This story unfolded on the eve of Black History Month, and it set the stage for learning in a more humble way about racism in our country and world.
Definition of Whack-a-Mole: A typical arcade Whac-A-Mole machine consists of a large, waist-level cabinet with five holes in its top and a large, soft, black mallet. Each hole contains a single plastic mole and the machinery necessary to move it up and down. Once the game starts, the moles will begin to pop up from their holes at random. The object of the game is to whack the individual moles back into their holes by hitting them directly on the head with the mallet, but that triggers another mole to pop up. The faster you hit the faster they pop.
Usage: The term “Whac-a-mole” (or “Whack-a-mole”) is used colloquially to denote a repetitious and futile task: each time an adversary is “whacked”, it only pops up again somewhere else.
Now the story.
For nearly two decades I’ve gathered as often as possible for 5 days in the Summer and 5 in the Winter with 100+/- creative, committed personal and social change activists. Most of my social innovations have been tested there in small groups, and refined. The Conversation Cafes. The 10-Day Local Food Challenge. The Transition Initiative on Whidbey. The politics of Standing Rock and of military expansion on our small PNW island. Some of my blind spots and painful shadows have been revealed and healed there by safe, illuminating conversations. Completely unknown fields of inquiry were presented and the narrow aperture of my mind opened.
As much as these gathering fed my mind and soul, my choice of voluntary poverty created an eddy of anxiety as I grappled with how to pay. I was grateful, but also frustrated, that I had to ask, that the venues and food were out of reach for people like me. A scholarship fund underwrote attendance, less each time as I built some wealth.
Then the retreat centers adapted to people with limited mobility – which helped as arthritis set in.
At first, we believed we were the vanguard of social change, but we eventually realized were were mostly white, aging Boomers.
The scholarships now went to young people whom we eagerly befriended to see the world through their eyes. We learned about online watering holes (Instagram, Snapchat) from them. And apps for everything. And A.I. At one gathering a young man told me his generation didn’t fault us for the environmental mess we failed to stop or fix; indeed, they wanted us to stand tall because they were standing on our shoulders. We were the pioneers. They were the builders. I did stand taller after that and have partnered with many dozens of millennials since and made their issues and their talents a focus.
A few years ago, as skin sagged and waistlines grew, we grappled with the invisibility of aging, with losing our edge, with being on our parent’s part of the conveyor belt from birth to death, with the end of the tunnel now in sight. Some of our beloveds have died.
Then our whiteness hove into view.
We started to ask the uncomfortable question: who isn’t in the room and why? In varying degrees we each took on to examine systemic racism, settler colonialism and the dark injustices of the history of the Americas that are playing out today. We realized our creativity and productivity were, in part, because we were not impeded by the color of our skin. White fragility snapped up into our faces and we grappled with our desire to distance ourselves from the causes of suffering for the marginalized. After all, aren’t we good people? An African American woman called me out so piercingly about 5 years ago that I’ve never been the same. I knew irrevocably that I am a racist white person in a racist culture. I can’t help but be a racist. I can only face it. #MeToo hit and I was right in the middle of the tsunami of woman surfacing their pain, radicalized. Trump hit and my Jewish friends and I talked about where we would move if it “got bad.” More scholarships, more people of color – black, brown and Asian (who whites read as whites but whose destinies are tied to racism as well).
Finally this year enough youth, people of color, people with disabilities (some of whom call us TABs – temporarily able bodied) mixed in with us
that aging white Boomers actually moved to the margins.
A closing tradition has been for 3 age groups to sit one after the other in the center of the circle and have a conversation about their experience that the rest get to observe. Those under 35 could feel like our sons and daughters, but the middle group, the 35-55, had enough people of color with long enough life experience to bring into our midst how unconscious of their pain we really are. As the tears and frustrations and disturbing mirrors kept rolling, it was clear that this pain has been amongst us all along and we’ve been ignorant and self-satisfied. Immigration is a racist issue. Prison industrial complex is a racist issue, in fact a new Jim Crow. #MeToo was coined by a black women to help young black women talk about sexual assault. Our society through a racist lens was being refracted through everyone and it was stunning and suffocating.
A talkative white woman in that circle tried to speak for a third time to put it all in perspective for everyone – and was silenced by the facilitators for taking up more than her fair share of air time. Clearly white people were not getting to frame it all up – as we always did. We had to just listen, and get it. It was also getting close to lunch and our 56 and over circle was being pushed to the margins due to time constraints. The organizers suggested we skip being in the center of the circle surrounded by our younger folks, but a woman stood, shaking with anger. She’d felt buffeted by the criticisms from the black facilitators of how her language was tinged with racism. She wanted her pain seen too. And accepted. Another white boomer woman tried on the trope of our hippie youth: I don’t see color, I see people. Why can’t we all get along? Another grumbled about how she was unfairly labeled with white privilege because no one knows how scrappy she had to be to survive her childhood, to make her way. I thought about how being an aging Jewish woman in America is shaky ground too, but it didn’t stick given the thickness of the truth of racism in the room.
