. Your sister’s husband has gotten control of the finances. This man has made it clear that if she tries to leave, he will make sure she never sees their kids again.
You’ve learned some things that keep you up at night. He’s been collecting her emails, texts, and videos, taking them out of context and splicing them together to show her as unhinged and unreliable. He has gotten the word out about her long-ago nonviolent drug offense, the one that landed her a couple nights in jail. His cunning smear campaign has driven a wedge between her and her potential allies. His gaslighting has convinced her that any wrongness here is her delusion, and so must be her fault and her problem to fix. Her flaws, her emotions, her temper, her inability to hold down a decent job create the strife. The kids are getting into increasing trouble at school, and your sister has seen the severity of punishments they face when they step out of line.
Despite all this, she somehow manages to get on the phone with my counselor.
And the counselor says to her, “You know, there’s this other woman I work with, she says that the keys to a healthy relationship are lovey texts, fun adventures, and frequent appreciation. Why don’t you try that?”
The absurdity is stark. It would be incompetence bordering on malpractice for a therapist to apply my approach to her situation. Her version of a “healthy” is going to be different from mine, and the mechanisms for achieving it will come from an entirely different reserve than mine. It is going to take more time, more work, more risk, more courage, and a much bigger constellation of support than those of us in secure, balanced, mostly fine relationships can possibly imagine.
Ignoring her situation in our attempt to perform an imagined life on the other side of it could very well get her killed.
You know your sister has greatness in her. You know she will do good things in the world if only she can get free of this suffocating cycle and grow in more nourishing soil. Because you love her and those kids, you will do everything in your power to help her and those children, get to a place of safety. And you will not stop until you know they’re okay.
To many middle- and owning-class white people, a well-functioning democracy is a very small world that we believe to be the whole universe. Our version of a post-racist utopia is bounded by expectations of basic security that we can’t even see. Whiteness means living with a sense of safety from birth, from before birth, that is invisible to us. We trust that hard work, the right attitude, and some savings in the bank, we’ll be more or less okay. We trust that our nation, like my relationship, has a healthy foundation. A few tweaks, a new face in the Oval Office, and we’ll be back on track.
But here’s the thing about this democracy. It’s not mine or yours. It’s ours. And like that sister who’s trapped in a cycle of abuse, the universe of this relationship includes our nieces and nephews. It’s our family. It’s happening to our loved ones, right now. I can send a thousand sweet texts to my partner to create a loving relationship inside these four walls. I can perform civic optimism by using my vacation days to volunteer on a grassroots campaign. But assuming that my sister should use my map to move through her world is perilously myopic.
Her starting point is a nation that built her dehumanization into its core. Unlike me, she is living in a country that constrains her from birth, threatens her children, demands her obedience, twists the narrative to criminalize her attempts at survival, traumatizes her existence then collects evidence of that trauma to use against her when she steps out of line.
Right in our own world, the very same institutions that give us a sense of security are brutalizing people who are as much us as our own kin. I understand the desire to focus the attention away from problems towards that beautiful vision on the other side. Learning about the ubiquity of racism and the harm our privileged ignorance has caused, we cast about for a way to resolve our dissonance and make things more bearable. But if we do that by blindering ourselves to the dysfunction on the ground, we will not only be ineffective, we will get more people killed.
Try on this vision: We will know we are in a country without white supremacy when we all, at last, recognize that our fate is bound up together. When we understand that we are family, and we bring all the muscle, skill, and courage we have (and more) to live this love into existence. When we move heaven and earth to ensure everyone’s right to breathe.
Yes, we can act on this vision of our shared future right now. We still get to dream of a world in which no one sees color. But white people need to stop saying that’s our goal. Let’s hear what people of color and other marginalized people are telling us a healthy country on the other side of racism looks like. Let’s listen when they describe what’s standing in the way and then follow their lead on dismantling it. If we want to live in a world without race, let’s start moving through the difficult and life-changing process of ending the police violence, the wealth inequality, and the systems of white supremacy that are destroying Black Lives right now.
Photos by Kon Karampelas Obi Onyeador Clay Banks Heather Mount and Gabe Pierce on Unsplash