by Fannie LeFlore

Why I Shun “Power Over” Approaches and Promote “Power With” Others

Reprinted from Medium, April, 2019

Black women have long been considered “mules of the world,” as described in a novel by Zora Neale Hurston, in summing up the plight and stereotype of the “strong black woman.” In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s imagery of the mule emerges in different contexts, remaining consistent in figurative meaning as a symbol of victimization and bondage for black women, akin to being considered the lowest creature, to be used by others. No doubt, black women past and present have been put upon to take care of and manage responsibilities for diverse others throughout American history. Being considered not in need of anything just for herself, the black woman made taxing physical, psychological, spiritual and socioeconomic sacrifices in service to those presumed more important due to a racist and sexist status quo. Carrying burdens, pain, fears, insecurities, projections and fantasies of white men and women, black men and entire communities, always took a toll despite the admirable ways black women across generations rose to meet often unreasonable demands.

I am tail-end Baby Boomer who came of age on the heels of the Civil Rights movement and grew up during the era of “Black is Beautiful.” But even the exposure to positive black images in the 1970s during my teen years in Chicago, did not allow me to escape the early programming of unrealistic expectations placed on me and other black women. Somehow we got socialized to strive and take pride in the notion that “black-don’t-crack.” Our individuality was collectively replaced by perceived personas based on stereotypes. They ranged from responsible Sapphire/Aunt Jemima to the sexualized Jezebel, from “Angry Black Woman” to the humble, loving and church-going Matriarch, “Big Mama ” types. My own transition from childhood to adulthood was mired in contradictions, with insecurities below the surface despite my ability to appear confident. I developed legitimate competencies as a result of academic achievements, working for a paycheck since age 11 to assist my impoverished family and gaining support from some teachers and mentors who exposed me to enriching travel and related experiences and devoted time to nurturing my innate potential.

The hard lessons from being forced to take on adult responsibilities at a very young age, resulted in often not experiencing childhood in real time. Taking on a servant-savior role came naturally in the environments I grew up in where my innate empathy made me responsive to the neediness I noticed, and a desire to reduce the pain I witnessed around me. Becoming a helper came with occasional appreciation from others, which served as salve for self-esteem but that was not enough to prevent me from losing touch with my true, multidimensional self. That pattern continued into my mid-30s until bouts with depression or anxiety due to grief from losses past and present, overlapped with a series of confusing conflicts and failed relationships (familial, friendship and romantic). Having few places to turn for consistent relief led me inward, in recognizing a need to slow down from doing too much, and genuinely take stock of whether I was living or simply existing.

One cannot truly live if her life revolves around pleasing others while seeming to have it all together. The tensions and breakdown forced me to ask what other options beyond serving and sacrifice existed for being in the world as a black woman. This led to becoming immersed in an intensive path of therapeutic and personal growth. These processes resulted in coaxing out that neglected, inner child within me, who had been abused and abandoned, in order to re-parent myself. The journey required paving a new path to overcome painful habits related to co-dependency. Blame and shame that had been imposed on me along the way in dealings with diverse others, demanded I figure out what truly is and is not my responsibility, based on what is and is not within my control. Agency, autonomy and authenticity were nebulously calling my name, but I had few role models in most areas for human reference points to observe what these looked and felt like in combination.

 

Learning to trust myself allowed movement toward healthier co-existence with others. Through this interdependence, I am able to give and receive. I insist or reciprocal relationships or walk away. I value life-affirming human connections after having been previously drained by people too dependent on me. My full-time professional life — first as a journalist and later a psychotherapist (each officially spanning ten years) — forced me to learn how other people navigated the world. Paying attention helped me understand I was far from being the craziest person around. Ongoing personal growth through reading a range of subjects on philosophy, history, mental health, spirituality and participating in programs facilitated by diverse teachers, helped me ease many burdens I once found too great to bear. Developing boundaries led to not taking many things personally. Detaching from the “mule of the world” archetype, removed a weight long carried on tired shoulders.

