In light of black history month, I’ve been thinking a lot about our country’s history and how we all play a role in our future moving forward. In the past few years, we have witnessed the shootings of unarmed African American teenagers at the hands of police, the rise of white nationalism, and many concerning comments from our president. In all of these circumstances, it’s easy for us to condemn others, but it’s harder for us to look within ourselves.
While these instances, practices, and comments are troubling, discriminatory, and racist, I find the reaction to them very interesting. When racist things happen, I’m happy to see strong statements reaffirming the dignity of black and brown people along with calls for accountability, justice, and equality. However, on a deeper level, I think most of us, whatever our personal views or opinions are on these issues, are often hypocritical in our assessments and accusations. While the majority of people I know, myself included, would never condone outright bigotry, all of us have said, thought, and likely done things that are mean, hurtful, and even racist, whether consciously or unconsciously, recently or in the past.
Many of us live our daily lives completely unaware of our shadow (the aspects of ourselves that we hide, deny, and pretend don’t exist). I, personally, struggle with my own shadow all the time. There are aspects of myself that I don’t like, I want to conceal, or that I am not even aware of in any conscious way.
However, if we don’t confront our shadow honestly, and do the deep personal work of confronting, forgiving, and accepting ourselves, our shadow will end up running our lives and will keep us in an unconscious, self-righteous, and arrogant daze.
As a straight, white, cisgender, American man with resources, I sit on a perch of privilege. But I have also benefited from the unique experiences of growing up with a single mother without much money, attending an inner-city high school in Oakland, CA with a white population of 18%, and earning a college degree in American Studies with a specialization in race and ethnicity.
Over the years, I’ve gained a greater understanding of myself and of the importance of being kind, loving, and accepting of myself and others. I consider myself to be fair, open, honest, accepting, trusting, and more. I also have always had the ability to get along with all kinds of people and fit in in most situations. And, even with all of this, I’ve had racist thoughts, done and said things that were discriminatory, and held opinions (both conscious and unconscious) that are mean, hurtful, and not anything that I’m proud of.
This dark stuff, our shadow side, is as much a part of who we are as anything else, and it’s important for us to be more honest with ourselves and each other about it. Most of the political, social, and familial discussions, conflicts, and issues that we all face have to do with us not being truthful and owning up to these shadowy aspects of ourselves.
This is not to say that perpetrators of racism and discrimination should be let off the hook, or not held accountable for their words and deeds. It is to say, however, that we all have aspects of light and dark within us. Life is much more complex than it seems on the surface and we waste a lot of time trying to argue for how things should be in some unrealistic, fantasy world. We all have bias and prejudice within us, but the important work is in recognizing this and reckoning with it in an authentic way. By doing this, we can also have more compassion, understanding, and love for ourselves and others – even those we don’t like and agree with.
We are complex beings, filled with paradox, confusion, brilliance, and deep pain, among other things. But we have to be willing to confront our shadow and make peace with ourselves. By confronting this honestly, we can assuage some of our internal and external conflicts, and authentically address some of the biggest challenges we face – personally, relationally, and societally.