An Analogy About Race and Marriage by Dr. Candice Hargons and Dr. Christen Tomlinson Logue
Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Editor's Choice, March 9th, 2017
"There is a certain level of humility the offending partner must assume..."
Given the tragic and horrifying events of late, many of us have probably had conversations about race – questioning how things got to this point or wondering what can/should be done moving forward. During these conversations, regardless of how well-meaning, the following “yes, buts” frequently seem to surface from White Americans…things like, “all lives matter” or “where is my privilege” or “I’ve been discriminated against too” or “I just don’t see color” or “I’m so tired of the division/why can’t we all just get along” or “I’m not racist and never have been.” Finding a personal and collective humble space seems so very difficult for many majority members. In spite of good intentions, many seem to lack an awareness of the posture required for healing – a posture of humility.
So, let’s use an analogy:
Black America and White America are in a bad marriage. We’ve been married for centuries, despite abuse and infidelity. Technically, White America human trafficked Black America, then decided to marry her after realizing some additional ways she could be exploited. But, for the sake of the analogy and with the hopes of improving conversations about race in the US, let’s just pretend that infidelity is the key issue. Let’s pretend that the marriage is consensual, but that White America has been unfaithful.
When one partner is unfaithful to another, but the two want to reconcile, there is a certain level of humility the offending partner must assume. During the reconciliation process, the relationship cannot be approached from a business as usual attitude. Certain dynamics have to change in order for healing to occur. The offended partner now deserves and is due an extra measure of empathy, compassion, vulnerability, transparency, etc. from the offending partner – even beyond what might be reasonably expected had the infidelity not occurred. And if the reconciliation is to be successful, it will be critical for the offending partner to lower his/her defenses about what’s right, fair, or due him/her and take a humble position of the aforementioned attributes. And while this may sound “common sense” when applied to the reconciliation of a marriage, it seems much more difficult to embrace these same concepts as applied to racial reconciliation – hence, the tired, defensive excuses mentioned earlier. White racial humility is a posture of listening, non-defensiveness, and open-mindedness that indicates an awareness that White is not always right. Further, it is an acknowledgement of wrong-doing and a collective accountability to rectify the wrong-doing with an empathic stance toward the racially marginalized group, i,e., Black America.
Let’s take the same analogy and broaden out beyond cheater and cheated and think about those with power and those without. In the marriage example, the partner who has been betrayed is obviously in the lesser of two power groups. The partner engaging in the infidelity places him/herself in the higher power category – not because it’s deserved or earned, but just by virtue of his/her ability to cause such pain and devastation in the relationship. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to start the healing process from the position that both parties are on equal footing, when in fact, they’re not. So one task of the group “in power,” whether that be the partner who cheated or White America, is to make a concerted effort to be humble. As a majority in a position of greater power, there is a responsibility to offer that extra measure of empathy, compassion, vulnerability, transparency, etc. – again, even beyond what might be reasonably expected had years of discrimination, subjugation, stereotyping, and slavery not occurred.
So, acting as if the whole discussion is starting on equal ground and therefore, all the rules of what’s fair or not should apply, is just unrealistic and only furthers the divide. It would be like the offending partner saying to the betrayed partner, “Yes, I know I cheated and you were hurt badly. But let’s let bygones be bygones and start afresh. Let’s treat each other as if none of this ever happened and enjoy all of the expectation and boundaries that any other relationship would.” See how unrealistic this sounds? The environment must be specifically and intentionally crafted for healing, and White racial humility is one of the main ingredients in that recipe.
When White America cheats on Black America, and pretends that it is all in Black America’s head, that isn’t a posture of White racial humility. When White America cheats on Black America, and then blames Black America for getting cheated on, that isn’t a posture of White racial humility. In psychological terms, the former is called denial, and the latter is called deflection. What White America should do to “make the marriage great again” is own the ways it messed up and stop messing up. That means, at least in part, listening to what Black America is asking for to make it work and humbly trying to do some of those things.
If you’ve gotten this far and you’re a member of White America, you may be thinking, “Yes, but I personally didn’t betray anyone.” Maybe so, but could it be time for our society, that has been so traditionally individualistic, to embrace more group and societal responsibility? Just because one doesn’t personally commit an infraction, if there is something hurtful and wrong in his/her history or culture that he/she has the power to do something about – why not? Why walk away from the opportunity to be a part of the solution? Why not make the concessions that can be made? Why protect and defend, when we know that healing begins with humility?
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Dr. Candice Hargons (formerly Crowell) is an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky. She studies sex, social justice, and leadership, with a love ethic in all she does. You can find her online here, and listen to her podcast, here.
Dr. Christen Tomlinson Logue is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology and Director of the Psychological Services Clinic at University of the Cumberlands. Her clinical work and research focuses on the mental health and career development needs of traditionally under-resourced populations, primarily in Appalachia. She is also highly involved in the training of graduate students from under-resourced populations in health service psychology. She can be reached here.