Naomi, India and My Home Town

By Heather Hackman

Heather Hackman is the founder and president of Hackman Consulting Group. With a doctorate in Social Justice Education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and 12 years of experience as a professor in Human Relations & Multicultural Education, Heather trains and consults nationally on issues of deep diversity, equity and social justice, and her most recent research and conference presentations have focused on climate change and its intersections with issues of race, class and gender.

Author’s disclaimer: Since I have not posted in a while this is a long one, so hang in there. :)

I grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada. I was not born there, mind you, but I lived there from the age of 6-18 and so it obviously had a significant influence on me. I often share this at the beginning of trainings to help folks understand that I was not raised in a place where I would be naturally predisposed to social justice work. The tag line for the city does not say “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas…and we are totally committed to race, class and gender justice!” Nothing of the kind. In fact, it is quite the opposite – it is a city that is predicated on taking your money and having you smile while we do it, almost never really knowing what hit you. We alter the lighting in casinos, we make sure you never see the shift changes, and we hide all clocks so you have no sense of time passing. We have endless sources of food and drink so you are always sated. We make sure no real culture expresses itself but will fill the horizon with facsimiles of culture like Venice, Paris, Rome, Egypt and New York. And most of all, we make sure that there is nothing visible that would give pause to hedonism – no homeless, no hungry, no examples of racism, and when we show you women almost completely naked taking your drink order, we make sure they are always smiling so as to offer the impression that working in a thong and pasties for eight hours is enjoyable.

Las Vegas is often a reference for me in my training work when talking about my own gender awareness (I hated the depiction of women in that city), my lack of racial awareness (it was a place representing the most extreme results of colonization and exploitation and so there was simply no mainstream conversation about race at all, at least not one that was connected to racial justice), and my experience regarding class (make it seem like you have money at all costs because that is the only parlance this city understands). Though I had no substantive political consciousness, these gender, race and class dynamics often left me uneasy, confused or on the outside looking in.

But after reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014), I can see one more reason why that town never felt like home to me – it is the penultimate example of extractivism over nature, of humanity’s desire for “more” falling in direct conflict with what is and should be possible in the middle of the desert. And that’s the key point – Las Vegas does not sit in the middle of a lush, green landscape with water readily available for its 61 golf courses. Nor does it reside in a temperate climate that does not require constant air conditioning. Nor is it located in an area where food is locally grown in plentiful amounts. No. It is in the middle of the desert. Dry, hot and what does grow there is not what we want in our “world’s biggest buffets”. But that has not stopped the developers from turning Vegas into the most impossible of spaces and forcing it to be green, forcing it to be cool, and flying, trucking and “training” in all manner of foods to assuage the palates of the entire world.

 

As you can imagine, there was very little of the city I liked as I was growing up, but I did have a fondness for its heat, its vast terrain and the challenge its isolation posed. On occasion we would head up to Mt. Charleston or drive out to Red Rock Canyon and each and every time I felt more alive and more grateful and more at home than I ever felt in the city itself. Maybe even as a young person there was something in me that knew that Vegas was ultimately a deeply flawed and likely failed proposition. Building such an edifice in a place where not a single aspect of it should ever be seems to be the ultimate testament to the hubris that has led us to this current climate moment – the mere notion that we can completely, indefinitely, and without any consequence bend nature to our will, no matter how obscene and unnatural it is. Only by connecting to the natural world via those excursions outside of Vegas, was I able to understand how problematic my home town was and is.

 

I know many people who “love Vegas” but not a one of them is engaged in the struggle for climate justice and the creation of a social, political and economic framework that is sustainable. Their love for Vegas might, on its surface, simply be a love for sun and fun. But, in truth the love that members of extraction societies hold for Vegas is likely because of the role it plays in being the ever-present reminder of our dominion over nature and that life can seemingly be abundant and enjoyable in the process. Vegas is an escape, like most vacation destinations, but it is a particular escape into the fantasy that humanity can consume at rates unthinkable (in a rational world) and somehow still be okay.

 

I rarely go back to Vegas, but was there last April for my brother’s wedding and while driving with my mother, I looked around at the mall expansion and the fact that the city has built and built and built right up to its very edges, and I said to her, “there is nothing that would ever have me come back to this place.” So smug, right? So self-righteous. So “above it all” in cool judgment and educated condemnation…except for the fact that you can take the Heather out of Vegas but not the Vegas out of Heather (at least not without some serious work). And so I have had to look at (thanks again to Naomi Klein’s book) the ways I carry the Vegas mentality with me – how I consume in absurdly racist, classist and ultimately imperialist ways. How I engage with the world as if it is made of infinite resources. How I create space and places and ways of being that simply have no business being where they are. And within this where I am truly just ignorant, and where I am willfully choosing not to see.

 

Let me be more specific – I was recently traveling in India for four weeks and the concrete, recurring question bumping up against my inner-Vegas was, “what on earth am I doing traveling for pleasure?” The carbon footprint we laid down as we went from Mumbai to Kathmandu to Varanasi to Bodh Gaya to New Delhi to Hampi to Fort Kochi to Thekkady to Alleppey and then back to Mumbai with me then returning home to Minneapolis was absurd. No other word for it. I was not there for work, I was not there for research, I was not there for any social justice reason at all, I was there because two friends live there and I wanted to see India and so going while they were there seemed like a good idea. Hello Vegas.

 

This past week TED posted a sweet, and if you listen closely, deeply poignant talk by Matthieu Ricard about altruism and climate change where he posited altruism (a path to climate justice) in opposition to selfishness (the path to climate disaster), and I had to face the fact that traveling the way we did (flying, driving, and hotels with such an extensive carbon footprint!) for pleasure is and was simply selfish. This bucks right up against the “but I’ve earned it” and the “I need to relax a bit and unwind, what’s selfish about that?” refrain so often uttered by middle-class U.S.-ers. It even can bump up against those who espouse the “deep growth and change of worldview that travel can bring” argument, and while this learning is often true and has almost always been true for me, it pales against the reality that we are very quickly passing critical planetary boundaries and we must steeply curb, swiftly change and substantially adapt if we are going to have a shot at a sustainable future.

 

And that means that travel for pleasure is likely on the chopping block for me. Notice how I hedged my bet there… “likely”. Even as I write this I cannot quite bring myself to fully commit. And yet, I hope that by being more public it will help me connect with others who are at similar places regarding truly unnecessary consumption, but caught in the throes of a neoliberal, globalized, colonial mindset. The class category I am identifying here is clear, right – U.S. middle, upper-middle and professional middle class folks who have disposable income but who are not the 1%. I see myself as a member of that group and in a nutshell we consume like mad.

 

And even though the bulge in CO2 emissions is shifting to the Global South, do not be fooled by that. Carbon emissions are recorded for the country they are emitted in, not the causality of those emissions. So, China, India and others in the Global South release much of their CO2 in the process of producing goods that we consume in the Global North. Thus, it is our consumption in the Global North that is still driving rising CO2 in a literal sense via what we purchase, consume and throw away. But, it is also driven by the illusion of power, prosperity and “happiness” that we have exported in connection with this level of consumption – the cultural imperialism of consumption. As I was driving the roads all over India I could not help but notice the mark of Western advertising promising happiness if only you eat this (vegetarian) Whopper, drink this Coke, or try this Jolly Rancher (these folks looked particularly happy, actually). This form of ideological colonization, by conflating happiness with consumption, will kill us all if we do not see through it, rigorously critique its impacts, and offer alternatives.

