Why, I hesitate to ask out loud, am I invigorated by the daily news about the uprising and protests for racial justice? I breathe deep into this question and hear: Because I am pretty sure I’m not in denial this time. I have been at least twice-blinded by profound denial: First: I grew up in the illusion of racial harmony. Then, as an adult, I devoted 18 years of my life to a puny Jewish guy who I thought was enlightened. When I snapped out of that trance, I saw the link between white supremacy and cult dynamics as clearly as I see the tree outside my window.
Freud talked about denial as a defense against any external realities that threaten the ego. We often resort to denial in order to defend ourselves or to cope with a reality that is too threatening or simply too much to bear. In my own experience and through my studies of cult dynamics, I have come to believe that denial is a form of sensory deprivation—both literally and metaphorically—that leads to the loss of our most vital sensibility: conscience.
In my early twenties, I lingered in caves so dark I could sleep with my eyes open. I heard a story then about a spelunking team that was deep in when they came to a squeeze in an area that had never been mapped. They passed their gear through the narrow passage, then all wormed their way deeper into the unknown. All except one member who never made it. Somehow—and I forget just how—he was left behind with no light, no food, no gear, five days deep into unchartered caverns. I imagine a part of him wanted to curl up and die, but he was a survivor who had other senses beside the sight he had just lost. His ears tuned into a colony of bats in flight so he decided to move with them. He figured they knew the way out. When the bats stopped, he stopped and waited for their return. He moved again only when they took flight. He scrounged for crawfish and algae and slurped what he hoped was clean water. Night after night, he repeated this pattern. Persistence paid off and he emerged, a mole blinded in the light. He was asked how long he thought he had been in the cave. He knew it was a long time. Two weeks? Maybe three? No, he was told. Three months. Three months. Time is a strange animal. We lose track of it all the more so, when we lose sensory input. Three months in a cave. Eighteen years in a cult. Five centuries since enslaved Africans were brought to North America in a Spanish expedition. Five centuries.
At birth, no one is a racist. We are sense organs, unfinished and forming ourselves into human existence. We interact with the world, our senses alert, but if we are not careful, unjust ideologies might capture our minds and dull our senses. We are all too capable of seeing without seeing. Hearing without hearing. “The Lord identifies his chosen ones by their blue eyes.” “They like to be controlled.” “Whiteness is a sign of purity.”
Which sense did we lose that allowed our white European immigrant ancestors to rise each morning for centuries in our shiny white skins, wrapped in the security of sturdy homes, expecting black bodies to labor for our opulence while we dehumanize them? Did our eyes did not see the whips, the shackles, the scars? Was there cotton in our ears when our Constitution was amended, declaring blacks were valued at three fifths a human being? From the cushioned seat of our justice system, we can’t feel the cold gun in the backs of black men, locking them up in humanity’s largest prison. We can’t taste the terror that rises from the back of their throats when a siren signals to pull over for missing a red light. Or for buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill.
The erosion of conscience is nearly imperceptible. Our parents spoon-feed us bias that tastes delicious. We are shown images that make us smile, learn lullabies passed on from our grandparents and theirs before us, soothing our worried minds. It does not need to be, nor is it very often true that any one spoonful, photograph or song is truly malicious. Their sum total is magnified by historical context, convenience, heredity, unnoticed authoritarianism and woven with a few nefarious strands to create a thought-proof doctrine. We unconsciously move to the far side of the street when a black youth approaches us.
When I snapped out of a cult after 18 years of blind devotion, it was my conscience that woke me up. I heard a fellow group member and friend describe how she was being abused by the cult leader, whom I had placed on a holy pedestal. I knew she was speaking the truth. I could not reconcile the lofty place my psyche had created for our teacher with the fact that he had hurt my friend. This dis-connect caused a crack in the veneer of my indoctrination, letting in the light of conscience. My ability to see and hear reality cleared. I soon left my guru and turned my attention to self-healing from nearly two decades of manipulation and mind control. I also started studying cultic power dynamics where I was stunned to recognize that authoritarian patterns imbedded in the white supremacy movement parallel—in terms of power dynamics—my own experience of cultic abuse. This realization occurs in part through reading and re-reading Rising Out of Hatred, the story of Derek Black’s white flight. (If you have not read it, now is the time. Seriously.) Mr. Black was born into a system that formed his behaviors until his conscience awakened when he recognized that his beliefs were de-humanizing others.
Throughout my years in the cult, I was deprived of uncensored interactions because much of what I did and thought was controlled by my teacher’s rules and/or his ideology. For the last four to five hundred years white American settlers have been deprived of sensory input through implicit bias, political lies, white-washed religion and many other hinderances—some valid, some bullshit. We thrived in our capitalistic society, never aware that our humanity was being systematically diminished. Deprived of conscience, we white Americans were scrounging in the dark while the centuries passed. We voted but did not see how our laws were creating a new form of slavery. Today, the video of George Floyd’s murder by the knee of a nonchalant white police officer is collectively snapping us awake. The light of conscience motivates millions to call out the injustice of our countless brothers and sisters have been harmed and killed. Now is the time to transform the oppressive systems that prop up the entitlement we hide behind. It’s time to truly recon with racial injustice. Let’s do this.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.