Finding Community in Black and Brown Communities:
Many of us who face a sense of ostracism from our family and community of origin end up feeling like aliens. And these days, I wonder how other aliens feel when they see white people baring Black Lives Matter signs.
Early in my life I learned to fight my sense of alienation by playing with kids who were younger, older, or profoundly different than me. In high school, I may have seemed to grow out of this on the outside, but inside the sense of alienation burned. When things went bad at the private school in which I was raised, I survived by moving into the inner city where a commuter college was located.
In communities of color, many neighborhood kids were curious welcoming and open. Sure, there were some adults with whom I had to persist, but once I earned acceptance, I found the sense of community to be less judgement and more righteous. I will never forget the intelligent outreach that individuals from the community did to help me feel included. They were there for me and accepted me, regardless.
The white world streamed in during the day and frequented under-the-table business to which I attached myself. Then, they were gone. One person, during my fifty-hour-a-week summer shifts, told me I was “down with the brown.” Another said they knew a local mechanic who was “flaco,” like me. To hear that I wasn’t alone and that I was okay, it is something for which I have been eternally grateful. Community doesn’t come easy for a young, male anorexic.
Balance through Medication And Professional Social Work:
When it came time to move on from this community and into the professional field of social work, I faced another crisis and started taking medication. When I responded to a Rorschach picture with a detailed Marxian analysis of power in society, they started me on a small dose of an anti-psychotic. Sure, I was binging and purging in fitful rages, but that was no longer what concerned them.
With that medication, I learned to suppress my sense of neighborhood justice and do what my supervisors said for years until I got my Masters Degree. I used that same sense of suppression to engage in the community of graduate students. I tried to make friends with other professionals.
When I graduated, I left it all behind and moved to the west coast to use my skills where no one had to know about my past. I worked only eight hours a day for the first time in my life.
I was doing it. I was building a community for myself.
I transferred into a pilot project at work that involved setting up services in a housing project that was dubbed the hotel of horrors, in the local media. That way I could give back to black and brown communities that supported me.
Things heated up that summer. There ended up being a political battle over management of the housing project. There was human and drug trafficking involved. I went off my antipsychotic medication. I was needing my sense of intuition back to protect me.
I Never Saw White Privilege Until I Lost It:
Years of surviving an extreme state of psychosis can also be an alienating experience. I did not believe aliens were real until I went through it. And I thought I had already been through a lot! But I really didn’t get it through my thick skull how much privilege I held until I came out of psychosis. Being without has a way of helping you see your privilege. In the end, I recognize that I did little but run back to my whiteness.
When I finally got it together to get hired back in social services, I was just returning to consensus reality. Back on medication, I could pretend I wasn’t being gangstalked by the mob. I could behave my way out of the persecution.
Paula a manager at the upscale Italian Deli where I had worked through my psychosis for almost a year, had a few words to say to me.
Paula had always been a professional and had never had an abusive word to say to me. It was true that she once had nearly got me fired via attesting for my nineteen-year-old supervisor that I looked stark raving mad and scary. Still, I kind of respected Paula.
Sure, she saw the young rich kids from Danville (a wealthy town) taunt, tease, and disrespect me. Sure, she acted like it was nothing. But she was a few years older than me and her non abusive, professional air had helped me survive the year of underemployment.
“Yeah I just feel bad for the ones who can’t go back to an opportunity to work a job like this,” she said.
These few words cut at me. It’s right what they say, you have to watch out for the quiet ones.
But Paula was right: if I acted the way I did and had black skin, I wouldn’t have made it at the Deli. I probably would have been killed for leaking information to the press. Years later with the strings of killings unveiled via I Phones, and plenty of abusive stories revealed to me as I conduct therapy in the inner city, it becomes clear to me how lucky I was to survive.
Living without my privilege was harder than I could ever have imagined. Being locked up as a vigilante mental health professional was profoundly traumatic. I had devoted my career to fighting mental health warehousing. I had ignored warnings this might happen to me if I persisted. I didn’t want to be paranoid. Now everyone treated me as though I was paranoid when I wasn’t.
