On a recent Sunday morning, in the midst of grappling with how to incorporate the topics of racism and inequity into a course about infant mental health I’m teaching for The Hello It’s Me Project in my rural community in Western Massachusetts, I called my father. At 96, despite failing hearing and eyesight and stroke that left his leg and arm weakened, he is in remarkably good health. Certainly his mind is as sharp as ever. “I know this may seem like an out-of-the blue question,” I said, ” but did you ever have to wear a yellow star”? My father is inclined to refer to his escape from Germany in 1939 at the age of 16 as an “adventure” and is loath to describe his experience in the Holocaust as “trauma.” With his preferred silence on the subject, it is not surprising that I never asked him. But suddenly I felt an urgent need to know. Unfazed, he readily volunteered that shortly before he sailed to America from a port in Trieste he knew that this law was coming. His parents, who he left behind, did have to wear the yellow star. Soon after they were imprisoned at Theresienstadt.
I do know one story in some detail, thanks to my father’s rare moment of openness when in 2012 my then 14-year-old son asked him to speak to his class following a visit to the Holocaust museum. Towards the end of the war, when he had become a US citizen after being taken in by an American family in Minneapolis and enlisting in the Army, he was coincidentally stationed near his hometown of Hildesheim. He was able to locate his parents and bring them to safety. After this extraordinary moment of openness at my son’s school, he rarely spoke about his experience again.
In our recent conversation, after revealing this small new piece of his past, in typical fashion he quickly returned to the present. He wanted to talk about Pete Buttigieg, whose new book Trust he is now reading (at my recommendation.) In my father’s typically dramatic fashion, he declared that Buttigieg will “save our country.” My father has always maintained that we should “live life forward,” insisting we not dwell on the past. But reading Buttigieg’s book has given him a new perspective. He now believes we need to acknowledge the past in order to be released from it and move forward and grow. As an example, he said that with Angela Merkel as Chancellor, Germany has been able to grow to a position of world leadership because they have not “fled from their past.” In contrast America has never addressed the crime not only of slavery, but also centuries of ongoing violent oppression.
In the introduction to his book, Buttigieg writes, “To love a country, as to love a person, is to love a flawed and exquisite creation, to see what is best in it, to be angry when it is not what it could be, precisely because you have seen glimmers of its greatness.”
The day before this conversation with my father, in my role as faculty member of the University of Massachusetts Boston Infant-Parent Mental Health program, I had the privilege of being a discussant for a presentation by world-renowned neuroscientist and psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy. He taught us about the concept of “epistemic trust” by which knowledge is passed from one generation to the next. This trust develops when we learn, in our earliest relationships with people who care for us, to reflect with understanding on the experience of others. Trust enables us to form deeper attachments in our larger social world. He described social connection as essential to our evolutionary success. In contrast, in an environment of mistrust in which we do not feel heard and understood, we lack the capacity for social connection. We feel that we do not belong, and may find ourselves in Dr. Fonagy’s words “behind a wall built with bricks of shame.” In our world today, many walls of shame divide us.
Dr. Fonagy’s talk brought to mind the 10th anniversary celebration of the UMass Boston program last September, when one of the faculty shared a quote from South African cleric Desmond Tutu. In his role as chairman of Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, he played a significant role in a working to unite and rebuild the nation in the aftermath of Apartheid. He is describing the concept of “ubuntu:
”It is to say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ A person with ubuntu is open and available to others,…for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole…”
I returned from this weekend of listening to both my father and Dr. Fonagy fortified to facilitate the discussion in my local community. With the necessity and limitations of online teaching brought on by the pandemic, the course is designed to run over two intensive days followed by weekly hourlong meetings over 6 weeks. At the opening session I had introduced the concept of belonging as central to our healthy development. But it turned out that I had not devoted significant time to address racism in our diverse group of 30. I recognized my mistake when a White member of the group exposed it during a brief discussion with the whole group that followed a breakout session devoted to the topic of listening and culture. With the majority of participants being White, only a few the small groups included Black or Brown participants. She called out my failure to explicitly name this issue. Because of the structure I had imposed on the course, I needed to go on to give the scheduled afternoon lecture. I found it difficult to think clearly. I fumbled with technology issues. I struggled to remain fully present despite my familiarity with and passion for the subject.
Ironically the topic of the afternoon of the first day of the course, which followed this messy and difficult moment, covered another core principle of healthy development. Decades of research with infants and parents reveal that we grow and change when we move through rather than avoid moments of discord, as long as we find a way to repair. I saw an opportunity to have this experience in real time. At the end of the day I decided to reorganize the course and devote the next session to a group discussion of the subject of racism and belonging.
During the expanse of time for reflection over the weekend, I understood my response to the exposure of my error to the group, when my brain partially shut down, as originating in unconscious guilt and shame, rooted in the privilege of my ignorance. Confirming my hypothesis, following this insight my anticipatory anxiety about the Monday session melted away.
The hour felt rich and meaningful. Together we shared some genuine moments of meeting. In the preceding 7 hours on Zoom we had apparently created enough of a sense of safety that people felt comfortable to reveal deeply personal stories. One Black group member generously shared her experience birthing her babies into a racist world. A recent immigrant shared a story of ugly prejudice against her Brown American-born 4-year-old son. Two White members shared their stories of growing up in a culture of extreme poverty with rampant opioid abuse and now working in a culture of wealth and privilege. A powerful moment came at the end when two White members of the group asked how they can help to overcome racism. The answer, given with abundant clarity was; “educate yourself.” One White member of the group summed up the whole session with her comment in the Chat:
“We absolutely do need to learn about ones history, culture and their beliefs as a way to begin to gain trust and build a relationship with anyone no matter where they are from…every single one of us have different beliefs”
I will never know the experience of a Black person living in a world where people in power condone your murder simply because of the color of your skin. My family wearing a yellow star is the closest I can come to some kind of understanding. But unlike the Holocaust, which was a defined moment in history and is generally well-recognized, today many White people remain largely oblivious to the longstanding brutally violent systemic and structural racism perpetrated on Black Americans.
Following the murder of George Floyd, when social media forced White America to look directly at what Black America has lived with for centuries, I began my belated journey to understanding the Black experience by reading The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Then followed the magnificent novel The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. A vast literature awaits my ongoing education. Equally important however, is engaging in messy moments where we don’t quite know what’s going on. I’m sure others in my course had different experience from mine. We made more mistakes. But I do feel confident that by navigating this messy moment together, we created a stronger sense of belonging within our group. In doing so we made one small step of progress in development of our essential humanness.