The Shadow of Race

The shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman thrust America, yet again, into its discomfort and dis-ease about matters of race. The trial of Zimmerman was a convergence of several key issues – race, inequities in the criminal justice system and biases that affect how see, perceive and respond to each other.

If any subject challenges the psyche of America, it is race. America is built on a foundation of racism, discrimination and oppression as much as it is on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The facts of history bear this truth yet there is profound to resistance acknowledging this darker underbelly of the American story in a meaningful way. And therein is the heart of the recurring discomfort brought forth by scenarios that place race in the consciousness of the individual and collective psyche.

I have been a practitioner of various forms of shadow work for several years and the concept of shadow is of profound importance in the discussion of race. A term associated with Jungian psychology, the shadow represents aspects of our psychological functioning split off from conscious awareness. Cast in shadow are the beliefs, thoughts, emotions and behaviors deemed unacceptable. Therefore they are split off, hidden, rejected, repressed or denied and often projected on to others.

Shadow work is essentially about getting honest. It is about taking ownership of these aspects of self and freeing the energy expended to keep this content beneath conscious awareness for health, wholeness and clarity. Lacking consciousness about aspects of self does not protect us from those elements influencing and shaping our functioning and outcomes in our lives. When outcomes are misaligned with conscious intent, some shadow element is likely at play. What lies in shadow is expressed, just indirectly and without consciousness.

The psychological inheritance of racist belief is a generational curse requiring significant intention and effort to exorcise from tradition. Racist values were not only taught in the home but reinforced throughout all levels of society – social, legal, economic and religious- as right, fair and just for centuries.

The relatively recent fight for civil rights, civil rights legislation and the growing consciousness of the inherent “wrongness” of systematic forms of racism resulted in a shift in American culture. It became increasingly unacceptable to hold openly racist and discriminatory attitudes once held with pride. What was once a badge of honor is now a source of shame. And where there is shame, there is often shadow.

The progress made toward racial equality occurred largely as a result of extrinsically motivated social, economic and political forces. Radical shifts on impersonal systemic levels occurred without the necessary psychological processes required for a transformation of mindsets, heart-sets and value-sets. The interior, psycho-spiritual and cultural dimensions were left unattended and therefore we are left with a schism between what is politically correct and what lives within.

Changes in the social climate toward political correctness led to an increasingly negative view of racist and prejudicial attitudes and biases. The result is racist ideologies or prejudices becoming split off, repressed or denied. So intense is the desire to dis-identify with such leanings (at least in mixed company) that what may be obvious to others is defended against by the self. Race exists not only as an individual shadow but powerfully as a collective shadow. Therefore, the manifestations of the racial shadow are met with a collective denial. Sophisticated arguments are often used to justify and rationalize behavior and deny shadow elements of the psyche.

To further the point, I recently commented on a Facebook post questioning the level of media attention given to the racial components of the Zimmerman story when high levels of black on black violence occur with such frequency.

“I think the posts highlighting black on black violence is peculiarly interesting…in context. It is not that I disagree with the need to address this topic or that it is tragic or that it is under/unaddressed by the media and the black community for that matter but it is being highlighted in context of what the Zimmerman/Martin circumstance brought to the consciousness of the American public. The Zimmerman case brought several issues we resist facing individually and collectively; particularly associated with matters of race, racism, perception and incongruence in the criminal justice system – among others. Everyone knows race is a difficult matter to address simply because it causes us to look inwardly at disowned parts of ourselves. Everyone agrees that race and racism are problems but no one owns this darker side of their own functioning. It is those “others” who are like that, not me. I am not saying that being racist or having racial biases and prejudices is the totality of any one person. We are far more complex beings with multiple dimensions of self. Nonetheless a dark, unacceptable side is denied and repressed in each of us about various things. Because of history, the sensitive nature of racial matters and disowned shame and guilt, I judge people are particularly sensitive about owning their biases and prejudices around race. When something triggers the awareness of disowned parts of self, we engage in various mechanisms to avoid the unacceptable truth. This is why I find the redirection of attention away from the issues the Zimmerman case raises to the subject of black on black violence peculiar. It seems avoidant and diversionary.”

I believe such avoidant tactics are expressions of shadow similar to efforts to question Trayvon Martin’s character. As the events of what occurred that night have been described, Zimmerman knew nothing of Martin’s history or character. His entire behavioral process was guided by assumptions based solely on physical appearance. The point I am making is about the efforts of others to find reasons to justify Zimmerman’s actions, deflect attention to unrelated matters or avoid the subject of race which has been activated as a result of an innocent young black male being suspected of wrong doing, followed and ultimately killed by a person of another race. These “efforts” serve as examples of how shadow manifests in indirect ways.

Efforts to address matters of race have occurred largely through social, political and judicial processes however we have failed miserably in confronting these issues psychologically. The challenge of exploring the psychological dimension of self or others is that it opens us to difficult truths and shades of gray when we prefer the certainty of a black and white, either/or perspective. The human experience is too complex to be reduced to such simplicities. I believe everyone could benefit from spending more time looking inward and getting honest with self. It is liberating and leads to more effective functioning in all aspects of life; especially in the interpersonal domain.

With regard to race, a whole lot of getting honest needs to occur among all groups. I encourage people to start with their own. The work of the dominant group is differs from the work of an oppressed group, however, work is required on both sides and work collectively is essential.

Unfortunately, few resources exist where one can descend into the issue of race in an honest, authentic and safe manner; however, I have seen powerful healing and transformation occur when individuals, regardless of race, embark on that inward journey in a sincere way.

The presence of race, once again, at the forefront of the collective discourse is a call to resolve what has gone unresolved. Resolution of our racial conflicts will not occur through exterior systemic solutions alone. They have assisted in righting horrendous wrongs however the interior dimensions of the individual and the collective – beliefs, feelings, morals, worldviews, communication, relationship – have been ignored. Until we address these interior dimensions with sincerity and authenticity it will only be a matter of time before America is thrust, yet again, into the discomfort and dis-ease of race.

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