Pre-Conference Institute: The Body Already Knows: A Framework for Dismantling Race, Racism and Whiteness and Achieving Racial Justice

Dr. Hackman will be facilitating a pre-conference institute at NCORE this May. This workshop is based on two key ideas: The first is that Race, Racism and Whiteness (RRW) serve to unnaturally divide us and violently disrupt our inherent human connection. The second is that our bodies already know how to live in just and supportive community and this knowledge can serve as a powerful framework for uprooting racial oppression and achieving racial justice. Thus, the dismantling of RRW is not actually something we have to “work toward”, but rather a “coming home” to our rightful human interdependence. And, it is in the space of this interconnectivity, rooted in our bodies’ own knowledge, that we can find the deep sources of racial liberation and healing.

Pre-Conference Workshop: Exploring Post-Traumatic Master’s Syndrome: Dismantling Whiteness and Moving to Action

Concurrent Session: Utilizing a Racial Justice Lens In Response to Climate Change

Concurrent Session: The Body Already Knows: A Framework for Achieving Racial Justice

The Public Face of the White Corporatocracy

While much has been made of Donald Trump’s bombastic style, his highly offensive commentary toward just about every identifiable group (strangely, sometimes even his own), and his irreverence for any type of “protocol” other than the one he happens to be proffering that day, I have been considering a slightly different aspect of his rise (and recent wins in state primaries). Since our nation’s inception, the corporate elites have been the shadow figures with respect to U.S. government, funding candidates and influencing policy via their economic power (e.g the Koch brothers today). Now however, via Trump’s candidacy, the White corporatocracy has brazenly stepped into the limelight. I was struck most by a sound bite of his I heard from South Carolina the day after he won New Hampshire where he was openly talking about his personal love of money and his unabashed greed, and that that is what has made him a success (hello Gordon Gecko). Apparently he has had his Scrooge awakening and now wants to turn all this into a means of serving this country – “I’m greedy. I love money. Now I want to be greedy for America.” Rather than be appalled, the folks at his rally stood and cheered.

Astonishing. Not because it’s the first time this has ever been said, (the White, imperial corporatocracy has been doing this all along) but rather for its public face. I wonder if this means that the corporatocracy has so much control as a result of Citizens United that they no longer think they need to pretend they are not running this country? Or, has the fact that they were bailed out with no repercussions after the 2008 crash while so many millions of Americans suffered made them feel invincible? Not sure, but something has changed such that the leaders and denizens of the White corporatocracy feel that they can unreservedly come out into the light. At one point several weeks ago Bloomberg said he would rush in and “save” us from the threat of Trump if it seemed he was winning. Again, astonishing – one corporate conglomerate is seemingly going to save us from another. Yes, a clash of the corporate titans has left the shadows and emerged as the WWF of politics right out in the open.

But my focus in this piece is not about Trump or Bloomberg. They have taken up too much ink, air and space already. I am more interested in and concerned about what Trump’s rise says about us. It’s less about the titans and far more about what this political moment reveals about the racial and economic underbelly of this country. More specifically, I’ve noticed four things.

“I’m rich…really rich”

When I was in my teens the television show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” was a hit because it let the rest of us peek into the lives of the very rich and fantasize about being them some day. The presentation of the show was not merely a “reporting out” but was always tinted with the theme of aspiration. In Robin Leach’s droll British accent I heard high praise after high praise for the various class markers that indicated not only affluence, but also one’s importance to our society. Horatio Alger was indeed alive and well in the mythic notion that we all can rise to this elite status if we are smart, work hard, and dream big. And I think Trump holds this strange promise to many poor and working class Whites around this country. They have been screwed, no doubt about it, but not by “the government” and its taxes and legislative spending. They have been dismissed and their value as workers in this country has been deeply diminished, but not by those on Pennsylvania Avenue. No, the unions that have for so long protected poor and working class people, the social benefits that have served as nets to catch the most economically vulnerable, and the very jobs that so many poor and working class folks have worked over the years have been decimated and destroyed by the 1%, either directly or by their political proxies. Either way, it was the prompting of the 1% that led to the tax changes in the Reagan era and the decimation of welfare in the Clinton era. And yet, the myth of meritocracy and the belief in one’s “bootstraps”, ideas deeply steeped in the lies of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism and then wrapped up in the conflation of democracy and capitalism, seem to obfuscate the reality that the 1% has never, ever in the history of this society been a friend of the working class. Poor and working class Whites seem to be voting for Trump because they think he has pulled himself up by his bootstraps, forgetting of course that he started in a place they will likely never, ever reach in their lifetime, and then stepped on countless others as he climbed. I’m not singling him out as some sort of pariah, that’s simply how this current economic system works for folks like him.

