By Batsirai Bvunzawabaya
As someone with a Shona name living in the United States, I often feel fairly visible. Whether it is at work or ordering a pizza, I am usually having to explain how to pronounce my name and at times its origins. These moments are not always filled with awkwardness, there are moments of humor (e.g., whether to disappoint a “Betsy” who seems delighted that we share the same uncommon name); or great pride at sharing the significance it holds for me. I believe that part of what makes these experiences meaningful for me are when people demonstrate a genuine interest and curiosity; for that moment I feel connected to someone in a deeper way. I feel seen. That is what can feel powerful in therapy, the ability to connect with someone around a hidden part of themselves and (hopefully) they feel acknowledged and accepted. However, I started to feel fearful about being visible in a different way during the presidential campaign and after the result was clear. When I sat with the ways my privilege allowed me some safety, feelings of guilt and eventually shame surfaced; when confronted with my marginalized identities, I was afraid and helpless.
Part of what felt unsettling about the presidential campaign was what seemed like a narrow understanding of certain groups. Mexicans were rapists and “bad hombres”, Blacks were criminals, Muslims were terrorists, immigrants were takers, some voters were “a basket of deplorables”, people with disabilities were mocked and some Americans were going to be winners. The prosperity of some individuals was reliant on devaluing other people. What I found most unsettling is what seemed like indifference to the use of these labels. I feel hopeful that most would find this objectifying and lacking of any depth. I tend to value cohesion, curiosity and dialogue; this did not seem present during the elections.
D. W. Winnicott, wrote about the “joy to be hidden”, where we can find solace in having parts of who we are remain private; but the “disaster not to be found” regarding the pain of having our being remain unseen and unsearched for. What appeared to be absent was the search for minority-identified groups’ need for dignity and safety, recognition of their pain and fear; and their desire to prosper as well, not at the expense or oppression of others. I find myself wondering about how fears regarding the idea of building a wall, anxieties about the Affordable Care Act being repealed (resulting in loss of coverage), or uncertainty about whether communities of faith will continue to be targeted may be affecting some among us. The recent protests could provide evidence of those who are yearning to be found but continue to feel disregarded. I continue to hear echoes of these concerns in my therapy.
Empathy is vital in fully finding another. In my moments of hurt, I struggled to access my own understanding of others’ points of view regarding the elections in ways that have been surprising to me. It was challenging to understand perspectives that seemed to invalidate and oppress others. In thinking about my role as a therapist, the capacity “to enter imaginatively into the subjective, inner world of another human being” (Ornstein, 2011, p. 439) has felt wrought with guilt and frustration when I have felt unable to connect with another’s experience, and enriching when it has been woven into the fabric of my work. After the election results, I was unable to engage in this way with friends and family I care deeply about. It seemed too difficult to explain why some of the ideas around immigration, policing, LGBT and women’s rights, healthcare that were being discussed could adversely impact marginalized groups. This process of joining with someone empathically is important in my work as a therapist, and in trying to understand my societal privilege. Therefore, staying in an unempathic space is not an option for me.
I have made an effort to continue working on being curious in order to find another’s experience. It remains important for me, and perhaps all of us to explore how our marginalized identities (and challenges related to those identities) shield us from finding another’s pain. Furthermore, it is imperative to explore how our privilege justifies and allows us to remain blind to the oppression of others. This feels hard. But I am cautiously optimistic that it is possible. At the risk of sounding naïve, my wish is for us to find what is hidden in the stories we hear and most importantly, in the stories we tell about others.