Process Work Contributions to Men and Power

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A white woman client I worked with many years ago came to see me because of her agoraphobia. When we went deeper into her feelings she began to describe her relationship with her father who came back from the Second World War, deeply traumatized by his detainment in a Japanese camp. She described how as a child, when her father was upset, he would torture her and her siblings. In this case, his trauma was handed down to her directly in his abuse of her. Although she did not abuse her kids physically, her anxiety and fear influenced their lives considerably.

In the case of my family, both my maternal and paternal grandparents escaped Europe in the early 1930s for South Africa, taking my parents as young children with them. They were refugees, in a strange and unfamiliar land, needing to adapt to a culture not out of choice, but as a requirement, knowing that most of their family were killed by the Nazis during the Second World War. The trauma on my grandparents was significant. The environment they were in, at least on my mother’s side, was not chosen; her father had wanted to continue on to the United States, but was unable to afford this move. It is no surprise that my brothers and I are in a sense refugees from South Africa, still in the process of finding homes outside of the familiarity of the place of our native birth. I am sometimes amazed when I realize that some people in the United States were actually born in the place they still live, and that they have large established families around them.
WJHM2: I remember a previous seminar when a Jewish man was referred to the camp of being white. Under this white skin is this Jewish part and how I see myself in the world, with the privileges and non-privileges of that aspect of me.

Facilitation comment: The white man is Jewish. Not addressing the complexities of being Jewish would marginalize an important part of this man’s experience and history. An important debate is the consideration of whether a Jewish person is white. Jewish people belong to the Semitic race, which some people view as quite different from the European race. The color of Jewish people’s skin ranges quite dramatically depending on the history of the family emigration patterns over the last 2000 years. To generalize the benefits of being white to all Jews is inaccurate. It is especially inaccurate to generalize the benefits of white Christians to white Jews. Even disregarding the effects of trauma and abuse which is handed down from generation to generation, in my generation and today there continues to be anti-Semitism and social oppression of Jewish people. Christians, especially those from Europe and the United States, have a certain comfort and privilege due to being part of a mainstream group, which is evident in their language and style of communication. In this process where the Jewish man is referred to by his quality of whiteness, he is addressed as a white man, although this is a reduction of his identity, as he is also Jewish and Semitic.
Facilitator (WJHM): If I can just make a brief comment. I notice that people are asking about your vulnerability (addressing white man), but it looks like there is fury, and it looks like you feel, too, a certain cultural environment which puts you down for some reason or another. That is what I imagine you are fighting against.

Facilitation comment: By bringing the focus back to the feeling issue and ignoring the ideas about being Jewish, Mindell in the interview sees the ”facilitator as marginalizing both the Jewish nature of the person who first spoke and his (the facilitator’s) own Jewish nature...Jews don’t want to be identified as being Jewish. That’s how I would read that, because you just brush over his own troubled past.” He continues that it is “anti-Semitic that the facilitators are not seeing that he is Jewish. That he has to take the entire guilt. He is resisting this not because he is white, (but because he is also Jewish). He ought to take on the white side, but further understanding of his position needs to happen here.”
WJHM2: That’s right.

Facilitation comment: Mindell in the interview comments that by agreeing, he also marginalizes his own Jewish nature, and at another moment projects this marginalization on others who are marginalizing him. “Frequently Jews, Latinos and Asians marginalize their own minority status because they can marginalize it and almost get away with it. That makes a big problem in group process, there is a lot of internalized anti-Asian, anti-Latino, anti-gay, anti-Jewish status.”
Facilitator WJHM: And I imagine you are in a certain environment where you feel unfairly put in a position because of the color of your skin. That how you are experiencing it? I am looking at you (ACHM), and that’s really where you are coming from at another point in time.

Facilitation comment: The facilitator draws a parallel between the experience of the white man and the African American man. They both feel marginalized by others and seen by the color of their skin independent of their own internal experience. Both feel stereotyped by cultural generalizations of skin color. The intervention is designed to recognize not only the differences between the white and African American man, but also the similarities of their experience. At present, the experience of the white man is being explored. At a later time however, he might well need to place his experience aside and explore the pain of the African American man. Mindell in the interview comments that this intervention still marginalizes the whole Jewish problem, and the facilitators could have held the group down to the complexities of the white man’s experience of being white and also Jewish.
WJHM2: Right.

