A picture is worth a thousand words
Study the image for a moment.
This very, very powerful image is by Grace Jensen. It is essentially the portrait of a justice activist, a profile in courage of a remarkably brave and fiercely focused young woman, Samantha Francine. However, it tells a ‘big picture’ story as well. Samantha is facing down a very angry man, Jay Snowden, in Whitefish, Montana. The image tells a remarkable tale about systems, especially human values systems. It is so powerful because it captures human connection and reveals the many different values systems at work animating that particular intersection of these two lives at that point in time.
In a minute I’d like to unpack the image to describe some of the major human values systems that converge in the photo. First, let’s identify the particular animating social system that brought these two people, and their expressions of human values systems, together to be displayed in that way right now.
The animating, orchestrating system
Now, let’s begin by getting out of our heads on this and forgetting what we’ve learned and heard second-hand about racism. Some may recall I have shared this forty-five second video in the blog before—”if they repeat it, it’s important, if they repeat it.” Here, educator Jane Elliot delivers an extraordinarily powerful mystical teaching in less than a minute. Please watch.
That‘s what we’re talking about. The “invisible” social/economic/justice system that everyone can see. No one misses that it’s better to be white. Samantha Francine and her fellow protesters, want to dismantle that system—many Americans are in agreement with them.
The angry man, Jay Snowden, obviously (whether consciously or not-consciously) wants to protect his place in that ‘better status, better existence’ system. Equality for all others feels like a very real loss to this man, and his anger betrays his (not-conscious?) intuition that his privilege isn’t fair. Sadly, he projects his intuition of his own injustice onto the protesters as anger toward them—I guess because of their righteous demand of equality and justice for all lives including black ones.
So, recognizing and examining the present system of White supremacy isn’t a question of whether or not white people are better than other people. It’s about recognizing and acknowledging that it’s better to be white; recognizing that, in general, existence is smoother, easier, better when one is white. Thanks to Jane Elliot we can all see now that white people trust in these privileged benefits without ever considering or questioning.
That system, in which it is better to be white, is the one that brings this dramatic cultural opposition into embodiment through Samantha Francine and Jay Snowden in what appears a very fraught moment the other day in Whitefish.
More on the social system of racism later. First, let’s unpack some of the human values systems converging through the individuals in that moment. Unpacking the complexity is instructive on why the issue is so fraught and difficult.
Six ‘human values systems‘ are clearly evident in the image. I’ll mention all six (survival; family/tribal; ego; order; merit; egalitarian/justice) and offer an example as illustration. I’ll also focus a bit more on three especially relevant systems with expanded discussion.
The survival values system
Survival values are evident in the very presence of both persons. Snowden is there in that space as he feels that his identity (order) values are under existential assault. His being in that space with Francine, and much of the energy evident in his passion, is a defense of the perceived attack on his identity. Conversely, Francine is there representing the protest of existential systemic threats to herself and an entire community of persons, e.g., black people directly; First peoples and other people of color, too, and all of us indirectly by extension.
The family/tribal values system
Family/tribal values are present in each of them, of course, as no one parachutes into life. Our presence anywhere, at anytime is a function of the values expressed in our families of origin and the contexts in which we were raised. The intimidating physical proximity Snowden is willing to impose on Francine, who is peacefully standing her ground, is an extremely aggressive expression of us/them (family/tribal) values along with a very strong (very aggressive in this case) ‘I am’ (ego) values. Francine’s sign says, “Say their names.” Nothing connects us more tangibly with our family origins than our names. Our names identify both who we are as an individual and the family from whom we come.
In the CNN interview (video below), when asked about Snowden’s intimidating behavior right in her face and what she was thinking, Francine said that all she could remember in that moment was what her late father told her and her brothers when they were growing up. He told them that no matter what happened, no matter who the threat was or what the threat was, to look them in the eyes so they can see that you are human. Sadly, Snowden was so closed in his overreaching identity (order values), and so animated in his passion (ego values), that he failed to see past his own nose and was completely blind to the humanity of Francine and the other protesters.
The ego values system
Ego values form the “I am” center from which we operate as humans. It’s energy is evident in the passion that both Francine and Snowden are expressing in their own ways.
I feel the passion of Snowden is chiefly driven by energy of his survival values. What? How is this large man’s survival threatened by this much smaller unarmed woman? Well, not his physical survival. Snowden’s ego has complexity and his passion also reflects the energy of his ethnic identity, that is, order values that he feels are existentially threatened. In a practical and significant sense, it’s completely irrelevant whether Snowden thinks white people are superior or not. What is clear is that he does not want to surrender the reality that “it’s better to be white” and the system that concretizes that.
However, I feel that Francine’s ego is even more complex and that is seen in her values’ expressions of courage and determination that are so plain in the image. Francine’s survival values are supplying energy as well, for two reasons. First, Snowden is a very large enraged man who is only inches away from Francine. He is fit to be tied and that likely charges the adrenaline systems of both parties. Second, Francine has identified the ongoing threat of systemic racism to herself and others who are existentially threatened by a White supremacist system, and has rightly taken that on as a dimension of her own security and well being. Her egalitarian/justice values provides her “I am” center lots of energy that she channels through her fierce yet peaceful steadfastness. Enough energy is flowing from her other values systems for her passion (ego) to enable her to peacefully withstand the intimidating and aggressive passion of Snowden. The angry man’s passion and desire for violence is as evident in this image as it is inappropriate in real life.
