Dear Aspiring Allies: a love letter
Monday, June 8, 2020
Note: I was debating whether to name this piece Dear Recovering Racists: a love letter, or Dear Recovering anti-Black People: a love letter. For me, these are synonyms for Dear Aspiring Allies: a love letter. I settled on Dear Aspiring Allies: a love letter, because it sounds a bit nicer to me. I mention the competing titles as a way to define my intended audience. At the end of my recent piece In Order For This to Happen I say, “I want to love some of you,” referring to white people. That sentence was for all aspiring allies really. So, I wrote this letter to expand on that sentence. (I am writing another letter to people who already have demonstrated to me that they are true allies, which is a verb.) So…
Dear aspiring allies,
Yes, our lives do matter! We have never doubted that. Not deep inside anyway. Of course, we have suffered and still suffer the physical, psychological, and spiritual effects of being treated like we do not matter, every single day, in every single way, from birth to death (this reads like terrible song lyrics). The following James Baldwin quote comes to mind:
“If you're treated a certain way you become a certain kind of person. If certain things are described to you as being real they're real for you whether they're real or not.” — James Baldwin in Conversations with Nikki Giovanni
I read this quote as James Baldwin talking about how trauma can assault a person’s beliefs about themselves–which are hands-down a person’s most important beliefs. I am a trauma therapist completing a doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology. The most useful and fascinating thing that I have learned in my training is that healing from trauma is largely about confronting and correcting very understandable and woefully incorrect beliefs. The most important belief that a therapist helps a client confront and correct is that they are worthless and/or incompetent. People are not born believing they are worthless and/or incompetent. That is to say, this belief is not normative, natural, or innate. Something happens to people that makes them believe this terribly destructive untruth. That something, when it comes to Black people and their high risk for violation with incorrect beliefs about themselves, is racism and anti-blackness. Racism is THE most dangerous threat to public health for Black people—for all people really, but that discussion will take another essay!
Stop and think for a moment, how shameful and embarrassing it is for our society—damning really—that so much energy, effort, and struggle is required to argue that Black. Lives. Matter. Wow! Really, WOW! I am starting to think that the characters in shows like The Twilight Zone, and Black Mirror watch us on TV, you know for dystopian horror heavily marinated in absurdity. When I sent a draft of this letter to a very shrewd indigenous friend, she sent back a video clip from comedian Michael Che (captioned, as all publicly posted videos should be). The video is from 2016. As you watch it, reflect on that extra hot dash of absurdity: it has already been four years since these “jokes” were told.
To understand the relationship between racism, anti-Blackness and the self-worth of Black people more deeply, I recommend doing some reading and reflecting on your own about: (1) attachment theory; (2) self-worth theory; (3) social exclusion theory; (4) cognitive dissonance; (5) critical race theory; and (5) racial trauma and mental health. Google is your friend, so I will talk about these things from the perspective of a Black person and trauma therapist/researcher.
The most common type of thing I hear people say about attachment theory is something about their “attachment style.” People say, for example, that they have, or someone else has, a secure, or anxious-preoccupied, or fearful-avoidant, or dismissive-avoidant, attachment style—as if attachment style is a stable personality trait. The best thing I learned about attachment style, through my own reading, and my training/practice in an attachment-based therapy for trauma, is that attachment style is NOT a stable personality trait. In fact, your attachment style has more to do with other people, than it does with you. So, if the person or people you are attached to, or you are trying to attach to, make you feel secure, or anxious-preoccupied, or fearful-avoidance, or dismissive-avoidant that will be your attachment style—specific to your relationship with them. So, “your attachment style” with a person is like a mirror of how you feel being attached to them. That is why your attachment style can and does change.
