On Confession, Denial, and White Privilege

Posted on June 4, 2020

Image by Betty Martin
I’m white. I’m Jewish. I’m an abuse survivor. And I’m a former mental health counselor and current soul guides coach with a specialty in adult survivors of trauma. This collection of experiences and perspectives comes together and leads me to invite my fellow white people to be with me here in the pain and grief and rage and powerlessness in this week following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
I invite you, fellow white people, to be here with me and to consider another perspective.
We Jews don’t do individual confession the way Catholics (and perhaps other Christians) do. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we recite—five times—the Viddui, a prayer for the confession of sins. And what makes this different and unique is that we recite it communally. We all confess to the same failures, whether we know we are guilty of them or not. We do this for a few reasons:

  1. As a communal people, a tribe, what one of us does, it affects our entire community;
  2. We are creating a sacred space for those who know they need to confess, but don’t want to admit it;
  3. We are acknowledging that even if we don’t think we’ve failed in this particular way, we know we could have unknowingly, and that we have the capacity to do so.
In the Viddui, we confess to failures such as being self-destructive, betraying ourselves and our families, stealing from others (including time, energy, attention), being impulsive, stubborn, ignorant, and this one, especially now: we have diminished the importance of others.
We Jews have historically always been on the side of the underdog. We’ve been the underdog. In some places in the world, we still are. And we are all, Jewish or not, much better at empathizing with the victim than the perpetrator. We can’t help but imagine what Mr. Floyd’s last few agonizing minutes were like, we see the injustices and feel angry and called to protest them in some form, and we place our solidarity with those who have been wronged.
Most, if not all of us, know what it feels like to not be able to breathe.
My invitation for you today is to step away from that perspective for a few minutes. Make sure you’re in a safe space, as you do this, and if you also have trauma in your background, that you have support people nearby, physically or virtually. Begin to take deep, easy, rhythmic breaths. Any distracting thoughts can be let go for now. They’ll return when you need them. Feel the support beneath your body and allow your muscles to relax. Then, focus on your heart, on the love you have for others, the love you have for yourself, the love others have for you.
Remember that we as human beings are all connected energetically. On one level, we are all George Floyd. And that means we are also, on one level, all Derek Chauvin.
Saying that we are all George Floyd gives us a sense of righteous fury, of fighting for equality and justice. And for all of us who are white, it means being less likely to be shot down (literally or figuratively) for that. Because like it or not, believe it or not, the reality is that we have white privilege.
Saying that we are all Derek Chauvin? That has an entirely different feeling to it. And I would submit to you that almost no one wants to say that and mean it. But that’s precisely what I’m asking you to do right now for this exercise.
In the same way that we confess in the Viddui that we have caused pain to others, say silently or aloud, “We are all Derek Chauvin.”
What feelings come up? Denial? Anger? Disgust that I’d even suggest this? For many, the immediate reaction is, “No way, I am nothing like him.” But that’s not the point. The point is not whether you, an individual, have acted (or even thought) like another individual. The point is that we are part of a community that has, and that continues to, treat Black, indigenous, and other people of color as less-than. We are part of a community that has discriminated in housing, employment, social services, policing, law, and education, among others.
That’s the discomfort I invite you to be with. The discomfort of knowing that we are part of a community that has caused pain, betrayal, that has stolen futures and lives.
Am I suggesting that you are equally guilty of murder? As an individual, no. As a community, yes, we are. And here’s why: The people we vote for, the people we trust, the people we defend, the people we elect to lead us, the people we give our money to—these are the people who have written the laws and policies and contracts and rules that have led to where we are today.
When we as white people elect a racist person to lead any part of our community because that racist person values businesses and profit and property over the quality of life—and the lives themselves—of Black, indigenous, and other people of color, then we are part of the problem. When we as white people make excuses for police brutality because “the people they arrested shouldn’t have done what they did,” we are part of the problem. When we as white people use racist language and excuse it by saying we mean it as a joke, we are part of the problem. When we give money—in donations or by using our purchasing power—to racist and white supremacist business owners, we are part of the problem.
In myriad ways, we are part of the problem that has led to where we are today. And we are part of the solution. But we can only be a part of the solution by acknowledging and owning our collective responsibility, our communal sin, and how the decisions we and those who came before us made, how the way we have bought into even subtle systemic racism, have created the Derek Chauvins of this world.
Be with the discomfort, the anger, the denial, the disgust. And recognize that those feelings are there to point you in a direction toward healing. None of us want to be Derek Chauvin. So, what are you going to do to atone for our communal responsibility? Whose voices will you amplify? Who will you invite to speak at your organization? Who will you vote for? What petitions will you sign? Where will you donate? What will you repost? What words will you choose? How will you show up in your life, in your family, in the world?
Our communal responsibility is not a sentence of punishment. It’s an opportunity to do better, to be better. Will you take it?

1 Comment

  1. Andrea Stoeckel

    Sheyna, this is a brave and powerful piece

You may also be interested in…



I feel like I'm not here. But my body is.The pain roaring beneath my skin, slicing through  my organs, curdling in my...

Skip to content