 

One of the most slippery ways “consumption” defends itself, however, is by saying that if we stop consuming, all of the folks in India, China, Mexico and Brazil who are making these products will lose their livelihoods. That is true if the only source of life is the maquiladora. However, what I quickly understood as I was in India is that if I took the money I waste on my useless consumption and instead offer it up as payment for the Global North’s climate debt, I would be making an amend for the havoc my consumption has wrought, I would be supporting green and truly sustainable development, and I would be interrupting the ideology of consumption and extraction and replacing it with a more global vision of stewardship and climate justice in response to the crisis we are in.

 

I’m not talking charity here, I’m talking about wealth redistribution and putting substance to the IPCC’s “equal but differentiated responsibilities” framework. There are truly countless organizations all over the world (many of them indigenous) working locally to replace the extractivist worldview with something much more sustainable. For specifics, go to Naomi’s book and the references in the back. Better yet, read her book and come to understand some of the work these organizations are doing globally.

 

And so that is really why I am writing this – not to do the solipsistic, passive aggressive lefty thing where we cynically criticize ourselves and call ourselves hypocrites in order to actually shame and blame others, nor am I trying to induce guilt and shame and point a finger. Instead, I am openly sharing what has come up for me since I left for India in December and how I intend to apply these lessons to a hopeful and sustainable solution whereby we ALL can live on this planet. By some studies / measures as a middle-class U.S.-er I consume 80% more than is allowable if we are to try and keep planetary warming limited to two degrees centigrade. While many think we have missed that two-degree mark, it is no reason to not then shoot for two-point-five degrees. And while there is no guarantee that any of this will matter or work, it is absolutely certain that if the West does not curb its consumption by somewhere around 80%, and stop exporting this way of life as laudable, we will most surely suffer deeply and badly as a planet for a very, very long time.

 

Please do not hear my words from a place of guilt or shame. Brain research has shown that that is a weak place of motivation and stops learning (see, for example, the work of Dr. Daniel Siegel in The Mindful Brain). Rather, if you are a middle-class U.S.-er, make the changes you can and do this work from the place of altruism. Do it for the love of the natural world. Do it because it truly is the right thing to do. Do it as an amend for the colonization and genocide that created this wealth. Do it for future generations of all life on this planet. Do it as spiritual practice. Do it for a host of possible reasons or combinations therein. Whatever your motive, let us begin to do it now – to dig deep, to cut deeply, and to move quickly to a worldview that is in resonance and not dissonance with this planet.

 

One of Klein’s last points in her book, to light the way perhaps, is an analysis of various social movements that have achieved significant political, social and at times even some economic change – and of course the overarching theme was the word movement. We cannot do this alone, but if we are not practicing it as individuals it becomes difficult to authentically participate in those movements, and almost impossible to keep them alive over the long haul. One of the slogans of the People’s Climate March was, “to change everything, we need everyone” and so please join in climate justice work, please talk to others, please engage politically and socially, and if you are someone with economic access, please dig deep and work to make the changes necessary for this movement to lead us into a sustainable future. I thank you for your partnership on this path and hope to learn from you as we all do our level best.

A System of Fear

by Stephen C. Nelson, MD

In addition to training and consulting with Hackman Consulting Group, Stephen Nelson is currently a physician specializing in the treatment of Sickle Cell Disease at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, MN. Dr. Nelson received a Bush Fellowship in 2009 to study the role of racism in the treatment of patients with Sickle Cell Disease, and regularly trains and presents on racism in medicine, provider bias, and transforming racial disparities in health care.

As I listen to conversations about the events surrounding the homicides in Ferguson and Staten Island at the hands of the police, I am struck by some similarities that I encounter in healthcare. Too often, it appears we get stuck on single, isolated incidents at the expense of appreciating the “big” picture. By focusing on individual acts, we lose sight of broader systems that may be affecting these individual acts.

I was especially disheartened to hear a particular conversation on NPR on the way home from work the other evening. I was listening intently to the interview on December 5th with civil rights attorney Constance Rice on how she built trust with police. I was particularly frustrated to hear her say:

“Cops can get into a state of mind where they’re scared to death. When they’re in that really, really frightened place they panic and they act out on that panic. I have known cops who haven’t had a racist bone in their bodies and in fact had adopted black children, they went to black churches on the weekend; and these are white cops. They really weren’t overtly racist. They weren’t consciously racist. But you know what they had in their minds that made them act out and beat a black suspect unwarrantedly? They had fear.”

I was frustrated to hear her use the word” racist” when talking about these individual white cops. This makes racism an individual act and not a broader system of oppression. What I believe she really meant to say was that these white cops were not prejudiced. By focusing on the individual police officers, she failed to acknowledge the systems of racism and white supremacy in our society that led these police officers to fear black men. I absolutely believe that many white cops fear black men. But, she didn’t discuss why this is true.

White people are scared of black people. Just admit it. We are. We are not proud of it.

This is how we were raised. This is how we were taught. This is “just the way it was”, especially in the South, especially in Virginia where I grew up in the 60s and 70s. But this miseducation didn’t stop in the 60s and 70s. It continues today.

So, if I am honest with you I will say that I still have some fear of black people. Think about it… Use the “dark alley” scenario, or “walking down the street alone” and you hear foot steps behind you. Are you relieved in either situation when you realize the person behind you is white?

As with many of us, we learn this fear at a very young age. For me, it was when our family was in Atlanta visiting friends. I had finished 7th grade. It was the summer of 1973. Dad got tickets for us to see the Atlanta Braves play the New York Mets. He was especially excited because Tom Seaver was pitching for the Mets that night. We were driving to Fulton County Stadium and some neighborhood children had placed a detour sign to force traffic down their street. The goal, as I discovered, was to give you directions to the parking lot and then ask for money. When we turned down that dark street, my mother reached around and locked all of the doors to the car. She was afraid. So I was afraid. The boys giving us directions were black. We were in an all black neighborhood at night in Atlanta in 1973. It was subtle. It was very quiet. But, it reinforced a feeling deep inside me that I carry to this day. I was to fear black people.

We have a college friend who apparently does this a lot. Every time she would lock her car door her husband would ask “Did you see a black person, Linda?” My husband Peter and I would start asking each other the same question if we locked our door. “Did you see a black person, Linda?” We’d ask friends or family when they locked their car door “Did you see a black person, Linda?” We thought it was funny. This was before I started recognizing my white privilege, before I started to understand how racism really works in our society, and before I began to look at my world with a critical race lens to see, to really see how people of color are treated in our country.

This fear is now automatic. Thanks to the ingenuity of the American automobile industry, we don’t have to think about it anymore. Our car doors lock automatically. Sure, this is for our own safety, right? Or is it so we don’t have to ask “Did you see a black person, Linda?”

This fear is ingrained. It is automated. It is immediate. It is engaged even if we are not conscious of it. We don’t have to do anything to make it happen. It just does. Just like my car doors locking; my stereotyping, bias, and fears play out automatically. Sometimes I’m aware of this, and sometimes I’m not.

Stereotyping, unconscious bias, and fear have affected, in such profound ways, the care that I have given to my patients and families of color. Like my car doors, I was unaware. It just happened. I never even noticed it.

Turns out, my patients and families noticed. How do I know this? Dr. Hackman and I asked. Race matters. Race and racism affect the delivery of health care. To learn more you can read our manuscript published last year: “Race matters: Perceptions of race and racism in a sickle cell center.” Pediatr Blood Cancer 2013;60:451–454 as well as our chapter “Dismantling racism to improve health equity” in Health Disparities: Epidemiology, Racial/Ethnic and Socioeconomic Risk Factors and Strategies for Elimination. Nova Publishers, New York, 2013, Chapter VI, 147-160.