And so the promise of wealth, of one’s rise, of some measure of comfort and safety brought about by hard work in an economic system that is completely and utterly rigged still holds sway for these poor and working class Whites, and in the process the fiction of the “American Dream” as being open to everyone persists, despite the fact that it is still really just open to White, middle-class men. Thus, the public face of the corporatocracy and of Trump’s success as a Republican candidate tells us that 8 years after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the economic and racial myths of this country are greater than its reality. The desperation wrapped up in this is powerful and painful to watch, as is the inevitable devastation that will come to those White, working class folks when Trump destroys their access to health care, sells off their pubic lands for private development, lets the corporate sector take over even more of their “public” schools, continues the decimation of their unions, and further solidifies the barriers between the elites and the lives of these everyday folks.

“Make America Great Again”

Can you hear the strains of nostalgia as we start to harken back to the “good old days”? I can. In no uncertain terms this campaign slogan is about some very disconcerting racial dynamics and spells deep trouble for People of Color, Native peoples and White people working for racial justice. First, that language when coming from White folks with conservative leanings has always meant a reestablishment of the racial hierarchy in this country. Since Mr. Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, we have seen the public vitriol toward People of Color and Native peoples increase exponentially. Far from being some sort of post-racial utopia, President Obama’s two terms have signaled a deep and palpable panic on the part of the White establishment regarding their “rightful” place in the world. This is demonstrated most sharply by the KKK controversy with respect to Trump. His desire to return to times of “America’s greatness” is contingent upon the second class citizenry of People of Color and Native peoples such that White folks can have easier access to resources, opportunities, and economic, social and political safety. A perfect puppet of Reagan’s promises of a shining city on the hill (just before he waged “war on drugs” aka war on Black and Brown men), but with the gloves off.

Second, this language has also always signaled an increase in the use of violence to enforce that racialized social order. As such, I think we can expect under Mr. Trump greater support for policing tactics that have inflamed racial tensions across the country, a greater acceptance of torture tactics for those deemed enemies of the state, and a rolling back of any institutional policies that seek to rectify this nation’s four centuries of racial oppression. The dismantling of Section IV of the Voting Rights Act will be nothing in comparison to what Mr. Trump, and more likely his appointees, will proffer in hopes of creating an America that looks decidedly Whiter in all the halls of power. Thus, we can see that the very notion of making this nation great again is contingent on the maintenance of the deeply racist and profoundly exploitative racialized policies of this nation’s history. As Trump calls upon his followers to remember what this nation used to be like, we who believe in racial justice must call out the deeply rooted racial oppression that those historic and current realities are based on. Far from making this nation great, our long-standing racist history has been a blight and ultimately will serve as one of the sources of the end of this great society, not its salvation.

“I want to be greedy for America”

In conjunction with the heightened centering of a White dominant hierarchy, Trump’s desire to be greedy for America also signals a period of U.S. imperialism and unilateral militarism abroad. Trump’s initial inflammatory comments about Mexicans coming into the U.S. were a harbinger of his overall ideology of U.S. entitlement. He is one step beyond the Bush doctrine (if there’s a 1% threat) and feels that there doesn’t even need to be a physical threat to take action against another nation, there simply needs to be an economic or political opportunity for the U.S., and that is sufficient grounds for a hostile takeover. Thus those who favor militaristic approaches over diplomacy of any kind will favor his bomb first and ask questions later approach. In the 2008 election John McCain made a problematic “joke” where he conflated the song “Barbara Ann” with the bombing of Iran. It was largely panned in the media but also created a bit of a distance with Republican voters. Now, 8 years later, throngs of White folks do not seem to mind Trump’s assertion of empire via military and economic imperialism. Again, as above, when fear drives a young nation such as ours, a nation with a lot of firepower, it can be a very dangerous equation for the rest of the world. Those who thought George W. Bush’s notions of U.S. unilateralism were extreme have not seen anything until Trump gets elected and ushers in an era of uber-neo-colonial foreign policy rooted in racist reactivity to what he deems (as do his followers) as a “weak” Obama and a tepid U.S. foreign policy. In particular, economically, politically and militarily vulnerable nations (often nations that have high numbers of poor folks or People of Color who have been run roughshod over due to Western colonialism) will be no obstacle to Trump if his administration deems them desirable to the United States’ interests. Again, this is not new in terms of U.S. foreign policy, what is new is the brazen way in which it is publicly stated and in which the White corporatocracy feels immune to its contestation. In a moment where the planet needs to come closer together to address global climate change, massive refugee issues, deep and heavily interconnected economic issues, and the threat of violence in a range of manifestations, it is striking that the Teddy-Roosevelt-on-steroids notion of “carry a big stick” appeals to the followers of Trump. In exactly the moment when we need to act like one among many, Trump’s message says “isolate and dominate.”