Trauma can interfere with a clean break from one relationship, that fostered a certain unhealthy attachment style, into a different kind of relationship, with potential for a healthier attachment style. Yes, sometimes, even in a relationship where the potential for a healthy attachment style exists for both people—one, or both people may have residual “symptoms” (e.g. difficulty with trust). In the previous relationship these “symptoms” were often a normative, important, and quite often brilliant protective survival mechanism. This is especially true the more vulnerable a person was/is in a relationship (e.g. a child's relationship with their parent(s)). In a new relationship, however, those same previously functional mechanisms may be an unwanted, intrusive, and confusing barrier to the potential for a healthier, more enjoyable relationship attachment style. Factor in trauma from racism for one or both people, and healthy attachment may be even more challenging. For the rest of this essay I will focus on attachment styles and trauma when trauma from racism is a factor—using the James Baldwin quote along with what we know from mental health research.
All of the attachment style categories are rooted in self-worth. That is because self-worth, for all of us, throughout our lifetime development, is co-created through social interaction. Recall the quote from James Baldwin, “If you're treated a certain way you become a certain kind of person.” For example, many Black people, including myself, report either being unaware of the fact that they are “Black” (the social construct) and/or being unaware of loving the fact that they are “black” (the genetic variation)—as problems—until someone communicated to them that they are problems. This has happened to me repeatedly throughout life: first with my nuclear family; and then in every aspect of my social life; and in every aspect of my educational life, and in every aspect of my spiritual life; and in every aspect of my professional life; and in every aspect of my financial life, and in every aspect of my creative life; and in every aspect of my love life…etc. (no wonder I am exhausted). Each time I am confronted with the reality that my identity is a “problem” to others that I either want to or have to interact with—I am forced to deal the devastating effects of social rejection.
My first doctoral dissertation project to reach dissertation committee approval, before also being sabotaged by racist anti-Black academics (I say “also” because several were sabotaged and/or stolen prior to meeting dissertation committee approval; I am working on writing this story up.), was focused on the sequelae of social exclusion. Sequel is a great ten-dollar word that I learned working (without pay, unlike almost everyone else involved, and like no one at my level) as a Master’s student, researcher, and project coordinator in the Stony Brook University Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology—on a massive psychiatric epidemiology study investigating the genetics and lifetime symptoms of psychotic and mood disorders. The word sequelae was perfect to me then for the same reason that I use it now, it captures complex and total devastation. One online free medical dictionary defines sequelae as:
A morbid condition following or occurring as a consequence of another condition or event.
A pathological condition resulting from a disease.
A secondary consequence or result.
A sequel. Any condition or state that follows a disease, disorder, or injury, especially one that is a consequence of it. A COMPLICATION. The term is most often used in the plural form-sequelae.
I decided recently that to honor the piles of documents, images, & other effects that went into my years of stolen and sabotaged academic work—things that would otherwise remain hidden—I would release them to my art and other work. So, below I am pasting one section of that particular successfully defended dissertation proposal mentioned—as it relates to our discussion. If you are interested in accessing my cited references (the names and years in parentheses), contact me at manigarcia.com. I formatted them below in grey intentionally, to hopefully make reading easier.
(from Garcia, uncredited)
Empirical work on social exclusion and health
As social beings, much human behavior is motivated by our innate and pervasive drive to pursue social inclusion and avoid social exclusion (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Haslam, Jetten, Postmes, & Haslam, 2009; Leary, 1990), with consequences for affect, cognition, and health (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Leary, 1990)…
[Social] [i]nclusion/exclusion…has multiple strong effects on our affective states, cognitive processes, and health (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Leary, 1990). In theories of social identity, it is argued that our sense of self is largely defined in terms of our social interactions (Saribay & Andersen, 2007; Andersen & Chen, 2002; Tajfel & Turner, 2004), as interactions are internalized, powerfully shaping our psychology (Haslam et al., 2009). Interactions that provide a sense of inclusion typically lead to positive psychological outcomes (Haslam et al., 2009), and can serve as a protective buffer against harmful effects of psychological stress (Cohen & Wills, 1985).