Physicians and health care providers, for the most part, are good people. We go into medicine to give quality care and to help patients and families. We like to think that our healthcare system somehow functions in a vacuum, outside of our highly racialized society. We are not taught how the structure and systems of our society (racism) affect the social determinants of health such as poverty, education, incarceration, homelessness, unemployment and insurance. The disparities seen with these social factors in people of color are partly to blame for the profound racial health inequities seen in the United States.

Some of the blame also lies with us, the healthcare system itself. We are overwhelmingly white. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, Minnesota is now 5.2% black and 4.7% Latino/Latina. However, of the 13,083 licensed physicians in Minnesota only 261 are black and 313 are Latino/Latina. The numbers are even more disparate when looking at the nursing workforce. Of the 57,639 RNs in Minnesota, only 105 are black and 30 are Latino/Latina. And, of the 220 graduates from the University of Minnesota Medical School in 2013, one was black.

The education and miseducation I received growing up that led to my fear of blacks was not very different from my medical education. Who teaches us in medical school? Whites. Only 4% of American medical school faculty are from under-represented minorities (black, Latino, Native American). What are we taught? Evidence-based protocols developed by majority white researchers, using majority white patients, carried out by the majority white health care system.

What are we not taught? We are not taught about the social determinants of health and how racism affects these as well as health outcomes. We are not taught to see our own unconscious biases and stereotyping.

Just as police officers may fall prey to their own biases, stereotyping and fears; so too may the health care provider. In both cases, the result may be deadly for people of color. While the presence of more significant training for providers regarding racism may help to lessen the racial disparities in health care, the opposite is also true. The absence of substantial training on issues of race and racism will serve to perpetuate and potentially exacerbate racial health care disparities. Until racial issues are honestly addressed by the health care team as well as the judicial system, it is unlikely that we will see significant improvements in racial disparities for Americans.

Fear is real. But, we can lose it.

Here’s wishing for a less fearful and more joyful 2015 for all of us!

Guest Blog: The Belief Gap

by Maria Graver

Maria Graver was born and raised on Chicago’s south side and currently spends her days with fifth graders in Edina, Minnesota. Ms. Graver is the mother of two young children and a proud mestiza.

I have been reading to my children since before they were born, stroking my burgeoning belly and sharing both poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the first shade my daughter ever felt was that of a picture book, held overhead, as we sat outside together. Sure, I enjoy reading. Yet, that’s not the full story here. The full story goes more like this: Having grown up in my own brown body, I have come to know that – in order to be perceived as intelligent – people of color have to be noticeably brighter than our white peers, and we have to be this way nearly all of the time. Otherwise, our flashes of intelligence can be explained away by fluke or circumstance – neatly rolled up and pushed into the corners of multigenerational white American consciousness – to make room for the barrage of media-generated stereotypes insisting that people of color are…criminal, oversexed, violent, deviant, unclean, drug-selling, drug-using, alcoholic, bilking the welfare system…I could go on, but I’m sure you can see where I’m headed.

I read to my children in the hopes that they will never be incorrectly classified, so that the light of their intellect shines brightly enough to stun their teachers, rendering them temporarily unable to remember all of the derogatory racist drivel with which Americans are overtly and covertly inundated. Their brilliance has to eclipse the belief gap.

By my estimation, the belief gap is the most detrimental facet of our nation’s racial achievement gap. On the off chance that the belief gap is a new consideration for you, let me flesh it out a little bit. The belief gap is characterized by society’s lack of faith in the intellectual abilities of people of color. Now, before you head off, content that the aforementioned lack of faith isn’t possibly something that you could have internalized, let’s ponder recent American history. Certainly, we have all been saddened and horrified by events in Ferguson and Cleveland, and rightly so. I wonder, though, how many of us have been surprised?

I wasn’t.

If there’s one thing that I know about my perceived place in the American social hierarchy, it’s that I am both distasteful and disposable…and, guess what, this is how we have all been taught – both consciously and subconsciously – to regard our children of color, as well.

So, I ask you, how do you think this informs our nation’s beliefs about the intellectual competencies of people of color?

How might it inform your own beliefs?

 

At HCG, we are honored to be part a community of thoughtful, committed and courageous educators, organizers and thinkers. As our community continues to grow, we’re also honored to share guest blog posts from our friends and colleagues in this work.

A People’s Climate March

I was at the People’s Climate March this past weekend in NYC and it was an amazing experience. I have had the privilege of attending many marches over the years but this one was different in some very important ways and for those reasons, in addition to the fact that there were 400,000 people there, it felt historic.

The foremost reason it stood out to me was that it was the first march I have ever been to where there were no “allies” to the issue or group being focused on (e.g. heterosexual allies working for marriage equality without a clear sense of how they will benefit from it as heterosexuals). Instead, it was crystal clear that everyone there felt deep ownership regarding climate justice and could see the connections of our current climate crisis to their own work. Labor unions were clearly articulating the relationship between classism, exploitation, and economic inequality and the conditions that have led to climate change. Students and youth were clearly making the connections between the situation we are in and the reality of their future. Various Communities of Color and Native Communities (along with Whites committed to racial justice) were identifying the explicit ties of racial oppression, colonization and endless exploitation to what got us into this dire planetary situation. Feminist groups were connecting the dots between gender oppression, misogyny and the violent assault on the earth. In every way, deep and complex links were being made between health and climate disruption, education and climate change, food justice and climate justice, and so on. And I think this is what gave me a sense of hope I did not expect – 400,000 people all understood (granted to varying degrees) that we truly are all in this together, that standing on the sidelines is nowhere near an option, and that the stakes have never been higher for our species. Moreover, there was substantial consensus on what the solutions are: the need for a zero-carbon economy and an immediate switch to renewables, a restructuring of our economic systems such that human needs trump corporate, neo-liberal capitalist needs, and that we must think as a whole planet and not national fiefdoms some of which are privileged while others suffer.

The second aspect of the march that was noticeably different than any environmental work I had seen before was that it was led (both physically the day of as well as in the months of planning) but Native Peoples and People of Color. One of the most pernicious problems with mainstream environmental groups over the last five decades (I’m marking this from the time of publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to today) is the predictable whiteness, middle-classness, and all-too-often maleness of “the movement”. To directly challenge this history, and to give prominence to the voices that have been ringing so loudly and clearly for so long, the first major contingent of the march included Native Peoples, People of Color, Island State (OASIS in the COP configuration) representatives, and migrants from all over the globe. This contingent stretched from 59th to 65th streets and its centrality to the overall message of the march signaled a sea change in the leadership and organizing around climate justice nationally and internationally. My hope is that the largest climate justice march ever being led by Native Communities and Communities of Color will mark a permanent shift in future organizing and activism from U.S. and international environmental justice organizations. Specifically I am hoping that historically white-led EJ groups will deeply and consistently rethink tired “business as usual” ideas such as political expediency and move to a racial justice, class justice, and gender justice lens for their work.