I’m a fighter

While I do not know if Trump has uttered these exact words, he certainly packages himself as a fighter for those who have been mistreated by our government, by other nations, by “terrorists”, and by “special interests” who are bringing America down. I was talking to my colleague, Marie, about this the other night and she noted how powerful that “fight” response is in terms of Trump’s words and actions and how it seems to resonate so deeply with folks who see themselves as having reason to fight. Through the combined lenses of racial justice and somatic experiencing, the response of the collective nervous system of Whiteness in this society could actually be an indicator that things are truly changing for us, albeit on some slow, tectonic level. After all, a fight response is not usually brought forth unless there is some powerful threat. In Marie’s words, brown folks are increasingly “here” and demanding change, change which threatens four centuries of White hegemony and power. It is possible, therefore, to see Trump’s rise as an indicator that the White power structure is not only being threatened as stated above, but that it perceives its entire life as coming to an end, perhaps because it is? Maybe the rise of Trump is the beginning of the end of the legacy of Whiteness? It seems less likely that it also signals the end of the corporatocracy, but it might mean that now that it is out in the light a bit more, it is more vulnerable. Before we celebrate, however, remember that when White people (and especially White rich people) get deeply scared good things rarely happen, which is perhaps one way to understand the blatant racism and violence that Trump’s followers often attach to his campaign, his message, and what they imagine his presidency to be. Nevertheless, if I understand the possible indicators of Trump’s rise and appeal, it can serve as a motivation to dig even deeper into the fight for racial and economic justice because we are, in fact, winning this long struggle.

Conclusion

Sadly, while I hear and see plenty of coverage of Donald Trump, I do not hear much in the way of conversation about the mirror Trump is holding up for us as a nation. Liberals (and progressives?) mock him on SNL, Colbert and Conan and yet at the same time we keep grabbing the popcorn and pulling up a chair to watch him and those who follow him. In true White liberal fashion we disparage those at his rallies and suggest that they are not as intelligent, or we simply dismiss them because they are “angry White people” (as if somehow dismissal has ever disarmed and disabused White people of their destructive capacity and power). But, what we are not doing is noticing that the Trump phenomenon is saying something critically important about us as a nation. One could say it is our last gasp as a young, immature, and power-hungry nation who is used to getting its way; or, that it is the final stand of the historic and current regime of conflated class, race and gender dynamics. This is an optimistic view, and one I would sign up for, if I saw that there were numbers, voices and wisdom back of them. Instead, what I see more of is the kind of twin reaction of disbelief that he made it this far and elitist cynicism that Trump will never make it to the presidency and so why worry. This, to me, seems like a substantial misunderstanding of what the private face of the White corporatocracy coming into the public eye actually means. For our sake, and for this nation’s sake, I hope that those of us who care about social justice take a much deeper look, enact a stronger stand, and launch a more vocal and relentless response to Trump and more importantly to his followers lest we find ourselves turning back the clock and wondering how we got here.

Overcoming Racism 2015 Conference Keynote Address

Dr. Heather Hackman’s keynote focuses on the difference between doing racial justice work and living a racially just life and the importance of decolonizing our bodies, minds and spirits so that White folks can get in the boat, stay in the boat, and row with People of Color/Native People against the tide of racial injustice. 1:03:50

(c) 2015 Hackman Consulting Group

Grounding In to Equity and Justice Work

In this excerpt from a 90-minute training on Race, Racism and Whiteness, Dr. Heather Hackman leads participants through an opening grounding exercise and discusses why “grounding in” is a foundational practice for social justice work.

Recording of workshop at First Universalist Church, Minneapolis

November, 2014

(c) 2014 Hackman Consulting Group

Why Not D & I

by Heather Hackman

I was on the phone with a client the other day explaining the difference between Diversity and Inclusion (D & I) and Equity / Social Justice (E/SJ) work and was reminded yet again of how important it is to be clear on our language and the conceptual frameworks we are employing as we engage in E/SJ work in our various organizational settings. D & I phrasing is used extensively in a range of contexts and yet rarely is the efficacy of such an approach questioned. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs and newsletter postings, “diversity” work is focused on developing an “awareness and appreciation of difference” with the presumption that this will translate into substantial organizational change. Unfortunately, this is inaccurate as there is no direct link between becoming more “aware” or “appreciative” of a difference and the dismantling of systems of power, privilege and access to resources. Presuming that building relationships across lines of difference through activities that engender awareness and appreciation is the solution serves to reduce structures of oppression to mere “misunderstandings of each other” or in educational vernacular, prejudice. And while these are indeed elements of how oppression operates, they do not even begin to touch on the complex and yet nuanced history, systemic realities, and structural functioning of systems of oppression. Nothing in a diversity approach implies or guarantees that issues of power, access and privileges held by the dominant group get addressed. In fact, many organizations spend years and years on diversity work and never get to systemic oppression because diversity work simply cannot get to there – it’s the wrong tool for the job.

