By Rene Henery
Editor’s note: This post is the fourth of a series from Rene Henery, PhD, Science Director with TU’s California Program, on the connection between ecological restoration and conservation and healing ourselves of the wounds of systemic racism and other societal and historical injustices. Henery is an eminent ecologist leading TU’s efforts to improve the timing and volume of flows in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems, recover wild salmon and steelhead runs, and build partnerships with agricultural operators and other stakeholders to restore and reconnect key habitats. Henery also is one of the core staff working to advance TU’s practice of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and a lifelong angler.
Thanks to all of you who continue to read, digest, reflect, and reach out. Following are some of your powerful and poignant reflections and inquiries (offered without attribution to maintain the privacy of those who vulnerably shared):
“…Thinking of my own collection of perpetrator and victim identified parts has helped me identify and explore the stuck places in my own relationship. I am starting to observe where gender stereotypes have influenced my needs and desires, and at times, intensified marital discord. Increasingly, I am able to see when my socialized beliefs about men and women have caused unnecessary harm. Admitting this to my partner and making the necessary amends is still a difficult task for me and requires much gentle, compassionate care. Sometimes, admitting “I don’t know how to change” is the first step towards change…”
Please keep sharing and I (and others) will continue to listen and to bring your words forward.
The healing journey: Different paths to a common destination
In previous posts in this series I share some of my personal experience and evolving understanding of colonialism and whiteness, the nature of the relational trauma they inflict through the weapons of othering and value structures external to and in conflict with intrinsic belonging, and how some of the resulting wounds have shown up in me in the forms of both victim and perpetrator identities.
My ongoing process of understanding my different parts and their different wounds has also revealed some of their (my) different healing needs, opportunities, and challenges on the pathway to belonging (just as a broken leg requires different forms of healing and tending than a systemic infection, or a broken heart).
Healing the Victim
For my victim identified parts, the primary healing need is in their relationship with the external world.
I say “primary” because they have internal healing needs as well: to love and honor themselves; to cultivate agency in a context, country and culture whose systems of power were organized, explicitly in some cases, around their oppression; to not internalize that oppression; to know that they can be loved amidst an increasingly visual world whose popular images and graphic narratives depicting desire, love and connection seldom reflect them or their experiences.
However, I have lived with those parts of myself for a long time, and while there will continue to be work there to do, I have done a great deal of healing work with them. Thanks to that work, I recognize those parts in me. I know that they matter and that they have value.
I have felt the power of the wounds my victim identified parts possess to constrict their expression (my expression) in this life and the risk of not tending to those wounds. I have seen and felt the danger to my ability to be whole, to be expressed, and to survive of me not loving and tending to those parts or myself, and the necessity for their healing. I have accepted the responsibility of healing their wounds and have incentive to do so.
I have also been privileged to have love and support in my family and community that has helped me to see and value myself in moments and ways that I couldn’t on my own. My work around self-love is an ongoing practice, but I feel the effects of that practice over time and that love deepening and expanding.
The external work for my victim identified parts, by contrast, is still nascent in me, slowly developing. While those parts of me have done work to cultivate love and acceptance for themselves, to discover a sense of self-worth independent of many eternal value structures, and to access their intrinsic belonging, it is difficult for them to trust.
My victim parts were trained by a world especially perilous for them to be hypervigilant, to track social dynamics and language cues, to read the awareness of others, and to predict, control, and repress the external expression of themselves in order to feel safe and survive.
Those parts of me have an acute ear for lack of exposure in other people (ignorance is deafening to them) relative to their identities and experiences. They are wary of and sensitized to the fingerprints of privilege and the blind-spots of which those fingerprints are often indicative. For my victim identified parts, blind-spots spell danger and suggest the potential that those parts won’t be seen or safe. When they encounter privilege and blind-spots those parts become defensive, wary, and reticent to trust.
After carrying that wariness for a long-time, those parts have also become fatigued by it and resentful. White guilt and fragility in others, for example, has become triggering to them independent of the person exhibiting it. This resentment arises despite other parts of me that simultaneously feel some of the wounded places from which that fragility can arise and have compassion for it.
My victim parts perceive white fragility as indicative of a person’s being complicit in systemic oppression, by virtue of their leaning into their privilege in order to avoid the difficult work of healing and of growth.
Fragility in this way becomes a symbol, the mark of someone who, as a function of privilege, has not learned to be with, see and learn from others, from difference; someone who has not done the work to collect and leverage different mirrors in order to look at their blind-spots because they don’t have to do so.
This experience of privilege and its effects is analogous to being on a road where many are driving tiny cars or riding bikes and a few people are driving huge trucks. Some of the trucks don’t even have any sidemirrors. The truck drivers never think to look in their blind-spots anyway because everyone has to get out of their way when they change lanes, in order to not be run off the road or perish in a crash. Their experience of life is that the path is clear for them without their needing to be aware of the presence and needs of others.
Some that do have side mirrors just choose not to look in them and have become accustomed to others adjusting to accommodate their movements and the disproportionate space they take up. It’s hard for me not to feel anger and resentment towards those truck drivers, even the ones who don’t realize there are others on the road driving differently for their sake.
My victim identified parts feel the ways that white guilt, shame and fragility act as barriers to connection when they lean into trust, reach out, and vulnerably share their experiences with white identified people: instead of being witnessed by the white-identified person and cultivating connection and belonging, difference gets internalized in the person, triggers their shame and guilt and creates more disconnection. Navigating this dynamic can be both alienating and exhausting.
And yet, the difficult but critical work for my victim parts, I am discovering, is to lean into trust: to show themselves to those they suspect can’t fully see them, to share their experiences, to state their needs, to reflect, to be in and build relationships across difference, to share tools and pathways to awareness of self-worth and recovery of belonging, to model the use of those tools and pathways as a life practice as opposed to a means to some end, and in this way to decolonize (beginning with themselves).
Equally integral (and often difficult) in those steps towards healing is for those parts (for me) to do all of that in a way that is coupled with extensive self- care and healthy boundaries, recognizing the difference between a connection that is cultivated out of love for another and a sense of belonging and one that is cultivated out of fear of additional oppression and trauma; exploring in the process the edge between my stretch zone and my panic zone, between heavy lifting and re-injury.
Note: The resource list below is not intended to be comprehensive but rather, a partial introduction (in no particular order) to some of the concepts, work, and heart-centered beings that have been in my consciousness through my process of writing this.
- Lyla June Johnston Interview – Interview with indigenous poet, musician, educator, anthropologist, and activist Lyla June Johnston on the relationship between tending humanity, tending nature, and indigenous food systems.
To read the rest of Henery’s series, Recovering Belonging, click here.