In contrast, social exclusion has devastating effects on psychological health (Baumeister & Tice, 1990; Eisenberger, 2013; Uphoff, Pickett, Cabieses, Small, & Wright, 2013). Numerous research studies have also demonstrated a large impact of social inclusion/exclusion on our behavioral health (Bizumic, Reynolds, Turner, Bromhead, & Subasic, 2009; Claire & He, 2009; Falomir-Pichastor, Toscani, & Despointes, 2009; Haslam et al., 2009; Jasinskaja-Lahti, Liebkind, & Solheim, 2009; Kellezi, Reicher, & Cassidy, 2009; Latrofa, Vaes, Pastore, & Cadinu, 2009; Muldoon, Schmid, & Downes, 2009; Outten, Schmitt, Garcia, & Branscombe, 2009). Adverse behavioral health outcomes include sadness (Atlas & Morier, 1994), loneliness (Jones, 1990; Leary, 1990), jealousy, anger, social anxiety, depression, grief, low self-esteem, and anxiety (Baumeister & Tice, 1990; Leary, 1990). Social rejection has been associated with anxiety, depression, feelings of hostility, decreases in positive affect, and increases in tension, in systolic blood pressure, and in diastolic blood pressure in laboratory studies (Craighead, Kimball, & Rehak, 1979; Stroud, Tanofsky-Kraff, Wilfley, & Salovey, 2000). Meta-analytic and longitudinal studies reveal that both perceived and actual social isolation and loneliness are associated with greater morbidity and mortality (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010; Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris, & Stephenson, 2015; Olsen, Olsen, Gunner-Svensson, & Waldstrøm, 1991; Penninx et al., 1997; Shiovitz-Ezra & Ayalon, 2010; Sugisawa, Liang, & Liu, 1994). Social isolation and loneliness have been associated with acceleration of aging, cardiovascular health risk, and a host of emotional and cognitive processes, such as personality disorders, suicide, impaired cognitive performance, cognitive decline, reduced executive control, greater risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, and increased symptoms of depression (Cacioppo et al., 2000; Cacioppo, Hawkley, & Thisted, 2010; Cacioppo, Hughes, Waite, Hawkley, & Thisted, 2006; Caspi, Harrington, Moffitt, Milne, & Poulton, 2006; Deniro, 1995; Gow, Pattie, Whiteman, Whalley, & Deary, 2007; Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010; Hawkley, Masi, Berry, & Cacioppo, 2006; Hawkley, Thisted, & Cacioppo, 2009; Hawkley, Thisted, Masi, & Cacioppo, 2010; Heikkinen & Kauppinen, 2004; Neeleman & Power, 1994; Richman & Sokolove, 1992; Segrin, 1999; Thurston & Kubzansky, 2009; Tilvis et al., 2004; Wei, Russell, & Zakalik, 2005). Considering the profound impact of social exclusion on behavioral health, it is worthwhile to better understand mechanisms by which social exclusion takes place.
The point of this section in my former dissertation project proposal, including the ridiculous amount of citations, is that there is super solid evidence that social exclusion can be devastating to physical and mental health. My reason for including that section in this letter is to demonstrate, (1) that sometimes a ten-dollar word is worth the price; and (2) to add meaning and weight to the last sentence of my paragraph above— tying our discussion of social attachment to our discussion of social exclusion: “Each time I am confronted with the reality that my identity is a “problem” to others that I either want to or have to interact with—I am forced to deal the devastating effects of social rejection.” Those are some of the potential devastating effects of—or that is some of the potential sequelae of racism and anti-Blackness. Just some of the potential sequelae of racism and Anti-Blackness —tragically—yes. “Some” means there is much more to talk about.
Five. Slow. Deep. Breaths.
And we continue with cognitive dissonance.