Similarly, “inclusion” is problematic in that by its very nature it implies assimilation and the reification of the dominant group’s framework. Put simply, who is doing the including? What are folks being included in? A superficial example would be two friends who make plans and then say to each other, “we should include Chris and Pat”. By default it is understood that these plans are not going to be a co-creation among the four of them, nor will much feedback from Chris and Pat be welcome by the two instigators. Instead, the first two are open to include Chris and Pat into plans that are already established, into an idea that is already laid out, and into ways of being that are already prescribed e.g. “come with us to a show we have already chosen / plans we’ve already made.” Thus, when an organization seeks to be “more inclusive” it is really saying that we want to find ways to get more People of Color, more women and trans* folks, more LBTQI folks, more People with Disabilities, etc. into our workplace or organizational structure. There is no real intention of having those groups of people help craft and shape the core elements of how the organization operates, nor is there any intention of yielding power to those relative “newcomers”. Instead, the organization is looking to find people from those groups who are willing to go along with plans that are already prescribed and behave in ways that are already expected (often called “organizational culture”). On occasion this is not wholly terrible given that some organizations might be so wonderful that the costs of doing this for these “included” folks are not too high. However, to presume that this effort at inclusion is Equity and Social Justice work is a huge misstep because not only are systems of power and privilege not examined, but they are actually reified but the unwritten rules of the inclusion process.

Taken together a mere awareness of and appreciation for “diversity” and an effort to “include” marginalized groups into an organization is a far cry from what is called for when addressing deep and long-standing issues of inequity. Moreover, these approaches can often lead to higher levels of assimilation pressure for members of marginalized groups while keeping the very systems that are responsible for that marginalization intact within the organization.

Take for example, LBGTQ rights and specifically the issue of marriage. Research from a range of LBGTQ political groups demonstrated that when heterosexual folks got to know LBGTQ folks, they were more likely to support marriage equality (depending on where their opinions originally resided). Reading these studies, one would think that D & I work actually is the solution to issues of LBGTQ oppression. And that would be true if the goal were mere “inclusion” into the dominant group’s paradigm. What I mean is, so long as LBGTQ people didn’t do anything to change the fundamental processes of marriage or impact its meaning in any real way, the heterosexual allies in these studies were in favor of LGBTQ people “having the same rights as I have”. What these allies did not attend to was the fact that many queer people (as evidenced in research done by progressive queer organizations) did not want to simply be “included” in a system that they believe actually limits the ability of LGBTQ people to define and express their relationships and families outside of something that is modeled on traditional heterosexual relationships. In this way we can see how a D & I approach to LGBTQ liberation might actually get in the way of broader LGBTQ equity and justice goals. Additionally, an inclusion lens does not require heterosexuals to identify what systems and structures lead to the oppression of LBGTQ folks in the first place or dig deeply into the question of what needs to change with respect to heterosexual privilege and notions of heteronormativity. A focus on these deeper issues, issues not addressed in D & I work, is necessary for true systemic change regarding oppression to take place and is why a D & I approach is insufficient when working for social justice.

Despite the substantial limitations, a D & I approach (to what are really E/SJ issues) is the current preferred pathway in many organizations for a range of reasons. First, D & I is easy. Most D & I activities, trainings, and implementation schemas do not take much time, do not require extensive learning on the part of participants, and have a low level of emotional risk. I have attended countless D & I trainings over the years and they have never elicited much resistance, anger or frustration on the part of those in power within organizations precisely because they do not challenge those systems of power, and instead often make those in power feel comfortable. However, for whichever marginalized group is the topic of the D & I training, limitless frustration and discomfort arises because it is painfully obvious that the small steps outlined in D & I trainings are insufficient in addressing the deep and important issues affecting them daily.

Additionally, as mentioned above, D & I work does not deeply and critically address systems of power or access to resources, and therefore requires no change on the part of the dominant group. A while back I was conversing with a district superintendent who was more committed to “letting everyone on the leadership team grow in their learning” than honestly addressing issues of whiteness and their impacts on the overall staff’s efficacy. Implicit in this leader’s comments was the deference given to softer diversity-based approaches that did not require any change on the part of the White leadership. The effect of this focus on “team building” was to make it an easy place for White folks regardless of how the People of Color / Native people felt about the “equity” direction of the district, what was happening on the team, or their levels of feeling safe and supported. D & I approaches have the tendency to cater to the patterns and processes of the dominant group often at the lived expense of the marginalized group.

And finally, leaders often choose D & I over E/SJ based on an inaccurate understanding of the developmental processes involved in learning about E/SJ issues. To be sure, leaning into E/SJ work is a developmental process no matter what the issue or one’s identity. For people who identify as women and trans*, addressing internalized sexism and gender oppression is as developmentally important as it is for those who identify as men to examine their own privilege, power and sexist beliefs and actions. Unfortunately, too many people believe that D & I is the initial developmental step in this process when in reality it is a sidestep. In trainings I often give the analogy of fruit when talking about D & I and E/SJ with the former being oranges and the latter being apples. If an organization wants to address its apple concerns (equity issues) and make all kinds of apple products (take equity and social justice actions), it simply makes no sense to put oranges into the recipe. In fact, you could truck in every orange in the state of Florida and no amount of them would produce apple pies, sauces and ciders. The point being that yes, learning about E/SJ issues does have a developmental component to it, but the steps of that reside within the E/SJ framework and are not facilitated by a D & I framework.