I got confined to some neglected, dilapidated, and frigid wards at Montana State Hospital. Knowing about mental health warehousing the way I did, kept me from trusting the institution. I avoided institutional behavior and I knew what they were saying about me in the team meetings. I was entitled and protested it. I wrote complaints about my psychiatrist and social worker who refused to meet with me. I refused to take medication.
“One time we had a client come in here saying the FBI was after him and the FBI was really after him,” said the doctor when she finally met with me. “He hadn’t really done anything too bad, but the FBI was following him.” I had gone through a fever that felt like it was going to kill me and been unable to get aspirin the whole weekend because she hadn’t written the orders. I hadn’t trusted the old hag. My fellow inmates had all told me the mafia was after me.
Because my parents had called a missing-persons on me and supported the hospitalization, I had concluded that they were an Irish Mafia family and had concealed this from me growing up.
Once discharged, I really struggled to find work. I took a greyhound to California. I did finally get hired at a foster care agency. My family agreed to help only if I turned down the job and took a job at an Italian deli near my aunt in the bay area.
My uncle cosigned on an apartment in affordable Antioch California which was on the outskirts of the bay area. I could get to work with a mere ten-mile bike ride and hour-long BART commute. I had to keep my job and see a therapist and my family sent me monthly money so that I could afford to eat. At nine dollars an hour, I barely made the cost of my rent.
It took six months to get a car, nine months to agree to go back on medication and ten months to get a job back in social services. If that sounds easy, I assure you it wasn’t. I didn’t think things would ever get better for me for that short amount of time. I was learning what it felt like to be a label. It meant no references and no work.
While this did not feel like privilege while I was going through it, Paula was right, white privilege gave me the opportunity. There was no greater fear through any of the life-threatening things I endured, than the fear that I would return to an institutional life. I was disrespected and treated terribly because I looked like a deer trapped in a headlight. At least that was something I could overcome.
Alien View on White Privilege:
Losing privilege really helps one see how oppressive and hateful it is. I am constantly reminded of my loss of privilege every which hoop through which I jump.
For example, I believe the loneliest walk I ever had was the one I had before I got married eight years later.
My wife and I had wanted to elope but we decided to give my parents, especially my Mom, the celebration they wanted.
It was true my wife had done the majority of the planning. I worked longer hours and tended not to be able to slow down enough to take the lead. But I did participate in creating two parties, one for family and one for more public friends.
My mom arrived at the house I had just purchased with eight years of savings for the first time. I had worked for four years without a day off or vacation. I had wanted to show her around but she was in a tizzy and showed no interest. This hurt. We had needed to show the borrower that I had financial support, and my Mom had balked and protested about her role. My wives’ parents paid her back immediately, but somehow it really didn’t seem to be about the money.
When my father arrived, he insisted that I drop everything and plan a separate party for his family. He was clearly angry. I ended up being able to arrange it at a local pizza joint with informal seating. But I suppose I failed to read his mind. Of course, my wife couldn’t come as she had planned to connect with her friends. My oldest friend came out from back east along. He crashed his rental against my neighbors’ car as we rode to the pizza joint.
When the young child of my step sister was led forth with adult approval, she told me off for not bringing my wife. And, so, I wondered what the adults had been saying about me before I arrived. I really wasn’t sure this was true. Maybe I was just being paranoid. If I was right, I have to say it didn’t surprise me. It always seemed if my Dad was angry at me so was the rest of his kin.
I responded by trying to talk to an uncle. I had last talked to him in my days of madness, when I reached out to him. The only thing he said me back then was that my father was right about everything. He interviewed me for a few minutes and declared, “my god you actually seem to be better!”
And then my Dad insisted that I arrange for my mother and he to visit with my wife’s parents before the wedding the next day. So, I couldn’t enjoy the party, I had to call my wife and set that up. But clearly the party wasn’t set up for me.
The next day after meeting with my wife’s parents, everyone left and I was left alone to fume for two hours before the wedding.
I took the walk with my dog who I rescued during my homelessness.
I hadn’t yet experienced smiling at my cousin to thank her for making the wedding and having her give me the dirtiest most disapproving face I couldn’t imagine. I hadn’t yet got yelled at by another uncle because I wore Chuck Taylor shoes with my suit. I hadn’t had my stepfather get drunk and talk about what a wealthy family he comes from; or my father and aunt get into a cat fight and curse each other out in front of the party. I hadn’t yet been interrupted the next morning by my aunt demanding that I allow her to do her skit at the public gathering.
