"No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck." --Frederick Douglass
Listening to Joy DeGruy discuss her book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing a few years ago got me thinking about the psychological impact on white people of slavery, genocide and other forms of institutionally sanctioned oppression. My thinking on this topic was pushed further when developing a workshop with Delbert Richardson and reflecting on America's Unspoken Truths. Through readings, workshops, and conversations with others committed to social justice work, I've come to recognize there is also a very damaging "master syndrome".
I've begun to develop a list of current behavior patterns of white people connected to historical race relations in the United States. In addition to Dr. DeGruy's work, this is heavily influenced by Mab Segrest's essay, "On Souls and White Folks" in her book Born to Belonging. I'm also pulling from ideas in Temu Okun's article, "White Supremacy Culture." There's a link to this article as well as related information on Dismantling Racism Works website.
People who engage in anti-racism work will recognize many of the patterns I'm delineating. What I'm hoping in this process is to make a visible connection between these ways of being and their historical context.
The Roots of Master Syndrome
What myths have we white people created about ourselves and people of color to live with the cognitive dissonance of perpetuating white supremacy and still seeing ourselves as good, nice people? In what ways does this legacy show up in the behaviors of white people today? What examples can I recognize in my own life?
On an individual level these behaviors help white people protect our identities as good people. This is especially true if we are not actively racist, because we need a way of thinking that justifies mistreatment and oppression.
On a cultural level, these behaviors keep white cultural beliefs and practices in place. They are designed to perpetuate white privilege in ways that are often invisible to white people. White culture is unseen or the "normal" way of being in the United States.
On an institutional level, these behaviors maintain social, political and monetary power for white people. What may look like an individual characteristic becomes part of a self-reinforcing system of codified laws or institutional values.
Recognizing these behaviors and beliefs as part of the psychological damage caused by oppression is one step towards healing ourselves. The process of deepening our understanding and examining white cultural norms can lead us to ways of being and taking action to create more equitable institutions.
Patterns of Master Syndrome
I plan to write about each of the behaviors on this list. They are not in any particular order.
- Think of White People Individually and People of Color as a Group
- Expectation of the Center
- In Charge
- Fear of Losing Control
- Intellectual and Disconnected from the Heart
- Objectify the "Other"
- Invested in False Harmony
- Construction of Alternative Communities