In sum, I want to be clear that D & I work can have its uses, but that it must be engaged in with a clear eye toward this framework’s actual capacities. D & I cannot and will not ever be a sufficient substitute for E/SJ work, and for reasons mentioned above it is often consciously or unconsciously used as a way to deflect E/SJ work from happening well or at all.

Living a Tradition

By Heather Hackman

I had the incredible privilege of being able to travel to Bodh Gaya in late December and it was amazing. If you are not familiar with this place, it is the home of the Bodhi tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment. It was constructed by Emperor Asoka 2,250 years ago (the current temple is from the 5th -6th c. CE). It is said to be the most important, most reverent place in the world for Buddhists and the reasons for that were evident as soon as I walked in. The Mahabodhi Temple itself is not terribly remarkable as structures go – roughly 55 meters high, a basic stepped design, and a range of tiers surrounding it that have trees, grass and ample area for practitioners to gather. Overall, it seemed to me like so many parks, public squares or communal gathering spaces all over the world save for one thing – the intention and earnestness with which people were practicing their devotion to Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy. The vibe coming off of the countless monks and nuns practicing there made this temple utterly compelling, energetic, enlivening, and full of hope.

I do not identify as “a Buddhist”, because that has the air of Western “try this cool thing out”-ness to me and so I simply say that I have a deep love and reverence for Buddhist philosophy and find great personal and professional value in so many of its tenets. Despite my attempts at being reserved and cautious, I completely and unabashedly fell in love with the Mahabodhi Temple and the practitioners around it. I could feel myself long to be among them. In fact, I visited a total of four times in the very brief time we were in Bodh Gaya. I wanted to better understand this place, but more so I wanted to soak up what felt like its unbounded hope, possibility and peace. In trying to comprehend what the essence of this feeling was I realized that it emanated from the fact that I was among folks who had completely surrendered to their “faith” and were not “practicing” anything but instead were truly living their tradition with their full selves. Their bodies, their minds, their hearts and their daily activities were completely bent toward following the Eight-fold Noble Path, thereby making their contribution to peace in the world. Buddhism suggests there is an end to suffering but it requires facing the depths of fear (aversion), greed (attachment) and delusion (false perception). I’m sure you can see the parallels between these and other traditions where they are labeled differently, perhaps, but speak to the same core elements of what makes us suffer within ourselves and certainly what makes us create suffering for others.

This living the tradition is the basis of the Dalai Lama’s invocation for peace, his tireless work for the freedom of Tibet from the oppressive and violent rule by China, his support for LBGTQI equal rights, his deep and increasingly pronounced call for environmental justice, and his work within his own tradition around gender liberation and equity. Buddhism, when lived, gives him no other option than to commit his life energies toward the end of suffering, and more specifically the end of oppression. Buddhism suggests that in oppression not only those targeted are hurt but those who are doing the oppression are also fundamentally dehumanized and thus liberation for some liberates all. Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Winona LaDuke, Cornell West and Gloria Anzaldua also put forth that base notion that everyone caught in systems of oppression are diminished and dehumanized by the very existence of oppression. This is not a new idea, bumper stickers abound with the slogan “no one is free when others are oppressed”. But, there is a profound difference between the tokenizing and weakly offered way that dominant group members often say this versus the way that people who are truly living their tradition actually commit their whole selves to this.

And in fact, that is what social justice is going to take. In racial justice trainings I often offer up the very simple point that if racial oppression is happening “this much” (and I fully raise my left hand into the air), but White people are responding only “this much” (and I hold my right hand at shoulder level) then a simple bar graph analysis should help us see that if the solution is not proportionate to the problem, the problem will persist. And so, what does it then take for White folks to move their part of the bar graph up? I suggest that it is the move from “doing racial justice work” to “living racially just lives” and that is where “living one’s tradition” can (not always, of course, depending on the tradition) be of assistance.

Case in point – I have been working with a group of Unitarian Universalists over the last two years and I have to say that this is a pretty earnest group. Historically, White Liberalism has abounded at this overwhelmingly White church, and so there was no dearth of projects and activities they have been doing to address issues of Race and help communities of color fight Racism. Importantly, however, that is not at all the same as doing racial justice work (which rigorously looks at White Privilege and White Supremacy as much as it does Racism), nor is it a pathway to living a racially just life. But, this is right where living their UU tradition of love, love and more love comes into play – many of them have come to a place of realizing that if they do not do RJ work, they cannot fully experience their faith. Conversely, by leaning more deeply into their faith, they will find the support and motivation to dig more deeply into their own Whiteness and work to dismantle it. In short, they will move to being White people who are living their tradition because they are actively seeking to live in racially just ways.