I already felt so utterly alone and invisible to the world. I regretted that I couldn’t bring just bring my dog to the ceremony. She was my sense of community.
I have found that my reputation in the family has just gotten worse as time has worn on, particularly after I wrote my memoir. At one point, even my father acknowledged this. He said I had to be responsible to turn things around.
Sure, during that lonely walk I was replaying the experience of madness over in my head. Sure, that was part of my utter alienation. Sure, it went deep into my childhood when I didn’t seem to measure up to the person I was expected to be. But stigma and discrimination make it feel like nothing you do will ever be seen. It feels like they eternally expect the worst from you.
Privilege Seems to Replicates and Repeat its Hatred:
My efforts to find support in the white community have continued to fall flat outside the community of color from which I take my money. Oh, how I longed and prayed for an organized community of aliens like me. I believed if we schizophrenics could just work together, I could find my true community.
I finally came out as a mental health worker with lived experience at a conference. I told the county consumer manager about my history with psychosis. He said, “it’s too bad you never have experienced psychosis yourself!”
So went my introduction to the community consumer movement. I have heard many people of color say the consumer movement is an overwhelmingly white movement. Indeed, the conferences I have gone to replicate a sense of college that I never had. They make me feel very awkward and out of place.
I tried to gain the managers approval repeatedly. He left my emails unreturned and said to me, “Usually I try to be a good person, but I cannot always be.”
Later, in the work place, I faced discrimination. A group of powerful county employees suggested I was being a bad influence on a client who refused to take medication. They presumed that I am against medication. They suggested that because I was out with my own history, he was not taking his medication. It was irrational, but the whole table was there confronting me. There was nothing I could do. The one person who objected to what was happening, ended up getting written up for doing so. There was no one I could talk to. Shortly thereafter, my career was threatened. I got demoted.
The county consumer manager explained, “It’s just something interpersonal that doesn’t work between us.”
When I persisted, I got invited to join a group of which he was part. It was only then I learned that he and his gang was sharply against medication. I found myself repeatedly marginalized.
Years later after I barely managed to land on my feet, I joined a conversation with the consumer manager a fellow peer counselor at a conference. They admitted they were talking about me. I had just presented and neither had come to see me. “The thing about you, Tim, is that you can keep on going. You don’t need support.”
I realize that the manager is a UC Berkeley graduate and that some of the things I say come from the way I developed in the inner-city. I also realize that I am a psychotherapist and he may see me as part of the establishment. I really don’t otherwise understand why it’s been such a hurtful relationship to me. It’s really not his fault, but I continue to feel alienated.
Sometimes I feel like, for baby boomers like he and my parents, it all boils down to the fact that I went to school at a non-prestigious commuter school. Suddenly, I am automatically undervalued even though I achieved high honors.
I went from being told I could be anything I wanted to at private school to being told that the majority of us wouldn’t graduate. The career counseling office suggested I become a cop, not anything I wanted to be. Sometimes it feels like all I needed to do was have these experiences and I am permanently demoted in the eyes of others.
Indeed, other efforts to get support in the community are fraught with these kinds of barriers. Race, gender, prestige, socioeconomic status and so many other privilege isms are so woven into the fabric of the way we think about things, it leaves some of us to be hopeless aliens.
So often I have been rejected or judged by people I observe to have a sense of privilege.
I often feel like I lost privilege because I am not worthy. It often feels like other people pick up on this and replicate the procedure. I can keep going and persist, but I can hide this loss of privilege.
Oh, how I resent privilege. Each time I am undervalued, it opens up wounds.
It makes me forever wonder how a black person feels.
Being Aware of the Privilege and Racism that Lurks Within:
When I first moved into my neighborhood twelve years ago there was a campaign to save a local park and not build an integrated school. I decided then I wanted nothing to do with the underlying racist nimbyism. A Caucazoid neighbor tried to put a sign up on my property and I took it down. The whole neighborhood seemed to stand united. It seemed that no property didn’t have the sign up.