The third and final aspect of the march that stood out for me was that this gathering and how we all engaged with each other felt like not only the blueprint for how we are going to organize for climate justice, but also a hint at how we could all live on this small, blue dot together. There is no question that the clock is ticking and this can have the tendency to exacerbate fears that lead to separation. On this day, however, the sheer gravitational force of our commitment to push back on the carbon lobby and to jar the political leaders from their torpor was so substantial that it held us all together despite the wide variation in who we were, where we came from and what our stories were. At the end of the day (and throughout the day) we were just this one family, fighting like hell to end this utter madness. And that is exactly what it is – to destroy one’s source of life in the name of short term profit is such a profound departure from reality that it cannot be described as anything else. And there we all were – shoulder to shoulder as far as the eye could see demanding with our bodies that we be heard.

Given the anti-corporate, anti-war, critical race/class/gender analysis of the event, I am not at all surprised by the paltry coverage in mainstream media. I often hope that slightly left-leaning folks like Rachel Maddow will give at least a cursory nod to climate change issues but she spent her entire Monday show covering the bombing of Syria with not even a minute of coverage of the march. The other networks were not much better. NPR did an abysmal job covering the march and spent much more time this week on what they must think is “legitimate” climate content – the U.N. conference. Democracy Now, however, did pre-march stories and interviews, ran 3 hours of live coverage on Sunday, and then followed up with numerous additional interviews and coverage Monday and Tuesday. For this reason I want to thank Amy Goodman and the folks at DN and ask that readers who care about climate justice make a small donation to DN via their web site.

There is a reason that a massive number of U.S.-ers don’t “believe in” climate change (as was the case with a flight attendant on a recent flight) and much of it has to do with the cowardice of mainstream media. In lieu of media doing its job, we must take it upon ourselves to fill in the information gaps and educate our peers. For my part, over the next two months I am hosting two workshops at my house to help educate friends and colleagues and I invite others to do the same. Just start with those you know, begin wherever each person is at, and work to deepen the discussion around climate change and climate justice. If we make it part of our everyday conversations then it will move from margin to center in our political landscape and we stand a chance of making larger, structural changes that will match the scale of the problem. I know it seems overwhelming and “what can one person possibly do” with respect to a problem that is planetary in size, and yet what else is there for us to do but try? I hold no delusions that if we all just come together we can “save the planet”. I know too much of the climate science data to hold out for that. But, I also know that morally, spiritually, ethically, and professionally there is no other option for me but to turn toward the fear and pain and grief, be with it, and do everything I can (as one among many) to address this crisis. This weekend I was reminded what large groups of people can do when we come together. The energy from the march is still with me, a low-grade hum whose power is palpable and whose signature is pushing me onward. I know you all have busy lives, but in a time such as this please make space to lean in and take up this shared charge with your words, with your actions, with your donations, with your vote and with all your heart. As cliché as it sounds, all of our futures depend on it like never before.

* Note: To watch the pre-march video (52 minutes) go to www.watchdisruption.com.

The Need For An Amend

I was on the phone the other day with someone with whom I was trying to work through some tough dynamics and at one point I shared something she said that was hurtful and she responded with, “I’m sorry you feel that way”. It made my skin crawl. I was then at a gathering of friends and acquaintances yesterday and in casual conversation someone offered up that same line as a good way to respond to another person in tense moments. Again, my teeth were set on edge. Why is this an acceptable response to potential harms done in interpersonal relationships, or even worse in moments of greater social impact and import (I have a patchy recall of then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger saying something to this effect when challenged on a racial slur he made toward a Latina)? What makes this condescending and dismissive response pass for a response at all when it is clear someone is in the wrong? There is no solution in it, there is no place for deep understanding, in practical terms there is nowhere to go as it effectively stops the conversation, and most importantly there is no healing in it. None. In fact, “I’m sorry you feel that way” subtly places the responsibility on the one who was harmed and not on the “harmer” because it focuses on “feeling hurt” rather than the action / person that caused the harm in the first place. The net result is an opaque (and apparently socially acceptable if the frequency of its usage is any indicator) mechanism by which the affected person gets blamed and the initiator of the action takes no responsibility.

 

Why am I raising this issue? Ferguson.

 

There has been a substantial amount of coverage, commentary, and other sorts of input regarding the painful events that have taken place in Ferguson, MO and so I won’t rehash or chime in and add my two cents about the racial dynamics playing out there. I do, however, have one small element I would like to add to the conversation with respect to healing, change and moving forward – the need for an amend.

 

Amends are different than a vapid “I’m sorry you feel that way” or even a slightly more sincere apology (for example, if officer Wilson or Chief Jackson had shared how truly sorry they were for the incident). These two responses reside in the emotional top soil of the moment and do nothing to address the deep roots that underlie not only the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown, but also the fatal shooting of a knife-wielding man in St Louis days later, the fatal choke hold of the “gentle giant” in New York City last month, and innumerable other examples of People of Color dying at the hands of those in power. Amends, however, hold the potential of getting underneath superficiality and reaching the tap-roots of racial oppression in this country. This is because they are designed not to focus so much on the person harmed but rather on the person who intentionally or unintentionally did the harm. The first cousin to “I’m sorry you feel that way” is the oft repeated phrase from members of dominant groups, “I didn’t mean to hurt you with my (racist, classist, sexist, etc.) remark” with the implication being that if it wasn’t meant, it didn’t hurt. Amends take away the possibility of intention being the arbiter of harms done and focus on the impact, regardless of intentionality. Through the lens of “impact”, of what actually happened, we stand the chance of having more honest dialogue and productive action regarding racial issues in this society. By making amends, the majority White city council of Ferguson, the majority White police department of Ferguson, and to a larger extent the majority White power structures in this country could go a long way in healing this nation’s racial divide by offering a humble willingness to take responsibility for harms done and to set them right in any way possible.

 

Here’s what that could look like: First, Whites in this country would identify the many ways we have been selfish / self-seeking, dishonest and afraid in our actions toward Communities of Color and Native Communities. For example, we would finally acknowledge the outright theft of Native lands, the true costs and debt yet to be paid for Japanese Internment, the rights due to the Chicano/a community after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and the need for reparations for the institution of slavery. White society (regardless of social class, although social class does mediate the degree) has leveraged racial oppression to consistently and profoundly benefit Whites economically, socially, politically, and psychologically and this selfish utilization of a violent and oppressive system for those ends must be openly and honestly accounted for.

 

Similarly, White U.S.-ers would speak truth to the countless ways we have distorted history, lied in the public sphere, and intentionally misled this nation into thinking that Whites have earned all the benefits and privileges we have accrued and that our superior status justifies the maintenance of that system of privilege. Race is a lie. White Supremacy is a lie. The Racal Narratives of People of Color and Native Communities are a lie (told in so many ways for so long that they seem real) and the story must be re-written with unflinching honesty. And finally, the ways White society has reacted out of fear and aversion toward Communities of Color and Native Communities must be accounted for and set right.

 

Second, we would make these face-to-face amends to People of Color and Native Communities. It could sound something like this.

 

To Native Peoples and People of Color in this society,

 

I have a pattern of wrongly using people, places and things for my own selfish gain with complete disregard for how that has historically and currently impacted you. I wrongly did this by (fill in the blank here with any number of countless examples of systemic racism over the last 400 years).

 

I also have a pattern of lying about my actions and instead blaming you for the racial divisions and racial disparities in this society. I have wrongly done this by teaching a distorted history in U.S. P-12 education, presenting biased mainstream media coverage, and by using my power to control the social narrative of race in this country so it consistently favors me and my demands (again, add any other examples of dishonesty).

 

I also have a pattern of acting out of my own fear and fostering fear in other White people so as to create a false notion of “People of Color are a threat” thereby justifying my creation of systems like the prison industrial complex as a way of “creating safety” in our society and “keeping our streets safe”. Another such example has been the militarization of our local police forces… (again, continue to clearly identify what has happened).