Similarly, I have been doing work for almost a year now with a Catholic University and it is through their commitment to Catholic social teachings and the guidance of their commitment to the tenets of Christianity that they have been able, as a roughly 90% White campus, to lean more honestly into racial justice work and move away from the seduction and safety of tepid and easy “diversity” work. They, too, see this movement as a way to live their tradition and in turn have their tradition support their work.

I am not naïve enough to think that these assertions are not fraught because of the historical use of “faith” as the simultaneous tool of and cover for racial oppression on the part of White people (as well as almost every other form of oppression globally – the Burning Times in Europe, Christian hegemony and colonization, and the denial of rights to LBGTQI folks to name a few). The work of Paul Kivel on Christian hegemony and its role in systems of oppression is well worth exploring on this point. Alongside these hugely problematic uses of various systems of faith and religion we can see the ways that these belief systems have the capacity to provide strength and hope and guidance in the quest for human rights and peace among living beings on this planet. Thus, I am not talking about doctrine or scripture, nor am I talking about the distortions of any belief system to serve the needs of dominant power structures. Having said this, I have seen in my own life and in my work with communities of faith that there is great power in the reciprocal nature of one’s tradition reinforcing one’s commitment to living a racially (socially) just life, and then the realities of living that life breathing substance and grace into one’s tradition. In fact, I think it would be quite refreshing if those who identified as Christian and “anti-racist” worked a little harder to reclaim the territory some in their faith have colonized in the name of Racism (and other forms of oppression) over the years. Not being a Christian this is an outside opinion, but I cannot imagine Jesus would agree with any of the marginalizing, oppressive and violent talk espoused in the name of being a good Christian, nor would he have been cool with “liberal” Christians’ tolerance of such claims.

Put simply, I have had the privilege of working with more and more communities of faith over the last few years and I can see that these traditions are indeed powerful sources of change, hope, and ultimately peace when they are lived in accordance with values of justice, equity and the lauding of core human dignity over all else. This is what I was able to experience at the Mahabodhi Temple as my friend Michael and I took half an hour to “sit” alongside the monks and nuns who were so deeply engaged in their practice. The shared commitment to growing and changing, the shared struggle embedded in that process, and the wisdom and compassion at the heart of it all was so inspiring I was crying tears of gratitude on more than one occasion while there. I want to connect to that power and source of strength within myself more, and so being in the presence of such wise and committed practitioners gave me increased hope and energy to suit up and show up in an effort to live a racially just life.

Adjusting Our Climate Justice Lens

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.

Below is the text of a sermon that Heather offered on April 19, 2015 at the annual Earth Day Service at the First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, MN.

Thank you Justin and thank all of you. It’s good to be with you again. I’m humbled and honored to be here as part of this day, the 45th Earth Day, and participating in this conversation with you.

And what a difficult conversation it is…this is not a topic that will garner friends at parties, nor make dinner conversation light and easy, nor get you invited to speak (most) places. And yet, it is a conversation that is well overdue in far too many circles in this country and so I am grateful that you all are having it and that you will continue to do so.

And yes, the situation is… grim. I’m not getting all Hunger Games-y here, and this is not a post-apocalyptic, Mad-Max moment. However, it is worth noting the enormity of the statistical, empirical, and natural trends we are seeing. The numbers about heat and melt and sea level rise and CO2 are daunting. The strangeness of the weather in North America over the last decade has been disconcerting to say the least. And the state of affairs in our most populous state with a drought the likes of which has not been seen for 1200 years, with sea lion pups washing ashore in droves, with sea bird deaths in huge numbers, and with star fish suffering and dying – all of that is overwhelming. The planet is speaking, louder and louder every day and if we are truly listening, then we will have this conversation.

The typical U.S. response to the topic of climate change is to either stick one’s head in the sand or rush out and “do” something. I get that – particularly the desire to “do” something. And yet that is often a mistake if we have not thought as deeply as necessary and have not learned what we need to learn in order to make the right choices.

And so there’s a danger in “taking action” without the necessary information and perspective in hand. Now, in 15 minutes I’m not going to be able to convey any earth shattering information or give you a deep and complex analysis, but what I do want to do is just shift the lens on the conversation a little bit in hopes of illuminating a path forward in our climate work.

In line with this, I have found that before trying to figure out “what do I do”, it is useful to ask “how did we get here?” – because the path that has brought us here is one we must avoid from here on out. Let me say that again: the path that has brought us here is one we must avoid from here on out. And if we do not know how we got here, it is very likely that in our effort to rush out and “do something” we will inadvertently keep doing the very things that led to this moment. And so I am here to offer some thoughts on this question – “how did we get here?” in the service of better answering the question, “what do we do?”

And so how did we get here?

