Can White People ‘Negate the World’ That’s Our Oyster?

What racism did to people like myself was that it opened the door that there is something fundamentally wrong in the world in which we live.  What Malcolm X did was give us a key to understand there is something far far bigger, beyond that door.  Beyond the darkness.  We can negate the world in which we live…

– Tariq Mehmood, quoted in The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne

When (traumatized) people are compulsively and constantly pulled back into the past, to the last time they felt intense involvement and deep emotions, they suffer from a failure of imagination, a loss of  mental flexibility.  Without imagination there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach.

– Bessel van der Kolk, MD, The Body Keeps the Score

Today, my real, inescapable, completely honest subject is vulnerability; to ignore this feeling is to ignore the elephant in the living room of my soul. I feel it on many levels in this post-pandemic, climate-doomed, post-idealistic times, but the personal tends to block out even the insecurity I feel in relation to the larger in-common threats. The Cafe’s closing left us two septuagenarians with a debt well exceeding the amount we received for the business, 2 frail humans facing a labyrinthine bureaucratic depersonalized tax collection nightmare, the demands of which at times resembled the out-of-control plight of the sorcerer’s apprentice. What one finds in such circumstances is, despite the way the word is tossed around, financial vulnerability, even more than mental or physical vulnerability,  thrusts one out somewhere beyond what can be talked about with your friends.  Besides boring them to death, there’s the risk your friends will suspect you’re indirectly asking them for help!

Stories or movies in which an impoverished character, out of pride, does not ask for help keep coming to my mind.  I think of Louisa May Alcott, her family existing on the brink of poverty because their brilliant but improvident Dad left them penniless.  Even in the “global north,” people used to know how to think about suddenly finding oneself destitute because it happened to so many.  The song words come back to me, now with resonance: “God bless the child that’s got its own,” “Hey Buddy can you spare a dime? etc.  I think of homeless people, how very possible it is to end up in destitution.  I think of those Wall St. bankers jumping out of tall buildings after the Great Crash.  All formerly incomprehensible, now I understand.

The financial consequence of the leap of faith I took with my life that we could make a small, entirely local business that epitomized the soul’s dream – the beauty of interdependence – has revealed to me why most people do not take such risk.   However, even as our Cafe has disappeared, sunk like Atlantis to be either forgotten or to become the stuff of local legend as long as there are stories and storytellers left,  even as I am forced into a social blindspot labeled “former” or “retired,” even as I struggle with this unaccustomed and frightening vulnerability, I am not yet convinced the gamble I/we took upon a dream,  was a mistake.  A leap of faith is, after all, a “leap” into vulnerability!  It makes a “meaningful hope,” as, say, a new McDonald’s with its multi-million dollar marketing budget, no risk involved,  cannot. The “unforeseen consequences” don’t alter the meaningfulness of the deed, I tell myself, anymore than the fact John Brown was hung like a common criminal for the raid at Harper’s Ferry erases the heroism of his action, or the fact of Stalin’s ruthlessness made the idealism of American communists wrong.

That there is much shame in financial failure, so much taboo around it, says something about our relation to vulnerability, about the larger neoliberal reality in which some of us, the lucky, are, or are supposed to be, invulnerable.

A brilliant essay (CounterPunch 6/26/24) by Judith Deutsch called Water, Climate, Violence, sheds light on that reality, on the  moral consequences to American insistence on security.  That is, the interlocking systems of global economies depend upon the imperilment and immiseration of millions of other humans outside the “global north” whom we don’t see.  Called  “necropolitics,” by Nigerian scholar Achille Mbembe, this system is sustained by ignorance, by people in America living as if there were no backstory to the cellphones, the air travel, the plastics and toxic waste (dumped where?),  the erosion of our local places. We learn to live – to exist – upon an ever-thinner crust of privilege that depends upon human suffering and the desecration of places. Sustaining our sense of security comes at the cost of the security of other people.  Somebody has to be vulnerable, but not me thank heavens.

The larger reality in which this immoral de-worthing of human beings is sanctioned, even encompassing neoliberalism, is caste. Caste is the metaphysical substitute for interdependence.  As an unconscious, default ontology it defends ego supremacy; caste allows those of us at the upper end to maintain the illusion of invulnerability.  Previous civilizations relied upon the sanctification of caste and hierarchy, but now, thanks to the inclusion of minority voices and voices from the formerly colonized, we can see it for what it is. Because it exists as metaphysical reality, there’s no escaping caste until the spiritual/transformational door is opened, as Malcolm X did for black peopleFor white people, who do not have the personal experience of racism that, properly grasped, allows one to know “there is something fundamentally wrong with the world,” there must be another way to experience our vulnerability.  Vulnerability that is,  not as end in itself, but as opening that will reveal what we take to be our enlightened liberal progressive reality is actually – or equally –  the darkness of ignorance.  And that, in that caste reality, in which race assigns superiority/inferiority, whiteness is merely cover for worthlessness.

Elimination of caste is the rescue of our humanity, a task for which the human soul is ‘designed,” birthed in each individual case into vulnerability and radical dependence.  That is, responsibility for its rescue lies directly in individual hands; it is up to me to rescue my humanity with its fragile dream of a world that feels safe to live in. Even now, when to be a dreamer seems absurdly anachronistic, doesn’t one have to take the leap of desire, that leap into vulnerability – follow the dream –  and stand the ground? What choice is there?  Without the risk of creativity, even the haven of community  reinforces caste, buttressing the wrong illusion, the  liberal progressive best-of-all-possible-worlds.   Security – safety – lies with  knowing I can/must negate the world as “necropolis” that deals out oppression and cruelty to so many at the low end of caste and denies the soul’s worth at the “high end.”


As anyone can tell who reads my essays, despite my choice to be an “advocate for the creative soul,” as the bold writer in me has at times proclaimed herself to be, I keep my imagination on a leash.  I am very far from being in the league of the daring artists who have declared their fierce opposition to the status quo  imagination-flattening industrial world – the Romantics,  dadists and surrealists pre-and-post WWI,  the Beats and the cultural explosion of the 1960’s.

On the other hand, I left the professional clergy back in 1989 because I could not deliver someone else’s revelation, but only, as I found later,  my own.  Believe it or not, quite a lot of ground had to be broken for my voice to become even this free!  But the manner in which it was freed,  mental breakdown followed by experience of “something far bigger,” left me feeling I must broadcast my discovery, over and over.  The revelation cost me a pulpit – I no longer could speak for a church, either creeded or credo-less as the Unitarian-Universalist churches proclaim themselves to be.  But it gained me the freedom of the artist to negate the world that in teaching me there’s no reality except what is visible and tangible kept me in ignorance.

To “negate the world,” the expression used by Tariq Mehmoud in the epigraph,  is not something that comes easily to an insecure bourgeois white person like myself. I lack the requisite priming from working-class or ethnic upbringing to be oppositional.  (Moreover, as a person with “attachment disorder” I have equal difficulty with joining and with separating.) The self-protective negative attitudes smart white people like me learn – cynicism or ironic distancing or sarcasm –  do not negate the world; they lead no further than personal numbing, resignation, misery, at best the company of fellow smart, disillusioned people, all of which protect against feeling the truth of vulnerability.

Personal revelation, the revelation my soul needed – was  fundamentally about recognition for my own submerged and bound-with-briars imagination against the fear I’d absorbed through my upbringing. The identification with my alive soul and its need for my recognition gave me my own“gnostic” experience.  This self-generated affirmation of my intrinsic worth was the ground from which I could negate the world that had profoundly negated me. Taking such metaphysical risk is something most white secular bourgeois liberals leave to the mystics, prophets, and poets, but this risk-aversion is something the world can no longer afford.  We can echo “everyone’s an artist,” maxim of anarchist Fluxus artists of the 1960’s, not to erase the value of craftsmanship, but as call to all souls to rise up and claim their bliss.


The idea of “negating the world” gets tarred with the brush of asceticism, and indeed, Malcolm X was strictly self-disciplined.  Negation as I mean it is not about deprivation of sensory pleasure, but rather the inclusion of joy, a different discipline.  Without the direct, personal experience of “gnostic truth” (transcendence) one is left stuck in the dualism in which right and wrong are kept strictly separate, in which certain pleasurable behaviors cannot escape their taint with badness, and in which human beings are seen invariably in terms of caste distinctions.  According to dualistic, partial “through-a-glass- darkly” vision, either the other – black-skinned and other caste inferiors –  is ‘fundamentally wrong,” or the fundamental wrongness is in me.  Religion helps people let go of the deep self-negating belief (original sin) and gives the individual, through conversion, a hand up. It does not do well dispelling caste.

Caste, in fact,  does an even better job than religion of providing a workable sense of self-worth; often, unbeknownst to its practitioners,  white privilege is doing the job we assumed religion was doing!  It makes religion unnecessary: that is, one never need know one’s vulnerability!  Caste allows us who are white to check all the right boxes in life in liberal society, make a living, buy a home, travel, become rich, etc., even care deeply about social injustice, all while harboring the deep conviction of intrinsic faultedness, personal misfittedness, sorriness, in the socially acceptable form of neurosis: depression and other milder forms of mental illness,  low self-esteem as well as the determination not to be a loser. Neuroses, however painful, can be managed; they’re a “personal problem;” they have a diagnostic name and a medication.  They don’t make one a pariah, even if incurable.

However, low self-esteem is not just a personal problem.  It is the basis for the maintenance of caste.  People who keep a boot on their own neck cannot “reach for the stars.”  Rather, though they can reach for success on capitalism’s terms, or, at best,  for the great star of justice on behalf of oppressed others, they cannot reach for the star that is theirs, uniquely, their own star of desire and self-interest and, may I say, the god-likeness of creative work.  A person who deep down inside believes she’s crap cannot “negate the world;” she must, always, accept its premises and assumptions or risk being a complete nonentity in it. The joke’s, of course on her –  the world’s already “non-entitized” her as much as the Congolese children risking their health and lives mining precious cobalt for our cellphones!  If she’s lucky, she can escape the worst effects, the mental illness, addictions, crime, etc.; she need never be aware of her own vulnerability!  She needs only to accept the basic assumptions of progress (and of whiteness), the world getting better, all problems wrinkles that will be ironed out eventually by the efforts of good people.

Having just finished reading Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, these sentences I’ve just written seem to be describing how good people can become enlisted in a system of thorough-going evil.  By accepting the terms of the world as given, trading the truth of vulnerability for the convenience of obedience and having a (privileged) place in that world., I sell out my soul’s magnificence, turning it into banality.


Research on trauma (PTSD) has opened the door on a reality with far more applicability than just to individuals abused as children or battlefield survivors.  Trauma is the result of beginning life in a condition of helplessness and meeting a social world prepared to qualify the infant’s absolute need to feel safe in the body.  Increasingly there is understanding of the relationship between the denial of vulnerability and the defensive posture of victim that drives so much of the worlds’ violence, conflicts, brutality and wars.  Because relationship depends upon individuals’ capacity to see the other with embodied compassion,  dogmatic victimhood is disastrous to all levels of relationships. One thinks of Israel’s genocidal revenge against the Palestinians, one hopeful response to which, journalist Adam Schatz writes (Israel’s Descent, LRB 6/20/24)) comes from some Israeli activists who’re adopting “the perspective of the ‘expelled’ – who, since 1948, have been Palestinian, not Jewish.”

We could as well talk about American liberals’ failure to recognize genocide against native Americans isn’t addressed with “land acknowledgments” at public meetings. To escape becoming victimizers, the necessary identification has to be downward, toward vulnerability, not away from it.  We have gone way too far in the denial of vulnerability, building an empire that never has to say it’s sorry to the ones it imperils in our stead.  Writing these words does not make my current condition of financial insecurity easier to bear.  Nor does reminding myself of others who “have it worse.”  Though socially, I’m in a no-man’s land between the homeless and destitute and the secure homeowner, I can still write, and stand by what my soul tells me, my identity not with being a loser but with being human.

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: