Foundation of Black Healing: Esteem, Respect, and Power
It is necessary to begin the healing process of the Black community within the Black community. This idea does not derive from mistrust of white American society to play a part in restoration (although assistance is doubtful), but from the understanding that those who are oppressed know best the type of behavior that would be conducive for an environment to feel less oppressive. If a situation makes Alex sad, then Alex knows what it is in that situation that is making them sad unless there is an outside influence of which Alex is unaware. At the very least Alex is aware of the immediate cause of pain, which they can correct either themselves or by informing the person who is in charge of that source of pain what to change. The person in power may think that they understand what Alex needs intuitively, but that assessment tends to be idealized. To illustrate this point further, when a Black person calls what a white person does racist, the Black person is most likely in the right considering that their experience of racism in day-to-day interactions would tell them what is and is not oppressive. The experience of racism itself then can be understood through the feelings one receives in a situation. If it is the Black community who experiences these feelings of oppression, then it is from this group where healing must begin because they are the most aware of what is causing their experience of oppression. For the Black community to be able to address their concerns of the oppression both self-esteem and self-respect together are necessary in challenging racism and finding healing. It is important to establish a difference between self-respect and self-esteem because often the ideas are conflated.
The evaluation of self-respect and self-esteem as independent of one another often misses the analysis of the most important aspect of self-respect: performance. Rather, self-esteem acts as a sort of foundation for self-respect. The sociological definition of self-esteem can be understood as the positive or negative evaluation of our self as an object. Self-respect is always threatened where self-esteem is threatened.
In Eric Thomas Weber’s essay “Self-Respect and a Sense of Positive Power: On Protection, Self-Affirmation, and Harm in the Charge of Acting White,” once having “positive power” illustrates one’s self-respect: “Persons could have a proper degree of self-respect, such as in terms of self-belief or self-doubt, yet, after experiencing immeasurable injustice and the frustration of every effort to bring about change, fail to believe in their own positive power to achieve justice” (Weber 52). Positive power, or affecting change in oppressive systems, and self-respect are not interchangeable. If not disillusioned by white oppression, where self-respect exists, positive power can exist. Positive power is a performance of self-respect and is a clear indicator of self-respect. If one is able to challenge the established ideas that cause one pain, this demonstrates self-respect. If one does not respect themselves, they will continue to allow the transgressor to inflict damage completely unchallenged. Self-respect must then be defined in terms of willingness to respond. Self-esteem determines ones willingness as people are only willing to say something if they have a positive evaluation of self. The self is composed of the ideas and ideologies they hold true. Therefore, it is possible that one can have self-respect, a willingness to deflect harm, but seemingly not have self-respect because of their silence. A person may think they are right and believe in their causes and even be willing to say something, but due to a belief in the futility of their words or fear of further damage say or do nothing about it. Weber demonstrates what the performance of self-respect looks like: “If a person lacks self-respect, he might feel unworthy to speak up for himself. Or she might feel that it is futile or only harmful for her to resist dominating forces” (Weber 46). In this way self-esteem provides for the conditions necessary to respect oneself, that is believe that they are worthy of not being harmed as demonstrated by the accepted performance of self-respect (actively challenging one’s harm), which in turn allows for one to have positive power. Positive power exists in the absence of disillusionment or in the absence of self-preservation in the balancing of risk and reward.
It is possible to begin healing in the Black community because none of this depends on white affirmation. American society has proven unreliable in the healing of the Black community and it is preferable to “home grow” our self-esteem and then our self-respect. Systems of oppression have transformed and endured so that the natural disposition towards and of Black people is inferiority. Our self-esteem views of self are steeped in eurocentrism which fundamentally works against our ideas of our own worth and value. It is likely then that Black people who do not challenge racist forces of oppression do not have the self-esteem to develop the willingness to challenge their oppressor, or they are disillusioned by institutional racism or fear that the reward of challenging institutional racism is not worth the risk. By disillusioned, I mean those Black people who feel they are worthy of challenging an obviously racist system, but it is wasted because oppression seems insurmountable. Fearing the risk simply indicates that more harm may result in asserting positive power.
Self-esteem can be learned without the presence of the white affirmation or change, as demonstrated by countercultural Black arts movements and Afrocentric re-education initiatives, but the impediments to positive power in the presence of self-respect are not as obviously alleviated. For example, self-preservation may be apparent in those who believe that a white dominated/created system with foundations in the most pervasive system of racism can “work for us,” that the Black community should pull themselves up through a (white supremacist) capitalist system. This is to not challenge the system, but work in it and “use the system against them,” which could make sense if the racist system itself were not created to bend against this sort of idealizing. This sort of person indicates self-respect, but apparently does not see the worth in challenging the entire system or are disillusioned by the system. While it is not necessary for white people to affirm Black people in their positive power, the idea that the racist system is changeable and worth changing despite the discomfort and potential harm that can follow challenging one’s oppressors itself must be affirmed.