Facilitator (WJHM): I wonder which direction we ought to go as a group, as the group is holding a lot of space for you (WJHM2) for the moment.

Facilitation comment: Moving away from the Jewish issue, the facilitator recognizes that placing a significant amount of focus on the white man is potentially challenging because this is the nature of the white man’s privilege in the world. That is, that white men can choose when they will be focused on and when they are ok with giving the focus up. It is likely that the group will begin to resent the focus being placed on the white man’s need and will want to focus on other people and variables too.
WJHM2: I don’t know what to say.

Facilitator (WJHW): I am also wondering how people are reacting to what has been said. There is a silence in the group and there might be feelings in there.

Facilitation comment: The facilitator recognizes that many of the members of the group are being silent. In asking what other members are experiencing, she opens the group up to new input and ideas. Frequently silent members of a group hold important, but sometimes marginalized, information for the group.
ACHW1: I felt more connected with you and I really appreciate your willingness to go there.

Facilitation comment: Different members of the group appreciate the sharing of the white man’s experience.
WCHW2: I feel around the issue of white male or female, as a white female we have all kinds of other privilege. I feel we need to put our privilege to work as human beings, we can't have one privilege without the other (responsibility), and this type of work we are doing is about getting through the numbness. I know my privilege and I don't want to stand invisible, and it’s up to me to speak to the white man, and I want to get that right. As a white person, I got every privilege every white guy’s got…my skin is real white and I can be numb any day of the week. And that privilege is mine for the rest of my life if I want it. What you (referring to the group and specifically African American people) can help me do is feel more. (The white woman is interrupted here with a laughter in the group. A hot spot.)

Facilitation comment: This woman recognizes she, too, is accountable in the white role. This is relieving as it is difficult for one person to hold an uncomfortable role, especially when this role is being challenged. In group process, it often happens that another person is able to develop the role more easily than the one initially holding the role and facing the challengers. This white woman indicates to the group that in the area of racism and white responsibility, she feels as responsible as the white man for the conditions of racism and oppression. She also points to an important discussion which needs to occur between white men and women on the use and abuse of privilege. White people need to explore their awareness of and use of power. Frequently in group process, the African American people and others of color request, and have sometimes demanded, that the white group look at their behavior and attitudes. By analyzing what we do and exploring our patterns of belief and communication, we create the possibility of transforming the white group, the world and history itself. The white woman recognizes the need to become more awake, and that one of the dangers of having unconscious privilege is that it dulls this sense of responsibility. She also introduces the issue of invisibility, the difficulty and at times benefits of women being invisible relative to men, an important issue in working with issues of sexism and male/female relationships. This is a hint of a possible topic for a future group process.

She completes her statement by asking the African Americans to help her feel more. Mindell in the interview comments that “she doesn’t need their help to feel more. She’s just marginalized her own status as a woman. Women feel a lot. Everybody feels a lot. She feels a lot about her minority status as a woman. It’s the complexity of rank that she is missing. She’s only seeing her whiteness...that’s a terrible, terrible projection on the other in the minority position. The black person is being asked to show feelings which have been totally marginalized by this white woman. Fears around being a woman is a hell, even if she says it’s not.” This is a painful moment and a hot spot in the group process. In a sense, the white woman is asking those she has hurt (as a white person) to show her their pain so that she can feel more of her own sensitivity to pain both within her and in others. There are two important aspects to this request.

Firstly, it might well infuriate the people of color that the expression of their pain of oppression is to be used further to the benefit of white people. In a racism workshop in the United States in 1999, a white man indicated that seeing the pain of African American people benefitted him as it helped him to feel more. As a participant I intervened here, asking the white man if he or other whites could help him access these feelings he had oppressed. Requesting that a person of color do this further abuses a group which already suffers to excess from oppression and racism. Mindell in the interview states that even if we are not part of a marginalized social group, all of us have been put down at one time or another and been marginalized. To understand our own marginalization, a man, for example, just “needs to remember what it’s like to be kicked around by his alcoholic father, by his negative mother, by his grandmother. He needs to remember what it’s like in school when he couldn’t get on the football team, when he didn’t get good grades. He needs to remember what it’s like to be a man when he can’t get a job. There are millions of minority statuses, and it feels awful. And it’s the same feeling almost all the time. What’s typical of Western culture, is to repress this all. And then it’s always the black folks who have to get this all together.”