As a sense of freedom emerged (learning I would not die from disapproval and that I have legitimate needs, without apology), ongoing events allowed me to apply much of what I learned. Accumulated personal and professional experiences helped me appreciate and hone gifts I had not previously and fully noticed in myself. As external refining and internal redefining took shape — first tentatively and slowly, then with focused intensity over time — I retired that “Strong Black Woman” cape imposed on me. My primary skills from prior careers shape my contributions in roles as an activist leader and social entrepreneur. My commitment to ongoing learning continues to bring clarity about the change I want to see in the world by taking responsibility for my part. I am called to support the same kind of empowerment for others. I consciously seek ways to keep ego in check by emphasizing the importance of co-ownership and co-liberation in promoting social justice. Collaborations with shared leadership and mutual responsibility are my preferred approaches. I shun “power over” and prefer “power with” in dealings with others, and take pride in my ability to model what that feels and looks like.

 

In the article, The Age of the Guru is Over, Steve Nobel writes: “There was a time when having a teacher play such a role (as guru) was useful. There have certainly been many enlightened beings who teach, guide and inspire humanity to greater heights…(but) the old ways of doing things do not work so well…We no longer need to give our power away to external teachers. We can be inspired, encouraged and even directed for a time but this is not about devotion, which was the way things were (previously) done. We come together for empowerment. In groups, in webinars and summits. We gather knowledge and wisdom from many places and try them out in our life. If they work great, if not they are filed away in the ‘may be useful one day file’.

We can embrace spiritual teachers and mentors. And we can have many in a lifetime. Each teacher may offer a different aspect of awakening. We do not bow down to a mentor or coach, we do not kiss their feet…A spiritual teacher or mentor can assist us for a while in gaining clarity over our thinking or feelings around certain issues…around ego. A TRUE teacher or mentor does not seek to stand between our connection to our own power and sense of direction. A true teacher or mentor seeks to encourage connection to your own inner guidance. A true teacher empowers others to find their true path and direction in life. A true teacher never imposes anything. Not a belief system or practice. A true teacher or mentor seeks to encourage your sense of mastery.”

Fannie LeFlore

Why White America Needs to Grow Up — and Stop Acting as if They Should be the Center of the Universe

Reprinted from Medium, June, 2018

Politicians are not the only people prone to manipulation tactics that can result in creating more confusion when clear communication is crucial. People need to know where they and others stand, since people of color wounded by systemic racism have little energy to engage in ongoing guessing about those claiming roles as an ally of social justice, and supporter in the co-liberation of humanity. A common issue arises when white people center themselves, however. When confronted with historical information about inequality and ongoing disparities that they would rather avoid, many attempt to gaslight black and brown people. Many respond in ways that minimize or downplay harsh realities despite knowing that most white people directly or indirectly play a role in maintaining systemic racism even if they are not conscious of doing so.

Denial attempts to negate the widespread harm as many whites who consider themselves decent, come to realize they benefit from unearned privileges related to whiteness. They expect some kind of validation that they are not the same as extremists (such as white nationalists, the KKK, Nazi sympathizers, etc), as if wanting to feel beyond reproach. In insisting on being regarded as individuals who just happen to be white, they discount the collective experiences of diverse people across generations who’ve been subjected to socioeconomic barriers with outcomes imposed based on demographic group and political dynamics. That’s why when the average white person says he or she feels “attacked” or “alienated” because black and brown people use direct and sometimes harsh words in describing the impact of racism, which can sting and leave some whites with a wounded ego, my response is: Grow up. Really.

White people, despite historical patterns of indoctrination that resulted in diverse people being socialized to accept racist premises as “normal,” you are not the center of everyone’s universe. Some things simply are not your business to dictate or decide. Some things are not about you, so stop taking everything personally, if something said about the impact of racism does not apply to you. Accusations of rudeness are only applicable if you are personally “called out” based on extreme and unfair individual character attacks. But otherwise, how black and brown people talk about their experiences with racism, is not for you to determine.