The website SimplyPsychology.org describes cognitive dissonance as a situation that involves conflicting “attitudes, beliefs or behaviors,” which “produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.” I learned about this concept in a social psychology class, primarily from a book I highly recommend, The Social Animal, by Elliot Aaronson. The “mental discomfort” mentioned in this description is better described as extreme psychological distress—extreme enough to demand attitude, belief, and behavioral change. Watch the video clip from comedian Michael Che (captioned, as all publicly posted videos should be) again. He is partially talking about cognitive dissonance. The important thing about cognitive dissonance is that, based on the evidence, to truly alleviate the extreme psychological distress it causes, the resulting attitude, belief, and behavioral change must be binary in nature. This is a reductionist explanation in practice, quite often, as change is a messy non-linear process. That said, it is a starting place for discussion. What I mean is that the changes people make due to cognitive dissonance tend to go in either one direction — or the opposite direction. So, a person confronted with attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that conflict with their own—due to the extreme psychological discomfort caused by this condition—will either decide to intensify those attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors OR they will decide to reject them. In both cases the resulting revised attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are much stronger than the previous attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. This helps explain why people say, as popular wisdom, not to talk about politics and religion—they are polarizing. This helps explain why people respond to #BlackLivesMatter with statements like #AllLivesMatter, or by playing “devils’ advocate,” or with eerie telling silence. This helps explain why other people respond to #BlackLives matter with protests and marches—even during our COVID-19 global pandemic—when the risks are especially high and especially salient. Cognitive dissonance leads to strong action.
Critical Race Theory is one of the most powerful movements to promote societal belief change about our greatest societal source of cognitive dissonance, the socially and culturally created myth of race. I hold steadfast to the belief that racism is NOT a natural behavior of humans. It is my way to maintain hope in this world. This hope has allowed me to form very safe, close, loving relationships with “white” people. In fact – I have more than one Non-Black adoptive “fathers,” who have provided me with love, acceptance, and support in ways my own biological “father” has never come close to. For example, in my recently published piece What It Means to Be a Black, Indigenous, Latino, I explain that my father’s favorite nickname for me growing up was ni***r (yes, the n-word), second only to Kunta Kinte (Google is your friend). After writing that piece and making cookies with molasses in them I remembered he loved calling me molasses too—because of its dark color. Yes, my father, the man who is genetically part “black,” is anti-Black and stuck in the psychological prison of colorism! He is, and always has been vocally anti-Black to his own son—me! Let that sink in. Only very powerful forces can make this a reality—my absurd reality.
My equally absurd relief from my father’s constant barrage of racist atomic bombs (in three languages) came to me on August 1, 2002, when I walked away from my life since childhood as a Jehovah’s Witness—and he, along with the rest of my entire social network, cut me out of their lives completely. I was 29 years old at the time. I had been married for 6 years. Of my entire social group, my ex-wife expressed the most visceral disgust towards me when learning I no longer wanted to be a Jehovah’s Witness. And guess what prompted me to make such a difficult decision, knowing how much of a devastating sequelae (see, it’s a good word) I was facing … cognitive dissonance leading to extreme psychological distress—extreme enough to demand my own attitude, belief, and behavioral change. I recently had the great pleasure of telling some of this story for The Story Collider, which was included (scroll to 21:22) in their February 8, 2020 podcast episode entitled Leap of Faith: Stories About Finding and Losing Faith (transcript available at same link, as it should be for all podcasts).
Since August 1, 2002, due to losing my entire biological nuclear family, I created a “chosen family.” That now includes my 16-year-old biological daughter and love of my life, Gia. So, now I have a budding biological family of my own making as well. Faced with the unimaginable—even to this day—reality that I had zero social network, I decided it would be best for me to be very flexible with what I require from a person in order for me to pursue having a relationship with them. This process has been as messy and laden with desperation and heartbreak as it may sound. And this same process has led me to the very safe, close, loving relationships with “white” people that I described earlier. And those relationships contribute consistently and significantly to my own healing and development. I believe without these relationships; it would be impossible for me to write this letter.