Secondly, we could explore the effect of abusing our privilege by hurting others, and the subsequent marginalization of our own sensitivity with regard to ourselves. Could it be that the reclaiming of our own awareness is tied up to developing more sensitivity to others around us?

Additional comment: Recently I came across some books and articles on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, where amnesty was given to those who admitted wrongdoings in the apartheid regime and the violence related to this. Two examples come to mind. In one, an interrogation officer came forward. At night and on the weekends he was a family man, kind and warmhearted, but every day he went to work and tortured many people to gain information on the black African groups who were fighting for independence in South Africa. He said to the commission that his life had become tortured, he couldn't sleep and suffered tremendously. The insensitivity and cruelty that he showed in his work couldn't help but emerge as a pattern in his inner life. In the second story, a woman reports to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission the experience she had with her husband who was also involved in the white security forces. A few years after he joined the ‘special forces’ (who were involved in the abuse, torture and murder of those fighting against apartheid), he became withdrawn and quiet, started drinking and would at times start to shake uncontrollably. At night he was restless, rolling around in bed. He never discussed his experiences with her, but she reports on his symptoms which included being “ice cold on a sweltering night, sopping wet with sweat. Eyes bewildered, but dull like the dead. And the shakes. The terrible convulsions and bloodcurdling shrieks of fear and pain from the bottom of his soul.” (Tutu, 1999, pp.52-53) His involvement in the abuse of others hurt himself, his relationship and family. Many of those who are involved in the torture and murder of others not only destroy the others life, but also their own. Further, the cutting off of feelings towards the suffering of others in the world around us also leaves us marginalizing our own feelings. In acknowledging and using our privilege well, we not only care for others in the world around us, but also care for ourselves.
ACHM: (Calmly) That’s symbolic…that’s really symbolic…that’s part of the privilege. You can go and make that really nice speech, and then you can go away. And I know that you are really not doing that, but you are. You have that opportunity, it’s in the air. You don’t get to choose about it…you just do it and it happens. You didn't ask for it, you didn’t ask to be born white, but you know what--as long as you are white and you take advantage of that invisibleness, you are active in the privilege, you are taking advantage of the privilege.

Facilitation comment: The African American man again reminds white people of the privilege of being able to leave. The African American man in particular focuses on the privileges of becoming invisible at a given moment and retreating to places of comfort. Mindell in the interview states that the white man never fully got into what he was suffering about. In this sense, he has ‘walked out’ on these issues already.

WCHW2: Yes.

ACHM: I am really angry about that--here I go! (laughs) Because I really want to be able to hear the white men...I could look at this. I saw a movie, Dead Poets Society. I saw it a couple of times…god you (white) guys go through such hell, all this pressure to perform, to be white, to be the most successful, to be the most intelligent, to be the strongest. I have that in me, but after 46 years of doing this I have given up on it. But you guys still have the illusion that you really can make it, you can be perfect. There is a social expectation on you that says 'you have to be the best'--and that in and of itself is incredibly oppressive.

Facilitation comment: Mindell in the interview states that the “African American man is teaching the white man about what he does, what the white man is actually feeling, but has repressed. So it has been projected onto the black man to teach, and the black man has to do this.” The facilitator could have stepped into this role and expressed his own suffering and feeling to the group. This would have made it easier for the group to address. Further, the African American comments on the demands placed on the white man by the culture, that he feels let off as a man of color from these demands. This might not be accurate. He might well be resentful of the ambitions of white men and the possible success he is striving for in his life. In this sense, the white man’s ambition is secondary to this African American man, and that he has a need to further his own personal life and ambitions. In further developments after the seminar, this African American man has begun to give presentations on racism and mediation. The high standards placed on white men are also the high standards he places on himself.

Additional comment: The drive to succeed in many white men often comes at the cost of their health and relationships. Probably the current embodiment of success and power in the Western world is the United States president, Bill Clinton. Yet he was prepared to risk all of his success and power for a brief interlude with an intern. Could it be that all of the successes he has strived for and gained do not fulfill him? And that the one who meets the intern is the one who is hungry for something for himself, for love, for his own needs. If this is the case, then how strong are the pressures and expectations placed on him to fulfill the social role of the white man and so marginalize many of his own needs? What is the effect of this marginalization on the world and the decisions he makes every day for millions of people? Bill Clinton did get caught. Trying to take care of his needs on the side might well not be the way to live. Owning our needs and desires in a more direct and honest way is a way of changing societal expectations on the white man. An apology, although respecting the sexual morality of many members of the society, does not replace the need to look honestly at our needs and how we care for ourselves as men.