America is in the midst of a white backlash epitomized by the rise of Donald Trump, who is one of the least qualified, most incompetent and most brazen offenders of basic civility seen among presidential leaders in modern history. Even before him, Congressional Republicans made it clear they wanted to see the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, fail, regardless of how their actions created stagnation and political dysfunction for the nation. Given these and other indicators of racialized politics returning to the mainstream, anyone seeking to tone police people of color with legitimate concerns, would be better off checking themselves. If you threaten to stop being an “ally” in promoting equality and social justice because your feelings got hurt, you should examine your own integrity under the circumstances.

I agree with KC Raso (yes, she is a white woman and activist), who wrote: “White people need to stop expecting to be catered to and have our willingness to stand up for justice spoonfed in palatable bites. White demands for a high degree of comfort in all matters, while people of color continue to face targeting (now again escalated under this regime) is how we still are where we are today. White liberals have been asleep at the wheel and need to be shocked awake sometimes…Fence sitting isn’t going to get us out of this mess.”

Contrary to popular assumptions, America is not a post-racial society. Stop trying to tone monitor how people express their outrage and frustrations. Stop thinking you already know everything about how racism operates (it is likely the average person of color has awareness about nuanced aspects of racism due to lived experience). Listen and learn why people are increasingly fed up, instead of seeking reasons to judge or discount everyone. You know darn well that if white people are so “fragile” when it comes to being confronted with discussions around race, many would fall apart under ongoing stressors that create unnecessary suffering. Having one’s life severely impacted by systemic racism is far more than an inconvenience.

Enough with the denial or beliefs that systemic racism is not pervasive. America really is in the midst of another “white backlash” where people in power are trying to turn back the clock on progress. Simply ask yourself whether, if you were on the receiving end of major discrimination based on skin color that places ongoing barriers on your path, to harm options for a quality life, you might become homicidal or suicidal. Hearing harsh words about racism is a piece of cake compared to living with routine racism in daily life.

When people feel like they are at risk of suffocating in a house fire or drowning in the ocean, we would not expect language from them that fails to convey the urgency of the situation. Unless you are willing to throw a lifeline, there is no reason to offer a view about how people should cope with threats to their survival. And skip the need to have anyone regard you like a “savior,” since historical racism reflects a sordid reality of more people going along to get along, than those demonstrating courage due to realizing there is mutual benefit for diverse people from doing what is moral and ethical to promote the common good.

No one willingly signed up to endure ongoing stressors from crazy-making people whose racism is both direct and indirect, in attempts to enforce a stale status quo rooted in the false ideology of white supremacy. There is nothing about racism that qualifies as life-affirming — because there is nothing but insanity imposed on people when forced to navigate systems that cause inevitable harm, chaos and disorder. To truly claim they are recovering racists, whites have to do deep soul searching and consistently demonstrate consciousness of their own thinking and behaviors to avoid default habits, since whiteness makes it easy to blend in enough to participate in systems of oppression designed to disadvantage people of color. Those attempting to gaslight others need to address their own discomfort in facing difficult racial realities, in order to align with people seeking legitimate solutions and trying to find life-affirming ways out of the current chaos.

We Cannot Afford Apathy that Makes us Silent Partners in Systems of Oppression

Reprinted from Medium, September 28, 2018

We have reasons to be grateful the internet exists with diverse sources for news and perspectives. Otherwise, more people from different backgrounds would likely become homicidal or suicidal due to being violated, exploited and manipulated by abusers. Given the messages America sends to the world to suggest that only privileged white males matter, ideologies of white supremacy and patriarchy have normalized a lack of accountability among those in power, to the detriment of our nation. The costs of being silent partners in this system of oppression — as we continually observe some people getting away with mayhem and murder in various manifestations — are increasingly high. As Brenda Blackwelder wrote: “The partisan divide is deep and wide. The gender divide is deep and wide. The moral divide is deep and wide.” As India Elaine Holland-Garnett wrote: “All oppression is connected. Now, we should see more clearly that racism and sexism are conjoined twins. Now, are we totally awake?”