These extreme absurdities of cognitive dissonance in my life have given me an experiential object lesson in intersectionality, the concept that we all have multiple salient identities, and some are more dominant in shaping our existence than others. Take everything I have said about living as a Black Indigenous Latino man, in this and other pieces, and it pales in comparison to how growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness has shaped my existence. The ratio, to orient you appropriately, is as follows: Black Indigenous Latino person: grew up Jehovah’s Witness = grain of sand: universe of beaches.
I credit my extreme life experiences with jolting me out of the myth that racism, and race, for that matter, are normative, natural, or innate states—the jolt being one of necessity. Survival is our ultimate motivator. Critical race theory rejects the entire notion of race as a natural or actual state, and rather exposes it as a pseudoscience myth created and propagated by European colonialists as an excuse for their crimes against humanity. Race is superordinate to and encompasses ideas like Black, white, racism, anti-Blackness, white supremacy, etc. Said another way, imagine race is the baby; critical race theory throws it, the bathwater, and the bath itself away—a full purge. That is my own understanding of Critical Race Theory from my reading so far. I have more to learn, of course.
And, it is critical race theory that allows us to understand racial trauma and mental health, bringing us full circle to the James Baldwin quote I started this letter with:
“If you're treated a certain way you become a certain kind of person. If certain things are described to you as being real they're real for you whether they're real or not.” — James Baldwin in Conversations with Nikki Giovanni
Black people KNOW that they matter. Black people also know, and it is very real for them, that even though it is not rooted in reality—the majority of “white” people they interact with, on any level, have never and may never question a reality where race is sold as real—which is untrue. That is what it means when people say race is a social construct. It means that a bunch of white people agreed to fabricate and believe a lie. All “white” people benefit from this false reality, even those who reject it—like I hope you aspiring allies are rejecting it—
Every. Second. Of. Their. Lives.
The dissonance is real! Keep going! You have scratched the surface of the surface of a shell 500 years thick. That is half a millennium. With love: Shameful! Unnecessary! Long overdue!
I actually had to look up millennium to make sure I was using the right word. Cause REALLY!? Life is stranger and more absurd than fiction, hands down. Wikipedia, the source for all divine knowledge says:
“A millennium (plural millennia or millenniums) is a period of one thousand years, sometimes called a kiloyear. ... Millennia sometimes have religious or theological implications (see millenarianism). The word millennium derives from the Latin mille, thousand, and annus, year.”
I wonder if saying half a kiloyear instead of millennium make it less shameful? I wonder if saying half a mille makes it less shocking!? No, I think not. The first half mile of walking in our shoes (Black people) is a motherfucker! There is no way around it.
All that said, this is a love letter, or maybe better said, a tough-love letter. So, I want to end with some tips, from my heart, especially relevant as we work to defeat our greatest and most important experience of cognitive dissonance as a society—the myth of race—during the extremely stressful and deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
Unless you have agreed with any Black people in your life to share emotions/problems as usual, consider seriously holding off on telling us your every feeling. Your job now and for that other half-mille in our shoes is to LISTEN!!! Amplify OUR voices! We are quite well spoken. The thing is, with love: you are loud as fuck right now! Always! In the words of the goddess Missy Elliot, “flip it and reverse it” (non-sexually to be clear, and I say that because white people love to hypersexualize us, and it needs to stop, NOW.). This only works if you are listening. We know what you think, and we know what you need to do. Just do it! Keep doing it. We will notice.
Stop asking us to volunteer! You owe us! Our volunteerism is the spark, fuel, oxygen, fire, warmth, and most importantly THE LIGHT, that you are hopefully now feeling the very edge of for the first time. Maybe. “Maybe” may be as good as it gets right now. Patience is a virtue. Right!? (coughing “half a kilo year”).