 

Please know that none of these actions had anything to do with you as I have treated all communities of color in this same, selfish, dishonest and fear-based way. Also please know that I deeply regret my actions and the harm I have caused and am coming to you to own my part in this long and painful experience and do whatever I can to set it right.

 

Are there any additional harms that I have not mentioned and that you care to tell me about?

 

How can I set right these wrongs?

 

Obviously this is not a superficial apology. Importantly, it is also not White Liberal groveling as a result of self-induced guilt or shame. Instead it is freedom. It is the liberation that comes when you stop defending, denying, obfuscating, and manipulating in order to not speak the truth. It is the lightness and wholeness that comes from leaning toward our fellow humans in a desire to heal and feel whole again. It is the gift of honesty coupled with the salve of accountability that opens the door to true and lasting release from the specter of racial oppression that has yoked this country for centuries. And while the body of such an amend could span pages and pages, the make-or-break part is the very last sentence – this is where I place my deepest concern and my greatest hopes for Whites in this country. Can we move past blaming People of Color / Native People, past denial, past fear and distance, and even past White Liberalism to the uncharted terrain of being willing to do whatever it takes to heal? If not yet, what will it take to get us there? If you are White and reading this through the lens of a zero-sum-game, I know for certain that it is not. While making amends would go a long way toward supporting Communities of Color and Native Communities to heal from racism, the process is vital to the healing of White folks as well.

 

I wish my friend had offered an amend on the phone the other day. Had she done so, she would have found me ready and waiting for her in that middle space of reconciliation. I wish the folks at that social gathering had seen the value of amends. And, each and every time I hear a report from Ferguson, this is what my heart most wants from White people there, in Missouri, in the Midwest and in this country as a whole – an amend. There is no way out but through. There is no way through without healing. There is no healing absent of love. White people making racial amends would humbly and respectfully open a door to authentic dialogue and action with Communities of Color and Native Communities – a door through which there is love for all of us, healing for all of us, and the way out for all of us.

Losing a Little Hope, Gaining a Little Faith

I was in Iceland this past week presenting a workshop at a conference addressing climate change and its impacts and causes. I attended this conference once before in Seattle in 2012 and found it to be an engaging group of people and a lot of fascinating information about the science side of climate change. I noticed, however, that while the conference title was “Impacts and Causes” there was only one 15-minute paper that mentioned issues of race and the role it played in getting us here (cause), the role it plays in who is disproportionately impacted, and the role it will potentially play in terms of what solutions are adopted, how they are implemented, and ultimately who those solutions are designed to benefit. Startled by this, I decided to present something regarding climate justice and the role that race, class and gender oppression have played in getting us to this current climate emergency and how a gender, class and race-justice lens will prove to be essential if we are to “get out of this” with any sense of equity and integrity as a planet. So I headed to Reykjavík and from the off it seemed the gods were conspiring against me in terms of travel problems, housing problems, and general exhaustion (I had been up for 27 hours by the time I presented), but I persevered. And here is what I encountered…

 

In a morning “discussion” session around human impacts, I was listening intently to various folks sharing about the sundry challenges in getting “people” (read “Western people”) to understand and adequately respond to this current climate moment. Finally I spoke up and suggested that underneath the variables of scientific ignorance, fear, resistance to what is going on, etc. was the pernicious problem of race, class and gender oppression and the seduction of their privileges, the normativity of their ideologies and rationalizations, and the sheer power of their systems to sustain the status quo. Thus, in my estimation, if we are to both properly understand the full magnitude of “peoples’” resistance and know how to help folks through that resistance, we need to craft and utilize a social justice lens in our work. Several heads nodded and then a white, professional-middle class (University faculty member), male said that “we simply do not have time to end race, class and gender oppression before we begin to do work on climate change” and that I was being unrealistic. A few minutes later the session ended and I did not have a chance to respond. As we left the room, he came up to me (first, letting me know he started a feminist group in college) and reiterated that we simply had no chance of addressing the current climate issues if we waited for everyone to change their minds about oppression. I suggested to him that I was in no way saying we had to “solve” those issues before we do climate work, but rather aswe do our climate work. He argued again, and then we parted ways as we both headed into different sessions. Shortly thereafter a white woman approached me and thanked me for my comments, then two men of color did the same and I was struck by the fact that every time I share this perspective it is never people of color, poor folks, etc. who tell me we do not “have time” to do social justice work as we do climate justice work. It is always those who have privilege who see these issues as somehow separable, as if one is not inextricably linked to the other.

 

These exchanges gave me some fuel, tired as I was, to do my workshop and try to show that these are not discrete entities at all, but rather that it is precisely the oppressive ideologies of racism, classism and sexism that have brought us to this climate crisis as a planet. Sometimes folks say “No, Industrialization did it”, but that system is merely a tool – in the hands of people who deeply revere nature, it is possible that Industrialization would not have been such a vehicle for our destruction. But, in the hands of a society with an intensely sexist worldview and that frames nature in the feminine, we know what will inevitably happen to nature (see Francis Bacon and his statement that one has to rape nature to understand her secrets). Combine that with a rapacious appetite for material resources fueled by a classist ideology that equates your class status with your humanity and value in the world, and it makes sense that Europe went on its imperialist rampage of colonization. Top that off with a racial ideology that shamelessly purports White supremacy and White society’s (first read “European” and later as “White, U.S.-er”) right to rule the world, and you get a worldview that almost has no other choice than to use Industrialization in such a way that has lead our species to this unbelievable climate crisis.

 

And so, I got ready for my workshop in hopes of some solid discussion and engagement…and then a whopping 8 people showed up. Yep, 8. Mind you, they were an enthusiastic group, but nevertheless I was disappointed. There were only two other places for folks to go at that time and so the paltry showing was not just “too many workshops to choose from” but more likely a statement that this content was simply not important in the minds of the attendees. So, I did my best but could not shake the feeling at the time or in the days that followed, that I wasted my time because scientists have no interest in thinking about ideological mindsets that lead us into and out of holes. And so, I lost some hope. Not all of my hope, but a good chunk of it. How would we ever be able to address these issues if we ignored social justice issues and used the same “pair of glasses” that got us into this mess to get us out of it? More importantly, how would we possibly be able to respond to the needs of this world’s most vulnerable with respect to climate change (people who also happen to be the targets of race, class and gender oppression) if we cannot even acknowledge the core relationship between gender, class and racial oppressions and climate change? I felt frustrated, chagrined, and even a titch lost.

 

Fortunately for me, I am currently reading Sharon Salzberg’s book Faith: Trusting your own deepest experience (thus the title of this blog post). In it she has a chapter where she talks about doing work out in the world and feeling as if we’re not making a difference. Very gently she then identifies the difference between hope and faith. Hope, she suggests, is tied to an outcome, to a need, or even a demand. As I read this, I had to admit that I indeed had “hoped” that folks at the conference would see things my way, would incorporate this into their work, and we would all work for climate justice and not just technocratic climate solutions. In a broader sense, however, I also had to admit that I have this type of “hope” in almost all aspects of the work I do. I do want a particular outcome, I’m often not surrendered, and I do not always accept the possibility of a greater truth in the grand scheme of things. Does this mean I stop working for justice? No, absolutely not. But it does mean that I don’t know what the end of the road, or even the path along the road, looks like, and in lieu of humbly admitting this, I tend to squeeze more tightly to what I think “should” happen and invariably constrict the ability of life to unfold as is necessary. Salzberg is not suggesting, nor am I, that we adopt a “whatever, dude” approach to social justice work. But she is, I think, offering a wise distinction between a demand disguised as hope and a deeper faith that trusts in the bigger reality around us.