And there was a lot of sobriety and stunned silence, people not knowing what to say that wouldn’t deepen the pain and get them in trouble.
Looking around that circle I knew that Boomers were truly shuffling off this mortal coil and had best graduate to elderhood and not make fools of ourselves by insisting we are spring chickens at the forefront of transformative change.
This is the world, I thought. Pain of exclusion everywhere for all but the status 1% whoever they are who have never felt marginalized. For this gathering the reality and pain of racism was center stage. It might be center stage for the rest of our lives. No amount of white people talking about their pain, knocking the racism Whack-a-mole on the head, was going to keep this issue down and put theirs in the center. No amount of religious intolerance, so dangerous and painful, could pop up to claim centrality. No amount of elder invisibility. No amount of women struggling still in a sexist patriarchal society. No amount of hard-scrabble lives. Trying to pop up our issues was whack-a-moled down so we could sit in the fact of how it feels to live while black, brown or Asian in America.
How different this would be in an economically just society.
We’d still contend with racism, sexism, intolerance, violence against non-white-males… and white males too in some parts of the country. But your identity would not be your economic destiny. You would have the dignity of work and home and community. You would see yourself reflected in art and culture and teams. You would be food, shelter and care sufficient. You would have an equal chance at rising to the top of whatever field you chose. Fairness would be built in to the system. Unfettered capitalism has none of that it its DNA. It’s a game of winners and losers and if the color of your skin or what you have between your legs determines whether you win, you take every advantage of it. It is hostile to compassion. Hostile to fairness . It labels anything that would disrupt the powerful from accumulating more power, that would impede the wealthy from accumulating more wealth, as socialism, as nanny state, as too expensive, as “why don’t you man up and get busy and stop complaining.” It puts the uber-wealthy out of reach of our struggles to be met with dignity, and pits us against one another. It reminds me of an old very trenchant but un-PC Lenny Bruce line, “We need brotherhood in New York. Let’s all of us Italian, Jewish, and Irish guys get together and beat up the Puerto Ricans.”
The pain of marginalization is doming up in the almost-majority-minority USA like an eruption of hot lava in Yosemite.
The heat of it at that final circle was like a campfire compared to what is bubbling and fixing to blow if the rituals of democracy can’t channel it. I know in the Kavanaugh hearings I felt a heat of fury like I’d never felt before. And that’s nothing compared to the indignities of people of color.
It’s often pointed out that Martin Luther King was allowed to operate within a racist society as long as he was moving the needle just of black access. Within a year of expanding his analysis to militarism and materialism he was assassinated.
“We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
If I said I knew how to fix this I’d be back at square one. I have a habit of thinking I might dig deep enough, speak eloquently enough, that we’d all wake up from the nightmare of consumerism and play fair. This is different. Racism and privilege are in my cells and can’t be taken off like a cape. There is nowhere to stand where I get to be a pure, sometimes called pure as the driven snow or lily white, just to sharpen the point. I’m not a bad person, either, but I am a person of my times and of the Whack-a-mole mess of pain and exclusion circulating through our society’s drainage field, clogged with racism, materialism and militarism. It doesn’t help to feel guilty or hate that in me that is of my society. It doesn’t help to flap my arms and lips and tell others to change. If I have a talent for thinking and writing, I do that as one of us, all trying to untangle from this briar patch of isms.
I’ve come to see that maturation is one key.
We take responsibility for our own lives and what we’ve made of them. We tell the truth, without histrionics, of where we’ve shirked and what we’ve hidden to look good. We recover from our addiction to privilege and review sincerely how it’s benefited us often at the expense of others. We listen and learn. We heal, even as we bring our unhealed selves to the big work of social healing. When I think of how my worst nightmares have made me stronger I can hope that this nightmare of displacement of all of us from the safety of a just and compassionate society might make us a better people – if it doesn’t rip us so far apart that repair with take centuries.
In the 1970s I was inspired by some of the work of Werner Erhard, a teacher to thousands of transformation. In one event he tried to articulate the shift from a you or me world (what we clearly have now) to a you and me world. In it he challenged the privileged to relinquish their right to win. He said “It takes enormous courage to approach living from a you and me context. It is audacious to create your life making a difference in a world that says that you don’t. It takes a lot of heart – openness to your own magnanimity, compassion for yourself, for your own pettiness when it shows itself. …We are not speaking of altruism. In the past, we have maintained a you or me world by sharing our surplus rather than by sharing the ability to produce surplus. That kind of altruism, those “gestures of goodwill” have only served to strengthen the status quo and perpetuate a world of “haves” and “have-nots.” In a you and me world, true generosity means empowering people to produce for themselves.”
Something else needs to be in the center of center stage. An utterly different game. In this I see a hint of the deepest work we need to do, to stop separating ourselves from one another, causing pain, and find our way home. For some of us, that’s a longer road than others.