Many of us (I don’t speak for all of us in any of what I have said: learn about d . i. v. e. r. s. i. t. y.), including me, don’t know if you are serious. Are you!? Are you serious!? And I mean really, really, really, REALLY serious!? Being serious doesn’t mean what you think it means. And being serious means that what you are afraid of is true: primarily that you have been living and benefiting from a great lie, a total lie. I know how it feels to realize that I have been living in a great lie, a total lie. I experienced this realization about a year after leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses. I have described it as having the rug pulled out from under you and realizing there is no floor. And that is why I am writing you this letter. I know you can do this, if you are serious. I know it has been very doable all along. You do too. You know: human dignity for all. It is doable. Very! It is your natural state. It was the same for me.
With love: step up, you always could do it. Accept the consequences, the tears, the shock, the loss, the illness, the loneliness, the horror, the total brain rewiring, the nervous system overhaul, the therapy, the failure, the despair, the exhaustion, the discovery, the wonder, the first breaths of fresh air, the freedom, the health, the joy, and ultimately the introduction to LOVE that awaits you on the other side to stepping into being a natural human.
The mysterious strength you have both fetishized and despised us for (explicitly and/or implicitly) is deeply rooted in our confidence in ancient love—love as a verb. Love for no reason other than, love. You get love. You deserve it as much as we do. And it is your natural state. Welcome to love!
And with love—what you don’t get is praise for realizing our “Black lives matter"—in tangible permanent ways that we experience as mattering. We matter to each other, and you have always mattered to us—so we are experts on what it means to matter. Remember this is your time to listen. This is your time to shine (which actually means to let us shine). This is your time to love.
You have the opportunity to step into the beginning of your human potential. White people have perfected the art of hurting non-white people in a physical sense—and in the process cursing themselves in a spiritual sense. Accepting all of this is likely going to involve a lot of pain. Pain is highly correlated with anger. Be careful where you direct that anger. Anger is a catalyst to run towards what you always have run away from, both in a general sense, and exactly right now. Directing anger within, at yourself, means you will continue to direct it at us. Find an excellent therapist. Develop a sustainable self-care routine. Create a “chosen family.” I believe in you. I did it. You can too. I share a mantra:
Heal we must. And heal we will!
Heal we must! And heal we will!
Heal we must! And heal we will!
Whatever it takes!
My first semester as an undergraduate student at Stony Brook University, I was funded to create a documentary research film project about my experiences growing up as and later leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses. In Episode 1, entitled Sacred Ground, of what became Belief: A Documentary Miniseries I included interviews with other former Jehovah’s Witnesses. Unwilling to ask them to do something so painful, if I was unwilling to do it, I asked my therapist at the time if we could film our therapy sessions while I was creating the film. This was my way of leveling the playing field between us sharing our stories. I filmed my therapy for 6-months—every session. At the end of my main theatrical trailer for Sacred Ground I included a clip that really captures the spirit of why I decided to take on that project. It is the same reason I wrote this letter. At 1:25 on this video (captioned, as all publicly posted videos should be) you can watch me say, during my therapy session on 3/1/07, the words that I now dedicate to you and to your journey. Note that in my artistic writing I use «angular quotes» to quote my thoughts and words:
«You have to have confidence in yourself. You have to believe that you can…stand on your own, that you don’t NEED…these people…We all need people, but I don’t believe that you die without a person, or people. People can live and make new friends…and a new family. It hurts like hell…but they can do it! I know because I’m doing it. I didn’t die!»
I will expand this quote by replacing “people” with ANYTHING that stands in the way of you doing your work. You don’t need it—whatever it is. You won’t die without it—whatever it is. The process may hurt like hell. You may think you are dying, more than once. And in many ways, you will die. You will die to a really bad myth; and you will finally wake up into being a human—rooted in reality.
Love and light to all of you!
Emmanuel (Mani) García, MA, MPhil (he/him/his)
Doctoral Student, Clinical Psychology Training Program
CUNY Graduate Center—John Jay College
Scholar, Healer, Artist, Father, Human, Optimist, Believer
 You won’t find anything about this experience on my CV. Guess why? Short answer: racism and anti-Blackness. Stay tuned for the story and accompanying art project.