 

Faith, in Salzberg’s description (and she described it many times in subtly different ways) is about life on life’s terms, about trusting in the deep and profound interconnection of all things, about realizing that though an action may not seem to have any impact, everything we do has some form of impact on the greater whole, and about the fact that while outcome cannot be controlled, two key things can: intention and skillfulness. Intention matters because it is the energy that serves as the ground from which the action grows. An intention rooted in judgement, demand, or a sense of “my way or the highway” does not serve as a wholesome foundation for social justice work, and is in fact often antithetical to it. An intention rooted in love, in care for others, in a desire to see good things come to all, or in a deep sense of connection gives social justice work a much better chance of being useful and well received. Likewise, a lack of skillfulness in how this work is done (negative tone, an inability to listen, a narrow mind) makes it difficult to receive the message and less likely that folks will be drawn to it. Doing this work with patience, joy, an open heart, and an expansive worldview makes it more attractive and easily palatable even to those who might disagree.

 

And so, if I imbue my work around social justice and climate justice with a deep intent to love and serve the world (rather than craft it to what I think it should be), and if I do that work skillfully by keeping in mind my impacts and the needs of the greater whole, I just might find that I will have greater faith (presently and over the long haul) in the efficacy of the work I am doing even when there’s only 8 people there. Though I did not realize it at the time, my workshop in Iceland left me feeling hopeless precisely because my fear of the impacts of climate change, my deep concern for this planet, and my desire for social justice left me demanding a certain outcome. Recognizing, albeit late, that what really matters is that I show up, do my best, and try to work from a place of love, care and skillfulness, has replaced some of that hopelessness with faith. I still feel quite clear about the connections between the oppressive worldview that got us here and the need for a social justice worldview in getting us out. But, I can perhaps wear it more loosely in hopes that I can learn more about what that can look like and thereby be more effective in the work I do. Being a consultant / trainer is a tough bit of business because I rarely see any fruits of what I come in to a group or organization to do. And yet, in reading Salzberg I was reminded that I don’t need to see some form of “result” in order to know that my work, all of our work for social justice, matters and has an impact. In this light, perhaps having 8 folks in the room was exactly how it needed to be. Hope would say maybe, faith would say yes.

Close Cousins, But Definitely Not The Same

Recently I have had two conversations in very different settings where people with whom I have done Racial Justice (RJ) work were talking about their overall organization’s decision to move toward Cultural Competency (CC) work now that they have “done” RJ work. Before I go on, I want to say quite clearly that there is great value in true Cultural Competency training, but that it is a mistake to use that as a substitute, or even a pathway to Racial Justice work. What I mean by “true” CC training is one where cross-cultural skills are being presented and developed, rather than some woefully anemic “cultural diversity” or “cultural awareness” conversation. Honest and effective cross-cultural skill development is incredibly necessary in a society that is as culturally diverse as the United States, and even more so in a state like mine, Minnesota, which has historically been fairly monocultural, but which over the last two decades has become ever increasingly culturally diverse. However, to presume that Cultural Competency training is a sufficient substitute or even the equivalent of Racial Justice training is not only incorrect, but in fact feeds White Privilege and allows multigenerational white US-ers an “out” with respect to their own accountability regarding their privilege.

Some of the facilitators I know who make their bank on Cultural Competency training would perhaps be offended by this assessment. But if they are honest they have to acknowledge the two key elements of Cultural Competency work that allow White people the above “out”. First, CC does not sufficiently (if at all, depending on the facilitator) attend to the deep and insidious aspects of structural, institutional power in this society and therefore there is rarely a conversation about the historical and systemic aspects of oppression in the United States. This, then, precludes any possibility of entering into conversation about White privilege, Racism, or even the social construction of Race and its corresponding Racial Narratives. What a relief this is for White participants, and what a vastly different experience they have – none of the discomfort that comes with honestly talking about privilege, no chance of being identified as the “dominant” group who gained their privilege through slavery, genocide, colonization, internment, broken treaties and overall exploitation, and no reason to make systemic changes or amends because there is nothing really to make amends for. The profound absence of a deep analysis of the “system” in Cultural Competency conversations allows the “Wizard” of Whiteness to stay safely behind the curtain, and thus any possibility of identifying the tap roots of centuries of racial oppression (and any chance to change them) are gone. It is for this reason that organizations with which I have conducted RJ work consistently turn to Cultural Competency training precisely when we begin to get more serious about systemic change at the level of White privilege and White Supremacy. It is one of the most consistent means by which White dominant organizations avoid the deepest work regarding Racial Justice and it is unfortunate that more Cultural Competency trainers do not see this and call those organizations on that behavior.

Compounding this dynamic is the fact that even though most multigenerational, White U.S.-er’s families have, at some point, made the trade of “Culture” for “Race” (in this case, for White) and have thereby gained access to all of the corresponding opportunity structures open to Whites in the U.S., in a Cultural Competency training these same White folks can still claim some attachment to their “culture” and thereby assume a parallel position to people and communities for whom the U.S. is not their first nation and standard U.S. dialect is not their first language. This brash form of equalizing in the form of these multigenerational White folks claiming “they have culture too” does not create true cross-cultural awareness, but instead offers white CC participants a profound amount of cover for their Whiteness. For example, while I do not speak German and none of my family holds a British passport anymore, the mere fact that a Cultural Competency training allows me to harken back to those days and use that as a means to equate my family’s experience with Hmong, Somali, or Chicano/a communities in Minnesota derails any attempt to identify me as a privileged person in this state. Again, this is why so many White folks from the U.S. like this conversation – it’s not a matter of power and privilege in most CC trainings, it’s a matter of understanding each other’s “story” or “location in the world” or that “we all have culture” and then finding ways to appreciate that about each other and thus more effectively relate across these cultural lines. Perhaps this would be the optimal approach to solving intense divisions of access and equity in this society except for the pesky fact that Black folks in this country do not get pulled over for “driving while Haitian” or Brown folks for “driving while Peruvian”. No, for both of these racial groups in the U.S. they are pulled over for their Race not their culture. These divisions along racial lines reach to the heart of the “disparities” in our society, not culture. I am not dismissing the critical issues of access regarding some cultural dimensions such as language. But I can say that while living in Western Massachusetts, I never heard New Englanders complain about the English and French on their potato chip bags nearly the way I hear White people complain about English and Spanish on the forms at the DMV. Why the difference? Could it be the ways that cultural issues such as language get heavily racialized in this country and that French is seen quite differently than Spanish because of the Racial Narrative attached to the skin color of the majority of folks who speak each language in North America? Of course it is.

In sum, I want to say again that I am not disparaging good Cultural Competency training because I feel it is a powerful and necessary component of a highly culturally diverse society such as ours here in the U.S. What I am asserting is my frustration with White dominant organizations who “prefer” Cultural Competency work to Racial Justice work, or who switch to CC training just as we’re getting down to the real deal with Whiteness in our RJ work, because it provides cover for their Whiteness and ultimately does not demand that they change anything about the core of their practices, policies or procedures. It is my hope that organizational leaders will see the dangers of this and choose to stay the course with Racial Justice work, and even more so that Cultural Competency trainers will take the time to find out if they and their work are being used as a means to not lean into RJ work and perhaps approach those organizations quite differently.