If it was not clear before, it should be now: Those who abuse positions of power should not receive unwarranted credibility. They will never demonstrate enough empathy to compromise for mutual benefit. They have no interest in supporting the best interests of others. They feel entitled to say and do whatever they want, regardless of the extensive impact. It serves their selfish interests to cling to power and control by extreme measures. Their perspectives making them center of the universe attempt to render the rest of humanity invisible and illegitimate. Those who have been silent partners in oppressive systems need to help break the vicious cycles of corruption, lies and pretensions promoted to keep a relatively small segment of people in control of everyone else. It’s the only way diverse human beings (including decent white men) will be able to thrive enough, rather than feel as if life amounts to a prison sentence of literal hell on earth.

Those seeking to maintain a human hierarchy to define the presumed worth of people based on race and gender, do not deserve admiration. They peddle nonsense and do not merit emulation. Their lack of ethical foundations in major leadership roles create misery, socioeconomic instability and environmental erosion. Their greed and lack of integrity are beyond harmful and shameful. Their approaches are condescending and offensive to sane, humane, caring and thinking people who prefer life-affirming options for co-existence. These words from Margo L Kellar hone in on the core issues now unfolding: “When lying has become an unconscious, habituated way of life, so ingrained as normal, sooner or later this facade of dishonest soul sickness will end in either a harsh crash to the bottom of what feels like hell on earth, a really long prison sentence or an early grave all due to the inability to grasp and tell the truth, to oneself primarily but also to those on the perimeter. Denial, self loathing, self righteous indignation, violent anger, self pitying justification and rationalization of ones actions are par for the course.”

In response to witnessing Donald Trump at recent press conferences, many people on social media have shared how seriously drained they become from exposure to the routine lying and lack of logic Trump is known for. He specializes in gaslighting, which prompted one woman to refer to him as “the nation’s narcissist-in-chief.” Public hearings involving Brett Kavanaugh’s dealings with several women whose sexual assault allegations might derail his nomination for the Supreme Court, have been triggering for many people whose own traumatic life experiences echo the dismissal and hostility encountered by victims of various kinds of abuse. As Kellar wrote: “The patriarchy is being uprooted, we are seeing behind the deceitful veil a groomed golden boy of the Koch bros, now turned poster child of rape culture. Privilege comes full circle as the dark side is force-fed humble pie.”

We need to interpret events surrounding those in elected leadership and other authoritative roles based on their patterns of behaviors. Viewing their decisions as isolated incidents, prevents us from seeing the big picture enough to connect dots. We need to be discerning in order to reject oppressive people and conditions. We can create new messages for the empowerment of diverse humanity by dislodging rather than reinforcing the propaganda of supremacy ideology that requires unquestioning compliance. Words matter to shape beliefs. Perceptions can help change the narratives we accept and take for granted about the place of people and who is deemed most competent and capable of leadership.

Anything or anyone that fails to take into account the real needs of all citizens, should be viewed as suspect. The world will begin to feel less chaotic as we reflect more deeply and integrate important truths to help dismantle hierarchy. Our own internal and external liberation will continually emerge by taking responsibility for our own role to not remain silent partners in oppressive systems. It will be up to us individually and collectively to help create a new culture with systems of accountability applied to all, regardless of race, gender or economic class. It will open new possibilities for preventing pathological and predatory people from abusing and using us in ways that deplete life energy by promoting hate and fear to keep people of goodwill angry and sad, divided and conquered.

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Copyright 2020 Cynthia Alease Smith, Ed.D.