The Age ~ Stephanie Hiller

Stephanie Hiller


The performance of cruelty

Posted on August 25, 2020 by Stephanie Hiller

Well, now we know, if we didn’t know it already: this country has been since its inception and continues to be a racist society.

That, for some of us, may be very hard to bear. But we are also learning, since the ascension of Donald Trump, that this racism has strong roots in the reassertion of white supremacy, not only in the South but across the country; and this belief, that whites are inherently superior to people of all other races, is strongly linked to the espousal of eugenics as the scientific way to reduce or eliminate those deemed inferior.

Jean Guerrero’s new book Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda, tells the story of how the 34-year-old grandson of Jewish refugees rose to a key position of power as Senior Advisor to the President in Trump’s White House. Interviewed on MSN she said his anti-immigration policy is “rooted in elitism and a sense of superiority and entitlement that I believe is the root of his hate-mongering.”

White supremacists, Miller included, approve of eugenics.

The pieces of the puzzle are snapping into place. The “performance of cruelty” (her phrase) that results from that sense of superiority is the crudest, most arrogant, and sickest form of social order, a system that has dominated so-called civilization for thousands of years: patriarchy. 

Capitalism, militarism, imperialism, colonialism, racism, antisemitism, misogyny, slavery, all are expressions of the same assumption that some people are endowed with the right to dominate others.

Eugenics has been used to identify and eliminate as many members of the subject races as possible. 

Shockingly, California was a leader in eugenics during the mid-19th century; and the institution with the highest rate of forced sterilizations to people deemed inferior was right here in Sonoma County under the administration of a man whose name is immortalized in streets, buildings, and even a summer camp for children at Sugarloaf State Park.

The man was Fred Butler, and the institution, the Sonoma State Hospital (since renamed the Sonoma Developmental Center) was where the Latino women had a 59% higher risk of forced sterilization than other women. 

Sadly, here in beautiful, liberal Sonoma County, we have had a part in the performance of racist cruelty in the name of “improving the race” – and we still commemorate those who carried it out.

Eugenics had been out of favor for decades before Stephen Miller and his mentors came into power. But white privilege continues to operate in our society behind the veil of our better intentions.

On June 3, after the brutal police murder of George Floyd, when protests erupted all over the country, Sonoma students, working with Dmitra Smith, then director of the Human Rights Commission (she has since resigned) organized a demonstration in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was one of the largest protests I have attended in my six years here, and one of the most moving.

Smith addressed the gathering of some 400 protestors, mostly young, mostly white, sitting masked and attentive on the lawn around City Hall with a passion and generosity of heart that included everyone present.

“We are the hope and breath of our ancestors,” she cried, raising a fist to punctuate every sentence, “and we will get through this.”

“This is not my land, this is not your land, we are standing on Miwok Pomo land, Wappo land,” the oppression of those First People and the importing of Black slaves “to work the land because the white people that came here couldn’t work the land on their own,” Smith said, “the intergenerational effects of this are happening right now, in this community. We have farm workers that are living hand to mouth, we have people getting sick, we have a hospitality industry that doesn’t consider the people in the vine. 

“People died for this, y’all.…It’s all connected, and we need all of us to get through this.”

We are all privileged, she declared, including herself as an American citizen.  “Use your privilege. Your privilege is a tool to undo oppression.”

Young people of color spoke afterward, sharing their experiences of not feeling safe here in white Sonoma.

Clearly, we have some work to do. 

Our work is certainly to support Black Lives Matter and transform our institutions, but also to hold up a mirror to our own denial of the many ways we benefit from racism. Doing so will take us to the roots of how our society perpetuates some of its most lethal forms of oppression. 

Janet Ryvlin has been concerned about white attitudes for a number of years, beginning with her association 25 years ago with a group called The UNtraining which offers workshops for changing those hidden racial assumptions. 

“I became aware of the issue, that white people are unaware of a lot of things related to race.” 

In the last few years, especially since she retired from her career as an Oncology nurse, she became more aware of how few people of color were part of her Buddhist community. “Sonoma is very white but we also have Latinx and Nepalese communities here and we generally don’t mix very much as a community. What’s wrong with us,” she began to wonder. “Why don’t we care?” 

Janet keeps saying that she is “not an expert” but she felt strongly about this issue. She wanted to do a workshop with the Shambhala Buddhist center similar to the one she had taken with UNtraining but had difficulty finding people to facilitate it. “White people need to work with each other on learning about our privilege and our blind spots. Because of our privilege we don’t see our own racism,” she said in our phone interview.  She felt this so deeply that decided to offer a class herself.

Later she teamed up with a friend, Denise Blanc, an experienced facilitator and Buddhist, to work together on a class. It went well, and this spring the two offered a more intensive 6-week program at the Shambhala Center. “The material was emotional so people could feel more deeply what racism has done and how we’ve contributed to a racist society.” Our work, as white people, is not only to change institutions of privilege and exclusion but also to become aware of the privileges automatically granted us because of our color. 

I attended the third series of “What It Means to Be White”. We were a small group, all women, and the conversations and sharing were profound. As we explored our own insensitivities regarding the many ways black people are harmed by the very institutions that privilege us, we were able to express the pain we feel for our silent complicity. With the support of Janet and Denise’s tactful facilitation, we became more aware of the embedded, unconscious assumptions that separate us from the rest of humanity.

For whites, especially liberals, it is imperative to truly recognize our advantage in a white patriarchal society, if we are ever to enjoy the rich benefits of cultural and racial diversity, and one day achieve the great American ideal of equality and justice for all.  

As we disentangle those delicate fibers, we will find ourselves exposing the root of all forms of domination: what patriarchy has done to women. It’s centered in elitism and a sense of superiority and entitlement that I believe is the root of this hate-mongering. 


This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are those of the author.

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