As we finish our look at community this month at OWY, I want to share something I’ve been thinking about and working on in myself over the past two years. It relates to our broader world community. Yoga, with all its talk of inclusivity, is not a very integrated activity. There is plenty of diversity in this geographical area (okay, maybe not in Huron), yet we don’t see very many minorities making it in to the studio. I’d like to see that change, so I’m putting my personal experience out there to shine a light forward for those of us seeking to de-polarize our own thinking around issues of race. When we depolarize, it is possible to make inclusivity an internal experience that then can radiate out into our communities.
I'd also like to say that I’m not writing this to convince you that institutional racism exists. It does. I’m not here to argue about it. And I’m not writing this to convince you not to be overtly racist. If you are, all I can say is: Dig into your heart and get rid of it. Hating (or mentally marginalizing) anyone -especially entire groups of people - doesn’t just fragment the world, it fragments your soul. If you are knowingly racist, it is possible to stop and heal yourself. Do it - for yourself and for all of us.
I’m writing this for the middle, white people who see what’s going on racially in our culture, are struggling to make sense of it, and don’t know what to do about it.
For a bigger conversation on the general topic of how to end internal polarization (do it - you’ll feel better!), join me on May 11th from 10:30 AM - 12:00 PM at the Huron studio for our first Mind Stretch: Mindful Conversations discussion. We will be focusing this first session on polarization and how to work on it internally. This blog post is an example of taking steps in the direction of ending internal polarization as it applies to the single issue of racism. - Shannon
White Guilt and What I Did WIth Mine
Like many suburban / rural / northern / middle white-Americans, I was shocked when I first heard about Black Lives Matter.
I now consider myself to have been the typical self-identified pre-#blacklivesmatter non-racist. I thought the Civil Rights movement in the 60s had taken care of things, and I was glad. I thought things like “I don’t see color” and “color-blindness” were good, kind, and thoughtful ways for white people to interact with a historically oppressed, but (I thought) now no-longer-oppressed population.*
When Black Lives Matter started to hit the news and I began hearing about institutional racism and white privilege, I didn’t know for quite awhile if they were even a thing, what they meant, or if they applied to me. I was frozen in place. I felt like a deer stopped in headlights, caught out in the open: Seen but not seeing.
I’m not afraid of the dramatic shifts that understanding can bring, so I am willing to look at the culture and look inside myself to grapple with issues until I understand them better. I have no interest in polarizing, I’m interested in integrating diverse opinions. So I set off to explore the idea of racism.
In this case though, with that frozen animal-in-headlights feeling, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know it then, but I know now that frozen feeling came both from feelings of guilt and the ungrounding feeling of my cultural understanding starting to shift. I felt guilty I hadn’t known what was going on, guilty I’d internalized some racist attitudes, guilty I’d unknowingly spoken hurtful words and perpetuated hurtful attitudes. I wanted to be able to place myself (in my own mind, at least) as separate from the system. Turns out I couldn’t. I had to accept myself as part of the system before my vision could clear enough to see. As soon as I realized it was guilt that was freezing me in place, I unfroze and started to look. I didn’t want just to be seen. I wanted to see for myself.
I’m sharing my story because I know I’m not alone in this confusion. I live in a very white community; I participate in white activities; I understand whiteness. I know that the majority of people do not want people of color to be marginalized and targeted, but I also know that white people from very white lives like mine might not know how to go about developing an understanding about what is going on in our culture. I’m writing this to make a few suggestions. I’m not writing to convince you of anything. I’m writing to show you a way to convince yourself.
I found art and alternative media to be the medicine for my confusion. My suggestion here is to dive into the art that is coming out of these times. There is a rich conversation unfolding in the world of art and media around race - it includes all the “facts” you find in the news, but art also includes emotional content which was what got its hooks in me and opened up the places where I was confused. Part of the work of understanding comes from witnessing the world, and an essential part is the work of self-reflection, considering one’s place as a part of the system, good and bad - a product of and participating in the system. By finding where we reflect certain attitudes, we empower ourselves to interact with the system differently.
Choose whatever medium you like and relate with best. I’m including a list of a variety of media, art and artists that have contributed to reshaping my internal landscape on the subject of racism. If you don’t know where to start, consider starting here. Almost every one of these pieces/resources I’m suggesting was created by black people experiencing black culture. Hamilton, Orange is the New Black and Serial: Season 3 are exceptions. As a general rule, if you are looking for art that reflects an aspect of culture, look to people living the experience.
All this is a beginning, and it’s not my story; it is the story of a culture divided from its inception by oppression, slavery, and their legacies. As whites, we don’t get to define the experience of people of color, but we do get to define our responses. If you feel frozen, mobilize. My list here is a compilation of the art and media that brought me to empathetic understandings. Find your own! Get curious, seek with no intention other than to understand and understanding will come.
*(For those of you who still might think and say things like “I don’t see color,” understand that statements like this announce that you DO see color, obviously, or you wouldn’t be making such a statement in the first place. At the same time, when you say this, you deny the unique experience of people of color - that is why these statements hurt.)
Shannon’s Short List of Art to Inspire Thinking on Racism:
I love hip hop in general, but I want to suggest one artist in particular here.