Some argue it’s just human nature and that we are just predisposed to greed, consumption and competition. And yet, the last few decades of neuroscience in the West, and millennia of tradition and wisdom in indigenous communities globally, have agreed that as mammals we “tend and befriend” and that the notion that we are inherently competitive and “survive only if we are the fittest” is a fiction. To be sure it is a useful fiction if you are engaging in colonization and systems of oppression and need everyone to go along with it; it’s a useful fiction if you are trying to convince the masses that extractivist economic systems and ways of being in the world are the only plausible ones; and it’s a useful fiction if you want the majority to believe that any other way of being in the world is economic, social and political suicide. If those are your goals, then casting humans as inherently greedy, competitive, and aggressive is the perfect story. Importantly, however, it’s just not true. Thanks to mirror neurons, the vagus nerve, limbic resonance and countless other aspects of our biology, it is evident that we as mammals are wired for empathy and meant to connect – to each other, to the planet, to all of life. It’s the gift of our biology.

And so how DID we get here?

Quite simply, we lost our way. Profoundly and deeply, we have lost our way.

And so here are four missteps which I think are key factors in us losing our way and leading us to this climate moment. I’m not saying these are the only factors, but they are very powerful ones and so I want to take a moment here to identify them before I talk about the path ahead.

Starting in the Age of Reason (or if you read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael then 12,000 years ago, :)) we watched European thinkers begin to deeply codify the separation of mind from body, followed by the objectification and diminution of the body. So, misstep one – we disconnected from our bodies and thus from the Natural world. We began to see ourselves as fundamentally separate from our natural environment.

Misstep two (still in this general time frame) is the Western framing of Nature in the feminine form within a society steeped in gender oppression. Now please do not misunderstand – the problem is not viewing or relating to Nature in the feminine form. The problem is that when it is done in a society that is so violent against women, the inevitable result is extreme violence against Nature. How could it not? From this Western worldview Nature, like women, is an object to be conquered, mastered, and even violated without conscience. The recent panel at the Women’s Club featuring Winona LaDuke, Eve Ensler, Patina Park, and Louise Erdrich made this connection all too well when they talked about the extreme extraction happening in the Bakken oil fields and the astonishing uptick in violence against women and the trafficking of women in those very same oil fields. As the speakers so clearly put it – as goes the treatment of women and trans* folks, so goes the treatment of this planet. So misstep number two was seeing Nature as something to be dominated, objectified and controlled.

Misstep Three –When you conjoin the two previous points with Europe’s absolutely insatiable appetite for resources via colonization and imperialism and you have the additional element of endless, linear extraction of resources. Thus we saw Europe embark on the colonization of Africa, Asia and the “Americas” and take every possible resource there was in their quest for power and dominance. Today we call this process “globalization”, “neoliberalism”, “free trade” and the like. But when unmasked, as Naomi Klein indicates in her excellent work This Changes Everything, these are nothing more than the endless desire for economic power via the constant extraction of resources – no matter what the cost. The behavior of the fossil fuel industry fits this process to a “T”. They are some of the wealthiest corporations in the world and it is their mission to extract every last drop of oil and gas from this planet no matter what. And so misstep number three is the notion that we can engage in the linear, endless extraction of resources (in the name of economic power) with no concern for the consequences.

So, how do you get away with separating oneself from the natural world, treating Nature in such violent and domineering ways, and engaging in seemingly endless extraction in the name of progress? You explain it away via the vehicle of Race – in particular you create “White” and through it propagate the notion that White people are superior. As a result, what predominantly White societies of people do cannot possibly be questioned because “we” are the superior (racial) group on this planet – we created civilization, we created democracy, we are the great thinkers and inventors, we are moving all of the world ahead. Thus the creation of White four centuries ago and all of its concomitant notions of supremacy and entitlement, has served as the perfect justification for the behaviors that have led us here. And so, misstep number four was the creation of White and its use in explaining away each of the three previous missteps. As we have seen in the UN climate negotiations, the notion of White as superior has allowed those nations largely responsible for this climate crisis to neatly avoid any accountability for it.

Big points, right? I’m sure I’m making you feel even worse than you did before you sat down. But never fear – with an accurate and honest diagnosis there then becomes hope for an effective and truly healing solution. And so this is what got us here, now what do we do?

Step one: Reconnect with the natural world. There is so much information about this and so many ways to do this that I am not going to comment on it here. But, I do encourage you to lean into this reconnection, while realizing that this in itself is not enough. Right? And so though this connection is vital, we cannot pretend that more camping is going to do the trick.

Step two: Replace the worldview of these missteps with a socially just view of the world. And you all are well on your way to doing that by developing a Critical Race Lens through your RJ ministry.

Step three: Take new and different actions regarding climate issues by using this Critical Race Lens as the frame through which climate justice work is done. And this is very important – Climate Justice and Racial Justice do not sit side by side, nor do they “intersect”. Rather, CJ work must be done through a RJ lens if it is to be effective.

