Racism as Designed Disorder
He called for Mama.
His own mother, Larcenia Floyd, had died two years before and was unable to come to him. Even if she were still alive, she would not have been able to save her son.
No mamas were able to stop his murder. Not the mamas who stood nearby, screaming at Derek Chauvin to take his knee off George Floyd’s neck. Not the countless mamas who have had to teach their black sons a litany of behaviors that would hopefully save their lives in the presence of officials who have sworn to protect our citizens. Not the mamas who have battled racism for generations in every way imaginable.
And not the mamas like me, who have only recently become aware of the systematic, systemic racism prevalent at every level of our culture. Not the mamas like me, who have spent their lifetimes denying their own racism, convinced that their inherent goodness or political affiliation or education -- or even their diligent work against racism -- have made them immune to being racist.
All the mamas in all the world were not able to save George Floyd or the multitude of other black men killed by a system designed to annihilate them, physically if possible but certainly psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually.
I know so little, and I am convinced of even less. But one thing I do know is that the truest nature of mamas is to protect the vulnerable -- not only their own vulnerable kin but all vulnerable beings. And when we forget or deny or fail to live into that true nature, something has become diseased, disordered.
I am not only speaking of or to people in female bodies who have raised children in the role of parent. Rather, by mama I refer to every single person who has experienced, carried, or acted upon the energetic archetype of Mama available to each of us. I was mama long before I gave birth, I have acted in the role of mama to many people other than my children, and I have been blessed by myriad mamas other than my own.
The other day, I witnessed a fierce display of mama energy in two ducks at a pond near my home. Initially, I noticed just one adult female guiding a group of fluffy new ducklings. She pushed each one into the water, and all but one paddled away from her. Swimming slowly behind them, trailed by the smallest and fluffiest of the group, she continually moved her head back and forth as if constantly counting them.
Soon, my attention was drawn to movement on the shoreline. A large hawk was beginning to rouse itself, slowly spreading its wings and then tucking them in again. “Honey,” I said to my husband, “Is that a hawk?” I was much later than the mama duck to become aware of the predator’s presence. As soon as I spoke, I noticed that not one but two mama ducks were quietly swimming back toward the shore where the hawk stood waiting and watching. The ducklings all continued to swim into a small alcove -- except for that tiny one, who trailed behind both mamas. The mamas’ movement seemed unhurried but purposeful, and when they neared the hawk they both rose to hover above the water’s surface, spread their wings, and squawk directly at the invader. As the hawk flew away, they swiftly and vociferously chased it off before returning to swim with all the ducklings once again.
I have no idea which ducklings “belonged” to which mama. They were both doing what is natural for female ducks to do -- to protect the young, the vulnerable.
We humans have that same nature.
Years ago, I worked closely with a family experiencing physical violence. The father, raised with an extreme pattern of corporal discipline, as were generations in his line before him, and afflicted by the PTSD prevalent in so many of his fellow veterans, frequently hit, spanked, and even attempted to choke his children.
This work was painful for me. It required that I attempt to comprehend behavior I found reprehensible in an effort to create some sort of bridge between myself and this person. The pathway toward understanding lay in my ability to see this father’s behavior as the product of a diseased family and cultural system, one that taught him to use physical violence in the raising of his children.
Even more challenging than accepting his behavior, though, was finding a way to grasp the mother’s role in this family structure. Not only did she fail to keep her children safe, she sometimes even catalyzed the physical abuse by drawing her husband’s attention to ways the children had transgressed against household rules, knowing that this would likely result in physical abuse.
I struggled mightily with her choices. How could she endanger her children in that way?
Giving birth to my first child led to outrage at this mother’s behavior. As I held my newborn and thought of her precious babies, I inwardly screamed at her for endangering those whose lives had been entrusted to her.
Over time, though, as I continued to hold my newborn and feel the fiercely protective surges of mothering energy course through my body, I began to see that her choices were not choices at all. Indeed, she was actually going against her motherly nature (again, I do not ascribe this nature only to people in female bodies or to those of us who have raised children in the role of parents. We all have access to it). She was going against nature entirely.
Like the two mama ducks, we each are born with the capacity to protect the most vulnerable amongst us, and most of us experience a drive to do so -- whether or not the vulnerable belong to us or look like us or earn our protection.
And when something thwarts that, there is evidence of disease, of disorder. It is imperative that we identify the source of this disorder, not to excuse the resultant behavior but to correct it. I do not justify the mother’s behavior by noticing the seeds that created it; rather, correctly identifying the disorder allows us to transform it.
What, then, of all the white mamas who have not protected black children, myself included? Have we turned around and looked the other way when the most vulnerable amongst us were being violated? Have we voted for politicians who put laws into place that systematically abused the vulnerable? Have we, through ignorance or neglect, fed into the systemic racism rampant throughout our country? Have we avoided excavating our own beliefs in fear of uncovering the racism we will find there? Have we enjoyed lifetimes of privilege without acknowledging that that all comes at the expense of others’ safety and security?
I can only speak for myself. And I know now that I have not protected the most vulnerable. I have not acted in/as/through my role of mama. Like the mother in the family I supported, my mama nature has been disordered, diseased. And this disorder is the result not of happenstance or of a natural human inclination to fear those who are different from us or to want more than we have at the expense of others having what they need (as so many claim racism to be). Rather, the origin of this disease can be found in conscious choices to create the very construct of whiteness itself (The Podcast Seeing White has been invaluable in my understanding of this; you can listen here); it both stems from and is intensified through trauma stored in all bodies of all colors (Resmaa Menakem’s work is literally changing my world right now; you can learn more about that here).
Centuries of concerted efforts have created in us and in our institutions the racism that resulted in George Floyd’s murder.
I have gone against my mama nature in not protecting him and countless others.