Reflections On The WPC 15

The White Privilege Conference (WPC) is such an incredible experience that I want to first thank Dr. Eddie Moore Jr. and the national team for their tireless work and commitment to the vision of this conference and the rare and beautiful space that it is. This year was the largest gathering in the WPC’s history with over 2400 people converging on Madison, WI for several days of deep thought, hard work, laughter and good juju, and a shared goal of ending systems of racial oppression. As per usual, the keynotes were excellent, the workshop offerings superb, and the overall climate of the conference was one of connection and collaboration. Certainly there were times and places where tension arose, in fact I would be suspicious of the veracity of peoples’ commitment if it did not, but it was consistently handled with astonishing aplomb and often ended up being a learning experience for everyone involved.

And yet, on the last day I was wondering what the real take-away of the conference was for folks. What draws so many people to such a challenging conference and then stays with them as they leave? In conversation with some connections here in the Twin Cities it seems to be a range of things that take people to the WPC. What surprised me, however, was that the most pronounced reason was not the expected “an end to systems of racial oppression” but rather the possibility for deep and necessary healing. The WPC is a very emotional experience for almost everyone because it’s not only “present-time” pain that comes through in the tough moments, it is also what feels like (and is) the pain of generations, the story of lives long passed, the cellular memory of trauma never released, and the hold this all still has on our hearts and minds. I think that’s what makes the caucuses so fraught, some of the workshops so intense, and the keynotes so jarring and moving – the reality that as we sat in Madison listening to speakers, there were not just 2400 people in the room, but rather there were 2400 lineages in the room with varying degrees of relationship to the U.S. system of racial oppression. This year and in years past this dynamic has been palpable in some very intense moments. For example, a few years ago keynoter Dr. Joy DeGruy presented her work on Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome and there were times when it felt like the entire room was holding its breath lest the whole world crack open from the pain. This year, the opening keynote, Jackie Battalora, gave an extremely clear framing of the creation of “white” and the insidious ways it (and other racial categories) were shaped and reshaped throughout early U.S. history, always in the service of the White dominant racial structure and its perpetuation of Racism, White Privilege and White Supremacy. As she talked, you could literally feel the energy in the room shift – it was as if the curtain had been pulled back just a little more on The Wizard thus exposing more clearly his source of “power”. Understanding what that shift was is important because it wasn’t a reaction to “present-time” Racism or Whiteness, but rather a deeper, multi-generational understanding of the history and systems that have gotten us here. Some in the room felt despair at how intractable, powerful and unstoppable this system seems due to the way it has been so speciously constructed and then violently enforced and reinforced. Conversely, others felt a slight lift because it exposed the system for what it is, a complete facsimile and a toxic element of this society. Whatever the response, it was a generational one from a place of deep knowing and recognition. It exposed Whiteness as a system that is not “natural” or “just the way it has always been”, but rather one with a name, a history, and whose foundation is built on lies. The room knew this and thus Jackie’s presentation was really just helping us to remember that this is a lie, it is not “natural” or how we are meant to be, and that this can change. And that’s the healing, right? The release of the story and its hold on us, and the coming back to our true selves as connected, collective beings rooted in love (hooks), wired for empathy (Rifkin), and ready to mend and befriend (Neff).

The reality of the historical trauma of racial oppression was not new content to most people at this conference, but simply knowing about this history versus really feeling its impact and knowing how to heal it are two vastly different things. And I think the possibility of bridging that divide is what keeps so many people coming back to this conference year after year. It is a place that at least acknowledges that healing needs to happen, that it is possible, and that it will take all of us coming together in new and connected ways to make it happen. That’s what makes the WPC so different than NCORE, for example, with its academic framing of racial issues, or NAME where there is not enough critical examination of Race, Racism and Whiteness to even get to a conversation about generational trauma and racial oppression in meaningful ways. As such, I am grateful once again to the founder, Dr. Moore, the national team, the local team, and each and every participant for making the WPC 15 an experience of movement, both inside and out. I encourage everyone to peruse the WPC web site and put the dates for next year’s conference on your calendar now as we continue to support this deeply important experience and the learning community that grows out of it.

“Discovering Mindfulness”

A few months back I received a mass email from someone in my general professional circle asking for information or stories regarding the use of mindfulness in our social justice education, activism and research. More specifically, the person said they were interested in compiling this information as a foundation for their “cutting edge research on mindfulness in social justice work”. And that last bit is what really made my stomach turn: there is nothing “cutting edge” about examining mindfulness in social justice education, activism, or research. The “edge” is only in this White, male, U.S.-born, tenured professor’s mind simply because he has not seen it before. And sadly, the mindset that makes him think that he is “discovering” mindfulness as it pertains to social justice work is the very same mindset that will make it extremely difficult for him to actually develop or attain mindfulness. Much like the mythical Columbus narrative, this academic professional believes that because it is new to him, it must therefore be new to the field; “if I have not seen it referenced in all these years, it must not exist”. Never mind that all over the globe these traditions have formed the pillars of social structures geared toward what we call “social justice” for millennia. Or, more recently that Thich Nhat Hanh has been espousing engaged Buddhism for decades, or that the Dalai Lama has long supported extensive research on the important role meditation can play in education, or even that the traditions of non-violence and non-harming in U.S. social justice activism in large part arise from deeply rooted, and decidedly pre-Western traditions globally and in North America.

Thus, “mindfulness” is not a new concept in social justice work. What is “new” is the ubiquitous framing of millennia-old practices from all over the world as one, uniform “mindfulness” package. And that framing has not come about because it is the next step in a natural evolution of these bodies of work, information, practice, or tradition. No, this framing has come about, particularly in the U.S., because it is fast enough, easy enough, and basic enough for U.S.ers to understand and engage in. In many of its U.S. iterations, “mindfulness” could be described as the McDonald’s of deep insight practice. It is quippy enough for CNN to do a short report on it, it is easy enough for a magazine to feature it on its cover and run a 2000 word essay presumably explaining it all, and it is marketable enough for volumes of books to be written by U.S.ers for U.S.ers and that fit within the U.S. frame. Take for example the mass marketing of yoga. I have a friend who has been a “hot yoga” instructor for a handful of years but if you were to ask her what deep tradition that yogic style comes from, she would have no idea. Not because she is not intelligent enough to know, but because her teacher training did not emphasize it. That yogic practice does not need you to know the deep spiritual significance of what they do, they just want you to feel like you got a good work out and that “something happened in there”. Now, this is not at all to dismiss those studios, teachers, and practitioners who have been quietly, respectfully and thoughtfully cultivating a practice in this country – those people have taken great pains to be ever-conscious from whence they came and are a strong model for how this work can effectively be brought to the U.S. However, it should be noted that these same people would never say that they have “discovered” yoga or that they are doing “cutting edge” yoga instruction. Similarly, the Vipassana center I occasionally study at is constantly framing its teaching within the core instruction the Buddha laid down 2500 years ago.

To return to my initial example, I am not at all saying that a White, male, U.S.-born, tenured professor should not talk about, read about, speak about, think about, or practice mindfulness in his social justice work. What I am saying is that there must be a measure of humility and introspection and self-analysis that goes along with that practice in order to have any credibility and thus to have any real contribution to the overall social justice environment. It would be refreshing if this person had instead said something to the effect, “The U.S. education system (social justice education and activism included) has been woefully late in recognizing the huge range of millennia-old practices that encourage students, teachers and administrators alike to be mindful of the work we do and the impacts we have. As such, I and my colleagues are conducting a small body of research to identify what it is that we have been missing and what other societies around the world, as well as indigenous societies here in North America, have known for thousands of years. We broach this topic with deep humility and a full recognition that the limitations of our social histories and long-standing frames of reference allow us to understand only a small portion of what we will uncover. Nevertheless, we are interested in adding one more voice to the many already there regarding the topic of mindfulness in social justice work and welcome your thoughts and contributions.” An unlikely missive from anyone who has as much privilege as most U.S. academics do, but in my opinion a necessary approach if we are to grasp the complexity and full application of these traditions we are lumping together as “mindfulness”.