The passion, intensity, and magnitude of significance, are the product of ego values expressed in the two main subjects in this Grace Jensen photograph. It graphically illustrates and provides an incredible example of both healthy and unhealthy expressions of ego. This dynamic is the key to the power in the image—healthy and unhealthy expressions of ego values, face to face.
The order values system
Gratefully, order values are prevalent here, too, and examples are plentiful as well.
Order is evident in Samantha Francine (and the other protesters) exercising her constitutional right (order) to protest in America. On those lines, the protest is raising the urgent concern that the equality expressed in the beginning of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, and in the Fourteenth Amendment (order), has yet to be fully integrated as a practical matter into our constitutional system of social/political order. Then, too, perhaps she participated in church youth group, Girl Scouts, or a 4H group and they were a factor in helping form Francine’s compassionate image of order.
Law and religion are the chief sources of order. I did not get to interview either party, however, if we knew the stories of these two persons, I’d imagine the religion piece of order is at work here in both cases. It likely impacted them both quite differently from each other.
The evidence of order values operating positively in Jay Snowden is significant. One look at his hands balled into fists, his body language, and his nose inches from Francine as he screams ugly profanities into her face, reveals his passionate desire to do actual violence to Francine. Why doesn’t he commit physical violence? Arguably, his sense of order values is the only factor that restrained him. Perhaps from a preschool or Sunday school lesson that “boys don’t hit girls.” Perhaps an experience with an elementary school principle about an early violation of the Sunday school precept. Perhaps from the constraint inherent in knowing about assault and battery laws and penalties, and his memory of what happened the last time he violated those rules. Perhaps he was a Boy Scout, FFA, or CFA participant and those organizations managed to install some sense of community decency and civics in him. Something about his order values constrained him, thankfully.
Sadly, a more problematic aspect of Snowden’s order values, his ethnicity, is a reflection of over-identification—identity is a function of one’s order on both personal and societal terms. Let’s be clear, ethnicity is not a problem in itself. However, it’s an overreach of the White supremacy system when it requires its white ethnicity constituent members to lend their complicity in allowing the system to continue—you know the invisible system everyone recognizes, the one that treats white people more favorably. As Jane Elliot prophetically asks, “That says very plainly that you know what’s happening. You know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you are so willing to accept it, or allow it to happen for others?”
The merit values system
The merit system in the U.S.A. is, in many ways, the bone of contention in the Black Lives Matter protest movement. Any system that imputes additional merit on a particular group without cause is intrinsically unjust. If, as everyone can see, it’s better to be white, then the system that enables and sustains that reality is one that assumes and imputes unmerited-merit to white people. This is why systemic privilege is so easily missed, the privileged don’t have to do anything to receive the benefits of their ethnic privilege. Over time the structures created by compliance with this system build up till it gets as horrific in terms of injustice and inhumanity to humans as it is today. And, there are many other ways merit values are being expressed or invoked in this image as well.
The egalitarian/justice values system
The egalitarian/justice values constellation is reflected in the manifold expressions of Black Lives Matter protest—the nationwide call to honor and protect minority rights and equality under the law and in practice (order). These values are also reflected in the health mask that Francine and other protesters are wearing—a community approach to public health in which we all wear masks for the benefit of the other and in so doing benefit ourselves by benefiting the whole community. There are many other ways egalitarian/justice values are expressed or invoked in this image, too.
Feels way too abbreviated
I could expand on all these human values systems at length. While space and time does not allow that, I do hope this helps with an appreciation of the confluence of human values expressions evidenced in this amazing image. Thank you so much, Grace!
[Please don’t miss the video of the interview with Samantha Francine (below)].
Why so fraught?
Well, as we’ve seen, all the values systems, including existential survival values, are invested in some way. Healing will require acknowledging all of it, good, bad, and ugly.
The Jane Elliot video shows that to argue there is no systemic racism in America is inane. No one, no one misses that it’s better to be White in America.
I feel most of the brouhaha in the racism discourse right now is caused by conflating two related but different problems
- The problem inherent in considering the system’s cause (e.g., did white people have committee meetings to plan oppression, or is the system we inherited the not-conscious product of a systemic process?) with
- The problems inherent in considering how to confront and dismantle the racially discriminating system that we plainly have.
Whether or not the phrase “designed to oppress” is an appropriate one is a question of how the system got there.
In other words, the problem with much of the present discourse is that it conflates/confuses the argument over how the system got here with the argument on how to confront and dismantle the system that we all plainly recognize. The former is an unneeded distraction right now. Plenty of time for that later on.
Thanks to keeping our eyes open as we look at an image like the one from Whitefish, we see that the racist system is indeed ubiquitous, and that it’s time to recognize, acknowledge, and disassemble that system. We can debate how it got there after we disassemble it—someone can work on Mr. Snowden’s heart while we do the work of deconstructing favoritism in the system, but not in lieu of the work. If the Snowden’s of society are unready to even admit the problem, well, we’ll get back to him/them but we have other work to do first. Whether Mr. Snowden reacts the same way to the mission again next time, well, that’s his choice.
Above I wrote:
So, recognizing and examining the present system of White supremacy isn’t a question of whether or not white people are better. It’s about recognizing and acknowledging that it’s better to be White.
Why do I write it both ‘white’ and ‘White?’ We’ll examine this a bit more fully next time, I’ll meet you right here same time next week.
Next week [6/21/2020]… “Hate-fighting imagination” … link: Hate-fighting imagination
[this post approx. 2,450 words (10 mins … dang, is someone warming up for a book?) 😉]
CNN Interview with Samantha Francine
I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?