Even the ‘Oppressor’ Deserves Safety and Support

This weekend I reflected in gratitude at my LOH experience in the past year. After resonating with Dr. Suchman’s moving keynote at a physician health conference in 2018, I sought him out to express thanks. He encouraged me to apply for the program. Then he coached me twice on getting institutional support, something I had never done before. All through the program, he and Diane Rawlins, two of the best teachers I have had (and that is saying a lot), led us all through ten months of complex conceptual learning and skills practice. Even better, they helped us synthesize and integrate learning between sessions, applying concepts through practice in our natural habitats, knowing we could report back to the group to debrief and trouble shoot before heading back into ‘the trenches.’ LOH runs annual reunions, refreshers and mixers during which attendees from different cohorts can meet, bond, and both expand and tighten our community of lifelong learners. In the time of COVID, alum meetings have occurred about every two weeks over Zoom, from the comfort of our homes all across the country. The more I think about it, the more I wish everybody had this kind of safety and support—this loving learning lab and community—to acquire scary new skills that, when practiced, benefit many more people than just us learners.

I imagine this may be what participants in the White Men’s Caucus feel. Read all about it in Four Days to Change, which I started and finished in about three sittings. –No really, read this book. It provides a unique and profoundly important perspective on the true meaning of inclusion, that is, white men absolutely need to be included in leading and benefiting from systemic change for equity, not just passively doing the changing for others’ sake. During the Caucus retreat, white men are both challenged and supported to dig deep into their own privilege. Inescapable mirrors of truth and profound discomfort, and also of love and compassion, surround them for four days. They are expected to feel tremendous guilt and shame, both natural emotions that occur on the path of self-discovery and humility. But rather than weaponizing these feelings, facilitators love the attendees through them, shepherding them through the emotional (shit)storm to a place of self-compassion and forgiveness. This is where their outward humility, openness, and sincere advocacy for inclusion and diversity take root—because they experience it first hand from their teachers and peer learners. Leadership is hard enough, but leading initiatives in diversity, equity, and inclusion is a whole other dimension of complexity. How can we expect any leader, white male or otherwise (but white males especially), to do it well alone, without a core peer group willing to hold their feet to the fire with both love and conviction?

I wrote earlier this year, “Practicing inclusion INCLUDES the OWG (Old White Guy) ‘oppressor’!  If we talk only about him needing to include others, while we make him feel excluded himself, how can we ever expect to enroll him in our cause or even behave in the way we ask? We do how we feel. And when we feel threatened and marginalized, especially from a place of loss, we act accordingly.” 

Michael Welp writes in Four Days, “(My mentor) inspired me when he (said), ‘The only way to touch other white men is through love.’  His words have always stayed with me.  However, the overall pattern observed in my dissertation was that white male diversity advocates disconnected from other white men and drew most of their support from white women and people of color.  They were frustrated and angry toward other white men.” 

Imagine people of your own tribe, a tribe you may lead in good faith, suddenly confronting you about biases and prejudices that you never knew you had, telling you how you’re harming people all around the tribe, and that you have to change it all now, adopt a new set of beliefs and initiatives today, and they will accept nothing less than your complete and unquestioning compliance because you are simply in the wrong.  Would you respond better if they came at you with such accusations and demands, or came alongside you with a grave and critical invitation to curiosity and learning together, for the good of the whole tribe, yourself included?  Which approach is more likely to yield tangible results in the near term?  Which one is more likely to still engage you in the long term?

We can learn important lessons from addiction medicine.  Patients succeed in rehab with a lot of grit and commitment.  They also benefit from the unyielding support and dedication of treatment staff and various environmental safety precautions.  But relapse rates are high (40-80%) in no small part because the safety and support so crucial to getting sober in rehab too often simply do not exist in an addict’s natural habitat.  

The converse was found to be true among American servicemen who fought in the Vietnam War.  Up to 20% of them were found to be addicted to heroin while overseas.  But upon return, only 5% of those who recovered relapsed.  After rigorous study (by a well-respected woman researcher, whose results and report were initially questioned and even derided—but that’s for another post), it is now widely accepted that the environment plays a key role in our behaviors, habits, and ability to change.  Soldiers in Vietnam, as James Clear writes, “spent all day surrounded by cues triggering heroin use: it was easy to access, they were engulfed by the constant stress of war, they built friendships with fellow soldiers who were also heroin users, and they were thousands of miles from home. Once a soldier returned to the United States, though, he found himself in an environment devoid of those triggers. When the context changed, so did the habit.”

The system often dictates, or at least strongly influences, how we perceive, think, behave, and relate. And we are the system, every one of us. By assimilating to the dominant white male culture, even as we see ourselves as resistors, we perpetuate it. But when we resist by only opposing our white male counterparts, without also enrolling them in the resistance movement as equals, we also undermine our own progress. Everybody deserves the safety and support to do their own personal Reckoning, Rumbling, and Revolution, as Brené Brown describes in her book Rising Strong. Real positive change is grounded in vulnerability, humility, and courage. If we really expect our white male leaders to change in ways fundamental and profound enough to advance equity in any meaningful way, they need the safety and support to reckon and rumble with their resistance, their rage, their fear, culture, identity, relationships, memories, realizations—all of it—with people they can relate to and who can hold them up fully, who will not turn away from or against them. As I wrote last week, more and more I see that perhaps only other white men can truly do this.

To be clear, this post is not an apology for white male supremacy and the vast suffering this mentality has wreaked all throughout history.  I just think it’s important, and too seldom attended to, that white men also suffer in and from the culture they dominate.  And in order to really change this culture for the better, we all need to support one another, white men included.

2 thoughts on “Even the ‘Oppressor’ Deserves Safety and Support

  1. Cathy, thank you for writing this post. You’re so right! We can not and will not create a system that is grounded in equality and inclusion if the strategy is to turn agains those who have held and abused their power. I also agree with you that we can not in any way condone or apologize for that behavior. We can, however, one by one, find our way into the vulnerable and courageous space you spoke of to look within ourselves with fierce, yet compassionate honesty and hope… no demand others do the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Donna! And ooooo, I love this word choice–‘fierce and compassionate’. ❤ In the book Welp discussed 4 primary paradoxes: individual/group, sameness/differenece, support/challenge, and not my fault/I'm responsible. Conceptually simple and complex–another paradox! Such is life!! 😀 Compassionate accountability…

      Like

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