Now as I walk my dog through the neighborhood, I see a sprinkling of Black Lives Matter signs. There is an occasional sign that says End White Silence. Unfortunately, this does little to change my feelings of alienation. I still am not sure I want to be part of this insular suburban community.
One could argue at least my neighbors are waking up. Also, they are not all white. One could argue, I don’t have the signage up on my property.
I feel happy when I see the signs. However, to be honest I don’t necessarily trust white people who bare them. I question whether they are really doing the work they need to do.
I make the daily commute from my suburban neighborhood to Oakland where I work in the historical backward of the modern hospital. Most of the old widows are still bubbled and old. They were put up that way so onlookers couldn’t see the violence that happened therein. The clear windows are dusted with soot from the constructions of the new building. On the widow above my desk, there is such a spattering of soot you can barely see any California sun stream through.
I am proud of the work I do on this urban ward in which the majority culture is African American. I think a great deal of exposure to cultures of color have helped challenge the racism that lurks within. Every day I work on this. I believe the more aware I am of my privilege and racism, the better job I can do.
The community on this backward is the only community I have known. It’s what got me the money for a house. And now with COVID pandemic, the looming depression and the administrative restructuring, I cannot help but know that its days are numbered. It’s true, I may need to find new community very soon.
It does not change the feelings I have about my neighborhood and the liberal communities I was raised in that denounce racism.
The fact of the matter is I might have found myself to be, “down with the brown,” a few summers during my youth, I may know what it is like to be treated with suspicious looks for two years, and to be financially exploited by poverty, but black people face that kind of threat their whole lives. In fact, I have to watch out that I check my own racism. I vigilantly watch myself all the time.
Just as happens at the end of a long work day when I am feeling vulnerable and tired the thoughts from the generations of privilege that I come from enter my head. They tell me: I am no good; I am not smart enough; I work too slow; I am alienated from others; and I don’t deserve friends because I am weird. The sense of alienation comes back and I am like a different person.
Just as easy as that I can look the wrong way at a black person and trigger them. I have had so many black people nurture and give me a chance, and still I can do this to them.
I am tired of acting like I am not part of the problem. When I see a Black Lives Matter sign I feel happy. But I don’t feel I deserve to put one up on my property. I wonder if white people who bare them are really doing the work they need to do to end racism. It’s easy to hold up a sign and it is oh so much harder to lose privilege.
Protest, Privilege, Hypocrisy, And Waiting for the Great Alien Reckoning:
I can’t understand how anyone who has ever faced institutional abuse could ever feel free to go back into a protest. I remember the gangstalking police searches that destroy property, my employment mail violated, and my endless strings of failed job interviews, and I feel a need to protect myself.
I once told this to my step-mom, a private school teacher at the school I attended and a lifelong protester, that people who were locked up in institutions truly did not have the privilege to protest and how most of us know better.
Of course, she had only gotten mad and told dismissive stories about the good she was doing. However, she has also honored me enough to ask for advice with how to help her granddaughter who experienced psychosis and sexual abuse as a youth.
I once told her: “you know, what is really a shame about a schizophrenia diagnosis is that it denies people like us the opportunity to have a culture and community with each other. That is ultimately what we need, the chance to be there to support each other.
Oh, how my stepmother had fumed. Years later she told me her mother was a schizophrenic and attacked her with a knife.
Every effort I made to be there for her granddaughter never got anywhere.
A person I work with told me that she saw a group of white protesters out in East Oakland and one of her neighbors was yelling at them because there were no black people in the protest. We talked about how we both wanted to be out in the protests but didn’t want to be triggered back into the gangstalking days.
I sure am glad that we support each other. I sure wish she got paid for it the way I do. I think being a good social worker means owning your privilege and ending it!
I am preparing to lose my job and lose my privilege with love in my heart. Do white people baring the signage even understand what that means? Maybe some do.
I know change is around the corner. I am grateful to have been taken care of by black and brown people. That does give me hope. And there are times I successfully give back in spite of my privilege. Humanity sits on the edge of a massive reckoning. With the sense of impending doom, I pray for the sense of balance and community that social work has granted me.
And still I work, fight and pray that there might be a little alien community as well!