And so what leads a White, male, U.S.-born, tenured professor to claim that his research on mindfulness in social justice work is “cutting edge”? In a phrase, roughly five centuries of colonization – colonization as it impacts the minds, bodies and spirits of our society’s people, and colonization as it constructs large-scale ideologies, systems, and identities that are rooted in power, privilege and access for some at the direct expense of others. It is this colonial mindset (substantially honed in higher education) that hides these systems of power and privilege behind the notion of “discovery” or “research” and then ties them to one’s value and identity as an academic. Unfortunately, academics such as these will perhaps be seen by their peers as having actually “discovered” mindfulness in social justice education and activism. Their publications on the matter will likely be lauded as the very “cutting edge work” they claim it to be, and they will be asked to speak and train and teach on such matters. I say “unfortunately” not because I do not like this colleague or others like him, but because if this work is viewed as the foundation or starting point for mindfulness in social justice education it dismisses the centuries upon centuries of work already done in this regard and sets our overall social justice work back by significant degrees. Rather, I would like U.S. work on mindfulness in social justice education and activism to start squarely from a place of humility, rather than discovery, such that we open ourselves to the voluminous bodies of work that can light our way and support us in our desire for justice, hope, and peace in our world.

Homophobia As Nationalism

This is quick post given that its relevance is waning a bit already, but I wanted to comment for a moment of the voracity of Russia’s homophobia and simply note its connection with that country’s ongoing nation-building. Through vehicles like the expansion of its hydrocarbon holdings and the role of that on the world stage (economic and energy nation-building), the ever-increasing power of Russia in the UN, and Vladimir Putin’s desire to form a parallel “union” of Western Asian / Eastern European states that would rival the EU in its reach and power, Russia is continually attempting to position itself as a major 21st century power.

 

While I do not know Mr. Putin personally, I am not convinced that he cares any more or less about LBGTQI folks than did Karl Rove, and instead sees homophobia as an ideological pathway to support his nationalist ideas and particularly his expansionist nation-building in that region of the world. To be sure, Karl Rove is no longer spending his time “fighting the good fight” against “the gays”. But during the GWB years he viewed homophobic legislation as a way to drive conservatives to the polls at a time when the 2000 and 2004 elections were sure to be close. What Rove knew was that he had to spin the ballot initiatives not as “hate the gays” legislation, but rather as “protect the family” legislation. In this way, Rove was playing on one of the most long-standing rationales for colonization, “Westward Expansion”, and increased militarism and U.S. imperialism throughout the world: “the ever-increasing needs of the growing American family”. In this line of thinking the “American family” (read heterosexual, white, middle class, Christian, able-bodied, etc.) is the vessel into which all ideas of what it means to be an “American” are poured (in a Norman Rockwell-esque fashion), whereby the protection of this heteronormative, etc. nuclear family is equated with the protection of “America” itself. The end result is that anything perceived as a “threat” to this family must go and conversely anything that aids the growth of this family must be supported. Rove astutely saw this and played this card beautifully to the benefit of the Republican Party in 2000 and 2004.

 

And this ideology is so deeply rooted that many of the voters themselves had no idea what was happening – the Human Rights Campaign did exit polling in 2004 and 2006 (mid-terms) and found that in some states where there were anti-LBGTQI ballot initiatives, voters demonstrated some peculiar contradictions. First, they were asked how they voted on the initiative. Those who voted to “protect marriage”, were then asked something to the effect of “do you think gay and lesbian Americans should have equal rights under the U.S. constitution” and just over 75% of those same “protect marriage” people said “yes” to equal rights. Bizarre, right? They just voted to deny equal rights and enshrine that in their state’s constitution, but also feel LBGTQI folks should basically be equal. And that’s partially because Rove played to their homophobia, partially because those ballots were worded in a way of “defending” marriage, but also partially because the “American family” (aka the “American Dream”, the “American Promise”) is decidedly heteronormative and so the identity of this ever-expanding nation and the family that we are “safeguarding” through our expansion (think Iraq war and Condoleezza Rice’s mushroom cloud warnings) is a heterosexual one. So, any change in the heteronormative nuclear family marks a potential weakening of the justification for U.S. expansion economically, politically, and ideologically.

 

And so as we turn our attention these two weeks to Russia and the Olympic games, we can see the same tired old process just under the skin of Putin’s vernacular and “protection of Russia”. The same three flavors of the homophobic argument are there (being gay is a “crime against God, a crime against nature, and a crime against society”), the same police state reaction to LBGTQI people is there, and the same economic and political moment is there – in short Putin is shoring up his ideological power base in order to enact his larger vision of mother Russia precisely as the global landscape of economic and political power shifts from West to East. Unfortunately, U.S. mainstream media has been so anemic in its analysis of this (and is perhaps still sloshing around in “Rovism”) that it cannot offer anything more than a cursory glance to this issue while some have simply chosen not to cover it at all. And, those non-mainstream outlets that are covering it are sticking to the “end homophobia” line of thinking. What I would like to see is the cover drawn back on this and a more cogent and comprehensive analysis offered so that we can stop using homophobia as the tool for nation-building whether it be in Russia, the United States, Uganda, Senegal, Tanzania, Nigeria, India, and the like*. Importantly, I am not talking about generalized societal homophobia that can be found anywhere rigid gender roles are constructed, codified and enforced. I’m talking about the ways homophobia is being enshrined in policy and used as a political tool. For example, many countries in Central and South America have horrific statistics when it comes to societal violence against LBGTQI people, but have also enacted some legislative protections for LBGTQI folks in places like Peru, Argentina, and Brazil. So, I’m not talking about individual homophobia, what I am talking about is state-sanctioned homophobia and the deeper, colonial purpose it serves. And in this sense, Putin is playing right along with his global contemporaries who are using it to the same effect.

 

The solution to this weaponizing of homophobia manifests on several fronts: grassroots organizing in Russia itself (already happening with courage and clarity), support from international organizations for those grassroots organizers (already happening but with more presence needed), economic penalties for countries who engage in such homophobic legislating (weak at best via international relief funds), and political pressure from the international community (not happening enough from the U.S. Secretary of State, UN, EU, and the like) to expose the true motives of those countries and to marginalize them if they do not change their tactics. To be sure, the reduction of this to a “gay rights” issue not only minimizes what is really happening, but in fact miscasts what the role of the international community needs to be in response. Yes, we must immediately stop the homophobia and violence toward queer folks in Russia and elsewhere. But in a deeper sense, we need to stop the centralizing of heteronormativity and the subsequent use of homophobia (and concomitantly the queer community in general) as the weapon by which leaders justify their colonial, expansionist policies. In this way the effort for queer rights is indeed a struggle for global, human rights.

*Note: It should be noted that many of these countries, for instance some of the examples I offer from Africa, are putting forth their homophobic legislation at the behest of White, Western, evangelicals (of a very particular variety) and therefore the nuanced yet corrosive nature of colonialism can still be found in these countries’ legislation despite their strong self-identification as post-colonial nations.