In Defiance of Whiteness: “Suffering Is the Bridge”

You and Orin have done such an incredible job with Domenico’s and the Other Side. Beyond words. And I mean it. It is when you opened that I started to appreciate Utica. True.                                                                            

– Cafe Customer      

“To create a self without the need for enemies.”…that’s [James] Baldwin’s idea of a New Jerusalem. Where we try to stand in right relation with one another, where we can see each other. Not in the name of some sentimental humanism that says we’re all the same….Because we all got this funkiness in us. It’s the dark cellar of who we are. But that’s…the bridge. Our suffering is the bridge.                                                                                                                   

– Eddie Glaude, Jr.  Interview

…the rational brain is basically impotent to talk the emotional brain out of its own reality.  It is so much easier for people who have gone through the unspeakable to talk about what has been done to them – to tell a story of victimization and revenge – than put into words the reality of their internal experience.  

– Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., The Body Keeps the Score

No longer can we unselfconsciously echo the old person’s standby lament “What is the world coming to?”  We know that the world has always been worse than the “rememberers” of record knew, more than they wanted to know.  Just this morning, trying to think of a suitable chapter book to captivate my three babysitting charges ages 5-8, I had to put a check on myself after I recalled with a pleasurable rush – Hey! Little House In the Big Woods!  With those charming Garth Williams illustrations it will be just right!   But how does one read that book as if you didn’t know the full cost of settler colonialism?  Or talk about it with young children knowing what you do know? Enjoyment of those books, I realized,  depends completely upon absence of context, that is, it depends upon the replication of not knowing.  

Last week, watching the movie Zone of Interest,  about the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz and his family who lived on the other side of the fence from the concentration camp, I saw not knowing doesn’t even require physical distance.  The Hollywood producers, directors and agents who signed a protest of director Jonathan Glazer’s remarks at the Academy Awards, by which Glazer meant to refute “Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation” constitute the replication of not knowing in the present, which is where it does its harm.

What we call whiteness, and the caste system it’s integral to, is not really about skin color. It is neoliberal society’s ongoing project of not knowing.  It amplifies and supports a human tendency –  in part a healthy defense, conducive to survival – to forget traumatic events and circumstances.  Unfortunately, the forgetting makes retribution and victimization likelier. This is why whiteness is a Doomsday Project, a ticking timebomb.  Can we defuse it is the question.

If there’s to be any chance of defusing it, in my view, it must happen person by person.  Each one has to interpret the acute pain she feels at the caste system and its component parts: racism, colonialism, settlerism, militarism, genocide,  plunder and exploitation of earth and indigenous peoples, etc.,  as her existential call to abandon the defensive position of whiteness. While childhood trauma may not be universal, it is far more prevalent than society’s caste system wants us to be aware of.  In any case, the key to abandoning whiteness is understanding it as defense against consciousness of one’s own near escape, one’s personal trauma.  


One night recently I dreamed I was an incarcerated person informing some friends that I might not be allowed to continue with some creative projects we’ve been working together on – that is, projects that give me the sense of being a free person.  I wonder, is this my soul’s eye view of the closing of our Cafe? Only a few times in my life – though these times have been life-changing – have I been afforded the glimpse of reality according to the stark clarity of my soul’s vision.  My soul, as distinct from my more accommodating social self, is inherently and indigenously in conflict with the neoliberal context in which our Cafe that values people more than profits,  is mired in impossibility.  Just the merest touch of socialism, as exists in France, could have saved it, but in America the power of banks and markets rules unchecked by contrary truth.  One cannot protest or complain anymore than indigenous people in the early nation-building period could do anything but go along with the confiscation of their lands, the march of settler-colonial progress, the inevitable violence and cultural evisceration that went with it.   


Crossing the Market 32 parking lot is something we do 2-3 times a week as we walk the 15-minutes to our Cafe, a walk that each time now – because the Cafe is being sold – is “one of the last.”  On St. Patrick’s Day, post-parade,  a float pulled by a pickup truck was parked there, a family gathered around it.  Two kids, aged around 9 or 10,  the boy in green St. Patrick’s suspenders, the girl with a green leprechaun hat, ran off across the fairly empty lot, through the cart corral, and beyond. Orin split off; he wanted to see the float up close, I had no interest.  I heard the father – one sensed he’d had it brought to his attention, probably by the mother – yell at the kids not to run around.  I caught the threatening tone – a tone that always makes me cringe – more than the words.  When Orin rejoined me he relayed the father’s complete message. It was:  “Hey!  No running around.  This is Utica.  You got it?”

I recall what it was like when I was a child, when we’d come in to Utica from the suburbs to do department store shopping, visit the 5 & Dime,  or a specialty shoe store, up through my teen years, and how – while the attraction to the gorgeous smells and wondrous sights of Woolworth’s was great, Utica’s otherness frightened me.  The densely packed old multi-storied duplexes, the black kids, the ones I knew my grandmother’s name for – “picaninnies” – and the Italian kids, tribal-like with their uniformly black hair, black pointy-toed shoes, and black dickies under white shirts.  

Then came shopping malls, saving us suburban dwellers further from having to make that descent into a world that could not be easily grasped like a Leave It to Beaver episode.  The attraction of the malls was more than the acres of easy parking.  Eventually, downtown businesses with their variety and interdependence disappeared, yet another triumph of whiteness.  This is background, or part of it, for the story of our Cafe, which is now in its final stages, to close forever in a few days.

