As a psychodramatist, often faced with a group of people in conflict- a couple, a family, a work team - I appreciate the creative tools through which Action Methods help obtain as much of the whole story as possible. The conflicts that present themselves, the ones people are talking about, can have roots in hidden power struggles that are part of the group’s culture from which no one involved can get sufficient distance to fully understand. Recognizing these underlying truths will either transform the couple or group or break it apart; toxic foundations will either give way to progress in a group or organization or stall growth through terminal stagnation. Action Methods help reveal what a group has not wanted to know about itself, but needs to know to have a healthy future.
Issues of race and racism are among the most difficult hidden truths for groups to deal with whether the issues come up in professional settings or personal experiences. Getting the whole story is essential and creating safety in order to get the whole story is key. Over the course of my 30-plus career as a psychodramatist and clinical social worker, I have been both troubled and inspired doing this work. Troubled because of the pain that racism imposes and our cultural denial of how much healing there is still to be done, our first black President notwithstanding. And inspired when people confront their own suppressed or subconscious prejudice, because it can be very uncomfortable to recognize the inhumanity of some of commonly-held assumptions and attitudes.
In November 1992 the news show PrimeTime ran a segment on racism called “True Colors.” The show had sent out two investigators, one white and one black, and used hidden cameras to observe and film how they were treated in a number of different situations. At the employment agency the worker was courteous to the white but lectured the black. At a drycleaning business, the white investigator was told there were job openings moments after the black was told that all jobs in the shop were filled. An auto salesman quoted the black a higher price and stiffer terms than the white on the identical car. Remember, this was 1992, a supposedly somewhat enlightened time, but there was no white outrage when this aired, no memorable self-reflection as a nation on the ingrained nature of racist thinking and behavior expressed in ordinary interactions between people in daily situations that is a constant reality for people of color.
Fast forward to 2009. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomoyer sparks outrage over a speech in which she explored the impact of a judge’s race, gender and social class on his/her understanding and interpretation of the law. Her nomination itself is historic, the first Latina female to be considered for membership in a very elite group - of the 110 Supreme Court judges that have served over the history of our nation, 106 of them have been white men. Her speech hit a nerve because she challenged a commonly-held illusion, at least by a number of very vocal and prominent media and government figures - that the white male Supreme Court judges have always transcended their race, gender and life experience in their interpretation of the law. She is taking a lot of hits for focusing on what is painfully obvious to anyone with even a superficial knowledge of history.
The Declaration of Independence declares our “inalienable” rights, an adjective for which my Word 2007 Thesaurus provides a number of synonyms: Unchallengeable. Absolute. Immutable. Not able to be forfeited. Unassailable. Incontrovertible. Indisputable. Undeniable. Strong words. And yet we know that over the course of our nation’s history non-whites have had their rights not only challenged and disputed, but outright denied down to their very humanity in the case of slavery. During the reign of Jim Crow in the south, terrorism in the form of lynching and the systematic humiliation and oppression of African-Americans went on with impunity, and the simple accident of being born white entitled a person to the full spectrum of what we call civil rights denied to people of color. It was a 150-year-old, unquestioned, institutionally-supported affirmative action program for white people.
The label of “reverse racist” has been attached to Judge Sotomayor because she dared to call attention to something we have trouble facing about our society, but as citizens we owe it ourselves to understand the points she actually made by reading her entire speech. Read it online at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/15/us/politics/15judge.text.html?_r=1
I think this sums up the core of her position, and something we might all take to heart as we go about our lives: “I am reminded each day that I render decisions that affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives and ensuring that to the extent that my limited abilities and capabilities permit me, that I re-evaluate them and change as circumstances and cases before me requires.”
Nicholas Wolff, LCSW, BCD, TEP conducts professional training in Action Methods and psychodrama theory and technique at Lifestage, Inc. and at agencies and organizations by invitation.