My first strong memory of this pressure on men was the suicidal death of a friend’s father when I was 12 years old. He had left a note saying that he could not bear the financial losses of his business and so killed himself. Independent of his psychological state at the time, financial loss clearly was a cause for deep concern. This man had identified himself as a provider, and when he was unable to do this, couldn't see beyond this role. Recognizing that he had failed the societal expectations placed on him, and that this was an opportunity to look at his life and embrace new alternatives, was too difficult to do. It was easier to die. Recently I worked with a client who had come to see me in order to come to terms with his impending death due to cancer. The client was still relatively young, a man in his 40s who was both wealthy and successful in his work in a large, high profile company. During one session we began to talk of his life choices; he turned to me and said he regretted certain choices he had made in his life. The one he regretted most was his choice to follow law and business, rather than his passion in working with people. He knew his choice would make him financially wealthy and successful, but he felt it had cost him too much. From his perspective close to death, his values had changed. Both of these men and many others send a legacy and a message to those of us who still might have choices of where to prioritize our lives. If men treat themselves and their complex needs with little respect, it might well follow that they will also treat others with this same lack of care.
WCHW2: It's so easy to ignore our privilege. We can feel disempowered like everybody else. Men feel disempowered versus women, women feel disempowered versus men.

Facilitation comment: The relationship of men and women varies significantly across rank issues such as color. African American women relate quite differently to white women when dealing with social rank. African American women recognize the almost constant oppression and abuse which is placed on African American men in the United States. African American women have therefore been almost exclusively supportive of African American men in the open forum, leaving the work between the sexes to a more private forum where the information provided can be protected from being used against the group in a sexist or racist form. White women do not have this constraint and have expressed their anger publicly at white men on many occasions for the hurts and oppression they feel as women.
ACHM: I believe it starts with the oppression of white men and it filters down into the world from there. Because white men catch hell, because they have to produce, and our society sets it up because the people in power are white men. And you guys get all the privilege and so all the oppression that you got laid on allow on everyone else because that what you learned...the victim becomes the oppressor, that’s what happens. As a community, I would like us to view that as a model so we can start to level the ground a little bit. I am not interested in you saying you are a white man and that you got privilege and you are on top. I don’t give a fuck about that. We are human beings and we have the opportunity to create a very special community here, that might be able to go out into the world and do something really different.

Facilitation comment: The African American man focuses on the oppression of white men and the dynamics of this oppression. In this group process, it has been difficult for the white man to appreciate his social privilege. While others see his relative privilege, he feels his suffering and pain to the extent of being unavailable at this moment for any other focus. From the white man’s viewpoint, there appears to be no privilege, as he too feels oppressed. Giving space for the white men to feel, although incredibly challenging for those who are also oppressed and feel the white man already has so much space, is a generous act of eldership.

Additional comment: In a 1998 Worldwork seminar, during a relatively intense racism exchange, the white men were asked what was going on inside them. Many found it difficult to answer. Some white men said they didn't care about change and would agree in the seminar, but not change outside. Other white men talked about their own emptiness and pain, that their inner world was suffering and they were unhappy. Later in this Worldwork seminar, a white man began sobbing. He realized that although he had been an activist and had opposed many painful scenes, he did not allow himself to feel his own pain in this experience. He now began to feel deeply all the pain and suffering he had seen. For him, opening to all the feelings was overwhelming, but important. Sometimes others can help in accessing our own feeling sides. In a 1993 Worldwork seminar in Switzerland, an African American man helped the group to connect with this suffering. He stood in front of a large diverse group and said he would show what was inside him and many others. He began to sob and howl in pain, to feel what was going on deeply in him and many of the participants. This created a moment for members of the group to bring to awareness and feel about many of the painful issues that had been introduced that morning. Many people began to cry. At that moment, the African American man bridged the gap in a diverse group by feeling a pain that was common to all of us. Although there were many divergent attitudes and issues that had been presented, the group came together in common feeling.
ACHM: (continued) Cause you know you are talking about your white privilege, and everybody else talking about your white privilege doesn't mean a damn thing if you go out into the world and you are shit scared and you suck up your privilege. It only makes a difference if you go out into the world and say to that bank president or your neighbor who happens to be a cop or your congressman or your senator...that’s enough, enough. That’s where the power is, it’s in the institutions.

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