Because I’m a writer, and because the Cafe was our creation,  I can tell it’s whole story my way, not as I would tell it to a reporter.  The Cafe was born out of awareness of trauma (Orin’s and mine, both) in the social context in which suffering is repressed and people kept separate and hopeless.  This hopelessness is not just what one feels in relation to war and senseless violence, to climate and environmental destruction, to Trump.  This hopelessness one stumbles into looking within; the personal counterpart to the world’s trauma-inducing repetitions.   Reading Bessel van der Kolk’s book, one learns personal trauma is consequence precisely of situations in which the “flight or fight” neural response is nullified by the victim’s helplessness.   That is, trauma is the consequence of hopelessness.  It is hopelessness, over and over. 

Moreover, trauma – its very unwantedness –   is necessary to figuring out how to live  in relation to the truth of the world in which, time after time, merciless whiteness triumphs over whatever is frightening to it. It figures such a world, built from denial, would be a frightened and self-dooming one.

The Cafe, like the twig teepee in Lars von Trier’s unforgettable movie Melancholia, was built to be a place contrary to the reality of hopelessness.   Most people who were customers would not have known that the very solace of the Cafe’s vibe was born of its relationship to trauma; its power as balm lay in its fearlessness to exist as a human-made space in a corporatized, militarized, context that makes the world safe for whiteness but not for humanness, or human beings.  

Whiteness, after all, is a capacity to settle, build, progress, as a matter of right (i.e., of one’s caste) and then to live in successive generations in denial of the heartless cruelty, the murdered Indians and obliterated cultures,  the black bodies, etc., upon which the settlement was made and due to which the country became such a marvel, such a superpower.  In individual lives it functions exactly the same way – build the life opened to you by virtue of where you grew up and where you went to school, make it successful, paving over that trauma that though buried is not dead. The trauma manifests in depression, nervous tics, anxiety, self-hatred, all of which one can relativize if one is one of the lucky.

But the “undead” of personal trauma also feeds, as science now is telling us – the auto-immune diseases from which we increasingly suffer, as if the body’s defenses are no match for the power of repression.  In this way, the voices of protest live on in the body. You don’t have to wonder if they are there.  You don’t have to know their basis in actual abuse.  They are there and they would like it very much if you would listen to them for a change! They are not the bully, they aren’t going to tell you you are worthless, a piece of shit.  They are not capable of meanness.  That is why you can obliterate them from consciousness; they have no way to get your attention except in symptoms we call illness which send us to doctors and pharmaceutical companies to alleviate for us.

Much as all of this may seem off the track of telling the story of the coffeeshop in Uptown Utica, New York, that existed from July 22, 2002 until April 1 2024,  it is not.  Its magic consisted of its refusal of the panacea of whiteness.  It refused to dissolve its individuality – expressed in every photograph, painting, writer or artist represented on the walls, its rustic funkiness, its jazz music, its “anti-progress” resistance to virtual connectivity – in the whiteness of denial. To me, that made it an expression of urban reality, cities being the place where all the differences – still, to this day – come together affording us the chance to connect (or the danger, as perceived by the father in the shopping center parking lot)  to connect with others and with oneself.

Some people who know the Cafe might feel I make too much of trauma, darkness and pain.  Especially when I’m talking about a place that always made them feel good.  But that is my point.  Inasmuch as Orin and I were allowing (suffering) its reality, contrary to the preferred and accepted white liberal caste reality, the vibe our place emitted was legitimately consoling.  The soul – anybody’s soul – feels this, vibrates to this. In my view it was peoples’ souls that loved the Cafe.  So I’m really asking, before the Cafe fades from memory, for people to take in what I’m saying.  To be what it was, the Cafe had to be a poem.  It had to partake of the different reality available to imagination, the better world that over and over gets aborted whenever its rebirth is imminent. 

Of course, if someone were to chide me for being too doom and gloom, I do get it.  That defensive aversion to dark reality is default whiteness speaking.  In order to exist, whiteness has to keep the traumatic past  in its undead place. I have that affliction as much as anybody raised to whiteness. That urge to block out the dark and the hopeless  is strongest when I think of my grandchildren; we hand them a  hopeless future; I don’t know what to say to them.  There’s in fact nothing to say.  There is only something needing to be allowed to exist.  There’s a change that wants to happen, it’s in process; I am the obstacle.  The grandchildren’s future is dark precisely in proportion to liberal white society’s ongoing denial of dark, traumatic reality, in the refusal to be about building the casteless,  interdependent reality.  It begins in the hearts of men and women who will acknowledge their “bastard” undead, which is to express themselves, to dare to make their poem.

I was lucky to have the chance to build what I feel now and will forever feel was a beautiful expression of the dream of the society I want rather than what is.  It was possible thanks to the partnership with Orin in a marriage that was an ongoing negotiation between we two othernesses, each of us born to a kind of outsiderhood. Though in different ways each of us was dis-abled in Neoliberal Normality, we found we could be rather awesome in our made-up reality.  The negotiations we made for the sake of the shared Big Dream made our different sort of Mom and Pop business possible.  From now on, speaking for myself, I am not “retired.” I am as a conquered people who chooses not to forget the place of wholeness and true freedom that was – for 21 years and 8 months,  as real as the bankers’ reality.  Like Blake’s and Baldwin’s Jerusalem, we will not forget you; there will be a new covenant made with the bastard undead.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: