In June 2021, the United States government added a new national holiday: Juneteenth. The holiday commemorates federal troops landing in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 to enforce Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation issued two and a half years before. The Civil War had ended two and a half months before.
We are usually told that the enslaved Black people in Texas did not know they were free until Major General Granger arrived to tell them. In fact, white people kept Black people enslaved by force. As reported by Robin Washington in “What Really Happened on Juneteenth”:
“We knowed what was goin’ on in [the war] all the time,” Felix Haywood, who was enslaved in Texas, is recorded as saying in an account by historian Gregory P. Downs. Haywood was in no way an anomaly, but representative of the majority of the enslaved populace, Downs asserts.
Of course Black people followed the news closely regarding their own freedom. When we believe the usual story, we do not pause to question the assumption that Black people were too ignorant, unintelligent, and helpless to track the news. White supremacy is built on that unquestioned assumption.
We need assumptions
Assumptions are not bad in themselves. We need assumptions to make sense of the world, organizing the sensory data flying at us in every moment into familiar categories. We narrow our attention to what is immediately relevant, and assume that everything else will stay more or less the same in the mean time.
Certainty can give us a sense of safety. We encase our assumptions in concrete and have a solid unchanging surface to rely on. At the same time, rigid assumptions about the world can limit our ability to grow and change. Hidden assumptions are not open to question or re-examination. That smooth concrete surface might collapse suddenly if an assumption changes, or is incorrect.
When we allow uncertainty, we build a flexible mesh of assumptions instead of a solid surface. A flexible surface invites our alert awareness in a moving, dancing balance, like a woven rope bridge across a chasm. Threads within the weave can change over time without damaging the whole.
Uncertainty can be neutral, playful, or even exciting. When we roll a six-sided die, any number could come up. The number might help us win or lose a game, but not have consequences beyond that. Uncertainty can be associated with exploration, like walking a new route, or creating something new one step at a time.
Uncertainty about safety and survival is difficult to tolerate. For people who have lived in abusive or otherwise dangerous environments, uncertainty and anxiety are linked. Rigidity, sameness, and control feel necessary to prevent further harm, and uncertainty is associated with dread and terror.
When we come out of Emergency Mode and return to alert awareness, uncertainty feels like an open question rather than a dark threat. We remember that we have adult resources and support to cope with unexpected events. We can question the assumption that we are broken, and instead respect that our reactions make sense, even when they come from past trauma.
Note: Persistent confusion or uncertainty about our own reality can be a sign of gaslighting.
Our favorite assumption is that our lives will continue to be the same in the future as they have been in the past. We might need to grieve the loss of certainty and stability as we adapt to a more open and flowing framework of assumptions. It makes sense to want things to stay the same so our old habits and patterns continue to carry us through our days. Navigating change takes more work and mindfulness.
We live in increasingly uncertain times. Climate change brings us new weather patterns, like the record shattering heat wave the Pacific Northwest just endured. The Covid-19 pandemic is ongoing, with new variants arising as we all try to balance risks with unmet needs after more than a year of restrictions.
Question white supremacy
BIPOC bear the brunt of both climate disasters and pandemic deaths because white supremacy systematically denies resources to communities and individuals who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. White supremacy also teaches us to blame the victims and assume that BIPOC have fewer resources because of some intrinsic lack or failing.
When we allow uncertainty and hold our assumptions more lightly, we make room for change and hope. We can question negative assumptions we learn from sexism, racism, and emotional abuse and instead respect people’s capable agency by default.
Small actions matter
In her recent memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence, Rebecca Solnit reminds us that even when oppression and disaster look certain, change begins at the edges and in the shadows. Many small, seemingly futile actions come together to create apparently sudden transformations. Question the assumption that your small actions are unneeded.
We can remember that uncertainty holds good outcomes as well as bad ones. With compassion for our trauma-weary selves, we can learn to nestle into uncertainty like a hammock, finding support in its flexible weave.
- “What Really Happened on Juneteenth” by Robin Washington, in Forward, June 18, 2021
- Rebecca Solnit’s Recollections of My Nonexistence talks about the seemingly sudden #MeToo movement that built on decades of feminist work to make women’s voices heard. Her earlier book Hope in the Dark discusses other political shifts that begin in the margins and eventually become so mainstream that we forget to notice our victories.