You know how sometimes you love an album so much you have to listen to it over and over and over until it becomes a part of you? Well, this album was like that for me. I listened to it until I could sing every word -I listened until I could anticipate every break, every hook - I took the music into me in a very deep way.
Particularly the final four tracks on DAMN. (XXX, Fear, God, and Duckworth) bring the listener into a narrative about modern black America that is feel-able. Feel-ability is what I looked for in all the pieces I’m recommending in this post. Even though I live in a very different world from the one K. Lamar describes, I can feel it in his music, the tenuousness of the grip each of us has on our own lives. This album was the first non-classical, non-jazz album to win the Pulitzer. This is not random; it is an incredible album, and it stands on the shoulders of many amazing hip hop artists who have been narrating their experiences in music for the last few decades.
2018 Grammy Performance by Kendrick Lamar (Vimeo Link)
The performance from 2018 is the single most emotionally intense musical performance I’ve ever seen. You do not have to understand the words to feel it. Words fail anyway. Just watch it. (His 2106 performance is worth seeing as well.)
(Hip hop is a quick and easy place to connect with some of what is going on, and there are some amazing artists writing about the modern black experience.)
Hamilton the Musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Spotify Link)
Listening to the music of Hamilton brought to my attention for the first time that the issue of equality in America was hotly contested from the beginning, that we are living the cultural legacy of our forefathers. The Civil War was a major shift in this initial failing, the Civil Rights movement was another major shift, and Black Lives Matter is creating another hopefully equalizing shift. Seen in context that these challenges are not new, they are old and have been with our nation since its beginning, makes it less personal - failing of a culture, not of me, the person - and it feels more fixable. Looking at history, it appears to me that we are on a course correction that will resurge as many times as it needs to until the scales are balanced.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (Amazon Link)
In her book Citizen Professor of Poetry at Yale University, Claudia Rankine illuminates the subtler and deeply painful way this modern racism creeps into casual and friendly interactions. It showed me the places I was still speaking and thinking in potentially damaging ways. This book won so many awards that I’m not even going to list them except to say it is the only poetry book to be a New York Times bestseller in the nonfiction category.
March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. Graphic novel series. (Wikipedia Link)
I only had a vague sense of how violent the Civil Rights Movement was until I read this series. More than 800 bombings one summer against Civil Rights groups and workers during the peak. It brings tears to my eyes to think of the bravery of these people working to right unbearable injustice. Historical context helped me to wrap my head around some continued injustices, and personally it helped inspire my way forward.
Orange is the New Black (Netflix Link)
I appreciated the varied backstories, windows into other lives and ways of being. The series showcases similarities and differences in the modern female experiences, and you better believe color plays a part.
Serial: Season 3 (hosted by Sarah Koenig)
The tagline for the season reads (in part): A year inside a typical American courthouse. One courthouse, told week by week.
I got a much better understanding of how and where and why our modern legal system is failing to be just. The fact that the season took place in a Cleveland courthouse didn’t just add local interest, it added an urgent understanding of how the modern legal system is failing our current! present tense! right now! Northern Ohio communities, particularly communities of color.
The 13th, Documentary by Ava DuVernay (Netflix LInk)
I watched the documentary The 13th, which gave a historical context to what I’d learned by listening to the Serial Podcast, and felt while watching Orange is the New Black. It explores the intersection between race and mass incarceration. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2016.
Grass is Greener (Netflix Link)
As I think about these issues, I don’t just want to dwell in the problems, I also like to look forward and imagine healthier futures. This film makes a compelling case for forward thinking reparations within the business structuring of legal cannabis. This film explains the intersectionality between racism and the enforcement of marijuana laws. It suggests reparations directly related to how African-American and Latin-American communities have been decimated by strict sentencing and drug laws relating to marijuana.
(The 13th, Serial, Orange is the New Black, and Grass is Greener explore the intersectionality between race and issues with our criminal justice system.)
I loved this movie so much. It really embodies the feel-ability I’m talking about here. Extra interesting because it creates an experiential understanding of how racism feels from black and white perspectives.
Behind the Myth of Benevolence. Titus Kaphar, artist, sculptor
This is a painting of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Thomas Jefferson has been called a “benevolent slave owner,” it wasn’t until I saw this painting that I really understood. Consider this: It is commonly believed that their relationship began when she was 14 and he was 44. In modern times, he’d be in jail as a sex offender and statutory rapist. Also, he OWNED her. I am embarrassed to say that in the past I have actually spoken the words “benevolent slave owner.” I will not again, in part because of this image. This doesn't mean Thomas Jefferson was all bad. He was living within the context of his times, but it is not fair to the people who are descended from slaves (or any of us) to leave this part of his story out of our cultural narrative.
There are so many more, this is a personal list - what has touched me and changed me. I left off many well know and game changing works of our times because I haven’t interacted with them yet or they didn’t have the personal impact of the pieces I included on this list.
A final thought on de-polarizing in general…
In this example, I suggest art and alternative media as a means of depolarizing. Art and media work well with racism, but are not always the answer. If you want to depolarize an issue within yourself, seek out information and also the feelings behind information. Sometimes that is done through art, sometines through open conversation, sometimes through a deep soul search - exploring both sides within, and there are many ways beyond these few I've mentioned.