Toxic Shame: To Be a White Supremacist is to Have a History of Trauma

Image: Ilya Yakover
Imagine if you will:

You were born a white male baby to a white middle class family in an all-white neighbourhood in a predominantly white state. Your Daddy struggled with alcohol and anger. He was abused as a child and teen. His father, your GrandDaddy, punched him, threw him across rooms, and hit his head against the wall to teach him "right from wrong" and to show him "who's boss". He was called the worst names. He was made to feel stupid, worthless.

As a toddler, you begin to behave as most toddlers do. You're a little monkey and you have tantrums. You disobey sometimes. You break household objects, sometimes on purpose just to see what happens, but usually by accident. There is nothing bad about you. For being "bad", though, you are stripped naked, called a "little f*cker, son of a b*tch", and beaten with a long, black leather belt. You are told that you "should be killed for what you did, you stupid idiot."

In those moments, your own Daddy uses the worst words and directs them at you. He never got over his own pain and rage, and so he's taking them out on you. He believes he's doing what's right. Might is right, he learned. You are learning this, too.

You are beaten just like the black men and women in the slave film your older sister was watching in the family room the other night -- Long welt marks rising on your back and along your bottom. Blood rising to the surface of your delicate still-baby skin. The pain radiates everywhere in your tiny toddler body.

To top it off, all of your favourite toys are loaded into the car and taken to the garbage dump. You never see your favourite toys again.

It's not fair. Your world is not fair. It's not kind. Your Daddy, the one you look up to most in the whole world, is hurting you so bad. You aren't sure what hurts worse: his bad words, or his black belt.

And no one comes to save you.

This happens again. And again. And again.

You start to think that you are unlovable. You are no good. Otherwise why would this be happening to you?

Image: Ben Koorengevel
You grow up to fear authority more than anything. At any time they can turn on you. They could hurt you or kill you. You feel weak and scared. The only way to feel strong is to become like your Daddy. It might not be real power, but it looks like power. It's confusing, because you're a sweet boy, you're a sensitive boy, and you have a heart of gold.

Because you are a male child, you are told to be STRONG. Be strong, don't cry, suck it up, keep your sh*t together, buck up, move on, don't be a p*ssy.

But your heart is breaking. It has been breaking for so long.

Your brain hurts, you can't think straight, you can't concentrate. You have so much pain and so much anger that you don't know what to do. Sometimes you can't breathe, you're so scared. Your body feels broken in spots, but no one can see. Your pain is invisible.

You enter high school and turn to alcohol. You try to numb yourself. Wouldn't anyone who's experienced what you have? You try to be strong. Have fun, tell jokes. You're the funny guy. And even then, you can't get it right with Daddy. He still hurts you, overpowers you, makes you feel like the scum of the Earth.

When you get older, a young adult now, life gets even more confusing. You aren't able to process what happened to you as a little guy. You turn to something bigger than yourself, something that gives you a sense of purpose and makes you feel strong:

There's a white nationalist movement in town and their message is simple: White is best. White is right. Might is right. Echoes of your Father.
Their enemy is easy to target: Those who don't look like we do. Those who are other.
Their acceptance of you feels like love. The praise and approval of their leaders feels especially good, healing even.
They aren't nuanced thinkers, and neither are you. You prefer black-and-white thinking. It's simple, clear.

Nuance hurts your brain and confuses you, but not because you're dumb. You're actually incredibly intelligent, with a higher-than-average IQ. The parts of your brain that are involved in nuanced or complex thinking were damaged from all the abuse, pain, and fear you endured as a little one, and as an adolescent, too.

You were quite literally brain damaged from the type of upbringing you received, and you know several of your peers were, too. It's the way a lot of people in your part of the world raise their kids. It's been passed on from generation to generation.

In your mind, black people and Jews are cry babies, whiners. They want sensitivity? They want understanding? They want love and equality? They want protection just for who they are?

Why should they get these things when you were not loved enough, you were not treated gently, you were not valued for who you are?

You had to be strong and keep your sh*t together all these years, so why can't they? No one came to your aid, after all. You don't allow yourself tenderness, so you have no tenderness to give.

They should just grin and bear it, as you have done.

And if you admit to feeling compassion for them, others might think you identify with them. And they are weak. You don't want to be weak. You don't want to be vulnerable. Weak and vulnerable was the little boy version of you, and you reject that.

Your pain and rage is taken out on them.

*******

The story above is a fictional account based on a combination of real life stories that I've witnessed, read about, and heard about over the years.

Following the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia from August 11th to 12th, 2017, where one left-wing, anti-fascist peaceful protester was killed, there were many understandably angry voices in response. The most common responses I've seen online have been filled with dehumanizing hatred: "Nazi scum", "Punch a Nazi", "I can't have any sympathy for white supremacists," "If you're a skinhead, you are NOTHING in my eyes."

This is a plea to those of you not on the far right to view white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis through a lens of rational compassion. And it is a plea to those of you who find yourself on the far right, either espousing or sympathizing with white supremacist views, to really look within and have compassion for yourself and the parts of yourself that are hurting.

This kind of sympathy -- for ourselves AND for those whose beliefs and actions we find reprehensible -- can feel like the hardest, most impossible task, but we need to see each other as fellow humans above everything that might divide us. And this doesn't mean that racism is acceptable or that violence is acceptable. But it does mean that understanding where violent extremist ideology and action comes from is the only way we can prevent it.

The link between early life trauma and later extremism is clear, and is becoming increasingly clear as more research is done. To counteract extremism, we need to bring understanding and compassion to the table. Not more hatred.

"Being on the receiving end of violence never made me any less violent or filled with hate," says Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist. "What changed the course of my life was the profound courage extended to me by those I claimed to hate; their kindness, forgiveness and compassion destroyed my narrative of oppression."

And Christian Picciolini, another former white supremacist, says that violence in retaliation for white supremacist thought or action only makes extremist groups more extreme.

"Trauma leaves us with a belief system that forms part of our identity," former neo-Nazi, Tony McAleer, tells The Guardian. "I call it toxic shame. We pick up the belief that we aren't lovable enough, smart enough, that we're powerless and weak. We go out into the world and we live our lives in reaction to that."

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Comments

  1. Struggles of life doesn't make you feel loser but it shows you that you have passed them and now you are no more the struggler but a winner. this post is really helpful and inspirational

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