Yup! I said it!
Apologies up front for the potential fiery language that may be included in the discussion of this topic. I tend to get worked up over this one folks and I can’t always contain myself. Also, #notsorry for dredging up issues that are so frequently avoided in the name of complacency and “keeping the peace.”
If you are familiar with my bio you will know that I am a yoga teacher, artist, and consider myself a feminist. In my world all three of these titles require internal awareness and a confrontation of truth. You cannot truly practice yoga without the observance of your internal space. You cannot have an authentic art practice if you are not being honest about who you are. And you cannot confront women’s issues without including all women. Let me say that again, including ALL WOMEN. And not only all women, but ALL PEOPLE! I could talk forever about the intricacies of what it means to be a feminist, but that might be a conversation for another time.
Today I want to talk to you about witnessing our own privilege. I want to live up to the words that I lay down in my bio about fearlessly diving into the dark underbelly of the human experience. And I’ve got a little secret for you, I am not fearless. This is a topic that scares the shit out of me. I am terrified of saying something ignorant or insensitive because of the position of privilege that I have held my entire life. So let’s get vulnerable, uncomfortable, and risk making mistakes in the name of creating change.
Ever since I was a little girl I can remember getting worked up over acts of inequality. I have a chronic soft spot for the person who gets bullied at no fault of their own. I have memories of watching films like Remember the Titans and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and feeling so riddled with sadness and guilt for the oppressive actions of the people who shared my ancestry. There were nights I would cry myself to sleep in elementary school during my first lessons of slavery, wondering how anyone could ever treat someone with such cruelty. No one deserves that. No one, period, end of sentence.
While this has always been a triggering topic for me, over the last 8 years it has started to become more personal. Years ago when I was just a young undergraduate student, carelessly living through my early twenties, my brother met a woman who eventually became his wife. She immediately became my sister as she is kind, generous, fun, loving, compassionate, brilliant and everything wonderful that I wanted for my brother in a life partner, as well as African American. When they told me they were getting married I was excited to have my first sister in someone I admired so deeply and am humbled to say that her blackness was not something that ever had an affect on my love for her. Since then they have given me the gift of becoming an aunt in the form of the two most amazing little girls I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. (I’m not crying…you’re crying). When I found out they were expecting their first, I actually sobbed tears of joy thinking about how much love this baby would receive from both sides of her amazing family. When I held her in my arms I knew that there was nothing I wouldn’t do for this perfect, tiny human who fills my heart with so much love. And that includes burning down the system that is set up to oppress people who look like her.
I was recently told a story about my oldest niece that tore my heart into pieces and is ultimately my inspiration for this post. One night at bed time she started crying and fighting against mama because she did not want to wear what used to be her favorite pajama top. When asked why by her mother, she pointed to the little girl of color on the shirt and said, “I don’t like her.” I have tears in my eyes now, just thinking about this… that at two years old this little girl has already learned to reject the color of her own skin. Something we can attribute to the thin, white portrayal of beauty in the media. Excuse my language but WHAT THE FUCK?! No…hell no!! This little girl will not grow up to learn to make herself small because of the actions of people who are much much smaller than she is. This girl is fire! She is opinionated, passionate, and amazing at only two years old, and despite the fact that I am her doting aunt, I know that she will grow up to be a powerful woman.
I realize that all of this coming from the mouth of a white woman may seem like a conceited attempt at absolving white guilt. I promise you, I am not here asking forgiveness for the actions of my ancestors, or even the mistakes I may have made in the past. I am here as a friend, a sister, an auntie, an artist, and a woman to take a stance. And that stance is this: I propose we wake up to the injustices that are constantly causing people to feel less than worthy. Waking up requires taking a hard look in the mirror. It’s easy to dismiss racism if we walk around in white skin. And while we may not actively be out there with white hoods calling for walls to be built, it is beyond important that we understand that we exist in a society that has been set up to benefit the white population. We could go down this road forever, laying out the facts and figures of what makes this true. I could speak to how centuries of oppression have created an unjust society, but the research on that is readily available. I am here to offer assistance on how we chose to move through this world. And I have a sense that if you follow this blog, and most certainly if you’ve made it this far into my writing, that there is something inside of you that sees this truth and cares to imagine a better world.
So, fellow empath, what can we do to dismantle a system that feels so huge and impenetrable? Maybe right now you are only able to change on a personal level and that is what I am here to help with.
Step one: Self Reflection.
You can explore what it means to check in with yourself. In yogi terms, become the observer of your own thoughts and witness yourself from a place of neutrality. When we catch ourselves having a thought that is unfair to others, disengage and know that the thought does not make up who you are. The thought is, rather years of learning that can be unlearned. We have the power to disengage from the lessons that were placed on us as children, and while they may run centuries deep, it is possible to change the patterning of your own mind. Sit with your thoughts and ask yourself why. It is not an easy thing to realize that you, yourself may feed into racism, but put yourself in another’s shoes and realize that they have experienced generations of not being heard. White culture has demanded being right for centuries and it is our turn to sit back and receive. Which brings me to my next step.
Step two: Listen.
Listen in the form of educating yourself in any way you can! But also HEAR people when they say they feel belittled. It is not your place to decide where your actions may have offended someone. Be humble and know that we all make mistakes, it’s part of the weakness of being human. And the beautiful opposing force of strength is that we have the power to choose to change our actions in the future.
Step three: Apologize.
Believe me, as someone who has prided herself as a champion of caring about people her whole life it was a complete slap in the face to realize that in the past I have been ignorant and an appropriator, and maybe a little bit of an asshole because I didn’t understand what it meant to be anything other than white. But you know, a slap in the face pales in comparison to being on the wrong end of a suppressive system. So here’s where the vulnerability that I spoke to before comes in. Apologize and acknowledge your privilege. Say a prayer, or a mantra, or write a letter and apologize for your actions. Not to someone, let me be very clear in saying that when we apologize for our whiteness it only puts people in a space where they then have to feel sorry for you and offer forgiveness where they might not be ready to give it yet. Please, please be mindful of this. It is not a person of color’s responsibility to absolve you of your shortcomings and it can often come across as insensitive. We step into this space with humility and an understanding that we are all coming from different experiences.
This is only a start. Believe me when I say that I know these three simple steps listed above are not enough. We cannot simply speak our apologies and expect that things are going to change. Change at this level takes action and commitment. Think positively, yes, manifest your own destiny, yes, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that these are the only steps necessary. It’s easy to get swept away in the positive, lovely, light seeking language of the wellness world; a language that I find to be highly problematic in that it can be incredibly divisive. Not everyone has access to yoga, to therapy, hell even to clean water. I say this knowing it’s a total cliché, but life is not always rainbows and butterflies. And guess what? You do not have to pretend that it is!
Part of being human is to experience it all. Choosing to be a good human and walking a path of enlightenment means making a choice every single day to do the very best that you can. We can take the privilege that has been given to us and use it to make positive change. I am not asking you to feel guilty, I am not trying to speak from a place of boastful egotism, because I know that I can always be doing more. I am inviting you to entertain the thought that the structures we exist within create a hierarchy of authority and, if like me you are white, we can step up and use our privilege to speak truth to power. Separate we remain small but together we rise. Join me in envisioning a world where all people can be allowed to feel peace.
With love of the goddess,
*Featured image photo cred: Shaojie on Unsplash