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Beginner’s Mind2021-01-07T17:41:52-08:00

Beginner’s Mind #8: Confession

In 2017, my wife and I decided to sell our home in south Seattle and move northward. Our rationale at the time was that we wanted to be closer to our family and friends in the north end, where we had both grown up, and to invest in real estate in the nicest neighborhood where we could afford to purchase it. To do this, we had to sell our south end home, the first home we’d ever owned, and after a fairly brief listing period we received a number of offers on our place. The offers we received frankly surprised us: we hadn’t anticipated how much our property’s value had increased in the time we’d owned it.

The two highest offers we received, each of equal monetary value, were from family with notably different backgrounds. The first was a young white couple from the east coast, about the same age as my wife and me. They had no kids at the time. The second was a black family with two kids with a long history of living in the Seattle area.

When we were notified of their offers, our real estate agent also gave us personal messages from each family.

This tactic, our agent informed us, was meant to ingratiate potential buyers with homeowners with the hope that doing so might make a buyer’s bid more attractive. Not that the gesture was meaningless, she commented, but she cautioned us that, in her words, “only money talks in this business.”

The white family made us a brief video, introducing themselves and explaining the many reasons for their deep affection for our house. The man said he was a nurse and the woman an aspiring author working on her first book. They’d moved from the east coast and were thrilled to have found a place like ours, and the woman noted how excited she was about the prospect of authoring her first book in our home’s light and airy living room.

The father of the black family did not record a video for us, but instead wrote us a brief letter about his personal story and his dream for how our home might fit into it. He told us that he’d grown up as a foster kid in south Seattle, not far from our home. He had worked hard to make it out of the foster system and had managed to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work at local universities. He’d become part of the administration of a local social services organization and was hoping to buy his first home and relocate his family into the community from which he came, in hopes of enriching it in a substantive way.

The offers from these families were financially equivalent, but there was one substantive difference between them: the white family had chosen to waive their right to a home inspection and the black family had not. At the time we had no reason to think that an inspection would turn up anything serious, certainly nothing that would scuttle the sale to either family. But, of course, we did not know that at the time.

I can still remember how overwhelmingly anxious I was when all of this was taking place. I had been swept away by a fantasy of moving my wife and young daughter from south Seattle back into the north end neighborhood where I’d grown up. A nicer neighborhood, so I told myself; nicer homes, better schools, farther from crime, closer to family. I had loved my time in south Seattle but never felt as though I wanted to commit myself to being a part of that community in an enduring way. The north end, I felt, was really home.

To buy a home there, however, required us to squeeze as much money out of our home sale as possible. At the time, I agreed with our real estate agent’s “pragmatic” advice about not allowing sentiment and emotionality to affect which offer we accepted on our home. Given the white family’s willingness to forgo the inspection and thereby insulate us from that risk, we selected their offer and that was that. A month later we had moved out of south Seattle and were on our way to purchasing our home in my old neighborhood, where we have lived for the last three and a half years now.

In recent weeks, and in the midst of so much powerful and painful discussion of the systemic inequities that have plagued black people in this country for centuries, I have been giving a lot of thought to my experience of our home sale. So many of the thoughts I had back then were emotional and powerful, but I can confidently say that none of them were consciously racist. I had no problem with the thought of selling our home to a black family and, had they been willing to waive the home inspection, my wife and I would have gladly sold the home to them (not that we asked). My thinking, you could say, was race-neutral, or what is currently referred to as “nonracist” (Kendi, 2019).

But had this all been happening today, there are so many things I would have been forced to consider that would have dramatically changed how I made sense of the whole experience. Had I been more emotionally conscious then of the tremendous financial inequities that have kept black families from owning property at the same rate as white families, I might have been more willing to tolerate my anxiety about the home inspection and grant the black family a chance to establish themselves as property owners. Doing so not only would have established a working class black family in a rapidly gentrifying part of the region (a gentrification process of which my wife and I were a part), but would have given their family a base from which to establish generational wealth that might have opened doors for themselves and others in their world for decades to come. It might have made a negligible difference in the face of cultural, political, and systemic problems that I generally feel completely powerless to effect, but it might have made a real impact on a real black family, helping them live and thrive in a city that seems to have gradually pushed black and brown families to its fringes, geographically and economically, for years.

But, of course, this is not what I chose.

In his widely discussed book “How To Be An Anti-Racist” (2019), Ibram X. Kendi notes that ostensibly nonracist decisions like the one my wife and I made about our home sale are anything but nonracist: in his words, “there is no neutrality in the racism struggle […] [O]ne either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist’” (2019, p. 9). Had I been thinking and acting in a truly antiracist way at the time, I would have tolerated the deeply uncomfortable anxiety I felt about the inspection and welcomed the black family’s offer. Doing so really would have been incredibly stressful, but from the antiracist perspective it was the best decision I could have made at the time. Due to my own ignorance and my lack of emotional connection to the issues being raised in this time by the Black Lives Matter movement, I was not capable of making the antiracist choice. And so, my action, or nonaction, perpetuated inequity in a fundamentally racist way.

I write all of this for a number of reasons. In a general sense, confessions are cathartic, as we in this community all know. But my confession, here, of my “nonracist” thinking and decision- making demonstrates the effort I am trying to undertake to take stock of the biases in me that have been shaped and continue to shape systems of oppression in this country that are as ugly and painful as they are subtle and deeply entrenched. Our work as object- relational psychotherapists has not and will never be inoculated from the effects of these systems, though I have long thought they were, or could be. Psychoanalysis takes place not in a vacuum but in this terribly beautiful and awful world we all live in. Much could be said here about the “nonracist” and overtly racist elements of psychoanalysis over the years, and on behalf of COR I can say that our organization will be wrestling with these elements in a way that our entire community will get to witness and participate in.

I am only in the first stages of trying to think and feel in an antiracist way about my work and my professional community, and as I do so I am sure to encounter many more painful memories and regrettable decisions akin to those I made in my home sale process. A very real part of me does not want to talk or think about any of it at all. But if seeking truth and acting with integrity really matter to me, as I like to think they do, there is only one path to walk here. Not that I or any of us will walk it perfectly, or know in advance where it will take us. But if we believe what we believe about human beings and humanity, and say the things we say to one another about health and growth and change, there really is no other choice.

Jeff Grant, PhD LMHC, received his MA in existential psychology from Seattle University and his PhD in clinical psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. His dissertation was entitled “A Psychoanalytic Exploration of Father Death and its Impact on the Adolescent Ego-Ideal.” He is currently a board member at COR and maintains a private practice with adults and adolescents in Madison Park.

July 1st, 2020|Beginner's Mind|

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