Here’s what I’m suggesting:

An example of what it means to be White in this country is rugged individualism. Let me use myself as an example. Because of rugged individualism, I as a White person am socialized to consume for my individual well-being and therefore often consume way too much. I am encouraged to live in a house that is more room than I need, but it’s my marker of success and safety so I won’t give it up. I have possessions that often sit idle but do not share because they are “mine”. I will buy a Prius to save gas, but don’t ask me to consider taking public transportation because I like my independence too much. And so on. In short, the scourge of rugged individualism wants me to organize my life in self-centered, isolated, disconnected, and non-communal ways that are simply not sustainable for 7.5 billion people. Even my activism and climate work is often done in isolation.

The hard work of climate change is not figuring out how to release the choke-hold of the carbon energy sector on my life, the hard work is to realize what got me in that relationship in the first place. What about me as a White person has led me down the path of disconnection from nature, or better yet not even notice that I am? What about Whiteness has led me to believe I “deserve” certain things because I have “earned” them, even if the possession of those things takes an incredible toll on the planet and its life (like flying to distant lands for a vacation)? Whiteness has me live the life of a rugged individual who confuses charity for justice and says I will share resources with others only after I already have “mine”. Whiteness wants me to believe, regardless of my current economic reality, that the accumulation of material goods is truly the pinnacle of success – that it is imperative that I SHOW others I have made it, that I have done it on my own, and that therefore I am “somebody”. In truth, Whiteness is a disassociated, disconnected state – how else could White families go to church in the morning and a lynching in the afternoon? How else can we continually turn away from racial injustice and our climate realities? What else would lead to Black people having to repeatedly tell White folks that Black lives matter? If I was in touch with my own humanity and living in connection with others, that message would never need to be said. But I am not. At the hands of Whiteness I am just a bubble off plumb with respect to my humanity. Whiteness is like a meme seeking to survive and it will do anything to get me to believe that my disconnected, my extractivist life is the only normal one.

Painful? Yes. Hopeless? No!

Enter racial justice. Not merely racial justice work, but instead the promise of a racially just life. Enter the deep knowing that I am interconnected – a knowing that always comes from solid and deep racial justice work. Enter the sense of groundedness that stems from RJ work and that reminds me how much I love this planet, how gorgeous it is, and how desperately I want it to thrive. Enter the reclamation of my humanity because of racial justice, which of course ushers in grief and sadness and regret. But, also brings hope. Not naïve hope, but a hope stemming from the deeper knowledge that people can change, that racial oppression is not an intractable situation, and that as a community of people gathered here, your RJ ministry and bringing that ministry into your hearts and lives just as surely as you breathe the air around you means that we have a chance. Nature knows this, because we are Nature… and our best selves and greatest capacity are not gone, we have simply lost our way. So RJ is a pathway back to ourselves, to an awakened human connection, and ultimately to a strong, effective and expeditious path to climate justice. I cannot hang on to all my “individual stuff” and all my “White consuming ways” and hope for a different climate future. But through the lens of RJ I as a White person stand a chance of being just different enough in the world such that true climate justice also has a chance.

And so in challenging what it means to be White (in challenging Race, Racism and Whiteness) we disrupt the core ideologies that got us here. More specifically, we dismantle the lens that makes this consumptive, extractivist reality “seem normal” and we replace it with one that can lead to just and sustainable mitigation and adaptation.

And so I’ll touch on it again – RJ is not a parallel issue to CJ, nor is it an intersectional one. Rather RJ is the lens through which CJ must be done. For if racial oppression is the lens that makes all of this climate crud seem okay, then RJ must be the new lens by which we work our way out of this mess. I’m not saying you have to be “done” with RJ work before you do CJ – I’m saying that you do your RJ work with diligence and constantly apply this lens to your CJ (and other) work in the church.

Now what about the other two “isms” you ask? Right? What about gender oppression and class oppression? The truth is that if you do exceptional RJ work, meaning if you lean in hard to White privilege, White supremacy and Racism, you will inevitably end up addressing class and gender. At their roots they are so profoundly intertwined that you cannot help but hit the other two if you dig deeply enough with RJ. And so, do not be deterred, nor distracted. If you stay this course of RJ you will find liberation on many, many fronts.

I know that was a lot and so let me close where I began – I am grateful to be in the company of so many people who are passionate about ending racial oppression, and who care so deeply about living racially just lives. And I know for sure that as you embrace the compass heading of RJ you will find a brilliant and effective path for your climate and environmental justice work. I was at a climate change conference in Iceland last June trying to convince a group of climate scientists of this very thing. And instead of hearing me, they almost unanimously said “we do not have time to solve social justice issues before we solve the climate problem”. And this broke my heart for a number of reasons, one because that’s not what I was saying – we do not have to finish one before the other…but more so because of the reality that we don’t have time NOT to do climate justice work through a social justice lens. We have such a small window of opportunity to make significant change regarding climate issues that we really need to get it right. And so I thank you for your courage, your love, and your commitment to doing CJ work through a RJ lens. It is the path out of this mess and I’m honored to be in this work with such noble, kind and courageous people. Thank you.